When you watch games such as the recent classic NFC championship between the Seahawks and the Packers, are you more a fan or a former coach?
I’m watching as a coach. Green Bay outplayed Seattle, and then they had a break down in discipline with [Brandon] Bostick not blocking his guy [on the onside kick]. You’ve got five blockers there; you forget the ball unless it hits you in the chest, but don’t back up like he did. Good grief—that should never happen. On that two-point [conversion] play, when Russell Wilson went all the way out to the right and threw it back across the field, you’ve got two receivers on their feet and a defensive back who doesn’t get there. I wondered if they know the rules: Once the quarterback is out of the pocket, you don’t know if he’s a runner or passer, so there is no pass interference until the ball is thrown. We taught our guys, if the QB gets out of the pocket and you’re covering this guy, just shove him. Those guys are playing it like you can’t touch the [receiver]! They treated him like he was glass!
It comes down to players making plays, but what would you have done differently if you were on that Green Bay sideline?
There’s not a lot you can do. The only thing that’s in [Packers coach Mike McCarthy’s’] hands is he might have gotten a little conservative a little early. Late in the game, they appeared to be—on offense, defense and special teams—like, all right, we got this one; don’t let anybody screw it up. You really can’t play a game that way. As a coach, you take the conservative path, but they should have stayed a little more aggressive.
How long does it take for a team to recover from a loss like that?
It’s one of those things in life, you just got to spit it out and try to regroup. I was an assistant at Stanford in the Stanford-Cal game (when the band came on the field). Things happen to people in life, and you just can’t let it set you back so far you can’t function. … Through history, I’ve seen a lot of games that end up like that, and the next year, say, Green Bay, they don’t come back and play well. As much as they want to spit it out, they can’t spit it out. Sometimes you just don’t bounce back.
You were a football coach for 40 years. Do you miss it?
I miss coaching. I like coaching. The whole dynamic has changed a lot, though. I’m enjoying my life right now. People say, well, you should get back into coaching. If you really knew how much time you missed in life and with your kids, and grandkids now, you say, maybe it’s just time. The only thing left for me would be to win a Super Bowl. When I started out coaching, my goal was to be the head coach at my high school or at Fullerton Junior College, and I would’ve stayed there the rest of my life. If you’d have said back when I started, well, you’re going to be a head coach in the NFL, I’d say what have you been smoking?
What would surprise fans the most about the life of an NFL coach?
For seven months after you start the season, you have two days off. People don’t realize you give it your life. … What bothers me the most at this time of the season, everybody talks like it’s a game. Oh, he’s going here, and this guy’s got this job! You’re talking about one guy, and in today’s world, you’ve got 16 assistant coaches. All their families are moving—or they may not have a job. It’s different than working for a real estate company and you get fired. You don’t have to move your family, you just have to move over to a different job in the same community.
What do you think of the coaching carousel that takes place at the end of each season?
It’s an agent-driven business. You got to have the right agent with the right connections at that place, and they move quick. … A guy gets fired, he’s not good enough for that job and turn around and two days later, he’s got another job. Who’s right and who’s wrong?
Is part of a coach’s job managing expectations in the front office?
Yep. Big time. You need good communication. The thing you don’t need is a general manager sitting in a box with the owner critiquing the game. There’s got to be a level of confidence between all of you. Hopefully your GM has played the game, coached the game, knows the game, so with an owner who’s never coached or played football, you got to make him understand some of this stuff. A guy who missed a tackle doesn’t always have to be [the result of bad] coaching. We pay that guy a lot of money to make that tackle. Look at the teams over an eight-to-10-year period, the ones that are the most successful, in today’s game has a lot to do with ownership and management.
What’s the most important quality in a coach?
It doesn’t matter whether a guy had been a great coordinator, he’s got to be a strong leader, he’s got to have a vision and then he’s got to hire good coaches. When I went up to New York, John Fox had been out of the league for a year; he didn’t have a job, and he had one other offer to be a defensive backs coach, and I made him my defensive coordinator. Sean Payton was on the street and was going back to college, and I must have interviewed 10 guys, I finally chose him over NFL assistants. He was a quality-control guy and worked out fine. Also, you’re the face of the franchise: When you stand up there and speak when times are tough, you’re representing everybody. They’re taking in how you talk and how you act. There are very few teams where the owner or GM gets up there. You lose a tough one, the coach is up there. The podium gets a little crowded when you win, and you’re the only guy when you lose.
