Jim Fassel’s Got No Doubt

Running a pro football franchise in Las Vegas takes audacity and swagger. The Locomotives coach—a former NFL boss—has plenty of both.


Photo by Anthony Mair

In more than 30 years of coaching, Jim Fassel has amassed quite a collection of memories. As an assistant at Stanford he helped recruit a kid by the name of John Elway in 1979. A couple of years later he watched in horror from the sidelines as Cal ran through the Stanford band and into the end zone to cap the most bizarre finish to a college football game ever. Later came NFL Coach of the Year honors in 1997, after his first season leading the New York Giants.

But Fassel’s signature moment, the one he and football fans will always remember? It didn’t involve a single play or game. It didn’t even occur on a football field. It happened at a news conference at Giants headquarters, 48 hours before Thanksgiving in 2000 and 48 hours after a humiliating home loss to the Detroit Lions that left Fassel—in his fourth year as head coach—searching for a way to save his team’s season (and perhaps his job).

“I was livid,” Fassel recalls, “and I knew I had to do something.”

So, standing before the press, stern-faced and dead serious, Fassel went on a 20-second rant that will live in NFL infamy:

“If you’ve got the crosshairs, you got the laser, you can put it right on my chest and I’ll take full responsibility. I am raising the stakes right now. If this is a poker game, I am shoving my chips to the middle of the table. I am raising the ante. Anybody who wants to get in, get in. Anybody who wants out can get out. This team is going to the playoffs. This team is going to the playoffs, OK?”

Four days later, the Giants went to Arizona and throttled the Cardinals 31-7 on national television, jump-starting a seven-game winning streak that culminated with a 41-0 home rout of the favored Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship Game, sending Fassel to the Super Bowl.

“It taught me a lesson about coaching,” he says of the guarantee, “which is, make sure your players know that you’re standing behind them.”

jim-fassel-4.jpgNearly 11 years have passed since Fassel shoved his chips to the middle of the table, and nearly eight years since he last walked the sidelines as an NFL head coach. These days, Fassel, who turns 62 on Aug. 31, serves as president/general manager/head coach of the two-time defending UFL champion Las Vegas Locomotives.

He is here, he says, because this is where he wants to be, because coaching is his passion, because he loves a challenge, and leading a team in the fledgling UFL “is a big challenge.”

As he speaks about his affection for his job and his new community, Fassel comes across as completely sincere. And yet you can’t help but wonder if, deep down, he’s thinking what you’d be thinking if you were in his shoes: “What the hell am I doing jim-fassel-4.jpghere?”

“There isn’t always a spot in the NFL for everyone.” – Jim Fassel, in a guest column in the Las Vegas Sun, July 25, 2011, explaining why the UFL is a positive for players.

A ballsy guarantee and seven straight wins helped the Giants to Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa, Fla., but that’s where the ride came to a screeching halt, as the Baltimore Ravens crushed New York 34-7 in a game every bit as lopsided as the score indicates. Nobody knew it at the time, but the loss signaled the beginning of the end for Fassel in the Big Apple. Less than three years later, as a miserable 4-12 season was winding down and speculation about his future was ramping up, Fassel reluctantly walked into the office of Giants executive vice president John Mara and said he was resigning effective at season’s end.

Fassel had barely exited the office when his soon-to-be-former boss essentially gave him a verbal recommendation. “I think without question he’ll be a head coach again,” Mara told The New York Times on Dec. 17, 2003. “Probably next year.”

Since that day, the NFL’s 32 teams have changed coaches 62 times (including interim jobs). And although there have been interviews, and although there have been close calls (including two with the Washington Redskins), Fassel, who went 58-53-1 in seven seasons in New York, has not received a second opportunity to lead an NFL team.

Among those who have been granted a second (and sometimes third) chance: Chan Gailey, Norv Turner, Wade Phillips, Pete Carroll and John Fox, the same John Fox who was once Fassel’s defensive coordinator in New York.

Fassel has a theory—more than one, in fact—as to why he wasn’t one of the 62 NFL head-coaching hires in the last 7½ years. And, just as clearly, he isn’t eager to share those theories publicly. One of his former quarterbacks, however, is willing to speculate.

