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Dan Shaughnessy

Bill Parcells reflects on his Patriots years

Bill Parcells helped change the trajectory of the Patriots franchise during his four-year stint as head coach in the 1990s.

Evan Richman/Globe Photo

Bill Parcells helped change the trajectory of the Patriots franchise during his four-year stint as head coach in the 1990s.

Bill Parcells takes his rightful place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend, and there will be noise about his two Super Bowl championships with the New York Giants (remember Scott Norwood and wide right?), and his rebuilding of the Jets, Cowboys, and Dolphins. Parcells is the only man in NFL history to lead four franchises to the playoffs and he is one of only five men to take two franchises to the Super Bowl. He is renowned as the great, almighty Tuna, the quintessential Jersey guy who engaged reporters and insisted, “You are what your record says you are.’’

All swell. The Tuna deserves props and is overdue for a bust in Canton. But it is his four-year stint as head coach of the Patriots that matters most to us here in New England. Parcells is the man who rescued the Patriots from irrelevance and maybe from a move to St. Louis.

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More than Bob Kraft, Tom Brady or Bill Belichick, Parcells is the man who changed the culture of football in Foxborough.

The Patriots were a clown show when Parcells was hired by beer man James Orthwein before the 1993 season. Twenty years later, they are probably the most popular team in our region, and a national brand on a scale with the Cowboys and Steelers. Feel free to send thank-you notes to the Big Tuna.

The Patriots were hideous and hopeless in the early 1990s. You really had to be there — but unfortunately, almost nobody was there. The Patriots played in the worst stadium in professional sports. They practiced in a state mental hospital, which was inconvenient and oddly appropriate. New England’s only taste of NFL glory, an appearance in Super Bowl XX in 1986, resulted in a blowout loss and a drug scandal. The Patriots were a league embarrassment (remember the Stupor Bowl of 1981, the Victor Kiam/Lisa Olson episode of 1990) and a flight risk. They went an aggregate 14-50 in the four seasons before Parcells was hired. In 1992, they finished 2-14, including a 6-0 loss to the Colts in front of 19,429 lost souls at old Foxboro Stadium.

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“We weren’t at the bottom,’’ Parcells said in a lengthy telephone conversation earlier this week. “We were the bottom. The franchise was in pretty good disarray at the time. There had been multiple owners in recent years and there had been some changes in general managers. All of those things had occurred. And after I was there for a short time, I realized that Orthwein wasn’t prepared to do very much to try to improve the team in terms of economic investment.

“The stadium wasn’t in great shape and we didn’t have a place to practice. To get to practice, we had to go in our cars — guys in their uniforms driving their cars and trucks over there. We really didn’t have anything more than a field. We didn’t have much space at all. There was a place off to the side where we could do some drills, but that field would get very muddy in the latter part of the year.’’

The Patriots did not have many fans.

“I was probably oblivious to that,’’ said Parcells. “I knew the Celtics’ history — everybody knows that. And having followed the Red Sox myself, I knew the respect that they demanded. I didn’t know too much about hockey, but I knew the Bruins were very popular, as well. Once you start to get good players, none of that stuff makes any difference.’’

The Tuna inherited a small corps of good players.

“I had a very good left tackle in Bruce Armstrong and Ben Coates was kind of an unknown gem. Kevin Turner. Sam Gash. We had a big back in Leonard Russell. The offensive line needed some work and we didn’t have a lot of speed at receiver. Defensively, we were kind of a small group. Probably the best player at the time was Vincent Brown, and we had a good small corner in Maurice Hurst. Ray Agnew was a solid player, but we had a lot to do.’’

Parcells was very specific about the kind of players he liked: big players. Guys who didn’t put their hands in their pockets in December and January.

“I liked to be a powerful team,’’ said the Tuna. “Very strong defensively. I’ve always thought the kicking game was very important in pro football. So many games are decided by either field position or punts or last-minute field goals. When you’re coaching in the Northeast, before we had all these indoor facilities, I was always looking for cold-weather linemen and receivers. I thought it was important to have players that were used to doing things in cold weather. You have to have kickers, quarterbacks, and receivers who are weather-proof. You just have to have it.’’

Backup quarterback Scott Zolak, who served as holder on the field goal unit, remembers Parcells standing over him firing water at his hands with a hose when the Patriots were getting ready for a game that might involve rain. If the Patriots were going to Miami, the Tuna would make Zolak hold the ball over a pile of sand.

“That’s what the field’s gonna be like on Sunday,’’ Parcells scolded.

Parcells’s first big acquisition was quarterback Drew Bledsoe, a guy who’d played in snowstorms. The Patriots had the top pick in the 1993 draft and Parcells selected Washington State’s strong-armed quarterback.

When Parcells’s first Patriots team took the field in September, players were wearing new colors and a “Flying Elvis” logo. Don’t blame Tuna for the death of old-school Pat Patriot.

“I’m a pretty traditional guy,’’ said Parcells. “I would have retained the Patriots uniforms that we had when I was there in 1980 [as an assistant under Ron Erhardt] if it was up to me. But all that change was already in place by the time I got there.’’

His first team started 1-11, but won four straight at the finish.

“We got slaughtered by the Jets [45-7] in the fourth week of the season and [I] kind of had a little heart-to-heart with the team after that and they kind of responded. It started to pay off the last month of the season and we knocked the Dolphins out of the playoffs in the last game of the season. As poor as the season was, that really helped us.’’

The finale at Foxboro Stadium was a rare sellout. Three weeks later, Parcells had a new boss when Kraft bought the Patriots from Orthwein.

