Bill Parcells takes his rightful place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend, and there will be noise about his two Super Bowl championships with the New York Giants (remember Scott Norwood and wide right?), and his rebuilding of the Jets, Cowboys, and Dolphins. Parcells is the only man in NFL history to lead four franchises to the playoffs and he is one of only five men to take two franchises to the Super Bowl. He is renowned as the great, almighty Tuna, the quintessential Jersey guy who engaged reporters and insisted, “You are what your record says you are.’’
All swell. The Tuna deserves props and is overdue for a bust in Canton. But it is his four-year stint as head coach of the Patriots that matters most to us here in New England. Parcells is the man who rescued the Patriots from irrelevance and maybe from a move to St. Louis.
More than Bob Kraft, Tom Brady or Bill Belichick, Parcells is the man who changed the culture of football in Foxborough.
The Patriots were a clown show when Parcells was hired by beer man James Orthwein before the 1993 season. Twenty years later, they are probably the most popular team in our region, and a national brand on a scale with the Cowboys and Steelers. Feel free to send thank-you notes to the Big Tuna.
The Patriots were hideous and hopeless in the early 1990s. You really had to be there — but unfortunately, almost nobody was there. The Patriots played in the worst stadium in professional sports. They practiced in a state mental hospital, which was inconvenient and oddly appropriate. New England’s only taste of NFL glory, an appearance in Super Bowl XX in 1986, resulted in a blowout loss and a drug scandal. The Patriots were a league embarrassment (remember the Stupor Bowl of 1981, the Victor Kiam/Lisa Olson episode of 1990) and a flight risk. They went an aggregate 14-50 in the four seasons before Parcells was hired. In 1992, they finished 2-14, including a 6-0 loss to the Colts in front of 19,429 lost souls at old Foxboro Stadium.
“We weren’t at the bottom,’’ Parcells said in a lengthy telephone conversation earlier this week. “We were the bottom. The franchise was in pretty good disarray at the time. There had been multiple owners in recent years and there had been some changes in general managers. All of those things had occurred. And after I was there for a short time, I realized that Orthwein wasn’t prepared to do very much to try to improve the team in terms of economic investment.
“The stadium wasn’t in great shape and we didn’t have a place to practice. To get to practice, we had to go in our cars — guys in their uniforms driving their cars and trucks over there. We really didn’t have anything more than a field. We didn’t have much space at all. There was a place off to the side where we could do some drills, but that field would get very muddy in the latter part of the year.’’
The Patriots did not have many fans.
“I was probably oblivious to that,’’ said Parcells. “I knew the Celtics’ history — everybody knows that. And having followed the Red Sox myself, I knew the respect that they demanded. I didn’t know too much about hockey, but I knew the Bruins were very popular, as well. Once you start to get good players, none of that stuff makes any difference.’’
The Tuna inherited a small corps of good players.
“I had a very good left tackle in Bruce Armstrong and Ben Coates was kind of an unknown gem. Kevin Turner. Sam Gash. We had a big back in Leonard Russell. The offensive line needed some work and we didn’t have a lot of speed at receiver. Defensively, we were kind of a small group. Probably the best player at the time was Vincent Brown, and we had a good small corner in Maurice Hurst. Ray Agnew was a solid player, but we had a lot to do.’’
Parcells was very specific about the kind of players he liked: big players. Guys who didn’t put their hands in their pockets in December and January.
“I liked to be a powerful team,’’ said the Tuna. “Very strong defensively. I’ve always thought the kicking game was very important in pro football. So many games are decided by either field position or punts or last-minute field goals. When you’re coaching in the Northeast, before we had all these indoor facilities, I was always looking for cold-weather linemen and receivers. I thought it was important to have players that were used to doing things in cold weather. You have to have kickers, quarterbacks, and receivers who are weather-proof. You just have to have it.’’
Backup quarterback Scott Zolak, who served as holder on the field goal unit, remembers Parcells standing over him firing water at his hands with a hose when the Patriots were getting ready for a game that might involve rain. If the Patriots were going to Miami, the Tuna would make Zolak hold the ball over a pile of sand.Continued...