NEW YORK -- George Washington University Law School will begin its fall semester next month, but the Class of '94 will commence without Ray Handley. That's because the 1991 New York Giants have begun their studies and Handley is the new headmaster.
His is an improbable rise to one of the most demanding and coveted jobs in professional football. On Jan. 28, the morning after the Giants won the Super Bowl, the 46-year-old Stanford University graduate with a keen mind for math and a bachelor's degree in history stood in a Tampa, Fla., hotel lobby planning to resign as the team's running backs coach and get on with the rest of his life.
Handley first contemplated law school in 1988. He took the Law School Admissions Test in June 1989 and was accepted into GW. He deferred his commitment for one year, told head coach Bill Parcells he would honor the final year of his assistant coaching contract, and seriously expected to be spending the next three years with his wife, JoAnne, studying law in Washington.
Then in March 1991, he signed a two-year deal and was introduced as Parcells' new offensive coordinator, the promotion that convinced him law school could wait. Two months after that, on May 15, he was introduced as Parcells' successor, the 13th head coach in the Giants' 67-year history.
For a deliberate, introspective and loyal man who in his 25 years as a football coach hadn't held a top job since 1977 at Reed High School in tiny Sparks, Nev., running the Giants is a life's dream. His path to an NFL head coaching job weaved through supporting roles at Stanford, Army, Reno High School, Stanford again, four years with the top job at Reed, Air Force, Stanford a third time and the Giants since 1984.
How did someone so close to an NFL head coaching job almost take a dramatic detour? For one, he didn't know how close he was. For another, he had grown frustrated and impatient tutoring running backs.
"This is not necessarily a condemning statement, but I had been doing the same thing for seven years, or when I decided to go to law school, for six years," Handley said from his Lake Tahoe, Nev., home, where he was enjoying the final days of a brief vacation before camp opened July 15.
"Things were getting to the point where there was a lot of repetition. I was looking for some different type of challenge. I wanted to give myself some credibility to, perhaps, pursue other avenues within football. I didn't necessarily think I would go to law school and definitely come back to football, but I was looking to try to get into some different level because it didn't look to me like the opportunities were going to avail themselves, to move on the coaching ranks."
The question is why? At the news conference to announce the Giants' coaching change in May, Parcells spoke of Handley's intelligence and leadership abilities. General manager George Young spoke of Handley's organizational skills, his industriousness, his ability to deal with people. Didn't Handley know what his bosses thought?
"I felt I had gotten stuck in a position," he said. "I've never been the type of person to try to make that small move ahead by leaving one organization for another organization. I had a tremendous amount of loyalty to Bill. I wasn't looking to leave. But after six years, things were getting a little too routine. I needed something in my life. I haven't really assessed it as a mid-life crisis, but I'm sure some people out there would look at it and say that it was.
"I did not envision myself, at age 55, still coaching the running backs at the New York Giants."
After the 1988 season, Handley began spending two to three hours a night studying for the LSAT. He returned to Lake Tahoe in June 1988 and structured for himself a two-week, eight-hour per day studying regimen. "My wife stayed upstairs and read every magazine over the last year and I stayed down and took practice exams and worked on various other areas," he said.
He took the LSAT in mid-June at the University of Nevada-Reno. He applied to two Western law schools he would not name and George Washington, which piqued his interest because it was in the nation's capital, it was emerging as a well-respected law school, and because U.S. News and World Report had ranked it among the top 25 in the nation.
Dean Bob Stanek, the director of law school admissions at GW, remembered Handley's application when he read that Handley had been named the Giants' head coach.
"He went to undergraduate school at Stanford," Stanek recalled. "His test scores were very strong. His undergraduate record, coupled with his experience, was strong. For older applicants, we also take a look at the applicant's work experience and accomplishments." The five-member admissions committee not only found Handley's application interesting. It found it unique.