Plenty of tangible ways to judge football coaches exist — wins, playoff wins and Lombardis. And former Giants, Patriots, Jets and Cowboys coach Bill Parcells certainly has all of them, with each likely to feature prominently in speechifying on this, his Hall of Fame induction weekend.
They will toast the NFC Championship win in San Francisco, that second year with the Giants after he almost got fired, how he got a Dallas team quarterbacked by Quincy Carter to the playoffs, how he left everywhere he went a little bit better, how he pushed just enough and the right buttons to help the Giants win Super Bowls XXI and XXV.
Not everything that matters can be counted, though, and the most important things rarely are, which is too bad because the bulk of Parcells’ genius was in pushing buttons, planting inspirational seeds and leaving lasting impressions.
When the Cowboys hired Parcells, I was tasked with writing a profile on him. What I soon discovered, calling players from his days as a lowly assistant at Texas Tech, Vanderbilt and Army, with the Giants and Jets, was how many guys told stories of how he influenced their lives, how years later when confronted with tragedy or challenges they reflected back on words Parcells uttered in a football moment.
“Why not us?”
“Burn the boats.”
“Don’t eat the cheese.”
“People always show you who they are. Listen.”
He repeated all of them, or some variation thereof, at almost all of his stops. They went beyond game plans and even what he needed right then in that moment. These were life philosophies, and everybody who heard them walked away changed in some way.
In Vegas recently, I bumped into a former Cowboys player. He had not been a particular fan of Parcells, actually had been influenced by Terrell Owens’ mutiny. When I asked, though, how he was doing, he talked of being good financially, how Parcells had pulled him aside early on and asked what he was doing with his money. He proceeded to give him a speech about living off his game check, saving his bonuses and then living off the interest. It stuck.
That was the thing with Parcells, how he could be yelling and screaming and pushing buttons and making you hate him and having you dog cuss him, yet leave you walking away strangely inspired. This was, is and remains his gift. He coached life, not from some fake bully pulpit of perfection like so many nowadays. He was flawed, almost fatally so, with his intensity and tendencies towards excess in everything. That he did not cover this up made him authentic and his message much more likely to stick. Even the players who hated him learned from him, found themselves quoting him years later, discovered that time had softened what at the time seemed intolerable.
It was a refrain repeated by Simms and Glenn and Woodson.
It was not simply the stories, though I have found myself over the years rousing myself to the challenge with his “Burn the boats” and “game quitters.” What he did better than anybody was building teams. He got these locker rooms with all of their divergent personalities believing they needed each other, that they were all in this together, that their common goal was worth any sacrifice, any struggle, any amount of his BS. He believed in and loved confrontation, constantly going into and after his best players to get a little more and then a little more and then more, never quite satisfied. He was a stand for their greatness. He did this so well that even now, years later, those guys still call the old coach and ask his advice or they just repeat things he said.
There have been criticisms of Parcells over the years, especially toward the end about how he did not win, did not win without Bill Belichick, how he stayed too long or for the money. It was meant to diminish him. He tried to limit his influence and reach to those tangible ways. And Parcells might do the same. This was the guy who loved to say, “Don’t tell me about the labor, just show me the baby.”
What all of this misses was the real legacy of Parcells, the frustrating, inspiring, imprint he made on the players he coached and random people he touched along his path by coaching life.