“There certainly are exceptions,” says Kerry Collins, who spent five of his 16 NFL seasons with Fassel and the Giants from 1999-2003, “but a lot of [NFL] owners want to have a coach that they can have a certain amount of control over. I’ve seen it at different places. And I’m sure Jim wants to do it his way, and that may rub some others wrong.”

A quick examination of Fassel’s post-Giants résumé gives credence to his former pupil’s suggestion. After leaving New York, he spent 2½ seasons as an adviser and offensive coordinator with—ironically—the Ravens. Since getting fired from that gig in October 2006, Fassel has had opportunities to return to the NFL as an assistant, most recently during this past offseason when, he says, “a very good franchise with an established, winning head coach” offered him an offensive coordinator position. He quickly turned it down.

“People told me, ‘Just go back in the NFL, and that’ll get you back to a head job’” Fassel says. “And I’m thinking, wait a minute. I’ve got a track record, OK? It’s not like I’m a pup. And I’m a head coach here [in Las Vegas], we won two championships. … I’ve paid my dues for 20 years. I love the NFL, and I love to compete at the highest level, but I didn’t feel like I needed to do that.”

And if it had been a head-coaching offer instead?

“It would’ve been a difficult decision,” he says. “I would’ve considered it hard. But it still would’ve come down to, ‘Am I really going to enjoy building that franchise? And can I build that franchise? … Can I honestly say that, no, I wouldn’t have [accepted an NFL head job]? No, I might have done it. Would I for sure have done it? I can tell you absolutely not.”

“When I was head coach of the New York Giants, if I went to a company like that and spent that time, they’re going to pay me A LOT of money.” – Fassel earlier this month after spending five hours touring the Zappos compound and meeting with employees.

For most NFL head coaches, August is the busiest, most stressful month of the year. There’s overseeing training camp, evaluating players and beginning to game plan for the start of the season. As head coach of the Locos, Fassel can relate to the challenge. But unlike his NFL brethren, Fassel has another duty on his plate: voluntary community outreach.

In addition to spending a day at Zappos headquarters, he’s participated in a golf tournament in support of the Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame. He’s taken a handful of players and cheerleaders to Nellis Air Force Base. He’s even picked up the phone to thank fans for buying season tickets.

“There are a lot of things I do now that I didn’t do in the NFL,” Fassel says. “And you know what? Honestly, it’s humbling and it feels good. Because when you’re the head coach of the New York Giants, you’re put on a pedestal and you could lose your compass in life. You can all of a sudden start thinking, ‘Shit, I’m better than everybody else,’ and that’s where guys fall into trouble. But I never felt that way, and that’s why it’s easy for me to do this.”

“Next year, when there are head-coaching changes, it is inconceivable to me that Jim’s not going to be the lead name on everybody’s list.” – Then-Ravens head coach Brian Billick to The New York Times, Feb. 5, 2004, the day after he hired Fassel as an adviser.

Spend 15 minutes with Fassel and two personality traits come through in HDTV-like clarity: He’s supremely confident in himself, and he detests failure. That’s why that blowout loss to Baltimore in Super Bowl XXXV still stings, because Fassel made his bones as an offensive mastermind. But on that day, he had no answers for the Ravens’ ferocious defense. “That was the best defense I’ve ever seen in my life,” he says. “They were unbelievable. We couldn’t do anything. We couldn’t block ’em on the run, we couldn’t pass protect. I’ve never felt so overmatched in certain areas as I was in that game.”

Collins took the brunt of the punishment that day; he finished with just 112 passing yards, threw four interceptions and was sacked four times. That dismal performance aside, Collins, who was the fifth-overall pick of the expansion Carolina Panthers in 1995, credits Fassel with resurrecting his career. “I really had a great experience with Jim,” says Collins, who announced his retirement earlier this summer, but unretired earlier this week and signed with the Indianapolis Colts. “We always talk about how, at the time [the Giants] signed me, I needed somebody like Jim and he needed somebody like me. He needed an [experienced] quarterback, and I needed someone who was going to help me get my career back on track. We were really a good fit for each other. I appreciated him giving me the opportunity.”

