Jim Fassel meant everything to his Giants players

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The wins and losses are what they are. The highs — think back on Jan. 14, 2001 — are right there, chronicled in the media guide. So are the lows. He won more than he lost, got to a Super Bowl with an upstart team and lasted seven years in a Big Blue fish bowl that challenges all Giants head coaches to keep their heads above water.

More than anything else Jim Fassel accomplished from the time he arrived in 1997 to his departure after the 2003 season, he succeeded in this: He got his players to play for him.

The upsetting news that Fassel died Monday night at the age of 71 was a cruel Tuesday morning wake-up call to anyone who worked for, played for, wrote about or rooted for the Giants. Fassel was taken to a hospital near his home in Las Vegas complaining of chest pains and passed away while under sedation.

“Big part of my life,’’ Michael Strahan, one of Fassel’s best players, said Tuesday morning on “Good Morning America.’’ “Just a great man, great coach, and he will be missed. I enjoyed every minute with him as my coach.’’

Jim Fassel in 2003.
Jim Fassel in 2003.
New York Post

Some called Fassel “Gentleman Jim,’’ but he was tougher than that, and he gave the Giants organization all he had for as long as he was allowed to do so.

Fassel, a native of Anaheim, Calif., played quarterback at Fullerton College, USC and Long Beach State, and was a 1972 seventh-round draft pick of the Bears. He was the head coach at the University of Utah and coached John Elway as an assistant with the Broncos. His son, John, is the Cowboys’ special teams coordinator.

For the record, Fassel was 58-53-1 with the Giants and made the playoffs three times in his seven years. He made an impression on general manager George Young during his two years (1991 and 1992) as Giants offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, rising above the mess that was the regrettable Ray Handley regime. When it was clear Dan Reeves was not a good fit and the Giants were ready to move on after the 1996 season, Young hired Fassel, who was coming off a season in which he helped resurrect Boomer Esiason out in the desert with the Cardinals.

Bespectacled (at first) and sort of bookish-looking, it was tempting to discount Fassel’s ability to inspire a room full of grizzled NFL types. He inherited a sickly quarterback situation — Dave Brown, Kent Graham and rookie Danny Kanell — and made it work. Fassel went with Kanell down the stretch, and a growing defense led by Strahan steered the Giants to a 10-5-1 record and the NFC East title. Fassel was named NFL Coach of the Year in his first season, but his team blew a lead and lost to the Vikings in the first round of the playoffs.

On the day before Thanksgiving during the 2000 season, the Giants were 7-4 but had lost two straight games. Coming off seasons of 8-8 and 7-9, Fassel knew his job security hinged on getting his team — with strong-armed Kerry Collins now at quarterback — into the postseason. Fassel walked into a Wednesday press conference and, after planning this all out one night earlier, came up with a doozy of a playoff guarantee.

“This is a poker game, and I’m shoving my chips to the middle of the table,” Fassel said. “I’m raising the ante, and anybody who wants in, get in. Anybody who wants out can get out. This team is going to the playoffs, OK? This team is going to the playoffs.”

That team did go to the playoffs.

“We always felt he believed in us,’’ Collins told The Post. “He was tough when he needed to be, but he was encouraging, and he always seemed to have us going in the right direction for the vast majority of the time.’’

Fassel’s Giants won their last five regular-season games to finish 12-4. They beat the hated Eagles, 20-10, in a playoff game at Giants Stadium — Jason Sehorn’s ballet-like interception was the highlight — and in the NFC title game thrashed the high-powered Vikings 41-0, allowing franchise patriarch Wellington Mara a glowing moment in a raucous postgame stadium address.

“This team was referred to as the worst team ever to win the home-field advantage in the National Football League,” Mara said as the crowd roared. “And today, on our field of painted mud, we proved we’re the worst team ever to win the NFC Championship. In two weeks, we’re going to try to become the worst team ever to win the Super Bowl.”

That did not happen, as Fassel’s Giants were overwhelmed by Ray Lewis and the Ravens’ superlative defense, losing 34-7 in Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa.g 34-7 in Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa.

There would be one more memorable, unforgettable moment for Fassel. His offense was a dynamo in 2002 and soared to a 38-14 lead in San Francisco in what was developing into a playoff rout of the 49ers, but an epic collapse, lowlighted by a special teams fiasco (bad snap by Trey Junkin) produced a 39-38 loss. Fassel was on borrowed time after that and was fired after the Giants went 4-12 in 2003. He was replaced by Tom Coughlin and never got another head-coaching job in the NFL.

“The fact he never got another opportunity in the NFL really bothered him,’’ Collins said. “I don’t think he ever got over it.’’

Several Giants fans did not want to see Jim Fassel fired in 2003.
Several Giants fans did not want to see Jim Fassel fired in 2003.
Anthony J Causi

Fassel with the Giants hired John Fox to run his defense and Sean Payton as a young assistant to work the offense, and both became excellent NFL head coaches. Fassel during the 2001 season rose to a difficult challenge after the entire New York City area was rocked by the terrorist attack that felled the World Trade Center, visiting Ground Zero and setting up a foundation to help the families of first responders.

Fassel grew frustrated that the Giants did not deem him worthy of inclusion in their Ring of Honor. His time with the Giants came after legendary Bill Parcells and before the legendary Coughlin, but Fassel gave the franchise some stunning moments.

“We were all saddened to hear of Jim’s passing,’’ co-owner John Mara said, offering condolences on behalf of his family and the Tisch family. “Jim was a good man and his record as our coach speaks for itself. Jim distinguished himself by the way he managed our team and devoted his efforts to the firefighters and other families following the tragedy of 9/11. The players respected Jim and enjoyed playing for him and his coaching staff. And we appreciated his seven years of leading our team.”

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