Football's Socrates and Plato
IN A STAFF meeting in early 2000, Bill Parcells informed his underlings of the big transition. He left the room early to allow Bill Belichick to start acting like the new Jets head coach. Parcells’s former lieutenant provided his coaches with information about the upcoming Senior Bowl, and scheduled the next staff meeting.
Parcells soon gathered his players into Weeb Ewbank Hall's auditorium, used for team meetings and press conferences. Holding a microphone at the front of the room, he told the group that he no longer desired to be an NFL coach. Despite still possessing the requisite energy, Parcells lacked the commitment that he himself had always demanded from his players. He didn't want to fool himself, or anyone else, by returning to an all-consuming job. To more eloquently convey those feelings, Parcells concluded his resignation speech by reading Dale Winbrow's poem, The Man In the Glass.
When you get what you want in your struggle for self,
And the world makes you king for a day,
Just go to the mirror and look at yourself,
And see what that man has to say.
For it isn’t your father, mother or wife
Whose judgement upon you must pass
The fellow whose verdict counts most in your life
Is the one staring back from the glass.
He’s the fellow to please, never mind all the rest,
For he’s with you clear to the end,
And you’ve passed your most dangerous, difficult test,
If the man in the glass is your friend.
With four lines left, Parcells's booming voice started cracking as his eyes welled up. But he read the poem’s final lines with power.
You may fool the whole world down the pathway of life,
And get pats on the back as you pass,
But your final reward will be headaches and tears,
If you’ve cheated the man in the glass.
Parcells released the microphone and stepped away from the stage. In previous emotional addresses Parcells had tried to fight off tears. But this time he cried unabashedly as he headed out of the auditorium, past some of his teary-eyed players. Walking out, Parcells felt a love from them as they remained in their seats. The players glanced at each other, uncertain of what to do or say. And for a few minutes, no one spoke at all.
DURING THE AFTERNOON, Parcells announced his resignation to the public, becoming the first head coach in franchise history to step down with a winning record: 30-20. He informed reporters that Bill Belichick would be empowered to make all football decisions, while he would stay on as a confidant and consultant. Although the contract language lacked preciseness regarding ultimate authority, Big Bill, still technically director of football operatinos at a $2.4 millino salary, vowed not to overshadow Belichick. Parcells insisted that New England's interest in Belichick was no factor in the development, although it certainly seemed to accelerate matters.
Around the same time, Woody Johnson raised his offer for the Jets from roughly $600 million to $625 million, vaulting over the latest exorbitant proposal by Charles Dolan. Johnson's bid was the highest-ever for a New York sports franchise. Despite exchanging increasingly obscene offers since early December with the Knicks season-ticket holder, Dolan needed to go up another notch. Johnson had shown an example of his pluck and determination by gaining entry to Hess’s funeral, arriving early and following a U.S. senator inside.
Meanwhile, Belichick seemed to embrace his new duties, scheduling his first "family meeting" with Mike Tannenbaum, and speaking to Scott Pioli about preparations for free agency. In the late afternoon, Gutman and Parcells sat in on Belichick's meeting with the head trainer to discuss injured players.
A couple hours later, at roughly 6PM, Parcells was in the coaches’ locker room when Belichick walked in, and asked to revisit New England's fax. Startled by the query, Parcells deemed the topic moot since the Jets had denied permission for an interview. He also reminded Belichick of his comments on Saturday conveying eagerness to finally take over. Belichick countered that Leon Hess’s death had upended the situation, creating uncertainty about the Jets ownership, and causing him second thoughts. Those remarks angered the Jets chief who suggested that Belichick rethink his decision about accepting the promotion. Parcells concluded by warning Belichick that the club wouldn't allow him to interview with the Patriots, or any other team.
Having spent 14 of his 19 NFL seasons under Big Bill, Little Bill believed that, given the circumstances, his mentor owed him the opportunity to look into New England's attractive opportunity. Belichick was apparently drawn to the possibility of being a GM and head coach under a familiar owner like Kraft, as opposed to working for a neophyte owner like Charles Dolan or Woody Johnson while Parcells hovered with an unclear role.
