"This is a poker game, and I’m shoving my chips to the middle of the table. I’m raising the ante, and anybody who wants in, get in. Anybody who wants out can get out. This team is going to the playoffs, OK?" – Jim Fassel, 2000
Words spoken by a man who had the utmost confidence in his players and arguably that defined the coaching career of Jim Fassel. Bridging the gap between the floundering Dan Reeves regime and the glory days of the Tom Coughlin regime, Fassel’s coaching tenure with the New York Giants was mixed with regular season success and unfortunate playoff losses. However, he still got the best out of his players each time and earned their respect too.
Last Monday night, Fassel suffered a fatal heart attack at his home in Las Vegas, Nevada. He was taken to a local hospital in Las Vegas where in the early hours of the morning, he passed away while under sedation. He was 71 years old.
James Edward 'Jim' Fassel was born on August 31, 1949 in Anaheim, California. He ended up playing quarterback, mostly as a backup at Fullerton Junior College and then the University of Southern California. He then finished out his collegiate career as a starter at Long Beach State in 1971, completing 88-of-165 passes for 1,212 yard, throwing 6 TDs and 8 INTs for a QB Rating of 117.3 as the team went 8-4 that year.
Fassel ultimately got drafted in the 7th round of the 1972 draft (167th overall) by Chicago Bears. He ultimately bounced around between the Bears, the San Diego Chargers, and the Houston Oilers that year before playing football in the Canadian Football League in 1973 with the Toronto Argonauts. He ended up his football playing career with The Hawaiians in the World Football League from 1974 to 1975 when the WFL ultimately went under.
It was also in the WFL that Fassel first got into coaching, acting as an assistant coach during the 1974 season with The Hawaiians (he also coached at his alma mater of Fullerton Junior College during the 1974 college football season as well). Following the WFL folding in 1975, Fassel returned to the college rankings as the quarterbacks and receivers coach at Utah in 1976. That lead to more opportunities with different college football programs over the years with Fassel taking jobs as a position coach or offensive coordinator.
After a one-year stint in the United States Football League as offensive coordinator for the New Orleans Breakers in 1984, Fassel was hired back by Utah to be their head coach. From 1985 to 1989, the Utes went 25-33 including going 14-26 in the Western Athletic Conference (the football conference Utah was a part of at the time). Fassel was ultimately let go after the 1989 season.
Then in 1991, Fassel got back into the NFL as he was hired as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach with the New York Giants during the Ray Handley coaching regime. Following the termination of Handley in 1992, Fassel ended up bouncing around different coaching circles as offensive coordinator or quarterbacks coach for each team he was a part of. In 1997, Fassel finally got the opportunity to become a head coach in the NFL when the New York Giants hired him to replace Dan Reeves, whom the team let go after the 1996 NFL season.
It seemed like Fassel was the shot in the arm that the franchise needed.
In his first year with the team, the Giants saw almost a 180 in their record. They went from 6-10 and last in the NFC East to 10-5-1 and first place in the NFC East. The team also improved in scoring, going from 28th in points scored (242) the previous year to 21st (307) points scored in 1997 and from 30th in total yards (3,942) to 27th in total yards (4,513). On the defensive side, the Giants went from 10th in points allowed (297) to 3rd overall in the NFL (265). Fassel ended up winning NFL Coach of the Year but unfortunately, playoff success eluded him. Taking on the Minnesota Vikings in the Wild Card at home, the Giants choked away a 16-point halftime lead (19-3) before ultimately losing 23-22.
Following his first year of success as an NFL head coach, Fassel’s next two seasons were marred with mediocrity. The Giants finished 8-8 in 1998 and then 7-9 in 1999 as fans and media were starting to get a little impatient with the lack of success. However, there were a few bright spots during those times as Fassel’s Giants. One of those was the upset undefeated (and eventual Super Bowl Champions) Denver Broncos in a Week 15 where the team got a 37-yard touchdown pass from QB Kent Graham to WR Anami Toomer to make it 20-16 with under a minute left.
Fans also got to see the emergence of RB Tiki Barber as a duel threat running back, the development of Toomer into one of the franchise’s most consistent (and beloved) wideout, and the revival of QB Kerry Collins, who was nearly washed out of the league.
Then the 2000 NFL season happened.
At first, the Giants were enjoying some early season success going 6-2 for the first half of the season. After blowing out the Cleveland Browns 24-3 in Week 10, the team suffered back-to-back double-digited losses against the St. Louis Rams and Detroit Lions to fall to 7-4. Doubt and uncertainty creeped back into the minds of Giants nation but then Fassel delivered arguably one of the most memorable press conferences in Giants history, saying he was all in on the team and guaranteed a playoff berth. With that vote of confidence by the coach the players responded. The the Giants went on to win their remaining regular season games and finish the year at 12-4 and the No. 1 overall seed in the NFC.
