By Bill Burt
---- — Tomorrow is the 20th anniversary — Jan. 21, 1993 — of the hiring of Bill Parcells as coach and president of football operations. That’s when the long struggling franchise changed for the better, planting the seed for what has become possibly the model franchise in all of professional sports.
“Everything changed,” said former Patriots linebacker Andre Tippett, who played the 12th and final year of his Hall of Fame career under Parcells. “You knew he had those two Super Bowl rings. That meant something because we didn’t have any. And the franchise, at the time, was a mess.”
Tippett had a few dealings with Parcells prior to his becoming head coach. He recalled one occasion when the Patriots worked out with the New York Giants during summer sessions in the late 1980s.
“Bill was very funny. He had us all laughing,” recalled Tippett. “I remember one time a Giant tight end was going against me and he said, ‘You can’t be half-stepping it against that Tippett guy. He’ll kill ya. That Tippett guy will eat you up!’ I knew what he was doing, buttering me up. He made sure I heard it. It was amusing.”
Changing the culture
There was nothing amusing with Parcells the first days, weeks and months he was calling all the shots for the Patriots.
“To be honest, it was like ‘Holy (bleep)! What did we get ourselves into?’” recalled Tippett, who now is vice president of community relations for the Patriots. “Right away, he held everyone accountable. He ran guys off that shouldn’t have been there. And he started bringing in every Tom, Dick and Harry to play for us. After 11 years in this organization, it was a culture shock.”
Parcells was among an “elite” group of coaches who wanted the job to coach the Patriots. Mike Ditka, Buddy Ryan and Dan Reeves were the biggest names to get an interview. Those Super Bowl coaches were fired from their previous head coaching jobs in Chicago, Philadelphia and Denver, respectively.
Due to heart problems, Parcells had left coaching after his Giants beat the Buffalo Bills in the 1991 Super Bowl. His “retirement” appeared to have lasted only one year, as he reportedly had a handshake agreement to become head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But he opted not to take the job.
After the 1992 season ended, Parcells’ good friend, Will McDonough, the Boston Globe’s national football writer, set up a one-on-one with Patriots owner James Busch Orthwein.
Orthwein was the CEO of the St. Louis NFL Partnership, which was trying to bring an NFL franchise back to St. Louis. The Cardinals had left for Phoenix after the 1987 season.
Orthwein had bought a minority interest in the Patriots from Fran Murray. He later bought the majority share of the team from Victor Kiam.
Parcells flew to Fort Lauderdale to meet with Orthwein and then-Patriots vice chairman Mike O’Halloran.
“Bill was a very important part of what Jim was trying to do,” recalled O’Halloran. “We had to improve the marketing of the team. We had to get the financial part together. Jim was going to eventually sell the team and hiring Bill, who had won Super Bowls before, was a key part of the entire plan to improve the value.”
Parcells, said O’Halloran, was informed during his first contact with the Patriots, that the franchise would remain in New England. This despite rumors Orthwein would eventually move the team to St. Louis, where the family’s Anheuser-Busch corporation was headquartered.
“Bill was straight-forward with us that in that he said it would take five years to build a quality team,” said O’Halloran, who at 65 runs a company in St. Louis and still remains close with the Orthwein family. “He was specific with what he needed to do. He and Jim hit it off.”
Parcells remembered being a bit apprehensive.
“They were very, very new in the football business,” said Parcells in a recent telephone interview. “I don’t think they knew too much about coaches. I went to my interview with some hard questions.”
The Patriots were enticing because Parcells had last word on all player decisions, something he didn’t have with the Giants.
Crucial QB decision
With the Patriots drafting first overall, thanks to their 2-14 record, Parcells chose Drew Bledsoe out of Washington State over the Rick Mirer of Notre Dame.
It seemed like an odd move, that Parcells would go with the “gunslinger” over the “game manager,” which was more the type of quarterbacks he coached with the Giants. But it was a decision that many people equated in importance to the hiring of Parcells, including current team owner Robert Kraft.
Bledsoe became a star and Mirer languished as a journeyman.
On the field, the team struggled during Parcells’ first year, losing its first four games. Then, after finally winning the fifth game, 23-21 over the Phoenix Cardinals, Parcells’ Patriots lost seven straight, including four by a field goal, one by four points and another by six points.
“We started very poorly, but the thing that struck me was our players continued to work hard,” recalled Parcells. “We had a rookie quarterback. You’re always going to have growing pains there. But we didn’t have any discipline problems. Players were ready to change.”
And then came one of the biggest months in franchise history. The Patriots won three straight, before their finale against the Miami Dolphins, which they needed to win for a playoff spot.
From the Patriots’ perspective it meant more. Many people thought it would be the final game the franchise played in New England. While it wasn’t a sellout, the crowd of 53,883 was more than double the attendance for the game against the Indianapolis Colts the week before.
The Patriots won, 33-27, in overtime. In retrospect, the Dolphins never had a chance. Parcells stormed the field after Michael Timpson hauled in the game-winning 36-yard touchdown pass while Bledsoe was being hit by three defenders.
Staying in Foxboro
If Orthwein was indeed hoping to quietly move the team to St. Louis, he couldn’t have had a worse result. The dramatic win capped an improbable four-game win streak.
Long-time Patriots season ticket holder Robert Kraft, who owned the stadium, was at the game with his two oldest sons, Jonathan and Daniel.
“I remember it like it was yesterday, going down the elevator with my sons,” said Kraft. “I told them then that I couldn’t let this team move, that I was going to buy the team.”
A year to the day after Parcells signed on, Kraft, who will celebrate his 19th anniversary as owner tomorrow, paid the most ever for an NFL franchise, $172 million.
