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COWBOYS AT GIANTS Tonight, 6, Channel 7

Fish Out of Water

New York still loves 'Tuna,' but it hates Cowboys more

September 15, 2003|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Everywhere and nowhere, that's where Bill Parcells resides with the New York Giants.

As the coach who brought the franchise its only two Super Bowl victories, he still looms as large as anyone on the New York sports landscape. His legacy lives in the heart of Giant owner Wellington Mara and hovers just over the shoulder of Coach Jim Fassel.

So popular is Parcells, even the most true-blue of Giant fans were still hooked on the Tuna after he walked away from the organization with time remaining on his contract, then wound up as coach of the New England Patriots and New York Jets.

But tonight is different.

Tonight, he stands with the enemy.

"He's coaching the Dallas Cowboys, and that's the toughest part of this whole thing," legendary Giant linebacker Harry Carson said. "The No. 1 thing you do as a Giants' fan is hate the Cowboys. With Giants' fans, they have an invisible tattoo put on their rear ends when they're born that says, 'I hate Dallas.' "

The twisted homecoming is a far bigger deal to New York fans and media than it is to Giant players, none of whom was around when Parcells quit the Giants for health reasons in May 1991, four months after a 20-19 victory over Buffalo in Super Bowl XXV.

"For us, we're playing the Dallas Cowboys," defensive end Michael Strahan said. "It doesn't matter who the coach is."

It matters to Dallas. Parcells has a proven history of resurrecting franchises that have fallen on hard times. The Giants had had only one winning season in 10 years before he took over as coach in December 1982. He led the Patriots to the Super Bowl in his second season, and breathed life into a Jet team that went 1-15 the year before he got there, going 9-7 in his first season and reaching the AFC championship game in his second.

The fourth reclamation project of his coaching career might be the toughest. The Cowboys don't have an answer at quarterback, and Parcells doesn't have the final say-so when it comes to personnel the way he did with the Patriots and Jets. That belongs to Cowboy owner Jerry Jones, who still paces the sideline during games.

"The culture has set in of not winning," said Parcells, 62, who signed a four-year, $17.1-million deal to coach a team coming off three consecutive 5-11 seasons. "You have to have the players in place to overcome that."

Mara smiled when told some Dallas fans were saying Parcells' team looked no different than that of fired coach Dave Campo in last Sunday's 27-13 loss to Atlanta.

"Believe me," Mara said, "they won't recognize [the Cowboys] by the end of the season, they'll be so much better."

Parcells visits all three of his old haunts this season -- the Cowboys play the Jets in two weeks and the Patriots on Nov. 16 -- and on Oct. 26 faces Tampa Bay, a team he spurned twice when the Buccaneers tried to hire him as coach.

He said he understands some Giant fans can hardly stomach the sight of him coaching the Cowboys.

"That's OK," he said. "I have a lot of friends in New York. They're going to be my friends anyway, so I'm not worried about it."

That circle of friends might not include Fassel. Parcells (85-52-1 with the Giants) didn't like it when Fassel (57-44-1) compared his record favorably to Parcells'. Fassel, meanwhile, has spent his entire career with the Giants coaching in the shadow of a figure who's as much a legend in New York as Vince Lombardi is in Green Bay, or Don Shula is in Miami.

Although Fassel this week insisted he has been around long enough to tune out those whispers, he conceded he cleared an emotional hurdle when his Giants put a 41-28 pounding on Parcells' Jets in 1999.

"This is Jim Fassel's team," Strahan said. "That's just the way it is. Before that, it was Dan Reeves, and before that, Ray Handley. Bill Parcells definitely came and left an unbelievable legacy here. But at the same time, he's moved on and I think the organization has moved on."

Well, there are exceptions. Second-year tight end Jeremy Shockey, as immature as he is popular, made national news recently when, in a taped interview with New York magazine, he referred to Parcells as "the homo."

Shockey spoke to reporters once this week, for three minutes as he came off the field after Thursday's practice, and claimed he was misquoted and his words were "turned around." Shockey was rankled last season when Parcells made a comment about him on ESPN after the Giants played the Texans in the Hall of Fame exhibition game. Parcells, at the time a commentator, sarcastically said that maybe the Giants should just leave Shockey behind in Canton, Ohio, so the rookie tight end could be immediately enshrined.

This week, Parcells said he didn't recall that comment and indicated he was ready to put the Shockey brouhaha behind him.

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