Parcells reminded Belichick about his contract, noting that Hess had paid the heir apparent a king's ransom, including $1 million during the previous off season. Parcells ended the conversation by stressing that if Belichick bailed out of his three-year, $4.2 million contract, the organization intended to seek compensation.
Parcells recalls, "He made a deal, and then tried to get out of it. A deal's a deal. You want out? You're going to pay. Simple."
Despite the testy exchange, when Belichick departed the coaches locker room Parcells assumed that his former lieutenant had been merely exploring his options before diving back into the job. Belichick's behavior, however, changed dramatically the next morning, several hours ahead of a 2:30PM Q&A to introduce him as Parcells's replacement. He appeared to be nervous and agitated while interacting with colleagues, which was odd for someone with head-coaching experience who had been groomed to guide the Jets. In Tuesday's staff meeting, Belichick couldn't prevent his hands from shaking. He ended the caucus early, telling his coaches that he would get back to them to reschedule.
After Parcells's taped a weekly TV show with Phil Simms, the erstwhile head coach returned to his office at roughly 2:15PM. About five minutes later, Belichick swung by to deliver a bombshell: the new head coach intended to use his introductory press conference to announce his resignation. Parcells was surprised, though not quite shocked given Belichick's recent behavior. . Still, the Jets chief seethed, reiterating that the club would bar Belichick from interviewing elsewhere, placing him in coaching limbo.
Then minutes before his press conference Belichick passed by the offices of several colleagues to give them a heads-up. He spotted Steve Gutman standing by his doorway after the team president had caught wind of the shocker. Belichick handed Gutman a looseleaf sheet of paper containing three handwritten sentences. The first line read, "Due to the various uncertainties surrounding my position as it relates to the team's new ownership, I have decided to resign as the HC of the NYJ." Stunned and angry, Gutman followed Belichick to the auditorium to hear more details of the surreal switcheroo. Parcells, though, remained in his corner office down the hall, already putting together a short list of who would replace Belichick.
Wearing a dark-grey suit, light-blue shirt and navy-patterned tie, Belichick took the podium. The 47-year-old removed several sheets of paper from his suit's left inside pocket. Reading a script that included the first line from his resignation letter, Belichick astonished and transfixed a full house of journalists and TV cameramen. His opening statement ran for 25 minutes in a voice that occasionally cracked. He often gestured with his hands as sweat glistened from his brow.
Acknowledging his contract, Belichick said, "The agreement that I made was with Mr. Hess, Bill Parcells, and Mr. Gutman, and that situation has changed dramatically. And it's going to change even further." He noted that the franchise had been expected to find a new owner by December 15, 1999. "There are a lot of unanswered questions here," he told reporters. "I have been concerned about it since Leon Hess died."
To Parcells's chagrin, Belichick revealed a slice of their private conversation from the previous day. "He told me, 'If you feel that undecided, maybe you shouldn't take this job.' I took Bill's words to heart -- thought about it last night."
Belichick evaded questions about his coaching future while expressing contentment about the opportunity to spend more time with his wife, Debby, and their three children. Nonetheless, he conceded that he had hired a noted sports-labor attorney, Jeffrey Kessler, to extricate him from his contract.
After Belichick departed the auditorium, Steve Gutman took the podium. The team president tried to make sense of the organization losing two head coaches within 24 hours, punctuated by perhaps the strangest resignation in sports history. Referring to Belichick, Gutman said, "We should have some feelings of sorrow and regret for him and his family. He's obviously in some inner turmoil."
THE FRAUGHT PARTNERSHIP between Belichick and Parcells had held together well during their sole season under Kraft. But the relationship had regressed during three seasons with the Jets, turning more strained and complex. Despite Belichick's substantial growth in the NFL under Parcells, and a guaranteed position as head coach, he ached to prove himself without his primary mentor -- and occasional tormentor. While Gang Green overcame a disastrous start in 1999, Parcells’s words had become as harsh as ever.
