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.
After those two seasons with the Giants, 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.
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.
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.
NFL free agency has evolved into a mix of blind dates and musical chairs.
Teams often commit millions of dollars to players without meeting face to face – a practice conducted even before the pandemic – at the risk of being the last one standing. The Giants, however, did it differently this year. Their relatively long courtship of free agents like Kenny Golladay, regarded as the top wide receiver on the market, was well-documented as they wined, dined, and ultimately signed.
“We had them in here and it was an old-school free agency,” general manager Dave Gettleman said Tuesday. “We got to talk, a chance to visit with them, they went out to dinner with various people in the organization, they were here a couple of nights, our doctors were able to put their hands on them. It was an old-fashioned free agency.”
“It wasn’t just our decision, the players wanted to come in as well,” vice president of football operations and assistant general manager Kevin Abrams said. “Both parties wanted to have the visit.”
The result was a free-agent class that surprised everyone but the people in the building.
“We got a pretty good understanding of what they’re about and that, to me, was a big advantage,” team president and chief executive officer John Mara said a few weeks ago when the dust settled after the first wave of free agency. “It’s much more difficult to do this when you can’t get the guys in the building and you have to make a commitment to a large amount of money without getting a chance to eye them up and talk to them and get a feel for them. I was happy that we were able to do that this year. It made it easier to give the final okay to say, ‘Yeah, go ahead, get the thing signed.’”
Mara described the approach as “thorough” in the recruiting cycle, stemming from the philosophy that fit supersedes skill when building a team. There was also a tangible reason to bring prospective players in for a visit: medical examination.
In 2020, Golladay missed Weeks 2 and 3 with a hamstring injury and the final nine games with a hip flexor strain.
“Well, you bring him in because you want to get a physical on him,” Gettleman said. “That was the biggest reason, get a physical on him. But it was nice for a change to get to know a guy and have that opportunity to do that. Like I said, it was like the old days. The biggest reason was the physical.”
Meanwhile, a medical check of Kyle Rudolph, who signed with the Giants after a decade in Minnesota, revealed the need for the two-time Pro Bowl tight end to undergo a procedure to repair a foot injury stemming from last season.
Despite the discovery coming after he had agreed to terms, the Giants felt confident to follow through with the signing. “Once he went through all the medical evaluations, we didn’t think that it was necessary [to adjust the contract],” Abrams said.
“We are the Giants, we’re going to do everything with class,” Gettleman said. “We had an agreement, [head athletic trainer] Ronnie [Barnes] signed off on it, [head team physician] Doc [Scott] Rodeo signed off on it, so we were fine.”
While people like to count the dollars spent, how does the front office quantify how much they improved in free agency?
“From my opinion, and I think Dave would agree, I think our roster is a lot better now than it was at the end of the season,” Abrams said. “And the offseason is not over yet, so we’ll still have more opportunities to add players. So, I think we feel good with what we’ve done. I think we’re a deeper, more talented team.”
“You know, you can’t quantify it,” Gettleman said. “It’s not going to be quantified until the fall and we start playing in September. But we feel very good about what we’ve done, we feel very good about the direction the team is taking with getting Kenny signed and Kyle Rudolph and Devontae Booker and Adoree’ Jackson and Leo. We feel really great about that and we really feel we’re building a solid football team that the fans can be proud of.”
And they’re not done yet. The Giants hold six picks in next week’s draft, starting with the No. 11 overall selection.
Courtesy: Dan Salomone/Giants