The cases for and against Bill Parcells making the Patriots Hall of Fame
He coached only four years, with a mediocre record and an awful departure, but there's more to it.
He arrived a white knight and left wearing the blackest hat imaginable. And almost 25 years later, Bill Parcells is still that for a lot of New England fans and observers, without any hint of gray. If you’re aware that the former coach is once again up for the Patriots Hall of Fame, you likely have not just a very strong feeling about whether he belongs, but a borderline contempt for those yahoos who disagree.
Voting at patriots.com/hof to determine the 30th recipient of the team’s highest personal honor runs through Friday, May 8, with the Hall’s panel of media, alumni, and staff placing Parcells alongside a pair of three-time Super Bowl champions: Defensive lineman Richard Seymour and linebacker Mike Vrabel. Last seen in Foxborough ending the Tom Brady era as coach of the Tennessee Titans, this is Vrabel’s fifth straight year as a Patriots Hall of Fame finalist. It’s the fourth straight for Seymour, who narrowly missed induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame each of the last two years.
It’s also Parcells’s fourth, but his first since 2014, the year after he became the 22nd coach elected to the Pro Football Hall. He would be the first in the Patriots Hall’s 29-year history and just the third non-player, joining Patriots founder Billy Sullivan and 36-year play-by-play man Gil Santos — both of whom team owner Robert Kraft inducted independent of the fan vote, which has decided inductees since 2007.
The tug of war between Kraft and Parcells, the genuine savior of pro football in New England and the spiritual one, obscured the sport’s mid-90s renaissance here and ended with both men ultimately wishing they’d acted differently. The coach, in his 2014 autobiography “Parcells: A Football Life” with Nunyo Demasio, called his departure from New England “the biggest regret” of his career. The owner, long removed from trying to micromanage football operations, ultimately campaign to get Parcells in Canton and describes himself as having “stardust in my eyes” during his first years in charge.
“We were just coming at it from different times. And so much in life is timing,” Kraft told USA Today in 2013. “But in the end, we have a great relationship today. I have great respect for him. He did a great deal for our franchise. And I will forever be grateful for that.”
Plenty agree. Others, however, haven’t forgotten being left at the altar after just four seasons and a 34-34 record, watching the Patriots fly home from their second Super Bowl without Parcells, who essentially went straight into the arms of the rival Jets. (And soon poached future Hall of Famer Curtis Martin with a contract so impossible for New England to match, the league outlawed similar ones after.)
“I hated the man with a passion,” Patriots president Jonathan Kraft said in Michael Holley’s 2004 book, ‘Patriot Reign.’ “He is someone who tried to make my father look bad. He tried to make him look foolish. And as a son, I hated him for it.”
Fact is, that rancorous departure was Parcells’s greatest gift to the two-decade dynasty to come.
The Patriots before Parcells
The Boston/Bay State/New England Patriots were not without successes or support in their first 33 seasons, but they made just six playoff appearances. The first ended with a 51-10 loss in the 1963 AFL championship game. The other five were in a run from 1976–86 that included a shock AFC championship in January 1986 immediately followed by 46-10 in Super Bowl XX and a drug scandal.
“The Patriots, unfortunately, were really the weak link in the NFL chain of franchises,” former NFL finance committee member Carmen Policy told The Athletic last year. “They were always problematic in terms of getting things done and smoothing out their operation and becoming financially viable.”
From 1989-92, there was no big stage. Just a 14-50 record, including 1-15 in 1990 and 2-14 in 1992, and had as many owners as coaches. Bad investments forced the founding Sullivans to sell in 1988 to Remington razor pitchman Victor Kiam — the Lisa Olson scandal is a fitting epitath to his tenure — whose bad investments forced him to sell to Anheuser Busch magnate James Orthwein in 1992.