Further complicating their partnership, the Jets organization contained a so-called Cleveland mafia, comprising employees who had worked under Belichick with the Browns. The group, which even included Parcells's son-in-law, Scott Pioli, seemed more loyal to the heir apparent than to the incumbent football chief. After Hess's death, several more quietly realigned themselves with Belichick, while offensive coordinator Charlie Weis also started getting closer to his future boss. The dynamic created tension between the ex-Browns contingent and most of the coaches with deep ties to Parcells, like Dan Henning. So Belichick's resignation upended the organization well beyond the head-coaching position.
A few hours after the shocker, Belichick contested his inability to interview with NFL teams, filing a grievance with the league office. Gang Green countered by sending the NFL copies of his contract. The next day Commissioner Paul Tagliabue faxed every club that until a final ruling, Belichick remained unavailable for employment consideration without Gang Green’s consent. The back-page headline of the New York Post mocked, "Belichicken: Jets Better Off Without Quitter." Another headline punned, "Belichick Arnold."
But Belichick recalls, "I knew I did the right thing, and I didn't know where my career was going."
The Jets couldn't postpone the Senior Bowl or free agency because of their internal dysfunction, so Parcells conducted an emergency staff meeting, outlining steps the organization would be taking in the upcoming weeks. While showing zero desire to reclaim head-coaching duties, Parcells withheld his inner thoughts about a replacement. When the meeting ended, Charlie Weis lingered to seize a private moment. Making sure no colleagues lurked within earshot, Weis implored Parcells to pick him as the new head coach.
"I can do this job. I'm your guy."
Parcells, though, was already targeting a colleague he had valued since the late 1960s, with whom he had worked at two colleges and three NFL teams. By lobbying zealously Weis was jeopardizing a spot on any new coach’s future staff. So Parcells firmly rebuffed the offensive coordinator he had elevated from wideouts coach in 1997, cutting the conversation short.
ONE WEEK LATER, on January 11th, Robert Wood Johnson IV won the right to purchase the Jets for $635 million, the third-highest price for a professional sports team. Based on Leon Hess's will, the transaction meant $5.1 million for Steve Gutman beyond his salary. Known for donating money to autoimmune-disease research and Republican campaigns, Johnson ran a private investment firm on Fifth Avenue named after him. Much of the 52-year-old's wealth, though, came from Johnson & Johnson stock.
His football jones stretched back several decades. While attending the University of Arizona, Johnson co-published Touchdown, a guide for Monday Night Football, which dissolved after three issues. But he was known more for his carousing, once reportedly falling 18 feet off a darkened bridge in Tempe and breaking his back after pulling his car over to urinate. During his late twenties, Johnson had coveted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as an expansion team. Now he had landed the Jets after Dolan declined to raise his latest bid of $612 million. Only hours after the cable TV magnate ceded, Johnson telephoned Parcells during "family business" to introduce himself.
Taking the call with Mike Tannenbaum in the room, Parcells remarked, "Congratulations. Being in pro football is not for the well-adjusted."
Johnson replied, "That's good, because I'm not well-adjusted."
Parcells shared Johnson's riposte with Tannenbaum, prompting laughter. At the least their new owner had a good sense of humor. Or was he being serious?
Johnson and his football chief soon met for a brief discussion focusing on Belichick. The owner agreed with Parcells that Gang Green shouldn't free Belichick without obtaining at least a first-round pick. Their follow-up meeting was wide-ranging, with Johnson sharing his vision for the franchise. He implored Parcells to return to the sidelines, but the director of football operations declined. So Johnson expressed an inclination to conduct a league-wide search for a top candidate.
Parcells, though, dissuaded the owner by insisting on continuity for a team only one season removed from an AFC Championship appearance. Parcells suggested promoting a talented disciplinarian with deep ties to him: linebacker coach Al Groh. The tough-nosed assistant's only experience as a head coach had come at Wake Forest from 1981 to 1986. And based on his 26-40 record at the ACC school, Groh seemed like an improbable choice for head coach. Nonetheless, Johnson deferred to the franchise's incumbent mastermind.
