In N.Y., the House That Fassel Built
Taking a cue from Joe Torre's Yankees, Giants coach teaches unity.
By ERNEST HOOPER
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 13, 2001
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- During a relaxing stroll along a Maui beach last January, Giants coach Jim Fassel ran into someone who was dressed just like him: ball cap, dark sunglasses, T-shirt.
It was the fashion choice of two men trying not to be noticed. Fassel, after encountering an array of New Yorkers even though he was thousands of miles from Times Square, wanted to walk without interruption, and he figured the man coming toward him must have had the same desire.
Upon closer inspection, he saw a familiar face -- Yankees manager Joe Torre.
"I knew it was him because he had on a Yankees World Series T-shirt," Fassel said. "I said, "Joe, you gave yourself away.' "
Fassel, of course, wanted more than just to dress like Torre when they were beachcombing. He wanted a team like Torre had in the Yankees. He wanted athletes who would play together on the field instead of play against each other in the locker room.
"I remember talking to Joe one time and he said every time his guys show up, no one cares who gets the credit or the blame, let's just go out and win," Fassel said. "Now this team has got that attitude and that feeling. It's healthy and it's probably the bottom-line reason why we're playing so well right now."
Spend time with the Giants and you feel like the team is about to break out in a chorus of We Are Family. That's nothing new in sports, but it's new to the Giants, whose theme song a year ago would have been We Are Dysfunctional.
New York had a hard-charging defense that seemed to be held back by its offense. A parade of quarterbacks and an ineffective running game plagued New York through 8-8 and 7-9 seasons. The defense wearied of having to win the game. The defensive players didn't stop talking to the offensive players, but the things they said cannot be printed in a family newspaper.
The frustration came to a head last season when defensive end Michael Strahan spoke out against Fassel while Fassel was visiting his dying mother. Upon returning to New York, Fassel lashed out at Strahan and put a muzzle on his players, including vocal linebacker Jessie Armstead.
The response did not sit well with either leader, who viewed Fassel more as an offensive coordinator than a head coach. With an expertise in offense, Fassel was largely viewed as someone who was supposed to fix New York's scoring problems when he was hired in 1997.
The perception created a chasm between him and the defense, but the ice began to melt when Fassel named quarterbacks coach Sean Payton offensive coordinator in February.
"For the first time this season, we really felt like he was the coach, not just an offensive coordinator," Strahan said.
Fassel said his goal all along was to make the team whole, and he had no qualms about relinquishing the coordinator's position to Payton, who had spent a year with the Giants as the quarterbacks coach.
"There was a division between offense and defense and I understood the defensive players' frustration," Fassel said. "I would be too if I thought we were playing good enough to win. I was almost sympathetic.
"When we reached a point where I thought we were going to have the right kind of personnel on offense, the right kind of personnel on defense, the No. 1 thing in this organization to win was to get this team to bond together and play like a unit and have a caring, loving attitude toward one another from the standpoint of how they enjoy playing together."
Fassel started by reaching out to Strahan and Armstead. When Fassel came to Dallas on a free-agent recruiting trip, he called Armstead. Armstead, a Dallas native who lives there in the off-season, declined to meet with Fassel.
"We finally talked during the summertime and we let everything out," Armstead said. "It was a big clearing of the air. We got through all the he-said-she-said stuff. I admitted I didn't like how it was handled last year and we cleared up some things. I told him during that meeting, "If I commit to you, you'll never have to worry about me turning my back on you.' I think he evaluated what went down last year and made a lot of changes."
Insiders say it helped that Fassel revamped the offensive line and acquired veterans like tackles Lomas Brown and Glenn Parker, who brought a tougher mentality. The off-season program enjoyed high participation for a change and Fassel began to notice the players were enjoying each other more.
There also were intangibles. Fassel, Armstead, defensive tackle Keith Hamilton and quarterback Kerry Collins went golfing, even though Hamilton and Armstead had never played.
"After that day, (Jessie) will probably still say he's never played golf," Fassel said, who noted Hamilton bought a set of new irons for the round. "But they went. They don't play golf, they don't know how to play golf, they don't want to play golf, but they went."
Fassel readily admits he pried and cajoled but never mandated the team be closer. He knew it would never work that way. But there was a day during training camp in Albany when Fassel realized his goal was within reach. Fassel had requested, but not required that the players go as a team to a movie on a night off.
"It wasn't like I was giving them the time off so they could be together at the show," Fassel said. "This was their night off and they could see their girlfriend, they could do whatever they wanted. I talked about the show and the starting time and all of that and I said, "Is there anybody who plans on not going?'
"Two or three guys started to raise their hand and Jessie said, "We're all going, put your hands down.' "
That night, more than 100 players, coaches and support personnel saw Gladiator. So did 84-year-old co-owner Wellington Mara.
When Fassel stepped forward on Nov. 22 and guaranteed the Giants would make the playoffs, he solidified the faith the defensive players had in him. Strahan said when no one else believed in them, Fassel did.
"He focused on winning back this team," Strahan told the New York Post. "He realized where he was most valuable, which was more as a head coach and less as an offensive coordinator. That decision gave him more time to spend with everybody. We really got to know him for who he is."
-- Researcher John Martin contributed to this report.
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