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Grilled Tuna

Pro football: Parcells' return to New England with the New York Jets is generating plenty of canned heat.

September 11, 1997|T.J. SIMERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FOXBORO, Mass. — For you folks out west, this might be nothing more than the Battle of Grating Accents with Bostonians and New Yorkers hurling indecipherable insults at each other and exchanging headline barbs across the back pages of their tabloid newspapers.

But here in Boston and Danvers and Quincy, where there's a sports pub at the ends of almost every street, this weekend is being billed as a religious experience. And although Bill Parcells, the former Patriot coach, a.k.a. "the Big Tuna," has been excommunicated for his betrayal, he has yet to do his penance and must now be publicly humiliated upon his return to New England as coach of the New York Jets.

It is only Wednesday, and already the "Can the Tuna" T-shirts are almost sold out at the New England Patriots' gift shop, two days before things really get going at the official downtown "Tuna Barbecue and Pep Rally" in preparation for "Tuna Bowl I."

"In my opinion this whole thing has been overblown," Patriot quarterback Drew Bledsoe said.

The hype is just beginning, and by week's end the Tuna will be grilled, chopped and devoured, probably leaving Parcells to regret that haunting remark he made in 1980 while working as Patriot linebacker coach when he yelled at Rick Sanford: "Who do you think I am? Charlie the Tuna, where I believe everything everybody tells me?"

One newspaper here already has shown a picture of New England wide receiver Terry Glenn, once called "she" by Parcells, celebrating with a tuna held high over his head. A radio station has been carting a whale-sized replica of Parcells around town all week. Football fans are urged to vote: Bill Parcells or Pete Carroll? at http://patriots.projo.com.

"It's kind of what the fans have been waiting for, what certain players have been waiting for," said linebacker Chris Slade, who particularly disliked Parcells' way of doing business. "No, it's not just another day at the office. It's going to be a special week for us."

Imagine the reaction of 60,000 fans when it comes time to officially harpoon the Tuna in pregame introductions, or after the game, which the Patriots are overwhelming favorites to win.

"I'm a grown man and I know you can't go through this world without being stung once in a while," Parcells said.

Never mind that this franchise was dead in the water before Parcells' arrival in 1993, 2-14, rumored on its way to St. Louis and selling fewer than 25,000 season tickets a year.

Now the team will be playing in front of its 34th consecutive sellout with a season-ticket base of 59,000, and so why isn't Parcells being greeted by a standing ovation?

Too much bad blood, because even though the Patriots went to the Super Bowl with Parcells as their coach last season, when the team plane returned from New Orleans, Parcells was not on it.

Unhappy with having some of his power revoked by Robert Kraft, who had bought the club a year after Parcells had been hired, the Big Tuna returned to the Big Apple to make really big bucks.

The Patriots received four draft picks as compensation for losing Parcells, including the Jets' No. 1 pick in 1999, but the people were angry, siding with Kraft, who had pulled rank on Parcells earlier and vetoed the selection of a defensive lineman in order to take Glenn, now the Patriots' game-breaker.

"You either like him or you hate him," said Ray Lucas, a special-teams performer for the Patriots last season and now an employee of the Jets.

If you like Bill Parcells, you see Patton pushing his troops beyond human endurance, bodies falling everywhere, but victory ultimately and gloriously being achieved. If you don't like Parcells, you take note of his lackluster 32-32 record in four years at New England, the fact he elected to kick the ball to Desmond Howard in a 35-21 Super Bowl XXXI defeat to Green Bay, and his acrimonious departure without saying goodbye to his team at a time when everyone else wanted a parade.

"I don't think there was going to be a real pleasant way to end it there," Parcells said. "I tried to take the high road. . . . I tried to make contact with many of those players during the course of the year, and I've been successful, but not with all."

If you are a real New England loyalist, cheering for the Red Sox and Celtics for no other apparent reason, love him or hate him, there remains a bitter feeling that Parcells' pending abdication hogged the Super Bowl spotlight from his players.

"It took away from some of the things that could have been written about the players and some of the attributes we had that week," admitted tackle and team leader Bruce Armstrong. "The whole thing was a little messy--it could have been handled a little differently."

In one more comical sidelight, the Jets scheduled Parcells' telephone conference call with the Boston-area media Wednesday at the same time and only time the Patriots were making their players available for interviews--and for the most part the media stuck with the coaching icon and ignored the 2-0 Patriots.

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