They're motivated to succeed

Jim Fassel: His Giants were struggling when he made the most famous guarantee in New York since Joe Namath's. He vowed his team would make the playoffs - and it hasn't lost since.

Super Bowl Xxxv

Ravens Vs. Giants

January 23, 2001|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

TAMPA, Fla. - The year was 1990.

The New York Giants would finish their season here in Super Bowl XXV against the Buffalo Bills. Jim Fassel was one season away from joining the Giants as their quarterbacks coach and one season removed from the University of Utah, where he had just been fired from his first head coaching job after five years.

Fassel, then 40, was still living in Salt Lake City with his wife, Kitty, and their four children. Much of his time was spent with the family, coaching his 9-year-old son Michael's recreation basketball team while serving as an assistant coach on 14-year-old Brian's high school junior varsity basketball team.

"It was the greatest thing in the world," Fassel said last week. "There was no media coverage. If we [the rec team] lost, everyone had their doughnut and milk afterward. The first game with the JV team, I drove the yellow school bus down to Provo. It was wonderful."

But as much as Fassel enjoyed the time off from coaching to be with his family, something was missing.

"I knew there was a void in my life," said Fassel, who had considered getting into private business in everything from banking to buying some local fast-food franchises. "I was too young to stop coaching. But it was kind of neat. I recommend it to anybody."

A decade later, Fassel has trouble recalling many of the other particulars from what his wife calls her husband's "sabbatical." He has been back on the roller coaster ever since he joined the Giants' staff under former coach Ray Handley in 1991, with subsequent stops in Denver, Oakland and Arizona before becoming the Giants' head coach in 1997.

Some things haven't changed.

Fassel (pronounced fossil) is once again driving the bus, figuratively speaking.

And the Giants are headed back to their first Super Bowl since beating the Bills, 20-19.

Neither appeared to be possible a little more than two months ago. After the Giants went 10-5-1 and won the NFC East in Fassel's first season as head coach, the team slipped to 8-8 in 1998 and 7-9 last season. There were whispers that this might be Fassel's final year if the Giants didn't turn things around and make the playoffs.

And, after starting this season 7-2, the Giants lost back-to-back home games to the St. Louis Rams and Detroit Lions. The 31-21 defeat to the Lions on Nov. 19 was particularly galling. The Giants were barely competitive, falling behind 21-0 at halftime and 28-0 late in the third quarter.

The ride home that night for the Fassels was nearly silent.

"There was something seriously bothering Jim," Kitty Fassel said last week. "He was so angry at himself, miserable with that loss, humiliated. I don't think he had formulated anything then. He must have slept on it. He left for work at 5:30 the next morning. Somewhere on the ride to work he formulated a device.

"He knew what it was going to take to jerk the heads of the players and the other coaches."

It took until the following day for Fassel to put his motivational tool into action. What came out was the most famous guarantee in New York football history since Joe Namath's prediction that the Jets would beat the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. In a now well-documented diatribe, Fassel guaranteed the Giants would make the playoffs.

"This team is going to the playoffs, OK?" Fassel said in starting his weekly news conference that Wednesday. "This is a horse race and we're coming around the far turn and I see the finish line. This is a poker game, and I'm shoving my chips to the middle of the table. I'm raising the ante. I'm driving the bus. ... I have redefined the season."

In doing so, Fassel also reinvented himself.

Long considered a coach who was a bit indecisive in his leadership - think Norv Turner rather than Bill Parcells - Fassel suddenly shed his nice-guy image the way he went from glasses to contacts a couple of years ago. He banned his assistant coaches from talking with the media during the week and his players from talking about anybody but themselves.

No longer was the two-game losing streak the focal point.

Everyone was talking about Fassel's guarantee.

It is still the biggest topic of conversation as his team heads for Sunday's game against the Ravens.

Reflecting last week on the circumstances surrounding his speech, Fassel said it had more to do with the physical and emotional state of his team rather than his own job security.

"We were getting banged up, as everyone does," Fassel said. "I thought we were a lot better. I had a lot more confidence in the team. I didn't want them focusing on what was being said. We needed a strong voice of confidence. I put it [the playoffs] out there to chase."

It changed not only the team's fortunes, but also how many of the players felt about their coach. Fassel had brought in veteran offensive linemen Lomas Brown and Glenn Parker after last season to be positive role models in the locker room, but the finger-pointing had started again during the losing streak.

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