Dan Henning recalls the situation, "Bill [Parcells] decides to go with Al; Belichick can't coach for a year. Charlie [Weis] realizes that he has nothing. So that's when he goes, and thinks that he can get Belichick out of trouble by putting Bill [Parcells] in trouble."
BELICHICK’S GRIEVANCE HEARING came Thursday, January 13th, at the Time Square headquarters of Skadden Arps, the NFL's counsel. Charlie Weis and Bill Parcells were required to appear at a 38th floor office after Jeffrey Kessler, Belichick’s attorney, named them as witnesses along with his client. The Jets, represented by Steve Gutman and the club's counsel, didn't designate any witnesses. With Paul Tagliabue present for the 9:45AM start, the opposing groups sat across from each other at a conference table. Each side made 15-minute opening statements. Then Kessler called Parcells as the first witness for a Q&A that lasted 45 minutes.
Weis started testifying next, and his statements jolted Parcells even more than Belichick's resignation. During four minutes of testimony Weis supported Kessler's main argument that Parcells had no intention of ceding true authority to Belichick. The offensive coordinator cliamed that he had overhead Parcells telling Gutman that Belichick wouldn’t qute gain the power contractually due. Parcells had know that Weis would testify, but never imagined him speaing so forcefully on Belichick’s behalf.
Weis's NFL coaching career had started in 1990 when Parcells hired the Jersey high-school coach to an entry-level position. Impressed by Weis's offensive acuity over the years, Parcells promoted him multiple times with the Patriots and Jets. Weis and Belichick had been colleagues, on opposite units, for only five seasons. So Parcells concluded that Weis was ingratiating himself with Belichick, hoping for a position in New England.
Kessler called his client as the third and final witness before a Jets lawyer cross-examined Belichick. The grievance hearing ended after roughly seven hours, and a ruling was expected within a week. Still under contract with the Jets, Weis returned to his office the next day, but that move proved foolhardy when Parcells spotted him in the hallway. Incensed at Weis's presence, the Jets chief immediately banned his offensive coordinator from Weeb Ewbank Hall.
"Charlie, you need to get your shit and leave the building."
Watched closely by Jets employees, Weis took only a few minutes to gather some items before scuttling out the building. Moments after he exited, the team packed up the rest of his belongings, and shipped them to his home.
Parcells says, "I've told many coaches that sometimes your friendship and loyalty is going to be more important than your ambition. Some guys don't realize that until after they're done. I don't bear any animosity toward Charlie. I can say that with a straight face because I know what he is. When somebody shows me what he is, I usually believe it. His actions back then don't bother me any more."
On January 21st, Tagliabue ruled for the Jets, reasoning that Belichick had breached his contract by quitting. The league prohibited him from coaching in 2000 without the Jets' consent, or compensation. Tagliabue's explanation echoed the one in 1997 that had prevented Parcells from joining Gang Green without New England's permission.
Three days after Belichick's setback, the Jets named Al Groh as their new head coach with personnel sway through a four-year contract averaging $800,000. The 55-year-old promoted Dan Henning to offensive coordinator, and hired Mike Nolan as defensive coordinator. Other notable additions included tight end coach Ken Whisenhunt and secondary coach Todd Bowles. Groh picked his son, Mike, as a quality-control assistant on offense. On the day of Groh's official elevation, Belichick made a last-gasp attempt to overcome Tagliabue's ruling: He filed an antitrust lawsuit in federal court against the Jets and the NFL.
BY GAINING 1,464 RUSHING yards to help his injury-ravaged team avoid a losing season, Curtis Martin had been voted Jets mvp. He planned to give the trophy to the person who most shaped him as a football player and person: Bill Parcells. On January 24th, Boy Wonder found out exactly when the Jets chief was meeting with the new coaching regime. That afternoon, Martin slipped into Parcells's corner office while carrying his trophy and a one-paragraph letter with neat penmanship: Seven sentences in blue, felt-tip ink summed up his feelings about Parcells. Boy Wonder placed the items on Parcells's desk before slipping out undetected.
