Remembering his roots
Fassel acknowledges former college coach Sherbeck
POLSON, Mont. (AP) -- When he was a scrappy junior college quarterback, yearning for someone to show confidence in him, Hal Sherbeck was there.
When he was stuck in a sales job he hated after college, adrift without football, Hal Sherbeck was there.
When he was fired from his first head coaching job, doubting his ability or desire to ever make his mark, Hal Sherbeck was there.
And when he reached the pinnacle of his career on Jan. 14, guiding the New York Giants to the Super Bowl with a stunning 41-0 NFC Championship victory against the Minnesota Vikings, Jim Fassel picked up a phone in the locker room and dialed a house on the west shore of Flathead Lake in far-off Montana. Because he knew Hal Sherbeck would be there.
The 72-year-old Sherbeck, a Big Sandy, Mont., native who starred for the Montana Grizzlies and guided Missoula County High School to three state football championships, had cried tears of joy, watching the game in his den. He watched as Fassell, drenched in Gatorade, was carried in triumph on the shoulders of the Giants.
Then the phone rang and a familiar voice was on the other end of the line, cutting through the background sounds of celebration at Giants Stadium.
"It's all thanks to you, coach," Jim Fassel said, acknowledging the debt of a lifetime. "Think you can make it to the Super Bowl?"
Hal Sherbeck found it difficult to speak, his throat was so choked up. But he managed to say yes, he'd be there.
Bill Walsh once said everything changes for a coach once he reaches the Super Bowl, just as, inevitably, things change for everyone in his orbit.
So it is for Hal and Donna Sherbeck, whose Polson phone number has found its way into the hands of sportswriters from New York to Florida.
"I guess after 50 years I'm being discovered," Sherbeck said with a laugh.
A coaching lifer, Sherbeck found a secure home at Fullerton (Calif.) College, just outside Los Angeles, where he became the winningest junior college coach in the nation. He built a 241-71-8 record in 31 seasons from 1961-91. His players included Fassel; Brig Owens, a defensive mainstay on George Allen's Washington Redskins teams; and longtime NFL quarterback Steve DeBerg.
Fassel played on Sherbeck's 1967 national championship team. In the summer, he was listed eighth out of nine quarterbacks on the depth chart. But he worked his way up the list and at the end of the regular season, in a showdown against unbeaten Orange Coast College, Sherbeck decided, after watching Fassel in warm-ups, to give the young man his chance.
"I called Jim over just before we went out on the field to tell him he was starting," Sherbeck recalled. "All he said was: 'Thank you. You won't be sorry.'"
Fassel passed for four touchdowns and more than 300 yards in a 41-0 victory.
As Sherbeck sat in his den last weekend, watching Giants quarterback Kerry Collins post similarly dazzling numbers in another 41-0 victory, time seemed suspended.
"All I could think was Kerry Collins looked just like his coach, like a young Jim Fassel," Sherbeck said.
Fassel never forgot another lesson from that 1967 season. When told that he could only dress 60 of his 100 players for the title game, Sherbeck threatened to forfeit. The game officials relented, and Fassel learned how players will respond for a coach who fights for them.
Last November, with his job on the line, Fassel guaranteed that his 7-4 Giants would rebound from two consecutive losses and make the playoffs.
"Get off my coaches' backs. Get off the players' backs. I'm responsible for the whole thing," Fassel told the assembled media. "If you've got crosshairs, if you've got the laser, you can put it right on my chest. ... This team is going to the playoffs."
The Giants haven't lost since.
"That was totally in character. He was showing the fire within him," Sherbeck said. "He's always been competitive. And there was an underlying principle there. He believed in his play ers, and everyone was going to know it."
Sherbeck hired Fassel as a volunteer assistant in 1973, giving the former quarterback his first coaching job. That began a nomadic career, during which Fassel never made an important choice without first consulting Sherbeck. Over the years, Sherbeck penned long, supportive letters as Fassel built a reputation for molding quarterbacks, first at Stanford and Utah, then as an NFL assistant before being named the Giants' head coach in 1997.
Fassel, however, almost gave up his coaching dreams after being fired, after four seasons, as the head coach at Utah in 1989.
"I told him that at that level, you're going to get fired," Sherbeck said. "I also told him I believed in him, that it was important that he follow his heart."
Fassel spent a year on the sidelines, decided he missed coaching, and plunged back into the grind. The Giants hired Fassel as their quarterbacks coach in 1991, launching him on the road that will culminate Sunday in Tampa, Fla., against the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XXXV.
While Fassel headed east to New York, the Sherbecks headed north, back to their native Montana, to spend retirement in a house with a beautiful view of Flathead Lake.
Fassel came to Polson last summer to relax, play some golf and touch bases with his mentor. Sherbeck said Fassel knew he had to get the Giants to the playoffs to retain his job, but he was confident that goal was attainable.
Sherbeck also said that Fassel loved the lake, enough to consider buying property in the area.
In the wake of the Giants' NFC triumph, Fassel said it was natural to invite Sherbeck to the Super Bowl.
"He really got me started in coaching," Fassel told the Long Island newspaper, Newsday. "There are just some people who have been a big part of my life, and they're all coming to this game."
So they'll get together again, this weekend, on the gaudiest stage American sport can offer. The guy from Big Sandy promises he'll try to keep his jaw dropping to a minimum.
Asked what he'll do when he sees Fassel, Sherbeck said: "Give him a big hug, and tell him I love him."
Sherbeck said he can't help feeling emotional about the whole deal.
"Here's a guy who played for you, who seven weeks ago looked like he was going to be fired," Sherbeck said.
"You work with a lot of young men, and the most important thing is to see them go on and be successful," Sherbeck added. "For Jim to think of calling me the way he did, and now inviting me down there [to the Super Bowl] as his guest, that says everything about his values."
The fact that Jim Fassel kept plugging, through doubt and disappointment, to coach in the biggest game of them all, says everything about Hal Sherbeck.