Football Short Story
Bye Bye, Parcells
Guts and Genius, Bob Glauber (2018)
Bill Parcells was completing his first season as head coach of the New York Giants in 1983.
The consensus was unanimous: Bill Parcells had to go.
The Giants were staggering to a 3-12-1 finish in Parcells's first year as the Giants' head coach, and memories of the darkest years of the franchise were haunting the Mara family. Team president Wellington Mara had presided over the lost years of 1964–1978, when the Giants had gone from a consistent championship-contending team to a franchise besmirched by failure. Rock bottom had come on November 19, 1978, when the Giants were seemingly headed toward victory over the Eagles at Giants Stadium and simply had to run out the clock in the final seconds against an Eagles team with no time-outs remaining.
But rather than having quarterback Joe Pisarcik do the sensible thing and take a knee, offensive coordinator Bob Gibson inexplicably called for a handoff to Larry Csonka. The ball caromed off Csonka's right hip and was scooped up by Eagles defensive back Herman Edwards, who returned it for a 26-yard touchdown to give Philadelphia a 19–17 win. Gibson was fired the next day, and during the Giants' next home game, a small plane flew over the Meadowlands carrying a banner: 15 YEARS OF LOUSY FOOTBALL— WE'VE HAD ENOUGH.
Watch the fumble play ...
The fallout from a play referred to by Giants fans simply as "The Fumble" eventually led to the hiring in 1979 of George Young as general manager, a compromise choice that was acceptable to Wellington and his nephew Tim. The two were not on speaking terms but had agreed to Commissioner Pete Rozelle's recommendation of Young, then a personnel assistant with the Miami Dolphins. Ray Perkins was Young's choice to become head coach in 1979, but when Perkins left in 1982 to coach at the University of Alabama, Young appointed Parcells, a promising defensive coordinator under Perkins.
But by December of Parcells's first year on the job, it became clear to all three of the Giants' decision makers that a change had to be made.
"Parcells gets hired in 1983, and really the only basis upon which he was hired was that he had some head coaching experience, which wasn't a heck of a lot," said John Mara, Wellington's oldest son and now the team's president and co-owner. "We come to the end of that season, and the jury is very much out on Bill at that point."
It was an excruciating season in every possible way, and not simply because of the final record.
Parcells had misjudged his quarterback situation, anointing Scott Brunner over former first-round pick Phil Simms. More than two dozen players wound up on injured reserve. After getting off to a 2-2 start, the Giants lost ten of their next twelve games.
Parcells's personal loss that season was incalculable. His mother, Ida, had died in December. His father, Charles, had died two months later. His running backs coach, Bob Ledbetter, suffered a stroke in late September and died less than three weeks later.
"Both my parents died. My backfield coach died. Hey, it was tough, but that's still no excuse," Parcells said, looking back on the most difficult year of his life. "Listen, they'd seen enough. Everyone was on board with it."
The decision had been made: The Giants would look for a new coach.
Howard Schnellenberger was their man.
Parcells was as good as gone. ...
Schnellenberger was the hottest coaching prospect out there, and the Giants were in disarray. Rock bottom came on December 4, when the Giants lost to the lowly Cardinals, 10– 6. Only 25,156 fans showed up at Giants Stadium, meaning there were more than 50,000 no-shows. But when Young reached out to Schnellenberger, the coach told him the timing wasn't right and that he wouldn't take the job. ... "I can't get him this year," Young told the Maras, "but I may be able to get him next year." The Giants decided to give Parcells one more year to turn things around, and if the team continued to flounder, Young would try Schnellenberger again. ...
L-R: Bill Parcells, George Young,Howard Schnellenberger
Parcells's first major move was hiring a strength and conditioning coach, and he settled on a noted college trainer named Johnny Parker. Parker was on the cutting edge of training techniques at LSU and Ole Miss, even traveling to Russia to study what had then been considered the world's most advanced weightlifting program. Parcells was desperate to improve his team's collective health after a hellish run of injuries the year before, and Parker told him he could help. ...
Parker took the job, and thereby gained insight into how Parcells was going to handle his team moving forward. "Last year, I tried to be the head coach of the Giants, and that didn't work," Parcells told Parker. "This year, I'm going to be Bill Parcells. If the players get me, they get me. They're going to get me doing it my way." ...
Parcells knew he could win only if he had players who were completely committed to winning and to making the sacrifices— both physically and personally— to turn the team around. Young had drafted linebackers Carl Banks, a first-round pick out of Michigan State, and Gary Reasons, a fourth rounder out of Northwestern State of Louisiana, to replace Kelley and Van Pelt. And with nearly two dozen other players dropped from the team, the coach was starting to feel like he had enough of the "my guys"– type players to at least have a chance of winning. And Parcells drove them hard. "Those 1984 players, they're the ones that went through a torture chamber, because I had a whole new attitude, a resolve," Parcells said. "I was close to being over the edge in terms of pressuring these guys, practicing hard, contact, training camp. No fuckin' around."
Simms could tell the difference in Parcells's demeanor as soon as he interacted with the coach after the 1983 season. "Bill changed from '83 to '84," Simms said. "He became Bill Parcells, this tough, acid-mouthed guy, and whatever came out of his mouth was the truth. He did it with sarcasm and humor, but it still drove the point home. It just changed us. Right from the start, we were a changed team. You could see it."
L-R: Carl Banks, Gary Reasons, Phil Simms
Once training camp began, Parcells was unrelenting. He had his players practice in pads six days a week, twice a day— which was actually standard operating procedure for most teams, but with Parcells, he was particularly brutal. If Parcells was going down— and there was that very real possibility, especially if he got off to a poor start— he would do so on his own terms.
Postscript: The '84 Giants started 3-3, then won three of their next four on their way to a 9-7 record and a playoff berth. They beat the Rams in the first round before losing to the 49ers, who would win the Super Bowl.
Parcells coached the Giants eight years, winning the Super Bowl in 1986 and 1990.