After meeting with Groh's staff, Parcells walked into his office and immediately noticed the tall, gleaming trophy. With no one around, Parcells said out loud, "What the hell is this?" He walked closer to inspect it, and spotted a white sheet of paper next to the trophy. As Parcells sat down to read it he received a phone call from his youngest daughter. Despite picking up the receiver to greet Jill, Parcells remained mesmerized by Martin's note, quickly reading it through to the end. A few moments later, Jill heard her father sobbing quietly.
"Dad? Are you okay? What’s wrong?"
The letter, dated January 24, 2000 in the bottom left corner, read:
This award is the best and most
gratifying I've ever received.
It means more than the pro bowls,
the rushing title and the team records.
You've given me and football some of your
best years -- and as a little token
of my appreciation I give to you my best.
I thank you from the bottom of my heart
for all that you are and all that you have
done for me! You're like a father to me.
Late that night, Parcells headed home with the trophy and letter. He would laminate the note, and keep both in a glass case among his most prized possessions. The gift provided a much-needed salve amid the upheaval of Bill Belichick's departure.
Bill Parcells leads his cocksure, charged-up players, including center Kevin Mawae (#68) at the Meadowlands for their 1998 regular-season finale on December 27. Gang Green would trounce Pete Carroll’s Patriots, 31–10, concluding a historic year highlighted by the franchise’s first- ever division title. Only a couple seasons removed from ignominy, the Jets took most of their club- record twelve victories by at least a touchdown, strutting into the playoffs. (Thomas E. Franklin, Bergen Record)
ON TUESDAY, JANUARY 25th, a federal judge denied Belichick's request for a temporary restraining order, ruling that his Jets contract was valid. Accepting the futility of his situation, Belichick withdrew his antitrust lawsuit against Gang Green and the NFL. The development enhanced the team's leverage, prompting Parcells to consult Woody Johnson about brokering a deal with Kraft regarding Belichick's services.
Parcells found the notion unpalatable given his acrimonious divorce from Kraft; the two essentially hadn't spoken since the week following the 1997 Super Bowl. Nonetheless, Parcells saw a deal as mutually beneficial. He believed that as a savvy businessman, Kraft would embrace the opportunity to bolster his franchise. Furthermore, talks would signal a truce in what Parcells termed the "border war" between New England and New York.
So at 7PM on Tuesday, Parcells telephoned Kraft's office and identified himself to the owner's secretary. Surprised by the call after years of smoldering silence, Kraft gave the go-ahead to pipe him in. When the owner picked up, Parcells said, "Hello Bob, This is Darth Vader."
Kraft laughed, easing some of the tension.
When his nemesis broached the possibility of a resolution involving Belichick, the Patriots overlord was immediately receptive. But before going further, Parcells expressed regret for some of his actions in New England. Kraft responded by conceding that his inexperience as an NFL owner had exacerbated the situation.
Getting down to business, Parcells informed Kraft that the Jets would allow Belichick to coach New England in exchange for compensation via draft picks. Kraft offered a third-round pick in 2000 and a fourth-rounder in 2001. Parcells quickly countered that a deal required at least a first-round selection in 2000. The conciliatory conversation ended after 40 minutes with plans for further talks in the morning.
In their next session, Kraft increased his offer to a second-round pick in 2000 and a third-rounder in 2001. But Parcells insisted on a first-round selection, causing a stalemate. The men hung up politely without a deal. Later that afternoon, Kraft interviewed Jaguars defensive coordinator Dom Capers for more than four hours. Parcells expected New England to hire Tom Coughlin's lieutenant as their new head coach, leaving Belichick in limbo and preventing Gang Green from gaining premium compensation. However, as Parcells headed to bed around 11PM, Kraft surprised him with a phone call.
"I'm going to make a decision here that I don't want to make, because I want this guy as my head coach."
Parcells replied, "We can work this out. Let's do this."
Kraft agreed to relinquish his upcoming first-round pick if the teams exchanged a couple of lower-round selections in future years. Sealing the deal, the Jets chief suggested that they place a two-day windo on Belichick’s contract negotiations to prevent him from leveraging either organization. Kraft loved the idea.