Fassel’s reputation as a quarterback tutor dates to 1979, when he helped recruit Elway to Stanford. He later was Elway’s offensive coordinator in Denver and has also worked with such notable NFL quarterbacks as Phil Simms, Jeff Hostetler and Boomer Esiason. And just last year, Fassel won his second straight UFL title with a quarterback (Chase Clement) who began the season third on the depth chart and ended up MVP of the championship game.

It’s the kind of success story that leaves someone like Collins baffled as to why Fassel hasn’t been given the same kind of second chance in the NFL that his former coach once gave him.

“The guy has a proven track record in the NFL, he’s shown he’s great with quarterbacks,” Collins says. “I know what kind of coach he is, what kind of person he is. So I’m surprised he hasn’t gotten another opportunity somewhere.”

Jerry Reese was in the Giants’ player personnel department the year Fassel and Collins teamed for the Super Bowl run. By the time Fassel departed in 2003, Reese was running the personnel department. Now he’s entering his fifth season as New York’s senior vice president and general manager.

“Pro sports is a fickle business,” Reese says. “So I’m not surprised, but I’m disappointed that people don’t realize how talented Jim is. Not only is he a terrific football coach, but he’s well-rounded on how to run an organization, obviously as you see with what he’s done in the UFL. I just think people are missing out on a great opportunity by not giving Jim another chance to be a head coach in this league.”

“My dream is that we captivate this town. Because everybody loves a winner. And that’s what this town’s about!” – Jim Fassel

It’s purely coincidental that “UFL” is only a few ticks up the alphabet from “UFO.” Nevertheless the ratio of believers to skeptics is about the same for both. And the third-year pro football league didn’t do much to quell speculation about its viability earlier this summer when it announced its third season was being delayed several weeks. Then came word in mid-August that the UFL was suspending operations for the Hartford franchise, leaving just four teams (Las Vegas, Sacramento, Omaha and Virginia) to play a truncated six-game season (down from eight the last two years) beginning Sept. 15.

None of this fazes Fassel, though, who either believes wholeheartedly that the UFL is a solid league with top-notch players and a bright future … or he’s one of the great actors of our time. He says the Locos, who open their season Sept. 17 in Sacramento and play their first home game Oct. 8 against Sacramento at Sam Boyd Stadium, have sold about 2,000 season tickets this year (nearly five times last year’s total). He swears the quality of football is much better than outsiders perceive. “Every year, I’ve cut guys that were first-team All-SEC and All-Pac-10!” And he’s convinced that the best team in the UFL—that would be the Locos—would absolutely compete with the lower-echelon of the NFL.

“I’m not saying we’re better than them talent-wise—I’m not saying that. What I am saying, and I tell my team this every week, is it’s not the best team that wins, it’s the team that plays the best. … If they’re playing sloppy football and we’re playing efficient football, yeah, we can beat ’em.”

If this weren’t the case, Fassel insists he never would’ve signed on with the league in the first place. “If we were going to run a league that was a bunch of has-beens and wanna-bes, I couldn’t do that. I want to be able to put a team on the field that you better be damn good to beat us.”

“My [former] wife told me one time, ‘You’re the happiest, most successful and comfortable when you’re in charge of your own destiny.’ And I said, ‘You know what? You’re right.’ I never realized it, but that’s probably me. And it’s never been an ego thing. I swear to God it’s not. It’s the confidence I have that, if you just let me do it, I’ll get it done.” – Jim Fassel

In the Locos’ first season, Fassel was simply the head coach. In year No. 2 he added general manager to his duties. Now he’s also the team’s president. “I think all the hats are out of the box!” he says, laughing. And make no mistake, he relishes wearing them; it’s as if he’s pushing his chips to the middle of the table again, only this time he’s doing so quietly and the stakes are significantly lower. But his confidence remains sky high.

“If I go for something—and maybe I’m stupid—but no matter the odds, if I decide to do something,” he says, “I’m going to make it work.”

He’s talking specifically of his current job in Las Vegas. He could just as easily be referring to another stint in the NFL.

Still, if you ask Fassel point-blank if he wants to lead an NFL team again, he sidesteps the question. But ask him if he still can lead an NFL team, and he bristles.

“Absolutely, I can. Absolutely. I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘Well, you’ve been out of it so long.’ Come on! Are you kidding me? Yeah, I can. I can.”