What was your biggest takeaway when you coached the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV?
It’s not like a regular game. The NFL controls everything. Usually, I dictate when we practice, where we practice, the whole thing. I’ll tell our PR guy when we’ll do a press conference. [Everything at the Super Bowl] was set, and even in New York with by far the biggest media crowd, the Super Bowl was huge. I called three friends—Bill Walsh, Mike Holmgren and Mike Shanahan—and their advice was to stretch the week out—the second week really wears you out. Don’t put everything in; leave some things to change up, because you have to grab their attention again.
Your Giants trailed 10-0 to the Baltimore Ravens at the half and lost 34-7. Was there a point you realized it was a lost cause?
I could have held [the score] down a little bit. But when they started slipping ahead, I took chances. I had to go after them. That was the best front seven I’ve seen. Man, that defensive line was awesome, and [linebacker] Ray Lewis was in his prime. A turning point was in the second quarter, when [Baltimore] threw a pick, and Jessie Armstead ran it back for a touchdown. But they called us for holding the running back. I was screaming, it was bad call—he didn’t hold him at all. I know [Ravens coach] Brian Billick was going to go nuts on [quarterback] Trent Dilfer; he was already starting to scream at him, and that could have shaken [Dilfer] up. You don’t know, I mean, one touchdown was not going to close the gap that much, but the momentum and psychology of it …
You won two United Football League championships with the Las Vegas Locomotives in 2009 and 2010. What are your memories of that, and what could have been done differently to make that league work?
It was a lot of fun. The last year we were going to win the championship again—that was our best team—but we ran out of money. I’m more of a pioneer than a historian. I told [fellow UFL coach Marty Schottenheimer], there’s good talent in this league, these guys work hard, they want to go back to the NFL—90 percent of these guys you know can make it in the NFL. You will enjoy it because you will not have that stress and pressure for eight months, and you’re going to run the franchise. And we matched up in the championship, and he said, “Jim, you’re right. This is the most fun I’ve ever had in coaching. No, I’m not making the same money, but I don’t care,” and I felt the same way. It was really too bad that it didn’t go. Financially it was mismanaged at the beginning—and just went through too much money.
What do you think of the prospect of the NHL or NBA coming here?
The NHL would probably fit better. The only thing is, I don’t see a lot of hockey being played here, so I can’t imagine it’s a big sport here. I don’t think the NBA will come here, because I don’t think there are enough [residents] who can afford to go to those games if the ticket prices are the same [as other cities]. There are people who are wealthy here, no question, but the base is not L.A. or New York or Chicago. … The other difference is a significant amount of people work at night. The NBA’s not playing at noon on Wednesday.
How much did you pursue the UNLV job?
I’ve known [UNLV Athletics Director] Tina Kunzer-Murphy and her husband Greg for a long time. Tina called me, we talked and I called the next morning to withdraw my name. I’d like to have talked further—we talked for an hour and half. At the end of the day, there was enough smoke [to know] this job really wasn’t open. I knew what was going on, so I didn’t want to pursue it anymore.
What do you think of UNLV’s decision to hire a high school coach?
I don’t know Tony Sanchez at all. What they needed was an infusion of energy and toughness. It sounds like he’s got that. Is he going to be able to walk into a home [of a potential recruit] right off the bat for the first year or maybe two and sell that? I don’t think so. I just don’t see it. A lot of high school players want to go to the NFL, and they want to go play for [college coaches] who say they will help them get in the NFL. … I’m wishing him the best. I hope he can.
Patriots or Seahawks—who you got?
When the Patriots have won Super Bowls, they were going up against good teams. The two times they dropped the ball were against the New York Giants. The Giants weren’t supposed to be even in the playoffs, let alone the Super Bowl. When the Patriots go in with a challenge, they play better. They seem to be a team that can put distractions (Deflategate] to the side and go on. It’s not the best team that wins, it’s the team that plays the best.
The Seahawks can’t play like they did in the NFC championship and expect to win. No, Green Bay had to screw it up, too. They’re not going to get that from New England. … New England has had the best pass protection of any team every year, but their offensive line coach retired a year ago. At times they looked a little shaky earlier in the season, but they’ve got it back together now. Now they can protect Tom Brady. Seattle plays on a lot of emotion and when they start struggling early they don’t have that mojo. I’ll go with New England, 30-27.