“I was happy about that because at least I felt like we were going to have some stability and the threat of the team moving had been left behind,’’ said Parcells. “I could see that he was going to do things to try to enhance the franchise.’’

In the first year of the Parcells-Kraft partnership, the Patriots started 3-6, then won their final seven games and roared into the playoffs. On New Year’s Day, 1995, in the wild-card round of the playoffs, Parcells’s Patriots were beaten by Belichick’s Cleveland Browns, 20-13.

Which team had the better coach that day?

“Apparently, they did,’’ said Parcells.

The Patriots were national media darlings as the prepared for the following season — Parcells’s third in New England. Some experts picked them to win the AFC East; instead, they regressed, finishing 6-10, nowhere near the playoffs.

“I think the team, and maybe to a degree the coaching staff, kind of had a little bit of an inflated opinion of where we were in this world,’’ admitted Parcells. “You wind up being taught a lesson. That’s what’s humbling about it. We were taught a lesson.’’

Parcells’s final season was wildly successful . . . and tumultuous.

In February 1996, Parcells reached out to the man who’d been his defensive mastermind with the Giants: He hired Belichick as assistant head coach of the Patriots. It was reported that Parcells forfeited his own salary to bring Belichick on board — a report disputed by Kraft. Parcells today says he can’t remember the details of the arrangement, but fallout from the report suggested a coach-owner rift in Foxborough.

The relationship became untenable two months later when Kraft orchestrated a draft-day, first-round coup d’etat, ordering personnel director Bobby Grier to select Terry Glenn instead of Parcells’s choice, a defensive lineman.

“That was when I kind of found out that I was going to be a little on the back burner when it came to personnel,’’ said Parcells. “Someone else was going to be calling the shots. That was something that bothered me because I wasn’t 100 percent confident in the people that were doing it. When you have a new ownership, there’s a little politics that go on within an organization. People try to curry favor with the organization. That’s what happened. Certainly I was upset with what had transpired. People had convinced Bob that the quarterback-receiver tandem was the thing that was going to elevate the franchise, and the case in point was Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. So when a player like Terry Glenn was available we wound up picking him. It worked out very well. As soon as we got him, I was glad to have him. I did my best to make him a good player and we did have a lot of firepower.’’

On the second day of the ’96 draft, the Patriots selected Nebraska linebacker Christian Peter. Three days later, after numerous reports surfaced of Peter’s assaults against women, the Patriots dropped the defensive tackle. Folklore holds that the dismissal of Peter was owed to the objections of Myra Kraft.

“I don’t know,’’ said Parcells. “I wasn’t talking to Myra Kraft. I don’t know what the reason was. It was mandated and that’s what happened. But I will tell you this — I had a good relationship with [Nebraska coach] Tom Osborne before that, and it was never quite the same after that. I was very disappointed in that.’’

The wasted pick on Peter was an exception. Players drafted by Parcells — players such as Troy Brown, Willie McGinest, Ty Law, Ted Johnson, Tedy Bruschi, and Lawyer Milloy — proved to be a foundation for New England’s 21st century Super Bowl champions. Parcells also discovered a pretty fair kicker who’d played for Amsterdam in the World League: Adam Vinatieri.

In his final season in New England, Parcells took “his guys” to the ultimate game, Super Bowl XXXI in New Orleans. Unfortunately, the experience was tainted when the Globe’s Will McDonough — a great friend of Parcells — broke the story that Parcells would leave the Patriots immediately after the championship game.

“That was a little bit disruptive,’’ said the Tuna. “But in the end, it didn’t affect our team or what we tried to do getting ready for the game. It was ancillary stuff.’’

What about the notion that he was thinking about moving on to work for the Jets, instead of concentrating on the Super Bowl?

“Absolutely untrue,’’ said Parcells. “Anybody that knows me knows that that’s untrue.’’

Even with the distraction, it looked like the Patriots might win anyway when they cut Green Bay’s lead to 27-21 in the third quarter. And then Desmond Howard’s 99-yard TD kickoff return put the game away for the Packers. Some New England fans believe Troy Brown might have tackled Howard had he not been sidelined with an injury.

“The player who was in for him [Hason Graham] had a chance to make the tackle and just didn’t do it,’’ said Parcells. “But I don’t know if Troy would have made the tackle either. That certainly was a big play in the game. We had a lot of momentum when that happened.’’

Five years after Parcells left, Belichick’s Patriots shocked the world, winning the first of three Super Bowls. From a distance, Parcells took a small amount of satisfaction in the Patriots’ success.

“It [his four years in New England] was a little bit of a beginning for a franchise that kind of got to the top of the league and maintained that status for a long time,’’ he said. “They are still highly competitive and I’m certain they’ll be that way this year.’’

Almost three weeks shy of his 72d birthday, he has second thoughts about the way it ended here for him.

“I probably would have approached the situation with the new ownership a little bit more wisely,’’ Parcells said this week. “I think retrospectively that we could have worked together and worked something out. I had that opportunity and I didn’t do that and I regretted that. That’s one of the things that if I had a chance to do it over in my career, I would change it. But life goes on and things work out, and it’s worked out well for New England, and quite frankly it’s worked out well for me.’’

Parcells was 51 when he took the Patriots’ job. He said it would be his final stop. That was before the Jets, Cowboys, and Dolphins.

“It’s a little bit like a narcotic,’’ he admitted. “When you grow up loving it and being part of it, it provides a tremendous exhilaration and excitement when the games come. On the dark side of that, it also beats you up a little bit. But that mix of the potential for success and excitement kind of holds you to it.’’

All the way to Canton.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Shaughnessy
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