Given the earlier stalemate, Belichick was flabbergasted when Parcells called him at 7AM to reveal the agreement he’d reached with Bob Kraft -- contingent on Belichick’s signing a contract with the Patriots in less than 48 hours. Parcells granted Belichick permission to hire two Jets staffers with whom he shared links to the Cleveland Browns: Eric Mangini and Scott Pioli. After all but firing Weis, Parcells gladly allowed the persona non grata to join Belichick, too. Jets P.R. assistant, Berj Najarian, who had grown close to Belichick at Weeb Ewbank Hall by perennially staying there late, was also on his wish list.
Around 10AM, Kraft called Bill Belichick to confirm the arrangement and start negotiating a contract. After hanging up Belichick telephoned Mangini, Pioli and Najarian about heading to New England. Within a few hours Belichick drove the three men to Foxboro Stadium, where he reached a handshake agreement with Kraft on a contract to be finalized later.
At 6PM, the Patriots introduced Bill Belichick as their new head coach with more personnel power than Kraft, as a neophyte owner, had permitted Parcells. Belichick took the opportunity to reiterate that he had quit the Jets mainly because of the franchise's fluid ownership at the time, and Parcells's seemingly indefinite status. Addressing the issue of escaping his mentor's shadow, Belichick noted that Parcells had also left a vast one in New England.
Parcells says of Belichick, "At the end of the day, he didn't want to be the Jets head coach. Then he expected me as the general manager of the organization to just say, 'OK, I'll get somebody else.' Well, eventually, I did that. But I got compensation because I knew what Kraft was doing before the season ended. I didn't begrudge Bill getting another job somewhere else. In fact, I'm probably the one that got it for him."
Reflecting on his decision to quit the Jets, Bill Belichick says, "At that point in time, in that situation, I did what I felt I needed to do, and I don't have any regrets about that. Certainly a lot of things could have been handled differently."
BEYOND LOSING BELICHICK, Gang Green faced a dilemma involving one of its top players: Keyshawn Johnson was expected to hold out during training camp if the Jets failed to redo his rookie contract, which had two years remaining on it. The six-year, $15.4-million deal, which had been reached after a holdout lasting almost a month, included the largest bonus for a rookie receiver: $6.5 million. But following two consecutive Pro Bowl seasons, the loquacious wideout felt underpaid with $2.4 million due in 2000, while lesser receivers were earning substantially bigger salaries.
During the previous off season Parcells had tried to restructure Johnson's deal to avoid the salary-cap consequences of an extension and keep the wideout long term. The NFL, though, ruled the unusual proposal to be in violation of cap rules. Gang Green suspected that the decision involved fallout from Curtis Martin's controversial contract. Regardless, Jets policy prohibited renegotiating deals with at least two years left on them. To further complicate a possible resolution, Parcells disliked the scorched-earth tactics of Johnson's Los Angeles-based agent, Jerome Stanley, who demanded a new deal that included a $12-million bonus.
So Parcells met with Al Groh, Dick Haley, and Mike Tannenbaum to weigh the team's options: force Johnson to stay, despite the disruption of another holdout; trade him to the highest bidder; or grant him a lucrative extension, setting a precedent that would hamper Gang Green's efforts to retain key players. Eager to start his tenure without distractions, Al Groh favored jettisoning the wideout. So Parcells consulted Keyshawn Johnson, who he enjoyed as a person and player, about reaching a mutually beneficial decision. Inside Parcells's office, they spoke about the possibility of finding a team willing to meet Johnson's contractual demands.
Johnson noticed a thick binder on Parcells's desk used for organizing his personal and financial life. Divided into several sections filled with paperwork, the organizer caught Johnson's attention. After the football talk, he asked Parcells if he could take a closer look. The Jets chief obliged, and explained its purpose. Johnson leafed through the binder that included a wide range of sections: property tax estimates, book deals, endorsement contracts, horse racing, income statements, correspondence, donations, investments.
Parcells suggested that Johnson get something similar to help organize his life. The wideout latched onto the idea, and responded with deep appreciation at being allowed a rare glimpse into Parcells's private world. The heartfelt exchange put an unusual coda on their conversation involving the cutthroat business of football.