They went on to beat the Philadelphia Eagles 20-10 in the NFC Divisional Round before facing off against the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship Game. Unlike the 1997 Wild Card game, the Giants got their revenge and absolutely obliterated the Vikings 41-0 to setup a showdown with the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XXXV down in Tampa Bay. But the Cinderella story came to a crashing halt as Fassel’s Giants themselves got obliterated by the Ravens 34-7.
After a 2001 season where the team went 7-9 and missed the playoffs, Fassel returned to the team for the 2002 campaign. The team saw one of its best offensive outputs that year under Fassel's coaching tenure. The Giants scored 320 total points (2nd highest during Fassel's tenure) and ranked 6th overall in total offensive yards that year (5,826). Key offensive players like QB Kerry Collins, RB Tiki Barber, and WR Anami Toomer enjoyed breakout years with Collins having a career high in passing yards (4,073) and Toomer setting a then franchise record in catches (82) and receiving yards (1,343).
Once again, the team found themselves in late season peril as they dropped a heart-breaking OT 32-29 loss to the Tennessee Titans at home in Week 13 and were sitting at 6-6. Fassel once again rallied the team, pushing his chips back into the middle of the table. The team rallied off 4 straight victories, including a crucial 10-7 OT victory against the Philadelphia Eagles in the final week of the season to earn a playoff berth in the NFC Wildcard round against the San Francisco 49ers. But ghost of postseason woes once again reared its ugly head as the Giants choked away a 38-14 late in the 3rd quarter and ended up losing 39-38.
Then in 2003, it just seemed like everything went wrong. Injuries and poor performances on both sides of the ball (including 4 consecutive weeks of scoring less than 10 points from Week 13-16) doomed the team as the Giants finished 4-12. The team fired Fassel after a 45-7 blowout loss in Week 15 against the New Orleans Saints. But rather than tell him to pack up and leave, management allowed Fassel to finish coaching the rest of the year. But out of respect for their coach, the players played the last two games. Fassel left the Giants at the end of the 2003 season, accumulating a 58-53-1 (..522) regular season record and a 2-3 (.400) postseason record
Fassel ended up being hired an offensive consultant by the Baltimore Ravens in 2004 and was promoted to the team's offensive coordinator position in 2005 before being fired on October 17, 2006, as the team struggled that year. After a brief stint in the broadcast booth, Fassel was brought into the United Football League as a head coach of the Las Vegas Locomotives from 2009-2012 when the league ultimately folded.
But what was the defining moment of Fassel's coaching career was not on the football field nor was it during a press conference, despite his morale boosting speech of being all in on the 2000 squad. Rather, it was how
On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, the whole world watched as three planes crashed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. In fact, the plane that the team returned on was near the gate of Flight 93, the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania after its passengers fought to regain control of it from the hijackers.
Seeing the city hurt and in mourning, then Mayor Rudy Gulliani asked Fassel to go down to Ground Zero to visit the first responders, police officers, and firefighters there to cheer them up. Fassel obliged and visited Ground Zero, shaking hands and thanking all those who were there. That gesture of goodwill and support was a well-welcomed boost of morale and hope not only to the first responders, police officers, and firefighters but to the entire city of New York. Fassel was as instrumental in establishing a foundation for families impacted by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, raising over $1 million.
Later on when the NFL resumed normal football activities after taking a week off out of respect to those who lost their lives during the 9/11 attacks, Fassel told his players before they faced off against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium in their Week 3 matchup.
“You can wear that NYPD or fire department baseball cap, and I’m telling you, we’re honoring these people. So I don’t want to see it flipped around, I don’t want to see the bill up or sideways or something else. I want it front and center with that hat, or don’t put it one on.”
The team more than willing complied as they won the game 13-3. Throughout the remainder of the 2001 season, Fassel remained composed and poised even when things didn’t go his way as the Giants ultimately finished 7-9. He gained the respect and admiration of everyone for how he and the team conducted themselves after the wake of the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil."
That’s how he was. A man who cared about the players he was coaching. Although he wasn’t as fiery and demonstrative like other NFL coaches, he still commanded respect from his players and his assistants, and they gave it to him.
Many in the NFL (former players, NFL media people, and teams Fassel coached on) paid their respect when they found out he passed on Tuesday morning.
Fassel is survived by his wife, Kitty, and their 5 children, including their son John Fassel, who is the special teams coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys.
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