Fassel's Farewell

On Christmas Day 1996, the late George Young, former general manager of the Giants, embarked on cross-country trip from Newark to Phoenix, Ariz., in search of a coach to replace Dan Reeves. <BR><BR>

Because he had no time to make advance reservations, the airline placed Young in the center seat of the 31st row of the plane, hardly luxury accommodations for a man of his status. When Young got off the plane he was encountered by a few Giants fans that recognized him and immediately understood the purpose of his trip.

"The fans asked him if he was coming to get Fassel to coach," Jim Fassel said. "And they wanted to know if the Giants were too cheap to get him a first-class seat."

A few days earlier, the phone had rung in the executive offices of the Cardinals. Fassel, the team's offensive coordinator at the time, was in a meeting with head coach Vince Tobin and the other assistants when he suddenly saw Cardinals owner Bill Bidwell at a window trying to get Tobin's attention.

"I knew right away what he wanted," Fassel said. "It was the Giants calling asking permission to talk to me."

Fassel said when the word got out that the Giants were interested in hiring him, the phone at his home never stopped ringing. At one point, his son, Michael, now a senior at Boston College, told the caller his father wasn't home.

It was Young on the other end.

Fassel took the call.

And he eventually took the job.

Seven years later, Young is gone and now Fassel waits for another general manager to visit or call. The third-winningest coach in Giants history, who inherited a team on the verge of cap calamity, with Danny Kanell, Dave Brown and Kent Graham at quarterback, and took it to a Super Bowl they hardly expected to see, finally wore out his welcome.

"My reaction is that this was a terrible thing to happen," Ike Hilliard said. "Being his first draft pick as a Giants coach, I have to take some responsibility. I'm sorry I didn't do more to help him and the cause."

During his career, Fassel had proven himself the industrious type, inspiring his teams and winning games in December with uncommon consistency. Until this season he'd never had a four-game losing streak. Until this season the Giants had the best December record (19-5) of any team in the league from 1997-2002. Until this season he was known more for his guarantees than his failures.

But this year was different. There were too many injuries to overcome, too many penalties to absorb, too many turnovers to excuse.

"For whatever reason, we didn't have the season we expected," Tiki Barber said.

On Dec. 16, after resisting the temptation to ask about his fate, weary of the torrent of speculation about him, Fassel finally submitted to his lifelong urge to take control. He asked to meet with Giants co-owners Wellington Mara, Robert Tisch and VP John Mara.

"There were no prior discussions about this," Fassel said. "But you guys know me well enough. If I feel like I'm losing control, I will take action."

"I was very surprised," John Mara said. "He usually stops by every day just to talk." But this was different. Fassel wanted to know where he stood, whether the rumors that he'd be fired after this season were true.

"I've been around here a long time. I can read the tea leaves as good as anyone. I didn't want it to come to this," Fassel said. "It was the hardest, longest walk I've ever had to take to his [Mara's office]."

Mara said he allowed Fassel to say what was on his mind. And when he was done, he had to tell Fassel that his assumptions were true.

"It's not our style to do something like this during the season," Mara said. "But he said he knew a change was coming and I can't argue with you. Let's just end all the speculation so we won't have to answer all the questions. Ultimately, it made a lot of sense to me."

Fassel was told he would not be asked to serve the final year of his four-year contract and that his assistants wouldn't be back, either.

"But I can't tell you if it was firing or a resignation," Mara said. "I don't know quite what it was."

Fassel relayed the message to his team before that day's practice and told them he'd agreed to coach the final two games of the season. This Sunday against the Panthers will be his last. And on New Year's Eve he will be in San Francisco watching Michael's BC team play in a bowl game.

"Let's be clear about something," Kerry Collins said. "He was not to blame for everything that has gone on around here."

Said Barber: "It's a little sad. Jim is the only coach I know. He's always been a big supporter of mine. I know our paths will cross again. I told him the way he's handled himself during his career was an inspiration to me."

The dedication to task and responsibility that endeared him with his core players is what convinced Fassel to honor the remainder of his contract by coaching the final two games.

"I do this [finish the season] because of my respect for the way this organization has treated me during my nine years here as an assistant and coach," Fassel said. "There no reason this shouldn't end in a positive way. They need a change. I need a change. It's the right thing to do."

Ironically, Fassel's decision to stick it out came one week after Reeves left the Falcons after management informed him he'd be fired. Part of the reason appears to be the unusually close relationship Fassel formed with ownership, particularly John Mara.

"John Mara told me he's never been that close to a coach before and it broke his heart to let him go," said Tom Curtin, Fassel's agent.

It's expected Fassel won't have difficulty finding a job. He's been connected to possible job openings in Arizona and Oakland, two places he's already worked as an assistant.

"What qualities do you look for in a coach? A guy who has been in the NFL, the record and how is the guy to work with," Fassel said. "You whittle it down and I'll go into [the job] search with a lot of confidence."

Great things were expected from this team, seemingly with its finest offense in recent history. But after a victory over the Rams the first week of the season, problems began to overcome them. A special team failure in the final seconds of regulation against Dallas helped the Cowboys to an overtime victory on Sept. 15. When the Giants allowed the Eagles' Brian Westbrook to beat them Oct. 19 with an 84-yard punt return whatever energy was left seemed to seep out and Fassel admitted his team's confidence had waned.

The Giants are 1-6 at home and were 31st in the NFL with a turnover ratio of minus-13. And in the end, that was too much for management, even one that truly admired and respected Fassel, to allow him to stay.

"When I talked to my team [Wednesday], I told them not to feel sorry for me because I don't feel sorry for myself," Fassel said. "You have to assume that these are not retirement jobs."

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