"That one thing meant a lot to him," Parcells recalls of allowing Johnson to examine his organizer. "Keyshawn can be full of shit, but he's a good listener. So when you're talking about something serious, he's listening."
On April 12th, the Jets made one of the most stunning trades in franchise history, sending their star wideout to Tampa Bay, an offensively-challenged team with Super Bowl expectations behind a dominant defense, for two first-round picks in the upcoming draft. The Buccaneers agreed to extend Johnson's contract by six years and $52 million, including a team-record $13 million bonus that made him the highest-paid wideout of all time. Despite losing a major offensive weapon, Gang Green ended up with an NFL-record four first-round choices, including the one acquired for Belichick's services.
The Jets used those selections to draft defensive lineman Shaun Ellis (12th overall) of Tennessee, defensive end John Abraham (13th) of South Carolina, quarterback Chad Pennington (18th) of Marshall and tight end Anthony Becht (27th) of West Virginia. Gang Green's next selection didn't come until the third round. Meanwhile, the team was considering drafting Florida State wideout Laveranues Coles, whose stock had dropped because of a rap sheet: As a college senior, Coles was arrested with fellow wideout Peter Warrick for shoplifting at Dillard's, prompting the Seminoles to remove him from the team. A prior incident in 1998 brought Coles a simple battery charge, triggering a one-game suspension.
Nonetheless, Steve Yarnell advocated for Coles because the security chief's background check, which included a visit to Tallahassee, found extenuating circumstances in the wideout's troubles. With Coles still available for Gang Green's 78th overall choice, Parcells tersely asked Yarnell in the draft room whether the wideout would end up embarrassing the organization.
Yarnell pushed back. "This is our guy!" The security chief's conviction helped sway Gang Green to pick Coles. And its 2000 draft class would bolster the roster for years, while the talented 5-11, 200-pounder performed well while behaving like a model citizen.
DESPITE THE TUMULTUOUS off season, Al Groh's Jets captured their first four games with Vinny Testaverde back at quarterback. The first such streak in franchise history included two stirring comebacks: 20-19 at home versus Bill Belichick's Patriots on two final-period touchdowns by Wayne Chrebet, and 21-17 on the road against Tony Dungy's Buccaneers, after Boy Wonder threw the game-winner to Chrebet while Keyshawn Johnson finished with just one catch for a yard.
Instead of attending games in his new role, Bill Parcells drove from his home in Seagirt, New Jersey to Weeb Ewbank Hall, where he watched Gang Green on TV. The decision stemmed from Parcells's desire to keep his shadow from engulfing his rookie NFL head coach, especially on game days. At most, Parcells occasionally telephoned Mike Tannenbaum to chat before a contest while navigating the Jersey Turnpike past Giants Stadium, heading for Long Island. Mr. T’s game-day responsibilities placed him in the Jets coaches’ booth, and Parcells perennially declined Tannenbaum's temptations to join him.
Less than two hours before Gang Green hosted the Dolphins on Monday Night Football, Parcells telephoned from the highway. "Alright Mr. T, what's going on?"
Tannenbaum replied, "Nothing much; usual pre-game stuff. Are you coming?"
With the Jets playing Miami for first place in the AFC East, Parcells's superstitious nature reinforced his decision to analyze things from the periphery. And Gang Green improved to 6-1 after the "Monday Night Miracle," the greatest comeback in franchise history or on the prime-time series: Down 30-7 in the fourth quarter, Gang Green tied the game with 1:20 left on Testaverde's three-yard pass to left tackle Jumbo Elliott who made a juggling catch while falling in the end zone. The improbable reception, the only touchdown of Elliott's career and Testaverde's fifth of the night, led to overtime. The Jets triumphed, 40-37, in a stadium that went from having 78,389 spectators at kickoff to being half-empty in the fourth quarter when many gave up hope.
