In a profession where gruff and domineering are the norm, few NFL coaches have ever fit that twin-bill better than Duane Charles “Bill” Parcells. New Englanders either revere or revile him, depending upon whether you’re someone who credits the Hall of Famer with changing the long-dismal culture of the Patriots or view the Tuna (surely one of the best nicknames a coach has ever had) as a carpetbagger extreme who cost the region its first Super Bowl in 1996.
But if you’ve ever seen a single Parcells presser, you know that this is one complex man and that the aforesaid gruffness tends to be kitted out, paradoxically enough, with a loquacity that for decades made him one of the NFL’s ultimate quippers.
That volubility is on constant display in these pages, which range from Parcells’s early days of realizing he wasn’t a good enough college player for pro football to zigzagging his way from one college coaching job to another until, eventually, he takes the helm of the New York Giants, where he spent many of his best years — and later the Jets and Cowboys as well as the Pats.
The pre-fame back story has the feel of an uncloaking to it, this notion that Parcells, the larger-than-life dispenser of gridiron bon mots like, “If you’re going to cook the meal, they ought to let you shop for the groceries,” is like every workaday schlub in terms of doubts, fears, and the need for help for all sorts of things from family and friends. The Giants gig was almost a one-and-done season deal, an outcome that likely would have meant that Bill Belichick — long-time Parcells friend, foil, and go-to assistant coach — may never have made it to New England. Not, anyway, in the guise we know.
One thing you want with books like this is locker-room dish, and enough scenes are tantamount to the crazy stuff you see in a classic football insider’s account like Roy Blount Jr.’s “Three Bricks Shy of a Load.” In New York, there was legendary linebacker Lawrence Taylor, arguably the greatest defensive player in history, but a legendary whack job. At one point, Parcells goes after Taylor physically post-practice, but it’s neat to see just how flexible the outwardly intractable Parcells could be. Taylor botches his instructions in a game against the Cardinals, pursuing the quarterback rather than dropping back to defend against the pass, sacking him, and then doing it again later, a coolly extemporizing Parcells changing his defensive approach on the fly.
Locals are going to want to immerse themselves in the mid-’90s Patriots portions and chart the deep and knotty relationship between Parcells and Belichick. Parcells rides Golden Boy QB Drew Bledsoe, who “often showed up five minutes before meetings looking bleary-eyed, a tendency that reinforced Parcells’s belief that the twenty-one-year-old was immature.” Cue classic quote when Bledsoe was taking too long to deliver the football shortly thereafter: “Bledsoe! You don’t have time to stand back there and order lobster thermidor for dinner!”
There is an obvious love between Parcells and Belichick that may come across as surprising, given that the perception — as Belichick became the fixture of fixtures here and his old boss developed a reputation as franchise fixer-upper — suggested an unspannable rift. You are also left with the distinct impression that Belichick seems to have learned a lot about how to think, rather than what to think, courtesy of Parcells.
While with the Giants, Parcells pulled the kind of move Belichick later would, giving a coach more responsibility than his title suggested and essentially handing over the defense to a protégé he trusted like a partner. “I don’t really care how you get it done, but I want it done,” Parcells intones, a line that, as much as any other, could double as the ultimate Belichickean maxim, only sourced from his bluefin mentor.
Colin Fleming is the author of the forthcoming “The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories From the Abyss.”