Pity Parcells

Categories: Sports
Bill Parcells may be an asshole, but he's a complicated, self-torturing and very likely depressed asshole. Which has to count for something.

Countless times--well, just three, actually--Richie Whitt's called Cowboys head coach Bill Parcells an "asshole" on Unfair Park. Got no problem with that. From the far outside looking in, seems about right--in the same way it felt right to call Barry Switzer "crazy," Chan Gailey "inept" and Dave Campo "boring." Asshole. Fine. Worked for me.

But after reading yesterday's New York Times, and watching last night's feelgood win over the Carolina Panthers during which Parcells gave his players kisses like they were Halloween candy, that label doesn't really seem to fit anymore. Seems too damning, too limiting, too dismissive. Moneyball's Michael Lewis contributed a terrific piece to The Times' occasional PLAY supplement, in which the author spent a week studying and talking with the head coach, that suggests Parcells is more of a, well, mess than anything else. Lewis manages the impossible: He makes you feel sorry for Parcells in a dozen different ways.

You can and should read the story for yourself; perhaps you will come away with a different impression. Maybe you'll hate him more than you already do; maybe you'll love him more than you already do. Interpreting the interpreter can be tricky business; perhaps the guy Lewis hung out with is no more than real Bill Parcells than the smiling old lady smooching her team last night on the Carolina sidelines. But some highlights follow after the jump, and they add up to some insight into a man who may not be a total asshole after all. --Robert Wilonsky


On his reaction to the opening loss to Jacksonville:


After the late-night flight home from Jacksonville, he went to his condo to catch a few hours' sleep. He woke up not long after he nodded off, choking on his own bile. "It only happens to me during the football season," he says. "It happens no other time of the year. And it wasn't something I ate." After that, he couldn't sleep at all. He found that his ex-wife, Judy — they divorced in 2002, after 40 years of marriage — had left a message on his answering machine. She saw the game on TV. "Please don't let it affect your health," she said.

On Drew Bledsoe:


When watching video, Parcells doesn't usually waste a lot of time studying his quarterback. That's one player he can see pretty well during the game. But this morning has been different. Against the Jaguars, Drew Bledsoe missed throws he once made in his sleep. He was indecisive and slow to see open receivers. As a result, he held the ball far too long. Last season Bledsoe was sacked 49 times and smacked in the act of throwing 82 times, a league high. He has been showing the symptoms of a quarterback who is looking at the rush instead of his receivers — which is to say a quarterback who should no longer be playing in the N.F.L. Parcells studied the video to determine if Bledsoe had indeed lost his nerve.

On Parcells' sparsely decorated office and his few possessions in it:


His few possessions are confined to the tiny space behind his desk. At his feet rests a single, thick binder in which he has organized every last bit of his personal and financial life: divorce settlement, coaching contracts, book contracts, endorsements, agent agreements. On the desk is his other thick binder, containing practice schedules and other coaching materials. Parcells carts the baggage of his youth wherever he goes, but its contents are mainly the attitudes and emotions of a tough kid raised on the streets of North Jersey. If he decided to quit his job, he wouldn't need a trip back to collect his stuff; he could walk out the door with all of it. The only physical evidence of his past is three small elephant figurines. Parcells's mother passed on to her son an odd superstition: elephants with their trunks pointed toward a doorway bring good luck. In his condo, Parcells keeps a collection of elephant statues. Here he has just three little ones, pointed the wrong direction.

On quitters:


At the back of Parcells's personal binder there are a few loose, well-thumbed sheets that defy categorization: a copy of a speech by Douglas MacArthur; a passage from a book about coaches, which argues that a coach excels by purifying his particular vision rather than emulating a type. Among the papers is an anecdote Parcells brings up often in conversation, about a boxing match that took place nearly 30 years ago between the middleweights Vito Antuofermo and Cyclone Hart. Parcells loves boxing; his idea of a perfect day in the off-season is to spend it inside some ratty boxing gym in North Jersey. "It's a laboratory," he says. "You get a real feel for human behavior under the strongest duress — under the threat of physical harm." In this laboratory he has identified a phenomenon he calls the game quitter. Game quitters, he says, seem "as if they are trying to win, but really they've given up. They've just chosen a way out that's not apparent to the naked eye. They are more concerned with public opinion than the end result."

On disappointing kicker Mike Vanderjagt:


Now, as he conspicuously pretends not to notice his $2.5 million kicker shanking 30-yard field goal attempts in practice, Parcells wonders if he's witnessing another one of those inexplicable and total collapses of nerves. ("And don't tell me that it can't happen with kickers," he says.) He doesn't talk to Vanderjagt, and Vanderjagt doesn't talk to him: all this drama and anxiety occur without a word of direct, verbal communication. "But," Parcells says, "even when he doesn't think I'm watching him, I'm watching him." Standing on the sideline, staring at his first-team offense as it scores yet another touchdown against the scrubs, the coach who is in the business of collecting information listens to a report from Tony Romo, the backup quarterback and the one who holds the ball for the place kicker. Romo tells him that Vanderjagt is finally hitting the ball squarely. "Yeah," Parcells says. "In practice."

On Parcells' pre-game speech to his players:


At halftime there's no chance for a speech — several of the Cowboys reappear on the field four minutes after they left — but Parcells has taken precautions. This morning, before the game, he called a meeting of the players without the assistant coaches. "I don't want to talk with the coaches around," he told me beforehand. "I want the players to know that I am trying to make a point." This morning, he broke into his personal binder, took out the story of Vito Antuofermo and read it to his players. All week long it wasn't strategy that occupied him; it was character. There's a tendency to believe that, to be successful, a pro football coach must have a gift for the chessboard aspect of the game. But strategy isn't what chiefly interests Parcells. His success depends on his ability to demand, and to receive, higher levels of performance from his players. He doesn't say so explicitly, but his actions speak for him: he spends much more time thinking about getting inside his players' heads, and their skins, than about anything else. He tries to make them uncomfortable. On a baseball team or a golf team, this sort of pressurized approach might lead to a team-wide nervous breakdown. In football — at least for him — it works magic.

On why he still coaches and why it's not about "a legacy":


Right now he is living alone in what amounts to a hotel room in Irving, Tex., whose sole virtue is that it is a 10-minute drive to both the Cowboys' practice facility and Texas Stadium. It's just him and whatever it is that keeps him in the game. For the longest time he pretended that he didn't need it. He walked out of two jobs without having another in hand, and he has played hard-to-get with N.F.L. owners more times than any coach in N.F.L. history. After he quit the Jets, in 1999, he said at a press conference: "I've coached my last football game. You can write that on your little chalkboard. This is it. It's over." Now, even as his job appears to be making him sick, he has abandoned the pose. "As you get older," he says, pointing to a screen, where the play is frozen, "your needs diminish. They don't increase. They diminish. I need less money. I need less sex. But this — this doesn't change."



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