Orthwein was a St. Louis native who made no secret why he was here. He sought to quickly rebuild the franchise, resolve the crippling lease that locked it into Foxboro Stadium — an iffy venue from its 1971 opening that only got worse — for the next decade, and jump to run a team in his hometown, be it an expansion franchise or the relocated Patriots.
To that first end, Orthwein’s first coaching hire in January 1993 revolved around three massive names: Mike Ditka, Buddy Ryan, and Parcells, who’d coached the Patriots linebackers in 1980, then built up the New York Giants and won two Super Bowls in eight years before jumping to TV in 1991 due to heart problems.
“He had lived in New England in 1980 and liked it there. His wife liked it, too. So I think it became a matter of if he had the opportunity to come here, he would come,” the Globe‘s Will McDonough told writer Bill Gutman for his 2000 unauthorized biography of Parcells. “He also liked the situation with Orthwein. He was a hands-off owner who planned to live in St. Louis and wouldn’t even be around the team. He told Bill, ‘This is it. Carry the ball. You’re the boss.’”
Parcells’s Jan. 21 introduction was nothing less than a happening, held at a packed press conference in downtown Boston, with Governor William Weld attending (at Orthwein’s request) and ogling Parcells’s Super Bowl ring.
“I think Bill Parcells is the No. 1 name in football,” Weld said.
He certainly became the No. 1 name in New England football.
The 1993 Patriots
Parcells’s Hall of Fame plaque touts he “reversed the fortunes of four NFL teams,” but in his final three stops, he went just 98-86 — 34-34 with the Patriots, 30-20 with the Jets, and 34-32 in Dallas. None of those three managed back-to-back playoff berths, the Patriots and Cowboys crashing to 6-10 after their first Parcells-era postseasons.
The man behind “you are what your record says you are” sells himself short. Rebuilding on the fly is hard. His first year here is a reminder.
Parcells immediately ignited the fan base, the team reporting more than 3,700 season-ticket sales in the first eight days after Parcells’s hire. (Keeping the No. 1 overall draft pick and taking quarterback Drew Bledsoe in April got that higher than 7,500 by the end of July.) They were still a 2-14 team, though, one that Demasio described as, “full of disgruntled, jaded veterans with little trade value. New players were infected by the team’s negative culture, and in public, players often neglected to mention their Patriots affiliation.”
“The most down-and-out, despondent, negative atmosphere you could imagine,” Parcells told Sports Illustrated in 1998.
In his first training camp, Parcells immediately changed the culture, running a self-professed, since-outlawed “murderous” schedule of six consecutive two-a-day practices. When starting left guard Reggie Redding showed up overweight, Parcells cut him. Same with linebacker David Howard, New England’s second-leading tackler, after sat out a practice with what Parcells thought was a minor toe injury.
They were two of 31 players from the ’92 team not on 1993’s initial 53-man roster; the three highest-paid players from the prior year, including all-1980s wideout Irving Fryar, were all traded. That was also a function of finances. Despite 1993 being the first year of true free agency in the NFL, Orthwein cut payroll nearly 10 percent, leaving New England outspent by everyone but Cleveland.
“He’s the best talent we have,” Parcells said in August, when he almost reluctantly made rookie Bledsoe his starting quarterback. “It’s a question of, can you live with mistakes for a while?”
Fans, to their everlasting credit, did. Attendance was up 15 percent for the year despite a 1-11 start, Bledsoe throwing 13 interceptions against seven touchdowns while the Patriots lost seven games by four points or fewer. The optimism was rewarded: Not only did New England win four in a row for the first time since 1988, Kraft finally won the team.
By then the owner of both the land and the stadium, the latter allowing him to thwart Kiam’s attempts to move the Patriots to Jacksonville, Kraft announced his intention to make another run at the Patriots themselves in October. After he bought the worst franchise in football for a record $170 million on Jan. 21, 1994 — one year to the day after Parcells was hired — nearly 6,000 season tickets were sold in one day and a 26-year sellout streak was born.
