4:21 pm Feb. 2, 2012
Bill Parcells, who coached the Giants to two Super Bowls in 1986 and 1990, will likely get elected to the Hall of Fame this weekend.
It’s mildly surprising that people aren’t making a bigger deal of this. It is the 25th anniversary of the Giants’ first Super Bowl title, after all. It’s also interesting that Parcells took both of this year’s Super Bowl participants, the Giants and the Patriots, to the Super Bowl himself. And both of this year’s Super Bowl coaches, Tom Coughlin and Bill Belichick, coached under Parcells with the Giants and can correctly be called Parcells disciples.
But Parcells is probably fine with the fact that his ceremonial honor is being subordinated to the question of who’s going to win on Sunday. Some Hall of Fame coaches prided themselves on strategic innovativeness. Parcells prided himself on his reverence for the purity of competition, and his belief that it brings out the best in people.
“THE DILEMMA THAT SOME YOUNG COACHES have is that they’re concerned with being viewed as ‘gurus,’ or whatever word you want to use,” Parcells told me.
It was 2009. We were sitting at the restaurant of the Saratoga National Golf Club, in Saratoga Springs. Parcells visits the upstate town every summer during horse-racing season to scratch his itch for competition, and calls it “the happiest place I know.”
He was bigger than I had pictured, around 6-foot-2, but that’s what happens when you encounter a man in person who you’re used to seeing surrounded by professional football players on TV. He was 68 years old at the time, and in a week he was going to fly down to Miami for training camp for the Dolphins. It was to be the final one, it turned out, in his short and somewhat disappointing tenure as the team’s president.
He spoke very, very quietly, in his naturally hoarse voice, as if to focus my listening attention to the single most important nugget of coaching wisdom he was in possession of.
“When they choose their methods, they want them to be ’aesthetically pleasing’ to them. They want to be creative. They want to be the next Bill Walsh. They have computers, they have four, five hundred plays. My teams might have had 60. They have schemes, they have wrinkles. It’s a highly technical world they live in.
“But some of them get on the plane on Sunday night, and they don’t know why they lost. They’re busy saying, ‘Oh, we turned the ball over here, this guy didn’t do that’ … But they neglect the rationale of the complexity of what they’re doing contributing to the demise of the execution, to the point where it’s game-affecting.
“So I want to do a few things, I want to do them well, and I want to be concerned with what we’re doing. I don’t want to be concerned with what they’re doing. I want them to be worried about what we’re doing.”
That was Parcells’ coaching philosophy. It was simple and straightforward, prizing execution and effort over complexity and creativity. One had to do with the other: The simpler the system was, the less the players had to worry about anything but trying their damndest to execute it.
Parcells came to prominence in the 1980s, a time when N.F.L. passing offenses were flowering after rule changes, implemented in 1978, enabled receivers to run downfield free of contact from defenders. The N.F.L. was taking to the air and getting away from its scrum-in-the-dirt roots. Parcells defined himself in opposition to this evolution. He styled himself as a blood-and-guts guy from New Jersey, whose teams didn’t want to trick you so much as knock you on your ass.
His name itself reflected this tough-guy self-image: His given name was Duane Charles Parcells, but that was too patrician and Waspy for him. During his sophomore year of high school, some teachers and fellow students confused him with a lookalike student named Bill. Parcells liked it, and made it stick. It made him sound like more of a Jersey Guy and less like the son of a Bergen County lawyer.
His Giants teams of the 1980s reflected his personality. They were no-frills, Big Blue. While the Mets of that era represented the too-rich-too-soon Bright Lights, Big City version of 1980s New York, the Giants were their Bergen County counterpoint, relying on a meat-and-potatoes, Eisenhower-era formula of stout defense and strong running game. Let the other teams worry about the flashiest, most innovative ways to score points. Parcells delighted in stopping them from doing so.
His perennially excellent Giants defenses were designed by Belichick, then the team’s defensive coordinator. Late in Belichick’s tenure with the Giants—most notably Super Bowl XXV, in the 1990 season, against the Bills—he would draw up some outside-the-box schemes that burnished his boy-wonder reputation, and that presaged some of the things he does today (like using wide receivers as defensive backs and tight ends as running backs). But for most of that period, the Giants ran a simple scheme in which fancy strategy took a backseat to the talent of the players.
