Parcells coaching tree has many branches all over football
Bill Parcells mentees, Saints' Sean Payton and Giants' Tom Coughlin, meet Sunday
Parcells is famous for his nicknames and sayings such as, "You coach the team"
"I don't know where to start saying what I learned,'' the Giants' Coughlin said.
Bill Parcells occasionally sends New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin a pair of gray socks. That's it. Just a pair of gray socks in the mail. When Coughlin played football at Syracuse in the 1960s, the field was so muddy white socks couldn't be cleaned properly and cost too much to replace.
So players wore gray socks.
"I smile when I get them,'' Coughlin says. "What he's saying is, 'Don't forget your roots, who you are.'''
To New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton, Parcells gave the nickname, "Dennis," as in Dennis the Menace, because, "I had hair that spiked a little and stuck up in the back,'' Payton says.
Nicknames are Parcells' way with assistants, too. He called Bill Belichick, "Doom," during their years together because, as Parcells once said, "His glass was usually half-empty." Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland was, "Punxsutawney Jeff" in Dallas.
"He'd say, 'You general managers stick your head out of the ground every year in February and, if everything's clear, you come up,'" Ireland says.
Parcells University has a marquee reunion on Sunday, two graduates meeting in a match of undefeateds when Payton's Saints host Coughlin's Giants. The game doesn't just provide an early gauge of Super Bowl hopefuls. It also provides a porthole into one of the more fertile coaching trees the game has known.
Coughlin coached with Parcells with the New York Giants. Payton coached with Parcells in Dallas. And they come with stories of their mentor, good stories that drip with equal parts nostalgia, humanity, loyalty and closed-fist football sense, just like most of the products off his tree have.
Notre Dame's Charlie Weis tells of offering an unsolicited opinion in his first days at Giants training camp and hearing Parcells saying from the other end of a long table, "You've been in the league five minutes. Shut the hell up.'' Weis didn't talk again in a staff meeting for eight weeks.
Kansas City's Todd Haley tells of a sloppy Jets practice where Parcells pulled the coaches off the field, then had Haley spy on players through an office window. "He's saying, 'We've got no chance, Our players can't play,' and I'm seeing this and say, 'So we're going to give up?" Haley says. "He looks at me and says, 'Yeah, like you gave up when you couldn't putt.' (Haley tried to be a pro golfer). I thought he was going to punch me. Well, we went out and beat the Patriots and went 12-4 that year. He just seems to know what a team needs, like he has a sixth sense."
"The desk plate in front of me came from him,'' Virginia coach Al Groh says. "I'm looking at it now. 'You coach the team,' it says. Shortly after I'd become coach of the New York Jets, Bill came in, sat down and asked, 'Do you really care what people think?' I paused and said, 'Other than in matters of morality and integrity, probably not.' He said, 'Good, then you have a chance. Everyone's going to have an opinion on what you should do. Take all the opinions and information. Ultimately, you coach the team the way you need it to be coached.' It's served as good advice. When I've had players go on from here to be coaches, I give them a desk plate just like it, one with their new team colors that says just what this one does: 'You coach the team.' ''
It can get a bit confusing and awfully incestuous, assigning coaches to distinct trees. Payton, for instance, coached four years under Coughlin in New York before moving to Parcells for three years in Dallas. Belichick, like Parcells, also can claim Weis, former Cleveland coach Romeo Crennel and current Cleveland coach Eric Mangini.
But the bottom line is a Parcells guy has won four recent Super Bowls -- three by Belichick, one by Coughlin. Six are NFL head coaches (Belichick, Coughlin, Haley, Payton, Mangini and the Dolphins' Tony Sparano). Two are general managers (Ireland and Kansas City's Scott Pioli). Two others are major college head coaches (Weis and Groh).
There have been fallouts. Parcells and Belichick had an ugly one across a couple of franchises. In Belichick's biography written by David Halberstam, Belichick says, "We're different, and I'm not saying one's better or worse, but the biggest thing I'd say about Bill is he never lost sight of the big picture, of winning."
If there's a uniting force inside this circle, it's how they started like their mentor did: From the bottom. Parcells began at Hastings (Neb.) College, washing uniforms between coaching players in them. Each of his guys came up in a similarly hardscrabble manner, dedicated more to craft than the accompanying fame.
Another uniting force is what they learned from him. Take the two undefeated coaches meeting Sunday.
"Every day with him was law school,'' says Payton.
"I don't know where to start saying what I learned,'' Coughlin said.
"Probably the one thing I learned from him that I needed most -- confrontation isn't a bad thing,'' Payton says.
"I learned to win from him,'' Coughlin says. "The Redskins were a tremendous rival of ours. They had an outstanding defense and one time we literally went down there with our entire offense consisting of three-step drops, quick slants, fades and a running game. I'm thinking, 'Holy smokes, how're we going to win?' We won the game. It was a revelation to me. It was an example of knowing your opponent and not going overboard with your thinking.''
"He taught me the importance of reducing the quantity of offense,'' Payton says. "During the offseason, you work on the index of runs and passes. These are the plays we want to be good at. We'd spend weeks on that list. Weeks. Then at some point in the spring, he'd laminate the list. That'd be it. Those were the plays we were going to work on being good at. No more were added. More is not better.''
Beyond the wins and losses, the X's and O's, Parcells' force-of-nature personality is what the assistants take away. It's not just the tough-guy persona assigned to Parcells, either. When Parcells left Dallas, Ireland gave him a baseball bat etched with favorite Parcells-isms.
"'One wrong, all wrong' is one that stuck with me,'' Ireland said. "I use it in meetings. You need to be on the same page in an organization, and when the one of us makes a mistake, we all do.''
"I like, 'If he doesn't bite as a puppy, he won't bite' -- saying if a rookie doesn't do something right away he might not ever,'' Sparano says.
"'He's like a ball in high grass -- lost,''' Belichick says.
"He has a line for every position - 'Small corners with great skills can play; small corners with good skills are targets,''' Payton says.
"He uses a couple lines from his dad,'' Dolphins offensive coordinator Dan Henning says. "'It's darkest just before it goes pitch black.' And, 'Big cigars and motor cars.' That refers to someone who's head's gotten too big. If a player's getting like that, Bill and I just say, 'Big cigars and motor cars.'''
"'He needs a year in Joplin,' ' Weis says. "Sometimes I'll say that in a staff meeting and everyone looks at me, like, 'What's he talking about?' It was a Mickey Mantle analogy. Bill's a baseball fan and when Mantle wasn't quite ready for the big leagues he needed a year in Joplin to develop.''
"He'll say, 'I want beavers,''' Ireland says. "When you ask what that means, he'll say, 'What's a beaver do?' 'Chop down trees.' 'What else does it do?' 'Well, nothing. It just chops trees.' 'That's why I want beavers.' He wants guys who just think football.''
"I use so many lines and do so many things like Bill I don't even realize it,'' Haley says. "Mo Carthon and Dedric Ward were with Bill and are on my staff. Mo said after one staff meeting, 'I was looking down, listening, and had to look up to see who was talking. You sound just like Parcells.' I took that as a great compliment."
Parcells has said one of his fears as he ages is not having any guys around him. He's always had guys he's coached with and coached up. At 67, he's got the Dolphins guys around him as the franchise's football czar.
He's also got franchisees around the country. Two seasons ago, Coughlin and Belichick met in the Super Bowl. On Sunday, it's Coughlin and Payton to measure who sits at the front of the class.
Dave Hyde is a columnist for the South Florida Sun Sentinel. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
NFL Truth & Rumors