“I way overpaid,” said Kraft. “One of the reasons I was comfortable doing it was we had Parcells and Bledsoe there, a Hall of Fame coach and a young, promising quarterback. There was a lot to look forward to.”
‘Every man for himself’
While Parcells’ first season in Foxboro appeared to be heaven-sent, he admitted recently it was one of the most difficult of his professional career.
“I don’t want to say ‘disarray,’ but there was definitely instability in ownership,” said Parcells from his Jupiter, Fla., condominium. “The front office was ‘every man for himself.’ Everyone was trying to protect his own agenda.”
Patrick Forte, the Patriots Vice President of Administration, was one of those not well-versed in running a “professional” football team.
Part of the “circus-like” atmosphere was due to Forte, who was later fired by Kraft with four years still left on his contract.
“He was a disaster,” said Parcells of Forte, whose professional career crumbled after leaving the Patriots.
Parcells feels ownership was to blame, too, that first year. He claimed they didn’t give him the resources he needed to bring in some key talent, particularly the most talented player from the 1992 team, Irving Fryar.
“They were not really in any manner helping rebuild the franchise, in terms of signing good players,” said Parcells. “I know they said they weren’t trying to move the Patriots to St. Louis, but in the end I believe it might have been the case.”
The fact that Orthwein offered Kraft $75 million for the stadium could be looked at in two ways.
One, that Orthwein could break the lease the team had with the stadium and move the team immediately. Or two, the Patriots would be an easier sell with the stadium as part of the deal.
O’Halloran refuted Parcells’ claim and said increasing the value of the franchise for future sale was Orthwein’s goal.
“Jim said from the beginning, he was not going to move the team,” said O’Halloran. “My only disappointment is that nobody believed what he said. It was an enormous challenge. The organization had a lot of issues from top to bottom. In a short period of time, 23 months, we still are very proud of what he accomplished. Jim did what he said he would do.”
Parcells said the fact that Kraft was local was a good thing, meaning the franchise probably would never leave.
But there were still questions.
“I had no idea when Kraft came whether things were going to change or not,” said Parcells. “You don’t know. A first-time owner is oftentimes like a first-time coach. You can pretty much guarantee there will be growing pains.”
Parcells’ and Kraft’s rocky relationship has been well-documented.
They had major issues in 1996 culminating in their breakup after the Super Bowl loss to the Green Bay Packers on Feb. 2, 1997.
In a controversial move, Parcells didn’t return on the team plane.
Parcells famously said, “They want you to cook the dinner; at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries.”
“Bill has said to me he wishes he had handled things differently,” said Kraft. “And maybe me being a first-time owner ... He hadn’t met anybody like me.”
The same could be said for Parcells, who admitted he didn’t hold anything back when he took over the Patriots.
“The first training camp was very, very hard, even by my standards,” said Parcells. “We went through 10 straight days of three-a-days. It was really hard. You’d get arrested today if you did that with the new rules.”
Tippett remembered when he went to Parcells to discuss one of the “unwritten rules” of 100 degree days at training camp. The one that says veterans get occasional time off.
Tippett said, ”I remember when I was coming up, guys like Julius Adams, John Hannah and Stanley Morgan, they would practice in the morning and get the afternoon off, wearing a hat, T-shirt and shorts, while watching on the sidelines. I was heading into my 12th year in the league. I was 34. I wanted my time off.”
So, Tippett went up to Parcells after a morning session one 90-plus degree day at Bryant College (now Bryant University) in Smithfield, R.I., where the Patriots trained.
”I said, ‘Bill I was wondering what you feel about me practicing in the morning and taking the afternoon off?’” said Tippett. “He looked at me like I lost my mind.
“He said, ‘Well, wait a minute. Are you tired.’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Are you hurt?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Why do you need time off?’”
Tippett told him he thought he had earned the right, that every team lets veterans “skate” a bit during training camp.
“I don’t do that,” said Parcells to Tippett. “That’s not what we’re about here.”
Add that to the fact that Tippett was two pounds overweight, and was fined $250 per pound, well, he wasn’t happy.
“I was so pissed off I went crazy at the afternoon practice,” recalled Tippett. “I don’t even know who I went against, but I took out my anger on everybody. He wasn’t going to let me take an afternoon off? I’ll show him ... I was hot.”
Made them relevant
Kraft said he will forever be grateful for Parcells’ influence, particularly putting the Patriots on the Boston sports map.
“The tide changed when he was here and things started to change,” said Kraft. “Bill brought a certain excitement. He’s got personality. When he wanted to be charming, he is as engaging and interesting as any person I’ve been around.”
Parcells, now 71, concurred with Kraft. The angst in their relationship is over.
“I’m happy for Bill (Belichick) and I’m happy for franchise,” said Parcells, who had Belichick as a trusted assistant with the Giants, N.Y. Jets and Patriots. “I always liked New England. I live in Saratoga (N.Y.), which is only 20 miles from the Vermont border. I do go over there a lot in the summer. I go to Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. I like the entire region. I’m fortunate. As an East Coast guy who grew up in New Jersey, I can identify with a lot of New Englanders.”
Parcells, who spends much of the winter in Jupiter, Fla., where he plays golf semi-regularly, is not comfortable accepting credit for this incredible Patriots run.
With a win today over the Ravens, it would be an NFL record six Super Bowl berths in 12 years.
“Let me put it this way,” said Parcells. “I think it took people with similar vision to the one I have to get it where it is.
“I’m not saying we’re the same,” said Parcells, referring to himself and Belichick. “He has a similar vision. Ownership has learned about both of us a little bit, taken that, and nurtured it. That’s why they are where they are. What they have accomplished is impressive.”
And what “they” have accomplished has a lot to do with what happened on Jan. 21, 1993.
You can e-mail Bill Burt at email@example.com.