Most notably, those defenses relied on the talent of Lawrence Taylor, who any Giants fan and Parcells himself will argue was the greatest defensive player ever. Parcells and Belichick knew what they had in Taylor: A player whose athletic ability, instincts and will power made him a one-man offense-wrecker. Other coaches might have tried to make Taylor’s talents conform to their schemes. But Parcells and Belichick let Taylor do whatever he wanted on the field. It was a vintage Parcells anti-tactic tactic: Don’t let your mind or your ego get in the way of the game’s beautiful violence.
It was the same story on offense. The 1986 Super Bowl relied on variations of five basic running plays. The 1990 Giants relied on three.
Fred Hoaglin, the team’s offensive-line coach during most of Parcells’ tenure, told me, “He used to tell us, ‘I’m leaving here at 6:30, and if any of you [coaches] are still here after that, that’s your own fault. We’re not doing anything new. Just make them play harder.’ And that’s what we did. We coached them on effort. And that really worked.”
Parcells found his perfect foil in San Francisco’s Bill Walsh, the legendary 49ers coach and seminal passing-game innovator, whose biography is entitled The Genius.
Walsh designed an offense around precisely timed passing routes, or as the writers called it, “ballet on grass.“ Its success hinged on his players being comfortable and creative. To that end, Walsh tried not to raise his voice, extending them the implicit trust that they were self-motivated professionals. The 49ers practiced in shorts, while other teams like the Giants spent the week “toughening up” in full pads.
The 49ers were more successful overall during this period, but Parcells won two out of three playoff matchups with Walsh. After the first of these playoff victories, a 17-3 smothering in 1985, when the 49ers were defending champions, Parcells couldn’t contain himself in front of a room of reporters who, all week long, had been peppering him with questions about Walsh’s offense.
“What do you think of that West Coast Offense now,” he sneered, with his signature toothy, mischievous grin.
Nobody had ever used the phrase before. Now it is ubiquitous in football terminology, though few are aware that the man who coined it did so with contempt.
“COACHING EFFORT” ISN’T AS SIMPLE AS IT SOUNDS. Parcells took great pride in it, seeing himself as a master motivator who had a keen insight into the psyches of his players and which buttons needed to be pushed to extract their best effort on Sundays.
“I called him Sigmund,” remembered Kenny Hill, the strong safety of the ’86 team. “He really thought he was gifted with the ability to read people, to understand people, to glean who they were and what motivated them. A lot of times, he got it wrong, but that didn’t stop him.”
“The needle,” his players called it. With a comment here and a comment there, he’d get under his players’ skin, injecting them with the feeling that they had something to prove to him. Parcells would play on the insecurities of Brad Benson, the Giants’ Nervous Nellie of a left tackle, by talking up the beastly pass-rusher he was facing. Or he’d gushingly compliment other defensive players in front of Lawrence Taylor, knowing it would trigger Taylor’s grandiose pride in being the best player in the world.
But it wasn’t all ball-busting. It went the other way too. There was just enough of a tender side to Parcells to keep his players as allies and prevent them from writing him off. Midway through the 1986 season, he approached quarterback Phil Simms, who was struggling through a rough year and getting booed by the fans. He told Simms to keep his confidence, and not worry about interceptions.
“’I know it’s hard on you,’” Simms remembered Parcells telling him in his book, Sunday Morning Quarterback. “’It’s not all your fault. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Be fearless. Believe me, it’ll work. It’s gonna work.’”
“He spoke in the same tone in which your father would speak to you at a particularly rough moment in your life,” Simms wrote. “I felt a tremendous burden lifted off my shoulders.”
The season ended with Simms completing 22 of 25 passes, a game M.V.P. performance that is widely considered the greatest ever by a quarterback in the Super Bowl.
