NEW ORLEANS — Bob Kraft is the benevolent, all-powerful NFL owner, overseeing an infinite string of sellouts and success. Bill Belichick is the strategic mastermind, drawing comparisons with Vince Lombardi. Tom Brady is one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the league.
They are the holy trinity of New England football.
But they did not invent the winning culture of the New England Patriots.
It was Bill Parcells.
The estimable Tuna is up for the Hall of Fame again this year. It’s not something he talks about — that would bring bad luck — but Parcells would be a proud and happy guy if he hears his name Saturday when the men in the smoke-filled room announce the Canton Class of 2013.
Parcells was nominated last year, but did not gain entry. He knows that it’s a highly political process and he made his share of enemies while winning two Super Bowls, coaching four teams to the playoffs, and rebuilding five franchises.
The man did great work with the Giants, Jets, Cowboys, and Dolphins, but the Patriots might have been his best job.
Pay attention Patriots fans: As much as the Krafts would like to get credit for all the good things that have happened to the franchise in the last 20 years, it was Bill Parcells — not Bob, Jonathan, Hoodie, or Tom — who changed the culture of the Patriots. Parcells is the one who got fans interested in the team again. Parcells is the one who put together the team that forced folks to take the Patriots seriously. The passage of time and the Krafts’ insatiable hunger to be credited with everything good has dimmed fans’ memories of Parcells’s impact. Along with Walter Brown and Dick O’Connell, Parcells is one of the most unappreciated individuals in New England sports history.
Foxborough was a clown show when Parcells arrived for the 1993 season. The Patriots were the worst team in football and ranked a distant fourth in popularity among local teams. We either laughed at them or ignored them.
Getting Parcells changed everything. It gave the Patriots instant credibility.
“I know in our case what he did was the first step in bringing credibility to the Patriots,” Bob Kraft acknowledged Friday at the New Orleans Convention Center. “There was a lot of hope around that . . . I hope he does [get in the Hall of Fame], he deserves it.”
The Tuna had been in retirement for a couple of years after winning those two Super Bowls with the Giants and it was something of a shock when he was hired by frugal owner James Orthwein for the 1993 season.
“We weren’t at the bottom,’’ said Parcells. “We were the bottom. But the players deserve a chance to win. It’s their blood, their bodies.
“I had six or seven good players. Kevin Turner, Sam Gash, Ben Coates, Bruce Armstrong, Ray Agnew, Vincent Brown. We had a few good players and I’m not naming them all, but we got some more guys pretty quickly.’’
Parcells’s first big move was to draft Drew Bledsoe, another individual whose achievements have been virtually (and unfairly) erased by Patriots officials and fans with short memories.
Parcells and Bledsoe took their lumps in that first season (Orthwein didn’t want to spend any money and general manager Pat Forte was in over his head), but the pieces were in place when Kraft stepped forward and bought the team in January 1994.
“I was pretty antagonistic,’’ admitted Parcells. “Because before Kraft came in, I had been through a lot and we had to get rid of good players because we weren’t going to pay them. The guy who saved me in that organization was Bucko Kilroy. He was a great help. We had to trade high-priced players and get picks, and some of those picks wound up being helpful.’’
The ’94 Patriots finished 10-6 and made the playoffs before being eliminated by Belichick’s Cleveland Browns on New Year’s Day, 1995.
Two years later, the Patriots were in the Super Bowl.
In New Orleans.
Against the Packers.
One week before the big game, the late, great Will McDonough reported that Parcells would quit the team after the game.
“That pissed me off,’’ said Parcells, who was a close friend of McDonough’s. “It’s the same stuff that always happens. It was bad in some respects, but that’s a reporter’s job. There were a lot of things that probably I’d like to have done differently.’’
New England lost Super Bowl XXXI, 35-21, and Parcells did not fly home with the team. He was off to coach the Jets. A lot of Patriots fans never forgave him.
“I didn’t fly home with the team, but I didn’t view that as anything really unusual,’’ said the Tuna. “There were several cases in my coaching career where I didn’t fly home with teams. I didn’t think it was anything completely unusual, but I guess under the circumstances, people interpreted that as something.’’
He had dinner with Belichick Tuesday night.
“He’s obviously disappointed in this year, but not despondent,” said Parcells. “He’s determined, like he always is. They have a good team. They’re going to be good for a while longer, I can tell you that.’’
The Tuna disputed the notion that the Patriots have become too much of a finesse team.
“No!’’ said Parcells. “Who says that? They ran the ball good this year. I don’t know what happened in the playoffs, but here’s what I say to you guys in New England: You guys are spoiled. Really, you are. You’ve got to remember how the other half lives. You forgot. I was there for it, so I know. Just remember, you could be like some of these other franchises that you see. You got a couple of ’em in your division.’’
He has made his peace with Bob Kraft.
“That’s over with,’’ said Parcells. “It’s been over for a long time. We’re both at the age where we don’t have time for these things. There are a lot of things that I would do differently. I was very sad to leave New England. I put a lot of blood in that team. That was a Super Bowl team and we were young. Come on. We had a pretty good club there. We had a good group of players.’’
Parcells had one last request before getting off the phone.
“See if you can get those Red Sox out of the second division, will ya?’’