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Giants mourn passing of former coach Jim Fassel

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Jim Fassel, who led the Giants to three playoff berths and a Super Bowl and mentored some of the franchise's greatest players in his seven seasons as the team's coach, has passed away. He was 71.

According to numerous reports, Fassel, who lived outside of Las Vegas, was taken to a hospital with chest pains and died of a heart attack while under sedation.

Fassel coached the Giants from 1997-2003. His 58 career regular-season victories are the fourth-highest total among the 19 coaches in the 96-year history of the franchise. He was named NFL Coach of the Year after his first season.

"On behalf of the Mara and Tisch families and our entire organization, I would like to express our condolences to the Fassel family and Jim's friends," Giants president and chief executive officer John Mara said. "We were all saddened to hear of Jim's passing. Jim was a good man and his record as our coach speaks for itself. Jim distinguished himself by the way he managed our team and devoted his efforts to the fire fighters and other families following the tragedy of 9-11. The players respected Jim and enjoyed playing for him and his coaching staff. And we appreciated his seven years of leading our team."

On Dec. 17, 2003, with two games remaining in what became a 4-12 year, Fassel announced he would resign after the season, knowing he would almost certainly have been fired had he not been proactive.

Fassel coached at the collegiate and professional levels for 30 years. He was the head coach at the University of Utah from 1985-89 and he coached in four different professional leagues (the World Football League, United States Football League, NFL and UFL). Fassel coached Pro Football Hall of Famer John Elway as an offensive coordinator at Stanford and with the Denver Broncos and he also had NFL stints with the Oakland Raiders and Arizona Cardinals. But it is his seven seasons with the Giants that Fassel most treasured.

"It was a great time, a great time," Fassel said in an interview at his home in Manhattan Beach, Calif. in 2014. "People ask me, 'Wasn't the media awful to you?' No, I'm friends with a lot of them. I respect the media. They have a job to do. I'll tell you what, I was with (five) different franchises (including Baltimore, where he served as an assistant post-Giants), but the Giants is how I learned to coach in the NFL, mainly from (the late general manager and Pro Football Hall of Famer) George Young. They run it right. They put the marbles in a row to win."

View photos of former head coach Jim Fassel, who led the Giants to three playoff berths and a Super Bowl.

The marbles were out of whack during the last two years of Dan Reeves' term as coach in 1995-96. While winning just 11 games in those two seasons, the Giants finished 29th and 30th in total yardage and 24th and 28th in points scored. Young had been impressed with Fassel during his stint as the Giants' offensive coordinator in 1991-92 and reached out to him to resurrect the team and specifically the offense.

Fassel's first Giants team started 1-3 – including a 27-point loss to a Jacksonville Jaguars team coached by Tom Coughlin, who succeeded him as coach of the Giants – before winning five consecutive games. The team hit its stride after rookie Danny Kanell replaced Dave Brown at quarterback and won the NFC East title with a 10-5-1 record. That included a 7-0-1 mark against Arizona, Dallas, Philadelphia and Washington, the only time in their history the Giants did not lose a division game.

"I was nervous before the season," Fassel said. "We were the only team in the NFL unanimously picked last in their division. Well, we ended up 10-5-1, the first team to go undefeated in the NFC East. How did we do it? We had a plus-25 turnover ratio, we were very stingy with the ball, we led the league in 10-play drives, but we weren't a high-scoring team. We just hogged the ball. Our defense got turnovers, we didn't turn the ball over and we let other teams beat themselves. That's still a formula that wins today."

The final chapter in the Giants' storybook season was dispiriting. Hosting the Minnesota Vikings in an NFC Wild Card Game, the Giants owned a 19-3 halftime lead and a nine-point advantage with less than two minutes to play. Minnesota quarterback Randall Cunningham threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Jake Reed with 1:30 remaining. The ensuing onside kick bounced off Giants wide receiver Chris Calloway and into the hands of Minnesota's Chris Walsh. In rapid succession, Cunningham completed a third-down pass to Cris Carter, Phillippi Sparks was penalized for pass interference and Robert Smith ran 16 yards up the middle to the Giants' five-yard line. That set up Eddie Murray's game-winning 24-yard field goal with just 10 ticks left on the clock.

