Even the strongest know this: Though the journey with Parcells will probably lead to victory, you'd better bring earplugs. "I have nothing but great things to say about the man as a coach," says quarterback Jeff Hostetler, who backed up Simms for three seasons under Parcells and led the Giants to victory in Super Bowl XXV, "but I didn't enjoy one minute of my time with him. I know that sounds strange, but that's how it is when you're around Bill Parcells."
Parcells is at an age, 57, when some men, even some coaches, start to mellow. Not him. He says he's less tolerant of mistakes now than he was a decade ago. After New York lost to the lowly Indianapolis Colts 24-23 on Nov. 15, one Jet marveled, "I'd never seen a coach even close to being that mad." Thinking of Parcells's health, someone close to him frets that "he could never tolerate losing, and it's getting worse." In the early 1990s Parcells had four heart procedures, the last a bypass, and cardiac concerns were at least part of the reason he left the Giants after the second Super Bowl season. He still gets palpitations on the sidelines from time to time, and one can't help thinking about something he said after a playoff loss eight years ago: "This game is going to kill me yet."
Still, Parcells looks good. After his heart ailments he kicked cigarettes cold turkey (and is now messianic in spreading the nonsmoking gospel), rarely drinks, works out almost daily on a treadmill and no longer eats peanut butter by the bowl, as he used to at the Giants training table. The close-cropped hair that stays in place even during tantrums (he may mousse, but unlike Miami Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson, he doesn't lacquer) is mostly gray but, in certain light, seems to have a little blond in it. At 6'3" and about 230 pounds, he's a big man—those unflattering coaching shorts seem to have been manufactured with Parcells in mind—but more formidable than fleshy. (It's worth recalling that Parcells's nickname, Tuna, doesn't refer to his bulk. He was so dubbed when he was linebackers coach for New England in 1980 and thought a player was trying to pull something over on him. "Who do you think I am, Charlie the Tuna?" he said. Though the nickname appears regularly in New York newspapers, almost no one outside of the media refers to him as Tuna.) His playing resume lists quarterback (at River Dell High in Oradell, N.J.) and linebacker (at Colgate for one season and Wichita State for three), not defensive tackle or center, and he was an excellent baseball player (pitcher, catcher and first baseman) and basketball player (power forward) in high school too.
Peel 40 years off his face and 40 pounds off the rest of him, and there's the kid who stares out at you from photos in the albums of Mickey Corcoran, Parcells's basketball coach at River Dell High. That kid looks like a Biff, a jock in a letter sweater who leans confidently, arms folded, against a 1956 Ford, his first car. When you approach Biff, he might throw a big paw around your neck or he might kick your ass, but you want Biff to like you. Parcells is Biff on the back nine of his life. As intimidating as he can be, there's something in his regular-Joe, Jersey-guy nature that draws people to him. From time to time he flashes a wide smile, disarming in its unexpectedness, that lights up the room. Look at some photos of Vince Lombardi (Corcoran's basketball coach at St. Cecilia High in Englewood, N.J., by the way), and you'll see the same over-the-top, 500-watt grin.
Yes, Parcells is a big man who casts a big shadow—Giants and Patriots coaches who have succeeded him are doomed to shiver under it until they win a Super Bowl—and has big flaws. He asks eternal fealty from those around him but doesn't always give that himself. With one year left on his contract with the Patriots, he bolted to the Jets a month after losing to the Green Bay Packers in the 1997 Super Bowl. The Patriots protested to the league office, and commissioner Paul Tagliabue ruled that Parcells could go to New York but that the Jets owed New England four compensatory draft choices over the next three seasons. Years earlier, after his first Super Bowl win, Parcells had considered bolting to the Atlanta Falcons, but the league refused to let him break his contract with the Giants. He will admit to being "restless, but that's not necessarily a bad thing." Unless you're trying to figure out if he's going to coach your football team. One of his Giants players said that, if Parcells "was named king of the world on Sunday, he'd be unhappy by Tuesday."
Happily or not, Parcells will probably finish his career with the Jets. He has a six-year, $14-4 million deal, and a much-talked-about scenario has him working the sidelines for another couple of seasons and then handing the coaching job to Bill Belichick, the Jets' assistant head coach, and retreating to the front office. (Could there be any more stomach-gurgling job in sports than coaching with Parcells looking over your shoulder?) After a couple of years of that, Parcells would turn out the lights and spend his days playing golf at his club (Due Process in Colts Neck, N.J.), hanging around the racetrack with buddies like nationally renowned trainer Shug McGaughey and maybe being involved with a team in minor league baseball, another of his passions. Although he has no hobbies outside sports and no discernible domestic skills ("I can't change a lightbulb"), Parcells claims he will have no trouble walking away. Maurice Carthon, a former Giants running back who's now the Jets' running backs coach, thinks that would be a mistake. "Shoot," says Carthon, "if I was as good as that man, I'd coach football forever."
After much parrying and jousting, Parcells agrees to a 20-minute interview—"and 20 minutes only"—at his office in the Jets' complex at Hofstra. It's important for Parcells to get out the message that he does not court publicity. Consider it sent. One of his closest friends is Mike Francesa, a talk-show host on WFAN, New York's all-sports radio station, and Parcells has been a guest on Francesa's program four times. As a successful coach in the Big Apple, Parcells is by definition in the spotlight, and though he would never admit it, he enjoys the attention, to an extent. He even likes the give-and-take (mostly give) with the New York press that during the season goes on four times a week at Jets headquarters, and his antipathy toward journalists never reaches the one-step-from-the-nuthouse level of Knight's, another one of his close friends. But Parcells meets the press the same way he meets everything: on his terms. To one question during the 20-minute session he provides the memorable answer, "Well, if you were to ask my wife, and you won't be, by the way...." Indeed, quotes from Judy, Bill's wife of 36 years, come around with the regularity of comets. One of his three daughters, 29-year-old Jill, is SI's events marketing manager, and, for this story she spoke only sparingly and not for the record. Dallas, 33, is in the marketing department of an electronics firm and Suzy, 36, is a mother and part-time dental hygienist.
It's suggested at the outset of this clock-is-running session that the main reason Parcells has been successful (he has won 58% of the 220 NFL games he has coached in 14 seasons with three franchises) is that, to a greater degree than any other coach, he's comfortable joking with his players and just as comfortable questioning their manhood 15 minutes later. In other words, he's both a player's coach and a toe-the-line disciplinarian.
Parcells waves off this premise as soon as it is presented. "Look, coaching is about human interaction and trying to know your players," he says. "Any coach would tell you that. I'm no different." He's wrong about that. He's better at it than most. Brad Benson, who played tackle for Parcells on the Giants, has said it best: "The unique thing about Coach Parcells is that he has a self-security. He can be a player's coach, yet when we get back in that locker room and he has to regain control of the team, he can do that."
Parcells agrees that there's a connection between the way he relates to players and the way he rants at them. Endless streams of words. Cutting words, delivered with a smile and a pat on the back on the one hand, with a red face and a jabbing finger on the other. He steadfastly refuses to offer any of his coaching tenets save for this one: "If you're sensitive, you will have a hard time with me."