When Ben McAdoo was promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach of the Giants, it continued a steak of hiring former assistants. Tom Coughlin had been the Wide Receivers coach from 1988-90 before rejoining the team in 2004.
Coughlin replaced Jim Fassel, who was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach from 1991-92 and then the head coach from 1997-2003.
“You get spoiled when you work for the Giants,” Fassel said. “It’s a well run organization. It’s just the way a team should be run. The Giants have to be one the top five teams.”
Before joining the Giants, Fassel had worked at Stanford and recruited John Elway to play for the Cardinal. Bill Parcells led the Giants to a win in Super Bowl XXV in January 1991 but left the team in May, and Ray Handley moved up from being the quarterbacks coach.
“Ray hadn’t been a coordinator,” Fassel said. “It was a difficult situation coming off the Super Bowl win. Everyone was on a high and it’s tough in late May to make any changes. They’re not going to like change. Bill Belichick probably would’ve been a good candidate but he went to Cleveland. Ray didn’t have the experience or the background and it was arguably one of the toughest jobs in the NFL.”
The Giants went 14-18 in two seasons under Handley and the coaching staff was fired. Fassel became the offensive coordinator in Denver and called plays as John Elway threw for over 4,000 yards in the 1993 season, the only time in his career the iconic quarterback accomplished the feat. Fassel was also the offensive coordinator for the 1996 Cardinals which saw Boomer Esiason throw for over 1,100 yards in a three game span. Then the Giants called Fassel and made him the head coach.
Like Larry Holmes holding the Heavyweight title between Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson, Fassel coached in an era of Giants history between Bill Parcells and Tom Coughlin leading big Blue to two Super Bowl titles apiece. That’s not to say Fassel didn’t have memorable teams.
The 1996 team finished in last place under Dan Reeves and was not expected to improve. “The first year is one of my most proud moments. When I took the job I knew there was work to be done. Then I saw all the magazines and we were the only team to be picked last in all of them. I thought ‘crap, this might be rougher than I thought’. We became the first team to go undefeated in NFC East play and won the division.”
New York started 1-3 (with the first loss coming to Tom Coughlin’ Jaguars) but the Giants finished 9-2-1 to win the division. Some of the good feelings ended when the team blew a 19-3 lead against the Vikings in the playoffs. New York led 22-13 with under two minutes to play when the Vikings scored a touchdown and lined up for an onside kick. “We had the game,” Fassel said. “They had to onside kick it and if we recover, we win. Ask me who’s the one guy I want the ball kicked to and I would say Chris Calloway 100 times in a row. Calloway had the ball bounce off his chest and they recovered.”
The Vikings kicked a field goal in the final seconds for a shocking 23-22 win. Facing a tougher schedule in 1998, the Giants finished 8-8 although they did win their final four games including an upset win over the 13-0 Broncos.
While Coughlin will be linked with Eli Manning, Fassel had four different quarterbacks in his first four seasons. Dave Brown, Danny Kanell, Kent Graham, and Kerry Collins all took snaps for Big Blue. The Collins acquisition was controversial. There were rumors of racism and a drinking problem for the quarterback who led the Panthers to the 1996 NFC Championship Game.
“People were saying he had baggage, but he didn’t have any baggage to me,” Fassel said. “I stayed very close to him and protected him.”
After missing the playoffs in 1998 and 1999 the pressure was on. The 2000 squad started 7-2 but then lost two in a row at home. Fassel guaranteed that the team would make the playoffs and the Giants responded by winning their final five games including a 28-25 win over Tom Coughlin’s Jaguars that secured the top seed in the NFC.
After beating the Eagles in the divisional playoffs, the Giants met the Vikings with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. Collins completed 28 passes for 381 yards and five touchdowns in a stunning 41-0 victory. Although the Giants have won two Super Bowls before and after, that game stands out. “I do appearances at Giants games,” Fassel said. “I hobnob and sign autographs and it’s amazing how many people still say that’s the best game they’ve been to.”
The Super Bowl didn’t go as well. “We had a good year and a bad day.” That bad day was a 34-7 loss to the Ravens with Collins only completing 12 passes and being picked off four times.
After missing the playoffs in 2001, the 2002 team won its final four games to make the playoffs but blew a 24 point lead in San Francisco which ended on a blown call by the refs.
From 1997-2002 the Giants were 19-5 in December. Fassel’s teams were the opposite of Coughlin’s, starting slow and ending with a bang. “I always said, ‘we’ve got to get better faster than the other team.’ I broke the season in fours. We can’t handle the talent or who we’re playing but we can work harder and concentrate more.”
In 2003, the Giants beat the Jets in overtime to improve to 4-4. It looked like Fassel’s Giants might make another second half run. It was his last win as a head coach. “Sometimes it doesn’t work out like my last year. We lost too many guys. I couldn’t protect Kerry and he got hurt.”
Fassel joined the Ravens staff from 2004-06 but was let go during his third season. He hasn’t worked in the NFL since, although he’s not the only coach with a Super Bowl appearance on his resume not to get another job.
“Brian Billick won and hasn’t worked since. Mike Martz got there and he didn’t get another one. Some guys didn’t get back in. I get calls. It has to be the right fit. I have a lot of good things.”
One good thing was the Las Vegas Locomotives of the United Football League. Fassel became the Vince Lombardi of the UFL when Las Vegas won the first two titles league history. “I really enjoyed the UFL. I told Marty Schottenheimer, ‘You won’t enjoy coaching more anywhere than you will in the UFL.’ He saw me before the title game and said, ‘You’re right, Jim. I’ve never had more fun.’”