“I am convinced that this franchise could be very successful,” he said in October. “Parcells is the right man. … The time is right for me.”
It just wasn’t right for them.
Parcells vs. Kraft
Orthwein’s hands-off was immediately replaced by Kraft’s hands-on. Though the latter increased the budget, it’s easy to wonder whether Parcells — who made “grocery control” a priority in his post-Giants career — would have even sniffed the Patriots job had Kraft jumped in a year sooner.
“When a new owner comes in, people in the organization have their own agendas. There were a lot of voices in Kraft’s ear,” Parcells told Demasio. “The year before, I was basically making the decisions because the other people weren’t capable of making them. And that’s the truth.”
The two coexisted in 1994, as ground-and-pound Parcells let Bledsoe throw a record 691 passes and the Patriots ripped off seven straight wins to swipe an AFC wild card. Kraft, however, claimed dissatisfaction with Parcells’s personnel eye and elevated Bobby Grier to director of player personnel in February 1995.
“He didn’t want me to be the show. Simple,” Parcells told Demasio of Kraft. “A couple of owners told him, ‘Some of those coaches get too big for their britches. You’ve got to put them in their place.’ So that’s what he was doing. He didn’t know that putting the wrong guy in his place screws up your football team. But he learned it.”
In 1995, Parcells admitted he did a “lousy job” on the sidelines, and his team did as well. The 1995 Patriots went 6-10 despite the Parcells-driven emergence of Offensive Rookie of the Year Curtis Martin, coach and owner growing distant.
“Parcells resented his authority being diminished as Kraft spent more time hatching football ideas with less qualified front-office employees; the dictatorial head coach, 53, bristled at the new way of doing things,” Demasio wrote. “Kraft felt that his top employee showed little respect to an ownership family that catered to him.”
It famously came to a head in the 1996 draft, when Parcells and Kraft said publicly the team would take a defensive lineman No. 7 overall, only for Kraft to side with Grier and inform Parcells the choice was Ohio State wideout Terry Glenn moments before the selection was made.
“Look, we’re going to pay attention. I think fans should want owners who are going to pay attention,” Robert Kraft said in ‘Patriot Reign.’ “It’s our financial net worth on the line. In Parcells, we had a guy who was coaching year to year.”
If not week to week. Parcells and Kraft only made it to the ’96 season because they’d agreed in January to make it his final guaranteed season in Foxborough, but the coach went from telling friends he’d retire after the year to twice approaching Kraft for a new deal as the Patriots jelled. (He was rebuffed, making clear Kraft was moving on.) They were surprise AFC East champs at 11-5, then trounced Pittsburgh and caught a major break when second-year Jacksonville shocked top-seeded Denver, which had blown out the Patriots in both 1995 and 1996.
The morning of the first-ever AFC Championship in Foxborough, the Boston Herald broke the news that Parcells’s amended contract — which he never ran past his agent — prevented him from coaching elsewhere in 1997 unless New England was compensated. The bad blood went public.
Eight days later, McDonough reported Super Bowl XXXI would be Parcells’s end with New England. You likely know the rest of the story.
To this day, Parcells denies communicating with the New York Jets during that Super Bowl runup. His hotel phone records suggest otherwise, as did his longtime deputy, who’d first joined the Patriots at Parcells’s behest in February 1996 as assistant head coach.
“Yeah, I’d say it was a little bit of a distraction all the way around,” Bill Belichick told Holley in ‘Patriot Reign’. “I can tell you firsthand, there was a lot of stuff going on prior to the game. I mean, him talking to other teams. He was trying to make up his mind about what he wanted to do. Which, honestly, I felt totally inappropriate. How many chances do you get to play for the Super Bowl? Tell them to get back to you in a couple of days.
“I’m not saying it was disrespectful to me, but it was in terms of the overall commitment to the team.”
Belichick, of course, would never do that. And Parcells, apologizing in his book, never specifically references his behavior before the 35-21 loss to the Packers.