"It was tough," Fassel said. "I had tougher losses than that, but that one hurt. And the thing is, they onside kicked and had to get the ball to have any chance. If you said, I hope they kick the ball to one guy, it would be Chris Calloway. He missed it. That's what sports are about. As hurtful as some losses are in coaching, it's why they play the game. That's why people like to watch, because you don't know how the ball is going to bounce. You don't know for sure who's going to win. But I couldn't get that out of my stomach for a long time."

After his debut season, Fassel was honored with at least 11 Coach of the Year awards.

"You don't get coach of the year for winning a Super Bowl," Fassel said. "You get the coach of the year because everybody's thinking you have a bad football team and you win. We were fortunate. It was more of an organizational thing. I didn't do that by myself. The head coach will take most all the blame and get most of the credit. I guess that's the way it is. But my coaches did a good job, George did a great job getting us personnel."

The Giants finished out of the playoffs the next two years with records of 8-8 in 1998 and 7-9 in 1999. The highlight of those two seasons occurred on Dec. 13, 1998, when the Giants upset the defending Super Bowl champion, the 13-0 Denver Broncos, 20-16, on Kent Graham's 37-yard touchdown pass to Amani Toomer with 48 seconds remaining.

Sixteen years later, Fassel vividly remembered the play.

"You mean trips right, 24 double go, crazy, Rodger?" he said. "I've still got that one in my mind. I told Kent, 'Don't read the coverage, throw it to Amani.' The secret to it was I needed to get four wide receivers on the field. Then they would have a dime coverage and I knew the guy I wanted to pick on (cornerback Tito Paul). That's why I just told him to throw it to Amani. I don't care what the coverage is, that's the corner we wanted to go after."

After those two seasons, rumors surfaced for the first time that Fassel was on the hot seat and that he had to reach postseason play in 2000 to keep his job.

He did better than that, leading the Giants to the NFC's No. 1 seed with a 12-4 record, a 41-0 demolition of Minnesota in the conference championship game and a berth in Super Bowl XXXV. The journey to get there was unlikely and unforgettable.

On November 12 and 19, the Giants lost home games to St. Louis and Detroit to fall to 7-4. With three of their final five games on the road, the Giants looked to be in trouble and the pressure on Fassel ratcheted up. No one could have predicted how Fassel would respond.

Three days after the loss to the Lions, Fassel delivered a startling performance at what was normally a pro forma news conference.

"This team is going to the playoffs," he declared to a room full of stunned reporters. "I believe in my players, I believe in my coaches and I believe in myself. I have a lot of confidence in myself. I have a lot of confidence in my coaches and I have a lot of confidence in the players and I have no fear. I came into this season with a lots of people wondering if I was worried about my job. I'm not worried about it, I'm not worried about the pressure. I've got no worries. I've got no fear. None. Zero. Count on it."

The Giants responded in their next game by routing the Cardinals in Arizona, 31-7. The following week they edged Washington, 9-7, to take control of the NFC East race. After Fassel's declaration, the Giants won their final five regular-season games to finish a game ahead of Philadelphia in the NFC East race. After defeating the Eagles in an NFC Divisional Playoff Game, the Giants annihilated the Vikings in the conference championship game.

"Without a doubt, in a big game, that was by far the best one of my teams ever played," Fassel said.

Did it all happen because of Fassel's guarantee?

"I needed to take control of the situation with the media, because they were going to control the thoughts of everybody," Fassel said. "I thought, 'I can't let the media control the thought of everything. I am in charge of this.' I said, 'I want you to get off my players' backs, I want you to get off my coaches' backs. If you don't like it, then I'm the man to target. Leave those people alone.' People think I rehearsed what I was going to say. I absolutely did not. I didn't know what I was going to say."

The dream run ended with a thud. Facing the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XXXV, the Giants fell into a 17-0 hole and did not score an offensive touchdown in a crushing 34-7 loss, their only defeat in five Super Bowl appearances.

