2013 NFL Hall of Fame induction ceremony at 7 PM EST on ESPN2 or the NFL Network.
Later today, Duane Charles "Bill" Parcells (aka the "Big Tuna") will enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame, joining a select group of coaches to have busts in Canton. Most of the coaches in this esteemed company are associated with one organization; Joe Gibbs with the Redskins, John Madden with the Raiders, or Tom Landry with the Cowboys, for example. Parcells is unusual in that he coached, and met with success, for four different teams.
What is most remarkable about Parcells career is his success in reviving moribund franchises. In New York, where the Giants had enjoyed only three winning seasons in 19 years, his teams won three division titles (1986, 1989, 1990), tallied an 8-3 playoff record and brought home two Lombardi Trophies. His next coaching stop was in New England. The Pats had gone 14-50 in the past four seasons; in year four, Parcells had them in the Super Bowl. A return to New York, this time with the Jets, followed a similar script: he turned around a team that had gone 4-28 in two previous seasons, and, two years later (in 1998), lead them to the most wins in franchise history and the brink of a Super Bowl appearance.
In 2003, he took over as the coach of a Cowboys team coming off consecutive 5-11 seasons. Dallas was an aging squad; what big names they did have were former stars on the downside of their careers. And there was no young help waiting in the wings: the team had traded away first round picks in 2000 and 2001 for wide receiver Joey Galloway, and hadn't done much with the choices they did have, spending high picks on washouts Solomon Page, Dwayne Goodrich, Quincy Carter and Tony Dixon, among others. Simply put, a once-proud franchise had, both on and off the field, become a losing organization.
The Cowboys needed a total cultural overhaul, and that is exactly what Parcells provided. Although his record with the team wasn't particularly impressive (34-30 in four seasons), when he left they were not only a better team on the field, notching an NFC-best 13-3 record in 2007, but also a better one in the clubhouse and front office. Parcells did away with the players' entitled attitudes, famously making the offense run to the fence when a player didn't know his assignment during their first minicamp practice, and instituting the now-prevalent tradition of having rookies "earn" the stars on their helmets.
More importantly, he cleaned house at the institutional level, revamping the college and pro personnel offices, insisting that coaches and scouts be on the same page in terms of the kind of player profiles the team valued. A year or two in, he fired longstanding head of scouting Larry Lacewell and replaced him with smart, young up-and-comer Jeff Ireland and promoted intelligent grinders like current player personnel director Tom Ciskowski. And, instead of Goodrich and Carter, the team began to draft players like Terence Newman, Jason Witten and DeMarcus Ware.
Indeed, the veteran core of the 2013 Dallas Cowboys is still composed of players Parcells brought to Dallas: Tony Romo, Witten, Ware, Miles Austin, L.P Ladouceur, Jay Ratliff, Jason Hatcher. It's these guys who Jason Garrett indirectly referenced in his opening speech to the players, when he talked about leadership. And, indeed, it's these guys who have held the younger players responsible during the first two weeks of camp.
Even though the terminology wasn't his, Parcells won by bringing "RKG"s into whatever organization he was a part of. Garrett may reference Witten as the ultimate RKG (and he is), but it was Parcells who taught the young tight end how to be one. And now, a generation of "Parcells' guys" are teaching the next generation of Cowboys stars how to be mentally tough, how to conduct themselves professionally, etc. So, even though he folded his tent after the 2006 season, Parcells' legacy lives on.
Parcells was not for the faint of heart. He was tough, and had high expectations. Miles Austin, who he brought to the team in 2006, recalls,
He was always hard on me. Todd Haley was our receivers coach and he made sure Todd was always hard on me. I remember we played a game in Atlanta and I broke my hand...and he's like, ‘Miles, get back in there. Tape it up.' They literally gave me like an Advil essentially and taped me back up and played the game. But it's one of the things you're glad you did it later...Those are the coaches you look at that you remember and feel a great way toward because they're the ones that helped you through adversity.
As Austin's story suggests, Parcells insisted on toughness. In his rookie season, Julius Jones suffered a broken shoulder blade in a week two contest against Cleveland, but didn't leave the game because he was afraid Parcells wouldn't think he was tough. He couldn't raise his arm to make a reception, but kept playing until trainers pulled him for an injury that ultimately sidelined him for eight weeks.
More than anything, Parcells' success was derived from his ability to find (and to push!) the button that would motivate each player to such a degree that he wouldn't want to come out of the game even with a broken scapula. These buttons were more psychological than physical. Jay Ratliff recalls that, on draft day, Parcells appeared to be unenthusiastic about selecting him. As he recalls the draft day call from the Cowboys' war room:
I don't remember what Jerry [Jones] said, but I remember Bill getting on the phone and he says, ‘Well, I guess we're going to draft you,' and in my mind I'm like, ‘You guess?' I was like, ‘Well, Coach, I appreciate the opportunity,' and he's like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, you'll get a fair shot,' and he hung up the phone.
Parcells' seeming disinterest and the desire to prove him wrong, Ratliff reports, has been his motivation ever since.
Although he could be gruff, cold, openly confrontational or baldly manipulative, Parcells also had a loving side, which manifest in his ability to bond with players. He was famous for making the rounds each day, talking to his guys about their hopes, their families, and their lives after football. When he arrived in Dallas, there was an underachieving defensive tackle on the roster named Willie Blade. Parcells took a liking to Blade (and his untapped potential) and got on the phone to Blade's father, back in Georgia, asking the senior Blade to join him in getting Willie in better condition. For a year, it worked; Blade started at DT, and made some important contributions in the interior of the 2003 Cowboys' top-ranked defense.
In short, Parcells' gruffness was always tempered by a fatherly concern for his players' wellbeing. In 2003, his rookie year, Jason Witten broke his jaw in a game, and it had to be wired shut. His first day back at the Ranch, Parcells sought him out in the trainer's room, telling him, "I've seen guys go through this and the big thing is keeping weight on and your stamina up. You'll be OK. I went to the store and I got you this." Parcells reached into his pocket and pulled out two jars of baby food, telling Witten to go to the store and load up on them, because "There's good calories, good fat. It'll keep your weight on." Parcells, Witten remembers, did this because he believed that the rookie TE could come back and play the next week. And of course, he did - in part because of two jars of baby food.
Parcells wasn't an Xs and Os guy; indeed, he collected top offensive and defensive minds, guys like Sean Peyton, Pete Carroll, Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin, and let them do the creative scheming. That's one of many reasons his coaching tree is so impressive: he taught guys with terrific football minds how to handle players. Indeed, as the above stories attest, his particular genius was in finding ways to make players mentally tough, helping them to believe in themselves, and teaching them how to be better professionals, sons and fathers.
Jason Hatcher sums it up when he says of Parcells, "if not for that guy, I wouldn't be here. That's one of the best coaches I ever had."
And now the Big Tuna will be wearing a big yellow jacket.