“I was reluctant to leave. We made it to the Super Bowl. I had a really good young team, and we had a lot of good football in front of us. But for the owner and myself, it was an untenable situation,” Parcells told Demasio. “I’m not saying I wasn’t part of the problem, because I was. But I wasn’t solely responsible. There are some things I can look back on and say, ‘Hey, if I had to do it again, I would do it differently.’ And there are some things he did that I won’t forget either, that I don’t look at very kindly, that really precipitated the breakup.
“I wish it had worked out differently. I just didn’t feel like I had much recourse. I felt like it’d be better if I left.”
Did it cost New England championship? Debatable; the Patriots were 14-point underdogs that Sunday. What’s less debatable is Belichick. A very specific set of circumstances led to Bill Belichick taking over the Patriots.
A set of circumstances Parcells and his obstinence can’t be divorced from, because they all but created them.
Time doesn’t heal all wounds, but it certainly sands over some rough edges. As do the realities of good business.
After three hotly contested seasons of Tuna Bowls, New York’s quick rise and free-agent swipe of superstar Martin coinciding with New England receding under players-first Pete Carroll, Kraft and Parcells began to mend fences during the compensation negotiations for Belichick in 2000. Countless former players talk about how hard Parcells is hard to love while he’s coaching you. The same goes for fellow coaches and bosses.
“When it’s all said and done, people are going to look back and say, ‘Parcells meant a lot to me, and I didn’t even realize it until later on in life.’ That’s going to be his biggest legacy,” Chris Slade, the former Patriot who said in July 1997 that he wouldn’t have remained on Parcells’s team for $10 million per season, told Demasio. “He was a passionate guy. He cared about his players, and you learned probably more from Parcells than you learned from your father. I still sometimes hear his sayings in my head. I apply them to my everyday life, running my business, or even raising my children.”
After deciding in 1997 he couldn’t trust someone as close to Parcells as Belichick was, Kraft had a change of heart after three seasons of Carroll. Their relationship was forged in 1996, when the icy silence between Parcells and Kraft forced Belichick into intermediary, him growing to know and like an owner who thought and worked a lot like Belichick did.
“To me, what stood out [about Kraft] was his smarts,” said Belichick to Holley. “He instinctively had good thoughts on football, and he understood why something would or would not be a good idea. Whereas [Cleveland/Baltimore owner] Art [Modell] had that same curiosity, and he had no idea of why things might be happening. None.”
Trying to “if this never happens” history never works quite right, but when it looked like Jets boss Parcells might not free Belichick to go to the Patriots, Kraft interviewed University of Miami coach Butch Davis and Dom Capers as possible Carroll replacements. He was especially high, Holley reported, on Davis, whose lone pro job ended up a 24-36 run with the new Cleveland Browns. Capers, previously fired by Carolina, went 18-46 with the expansion Houston Texans after not landing in Foxborough.
Belichick considered becoming Miami’s defensive coordinator after Cleveland/Baltimore fired him, but he rejoined Parcells just in time for the latter’s belligerent know-it-allism to drive Belichick into one of the most rewarding professional relationships in the history of sport.
I’m not here to fault anyone who wants to vote a player from the Super Bowl-laden dynasty into the team’s Hall of Fame over any decades-old coach, especially one who left town under acrimonious circumstances. Should Parcells get in before Chuck Fairbanks — another guy who had a run of success with a previously awful team and left in ugly circumstances — or Raymond Berry? I don’t know.
I just know it’s hard to imagine anyone telling the story of the Patriots franchise without including when it was on its last legs, and snagged arguably the hottest free agent in the sport. Even if that free agent’s greatest act to save the franchise might’ve been leaving in a belligerent huff.
“It is the beginning of a new and exciting chapter in the history of the team,” Orthwein said in January 1993.
A short-term owner, but words that have long rung true.
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