"It was the best defense I ever coached against," Fassel said. "We had a hard time blocking them, even running routes on them. They had a bunch of guys in their prime on that defensive unit. I remember talking to Jon Gruden (whose Raiders lost to Baltimore in the AFC Championship Game). He said, 'Jim, what they look like on tape, they're 10 times better than that.'"

In 2001, the Giants lost five of their last seven games and slumped to 7-9. But football was only part of the job that season for Fassel, who was at the forefront of the Giants' efforts to help New York recover from the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

"(Former Mayor Rudy) Giuliani's office asked me if I would come over and just walk around and shake the hands and tell them that we're supporting all these guys," Fassel said. "I went over there three or four days afterward and it was unbelievable. You're standing there and this space is just wide open. I asked them, 'What am I going to do?' They said, 'You can cheer them up. People recognize you, you can just support them.' So I did. And it did work. That's how I first got involved with some firemen. Even the ones from out-of-state, mainly some from California recognized me and I stopped and talked to them. Those guys looked like they hadn't slept in days, they were dirty. I was just saying, 'Thanks guys for what you're doing here.' You try to do a little something for them."

In 2002, an overtime loss at home to Tennessee dropped the Giants to 6-6 and had the fans calling for Fassel's head. But as they had done two years before, the Giants got hot down the stretch, winning their final four games. A victory over Philadelphia on the season's final weekend clinched a wild card playoff berth.

But once again, the postseason ended in catastrophe. The Giants traveled to San Francisco for a wild card game and soared to a 38-14 lead. But they never scored again and fell, 39-38, when a snap on a potential game-winning field goal attempt was low. The Giants tried to salvage the play with the fire drill they practiced for such an occasion, but the officials declined to throw a flag when Rich Seubert was interfered with trying to catch what could have been a touchdown pass.

"I was really upset with that one," Fassel said. "The ball goes underground and the players executed perfectly - 'Fire, fire, fire' call. Everybody blocks, the two guys release, the kicker rolls out to the right, throws it to (Seubert) him and the guy tackles him. A flag comes and I'm thinking, 'They got it right and we'll get another chance from the one-yard line.' Then they called illegal receiver downfield. How do you miss that? That's not a judgment, that is somebody not paying attention, just absolute stupidity."

The following year, the Giants were 4-4 and two games out of the NFC East lead at midseason. But they lost their next game by 20 points at home to the Atlanta Falcons, a defeat that ignited a season-ending eight-game losing streak. On Dec. 17, after the sixth loss, Fassel and the Giants jointly announced he would not return to the team in 2004.

Fassel's regular-season record was 58-53-1 (.522) and 2-3 in the postseason. His 58 victories place him behind Steve Owen (153), Coughlin (102) and Bill Parcells (77) among Giants coaches. Owen and Parcells are Hall of Famers and Parcells and Coughlin each won a pair of Super Bowls.

Fassel coached some of the most prominent and greatest players in Giants history, including Hall of Fame defensive end Michael Strahan, the franchise leaders in rushing yards (Tiki Barber) and receptions (Amani Toomer), five-time Pro Bowl linebacker Jessie Armstead and quarterback Kerry Collins, whose five touchdown passes in the 2000 NFC Championship Game are a franchise postseason record.

After Fassel departed the Giants, it was widely assumed he would secure another head coaching job, but several interviews failed to produce an offer. In 2004, he was hired as a consultant by the Ravens and the following year was named their offensive coordinator. But Baltimore's offense remained ranked in the bottom third of the league and early in the 2006 season he had an unpleasant parting with head coach Brian Billick, who had been one of his closest friends.

After leaving Baltimore, Fassel spent two seasons as an NFL game analyst for Westwood One radio. But coaching was still in his blood. So in 2009, he became the head coach, general manager and president of the Las Vegas Locomotives of the now-defunct United Football League.

"We won the first two championships, we were in the championship game all three years and then the last year we were undefeated," Fassel said. "We had a good team. And I loved it, I loved that. It was a lot easier than being a head coach in the NFL." The league ceased operations in 2012.

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