Groh's team, however, failed to sustain the magic, subsequently losing three straight. The slide tortured Parcells, given his vow against micromanaging or second-guessing the head coach. Although the Jets chief had observed some factors contributing to Gang Green's troubles, he felt that steering Groh would undermine him. However, Parcells was spending countless hours discussing how to build a team with Mike Tannenbaum. So the contract negotiator sometimes received the football chief's private complaints about Groh's decisions.
Perplexed by the information, Tannenbaum asked, "Bill, why don't you tell Al instead of me? He's the one you've got to change here."
Parcells replied, "Mr. T, I just can't tell Al. He has to do things in his own way."
Tannenbaum says now, "Bill never really found his stride being the GM only because he didn't want to overstep his bounds."
The director of football operations still found ways to motivate his favorite Jet, Boy Wonder, sometimes with maxims. During one conversation, the sixth-year veteran detailed a rigorous regimen that dated to his rookie season. Parcells replied, "Son, don't confuse routine with commitment, because you've got to do more the older you get, or you're losing ground. A lot of people fall into a routine in their life's work, and as that time goes on, they eventually confuse that with being committed to their job. The only thing they're committed to is the routine."
Martin suddenly realized that his workouts, though intensive, had fallen into a rut. Despite a reputation for being Gang Green's hardest worker, Boy Wonder was compelled to revamp his routine. He recalls of Parcells's advice, "That sparked a new flame, a higher flame."
Another spark came in the restroom at the Jets headquarters after they crossed paths. Parcells said to Martin, "Hey Boy Wonder, who's going to keep you humble when I leave?"
Martin replied, "To be honest, it's not you who keeps me humble, but you definitely help."
"I think you get it, and I like you, but don't ever forget what I’m about to tell you."
"What's that coach?”
“You will alwyas be the hardest person for yourself to see.”
Martin washed his hands while glancing at the mirror.
The Jets chief loomed from behind.
Parcells's remarks, especially in that scenario, rang true.
A three-game winning streak boosted Gang Green to 9-4, positioning the club to make the playoffs with just one more victory. Nonetheless, Groh's team collapsed again, losing three straight down the stretch. Veterans like Kevin Mawae and Vinny Testaverde faulted their hard-nosed coach for having worn down his players with gratuitously tough practices.
On December 30th, only one week after the season finale, Al Groh abruptly quit the Jets to accept his dream job: head coach at his alma mater, the University of Virginia, where his son Mike had starred as a quarterback in the mid-1990s. Al Groh, who had been an assistant coach at the school in the early 1970s, signed a seven-year contract worth more than $5 million in a deal that provided more long-term security than he had with the Jets. Reminiscent of Ray Perkins bolting the Giants for Alabama, Groh replaced George Welsh, 67, who had retired after 19 seasons at Virginia.
The third Jets head coach to bail in a calendar year guaranteed that the franchise would experience another disruptive off season. And only 10 days later, on January 9th, an even more powerful tremor shook the team: Bill Parcells announced his retirement from the NFL. He cited reasons similar to those he’d given when he had quit as head coach, and admitted he had experienced difficulty transitioning to his new role.
For a replacement, Parcells recommended that Woody Johnson decide among three of his ex-Giants scouts: Personnel executives Terry Bradway of the Chiefs, Jerry Angelo of the Bucs, and Rick Donohue of the Giants. Interviewing them only two days after Parcells's resignation, Woody Johnson chose Bradway, a Giants scout from 1986 to 1992. The owner retained Mike Tannenbaum, positioning the contract negotiator to be next in line to run the team.
On Parcells's final day at Weeb Ewbank Hall, he secretly placed a bottle of Grey Goose on Mr. T's desk with a note.
"At some point, you're going to need this."
Three future Hall of Famers chat during Giants training camp in August 1986, decades before the popularity of baggy shorts. Lawrence Taylor stands between head coach Bill Parcells and defensive coordinator Bill Belichick. The legendary coaches have been central characters in modern football history, leaving an indelible mark on the game. Thus, it's great that they overcame their bitter divorce, and share a deep respect for each other. Perhaps the best evidence of their bond came in a joint interview by ESPN's 30 for 30, in the terrific documentary "The Two Bills"s, which aired on February 1, 2018. (Jerry Pinkus)