It helped that Parcells was charismatic, charming and seductive. In the 25 years since that ’86 Super Bowl, Parcells’ persona has become progressively more acerbic and curmudgeonly. But back then, he was known as a “player's coach,” who became famous for enduring a ritualistic Gatorade bath after every Giants victory (a sports tradition started by the Giants). After practice one day a week, he would take a fawning group of reporters down into the bowels of Giants Stadium and hold court with them in off-the-record bull sessions. Parcells was a cool guy and an alpha male. Football players respond to such people.
This force of personality enabled him to be as confrontational as he was without alienating his players. Confrontation has always been a big thing with Parcells. Its value was twofold: It enabled him to say what he needed to say, and also assert his rank. He once said in an interview on “60 Minutes,” “I think confrontation is healthy. It clears the air pretty quick. And most of these athletes are pretty well used to that kind of thing.”
An early example of Parcells’ confrontational nature was an exchange that took place when he first became the team’s defensive coordinator, a position he held—with a one-year hiatus—before becoming head coach. He approached linebacker Harry Carson, one of the team’s few stars, whose talent, work-ethic and team-first attitude made him one of the most respected players in the league.
“I’ve been watching you on film, and you’re really a shitty linebacker,” Parcells told him. “Everyone thinks you’re good because you’re visible and you make a lot of tackles, but you’re not good. You can be real good but you have a lot to learn.”
Carson told me, “I sorta knew what Bill was trying to do. He knew I responded to challenges, and he was trying to challenge me.”
Said Parcells, to me, “I said, ‘I’m gonna teach you what you need to know, but you have to stay with me. I’m gonna give you some ammunition and when we’re done, you’re gonna be a better player.’ And he did it.”
Several years later, moments before Super Bowl XXI, the Denver Broncos sent out five captains for the pre-game coin toss. Parcells sent out Carson alone.
Confrontation was one constant with Parcells. Pressure was another. In a Harvard Business Review profile, he is quoted as saying that getting the most out of people requires a leader to constantly “apply pressure—that’s the only thing that any of us really responds to.”
Phil McConkey, a wide receiver on the ’86 team, told me, “Here’s his genius, in a nutshell. You ready?”
“His genius was that every guy—not even every player. Every assistant coach, every trainer, every video guy, every assistant video guy, every guy who took out the garbage—knew that with Bill Parcells, no excuse would be accepted or tolerated.
“Now think about that. As a wide receiver, with that hard turf at Giants Stadium, it was like running on ice skates. Try making a 90-degree cut on that—it’s hard to keep your feet. I’ve seen guys slip and come off the field, and the coach will go, ‘He slipped. What are you gonna do?’ But if you came off the field with Parcells, and you slip, and there’s an incomplete pass, Parcells would get in your face and say, ‘Get some fucking shoes that work, son.’
“Now what does that mean? I don’t know. I tried 15 pair on before the game, and that’s the best I can do. But I guarantee you this: The next time, you’re not gonna slip.”
In most workplaces, this approach is unsustainable. Eventually, negative motivation will backfire, yielding disgruntled employees and resignations. But the N.F.L. isn’t like most workplaces. It’s a unique atmosphere where it’s OK to act as if everyone’s health, safety and livelihood depends on each person not screwing up—because it does. Football is a dangerous game. One man’s missed block can become another man’s career-ending injury. Ruling through fear makes sense, because the game is all about fear.
Football players live under these conditions, and if they’ve made it to the N.F.L., they’ve thrived under them. To his players, being a Parcells Guy was an affirmation. The threat of falling out of his good graces was severe enough to keep them in line.
“The way Bill is worked for me—I relate to that,” said Billy Ard, the left guard for the ’86 team. “Put a lot of pressure on a guy’s jugular, let up every once in a while, put it back on, let back up, put it back on. I respond to that kind of pressure. That’s when I was the best ballplayer. I’d go, ‘Fuck him. Now I’m gonna prove it to him.’ But some people hated him for that.”
Karl Nelson, the right tackle on the ’86 championship team, pointed to the Super Bowl ring that he still wears to his longtime day job as a pension-plan salesman and put it to me this way:
“If I didn’t have this little trinket on my finger, I’d tell you I hate the guy,” he said. “But I do. So I’ll tell you I respect him.”
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