Bill Parcells

Bill Parcells

Bill Parcells

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Nov. 28 1997 3:30 AM

Bill Parcells

The New York Jets coach is pro football's great dictator.

Illustration by Philip Burke

Football is a sport of myths, and there is none more powerful than this one: They don't make 'em like they used to. Remember when they played both ways? When they didn't complain about a pulled hamstring? When coaches were men like Lombardi, not headset geeks? Even the sourest old-timer, however, will admit that at least one man in the NFL is made like they used to be: New York Jets coach Bill Parcells.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

Parcells is performing his usual miracles during his first season with the Jets. The Jets went 1-15 last year and 3-13 the year before. So far this fall, Parcells has coached them to an 8-4 record and first place in their conference, the AFC East. Unless something goes horribly awry during December, the 1997 Jets will set a record for the biggest single-season improvement in NFL history.

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Parcells is football's turnaround artist, the "Chainsaw Al" Dunlap of the gridiron. In the '80s, "the Tuna" took over the hopeless New York Giants and led them to two Super Bowl victories. Between 1993 and 1997, Parcells transformed the New England Patriots from bottom-feeders to AFC champions. In the entire history of the NFL, only Parcells and Don Shula have coached two different teams to the Super Bowl. You can bet that by the time Parcells leaves the Jets, he will have coached three teams there.

Parcells confuses football fans. They can't figure out why he's a great coach. Some coaching legends are chalkboard whizes. The San Francisco 49ers' Bill Walsh designed an offense that took the rest of the NFL a decade to figure out. The Chicago Bears' terrifying "46 defense" cemented Mike Ditka's and Buddy Ryan's reputations. Other coaches piggybacked to the top on star players: Any idiot--and coach Barry Switzer is that idiot--could have won a Super Bowl with the Dallas Cowboys' talent. Parcells is an excellent X's-and-O's coach. (He spent 20 years as an assistant coach, much of it in the Great Plains, where they really know football.) But Parcells is the architect of no grand strategy and mentor to no great stars. Some of his teams have been strong offensively, others defensively. Some have passed a lot, others have run. There's no single guiding principle to his teams. Sportswriters throw up their hands and conclude with banalities: Parcells is a "great motivator" or a "players' coach."

Illustration by Philip Burke

He is. But not in a touchy-feely way. Parcells is a great coach for a reason that is now unfashionable in professional sports: He's a dictator. If modern pro athletes subscribe to a political philosophy, it is Ayn Randism: What's in it for me? Free agency and celebrity endorsements have exaggerated the influence of individual stars. Once players played at the whim of coaches. Today coaches coach at the whim of players. Even the NFL, traditionally the most team-oriented of pro sports, has fallen under the thrall of individualism. On the Dallas Cowboys, for example, hot-dogging players like Michael Irvin and Deion Sanders, not the coach, guide the team.

Not so on Parcells' teams. A key fact: During the '60s and '70s, Parcells spent five years coaching at West Point and the Air Force Academy. He conceives of football as a military operation. His teams are total institutions. Other coaches give their players vast freedom. Parcells owns his: They submit their will to the team and to him. Parcells, 6' 3", nearly 250 pounds, and aggressively confident, has the rare ability of command.

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Parcells takes over bad teams because he can mold them in his image. Winning players won't accept the kind of bullying Parcells dishes out. Losing players have no choice. With the Patriots and the Jets, for example, Parcells demanded that players spend most of their off-season in training: Those who resisted--and some always did--got cut or traded.

Parcells runs his training camps and practices with a drill sergeant's discipline: He abuses and needles players to inspire them. Last season, for example, he infuriated one malingering rookie by calling him "she." ("She," wide receiver Terry Glenn, recovered and went on to break the rookie record for catches in a season.) After a lackadaisical Giants team went 3-12-1, Parcells cut or traded half the team. Parcells was one of the first coaches in the league to impose mandatory drug tests. He forbids his assistant coaches from talking to the press, and discourages his players from doing so.

Parcells discourages stardom: Everyone's ego--except Parcells'-- is sublimated for the good of the whole. His teams are teams. (In Parcells' coaching career, he has had only one player who can legitimately be called a superstar: Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor. Usually he collects role players.)

The result: Parcells has had the most disciplined teams in the NFL. Parcells' teams commit fewer penalties than almost any team in the league. (In last week's win against Minnesota, the Jets committed only one.) They have fewer disciplinary problems, because Parcells weeds out the bad apples. They have fewer injuries, because Parcells so emphasizes conditioning. And, while this sounds like a cliché, it's undoubtedly true: Parcells makes his players believe they can win, so they do. Last year the Jets went 0-6 in games decided by less than six points; this year they are 5-1.

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Those players who stick with Parcells adore his tough love. (It's significant that the "Gatorade Dump," where the victorious team dumps a bucket of Gatorade on its coach, was invented by Parcells' Giants.) In a league where head coaches delegate everything to assistants, Parcells makes a policy of trying to talk to every player every day. When some of his Giants players had drug problems, Parcells spent a week at a rehab center, scouting if it was good enough for his men. Parcells' players and assistant coaches follow him loyally from city to city. In New England, nine of his assistant coaches were former Giants assistants; at the Jets, he has enlisted former Giants players to coach his running backs, kickers, and tight ends.

Like all control freaks, Parcells hates to be controlled himself. He has repeatedly feuded with owners and general managers about running the team. He quit the Giants partly because the owner and general manager cramped him. His battle with Patriots owner Bob Kraft was legendary.

Illustration by Philip Burke

Parcells has an addict's relationship with football. He likes to say, "There are only two emotions in football--euphoria and death." When he graduated from college in 1964, he turned down a chance to play for the Detroit Lions so that he could start his coaching career. Since then, he has never managed to do anything but coach. Once he took a year off to sell real estate: He hated it. After he quit the Giants in 1991, he spent two years as a broadcaster: It bored him. Parcells vacations little during the off-season: He can't relax, worrying that his rivals are working harder. His only outside interests are golf and his family. Both get ignored during the football season.

Parcells once said he "couldn't live without football." Even so, he keeps hinting that his career is winding down. He's 56. When he signed his 6-year, $14.4-million contract with the Jets, he said the job would be his last. Let's hope not. Mike Ditka is on his way out the door. John Madden has long since ascended to the press box. Football coaches are an increasingly sterile breed. Parcells calls them "computer guys." In an age where computer guys are winning everywhere else, it's nice that Bill Parcells is still around to pound them on the gridiron.