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Assistant living right where Pope wants to be

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / February 6, 2012
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INDIANAPOLIS - Mike Pope had to reach deep into his memory banks to count all the head coaches he’s worked for in his 29 years in the NFL.

Bill Parcells. Dave Shula. Norv Turner. Jim Fassell. And now Tom Coughlin.

He can’t explain it, but the bosses love him. He and Bill Parcells were neighbors when they were assistant coaches at Florida State in the ’60s. He was one of Parcells guys when Parcells was with both the Giants and the Jets.

When Coughlin took over the Giants head coaching duties in 2004, Pope was the only assistant he decided to keep.

He’s been the tight ends coach in New York the last 12 years, all the way back to when the Giants lost to the Ravens in Super Bowl XXXV in 2001, and still there in 2008, when the Giants stunned the Patriots in Super Bowl XVII. It was the third championship-winning team he’s been a part of; he won two rings with Parcells’s Giants.

Adding a fourth would be just another testament to longevity.

“I think it’s disproving the Abe Lincoln statement that you can’t fool all of the people all of the time,’’ Pope said. “Twenty-nine years is a long time.’’

He has tutored one Pro Bowl tight end after another, from Mark Bavaro and Rodney Holman to Ben Coates and Jeremy Shockey.

“You have to have a passion for doing a particular job,’’ Pope said. “The longer you do it, the longer you have the energy to do it, and obviously if you have success along the way.’’

Because of that he’s been an important - if specific - piece of the coaching staff wherever he’s been.

“They’ve all kind of featured that tight end position,’’ Pope said of the teams he’s worked with. “You want to be able to run off tackle with the ball, you want to be able to block individually in the zone schemes and then you want to have a guy who’s hopefully athletic enough to get down in the middle of the field and make some plays down the field.’’

In the ’80s, Pope, Coughlin, and Bill Belichick were all disciples under Parcells with the Giants.

“We were all just trying to survive,’’ Pope said.

Pope has worked off and on with Belichick for about 12 years and they remain good friends.

In 1996, the year the Patriots lost to the Packers in Super Bowl XXXI, Pope was New England’s tight ends coach and Belichick was the defensive coordinator.

That team went 11-5. Ben Coates caught 62 passes for 682 yards and 9 touchdowns. Pope called it the best team he’s been on that didn’t win the Super Bowl.

He’s been around so long he’s seen the game change.

Tight ends are more like basketball players now. Quarterbacks are throwing the ball 50 times a game.

“It’s literally become almost like a schoolyard game in some cases,’’ he said with a joke. “Go down to the manhole cover, take a left and the quarterback hits you with the ball.’’

When he first came into the league, it was simpler.

“There were players in the league like Barry Sanders and players like that where you just hand the ball off. Who do you block? How do you block him? Just stay out of his way.’’

When he looks at the players he’s coached, he said they all had the same qualities.

“When you talk about longevity, it’s probably because I haven’t had to coach some guy standing out here who’s afraid when the car backfires or something like that,’’ he said. “I’ve always had tough guys.’’

When coaching openings come up, Pope’s name doesn’t pop up much. He’s content with that. He’s been around the game so long that what would be a niche for some coaches has become his life.

“I’m virtually worthless if it wasn’t for this profession,’’ Pope said. “I don’t know how to do anything else. But I never really wanted to do anything else, really. This is all I’ve ever done.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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