Jim Fassel, who was head coach of the New York Giants from 1997-2003, passed away Monday night in a Las Vegas hospital from a heart attack at the age of 71 after being admitted with chest pains.
Fassel was a colorful coach whose up-and-down tenure was marked by surprise performances when expectations were often at their lowest. The Giants won the NFC East twice during his tenure and reached the Super Bowl in the 2000 season. Fassel was named the NFL’s “Coach of the Year” in 1997, his first season as the team’s head coach. His overall record over seven seasons was 58-53-1 and 2-3 in the post season. His 58 regular-season wins place him fourth highest on the franchise’s all-time list of coaching victories.
Little was expected of the 1997 New York Giants as Fassel took over a team that had struggled offensively and was unsettled at the quarterback position. Despite ranking near the bottom of the league in total yards and offensive points scored, New York surprised fans and experts with a 10-5-1 record that was good enough to win the NFC East, the Giants first such title since 1990. They did so by not beating themselves, ranking tops in the league in protecting the football and defensive takeaways. Fassel was rewarded after the season with the AP’s “Coach Of The Year” award.
Two mediocre seasons followed that initial success, but they were not without notoriety.
On December 13, 1998, Fassel’s 5-8 Giants faced the defending Super Bowl Champion Denver Broncos, who were boasting a perfect 13-0 record on the season. Trailing 16-13 with under two minutes remaining, Fassel settled the situation on the sideline with his quarterback Kent Graham. Fassel said, “I told Kent, ‘Don’t read the coverage, throw it to Amani.’” Moments later Graham completed a 37-yard touchdown pass to Toomer and the Broncos left the field with their first loss of the season.
The Giants revolving door at quarterback stopped at Kerry Collins late in 1999, which was a surprise to many as Collins had struggled both professionally and personally before coming to New York as a free agent and was seen as something of a reclamation project. On December 5, 1999, Collins enjoyed the best performance a Giant quarterback had displayed since Phil Simms retirement as he threw for over 300 yards and three touchdowns in a 41-28 romp over the Jets. That moment served as a springboard to even bigger success for both Collins and the Giants. Collins later said, “I owe the turnaround that I’ve had to him. I think that Jim is a special guy.”
Fassel’s Giants teams were known for finishing strong. Their regular-season record in the month of December during his first six seasons was 19-5. Most memorable was the December push in 2000 that was sparked by his most quotable press moment.
Following a desultory home loss to Detroit, Fassel captivated the media with a surprisingly boastful press conference, espousing unconditional belief in his 7-4 team: “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? This team is going to the playoffs.”
After being the lead story on every sports program that week, including some who questioned Fassel’s sanity, the Giants ran the remainder of their regular-season schedule, winning five consecutive games. Not only did they capture their second NFC East title in four years, but they also entered the playoffs as the NFC’s first seed.
In that post-season, Fassel achieved something only one other coach in franchise history had attained, two home-field victories. Only Bill Parcells 1986 squad has run the table while standing on the Giants sideline though the playoffs. Like his predecessor, Fassel kept the opponent off the scoreboard in the NFC Championship, when the Giants defeated the favorited Minnesota Vikings 41-0, sending New York to their third Super Bowl. However, the joyride ended as the Giants lost to the Baltimore Ravens 34-7.
Following a disappointing 7-9 campaign in 2001, Fassel’s Giants had another December run to remember in 2002.
Mired in an offensive slump and with a 6-6 record entering December, Fassel assumed play-calling duties from offensive coordinator Sean Payton. His uncanny knack for making the right move at the right time proved to be spot-on again as the Giants offense erupted for 108 points over the next three games, highlighted by Collin’s perfect quarterback rating performance in a 44-27 win at Indianapolis. A hard-fought 10-7 overtime win over division rival Philadelphia sent the Giants to the post-season for the third time in Fassel’s tenure.
A second-half collapse at San Francisco in the Wild Card game sent the Giants into a downward spiral they could not recover from. Late in the 2003 campaign, Fassel had one final slick maneuver: he preempted his inevitable forthcoming exit.
On December 17, 2003, with his team 4-10, Fassel announced he would not be returning after the final game of the season. While certainly not a surprise, the timing and source of the announcement were. Fassel philosophically said, “It’s time. They need a change, I need a change. It’s the right thing to do.”
If nothing else, Jim Fassel’s Giants tenure was unpredictable, with moments of being unforgettable.
Prior to being the head coach of the Giants, Fassel served as Giants quarterback back coach from 1991-1992, where he earned high praise from Phil Simms: “I learned more in two years with Jim Fassel than I ever knew about quarterbacking.”
Fassel was raised on the West Coast, and played football at Fullerton College, USC, and Long Beach State. He had a brief playing career at the professional level in the CFL and WFL in the early 1970s. His initial notoriety as a position coach was at Stanford University where he tutored John Elway, who became the NFL’s number one overall draft pick in 1983. He reunited with Elway as his quarterback coach in Denver in 1993-1994. Fassel’s first head coaching assignment was at the University of Utah from 1985-1989.
Fassel’s post-Giants career included a position as a Baltimore Raven’s assistant coach from 2004-2006 and again as a head coach in the United Football League, where he achieved championships with the Las Vegas franchise in 2009 and 2010.