By Peter Richmond
Bill Parcells will be enshrined into Canton this weekend, which disappoints me.
It's not just because of the weakness of his coaching numbers -- although they are pretty weak. Of the last 10 coaches inducted, only Marv Levy's winning percentage of .561 is lower than Parcells' .579. (The average of those 10, by the way, is .610, with John Madden's .740 at the top.) And yes, Marv has no rings and Bill has two, but if Norwood hadn't pushed that kick to the right by a yard in January, 1991, then each would now own one ring.
Still, Parcells was a hell of a coach. He jumpstarted some dead franchises and not only got them up to speed, but pushed them to the front of the pack. But when head coaches make up about seven percent of the Hall members, their selection ought to resonate with nothing but High Distinction.
Parcells' induction represents a lowering of the bar. The failing here isn't just a matter of numbers. It's a matter of character.
These days, "fame" is a tricky word, sliding down a slippery slope; culture-wide, all is relative in award-land. "Fame" no longer evokes images of Einstein and Mandela, or even Streep and Starr. Lohan and Kardashian will do the trick. The word once implied exalted status within one's field. Now it refers to one's Q-rating.
But shouldn't a Canton coach be the kind of guy whose players would follow him out of a foxhole, and not the kind of field general who could be a charter subscriber to Soldier of Fortune? Last year, when he was denied entry, it was reported that Parcells' wanderings had been a factor. One year later, they no longer are. Why not?
So in the naive belief that sport might still inspire, I ask: Can the NFL stop honoring those who haven't authentically honored the sport?
How, over the course of Parcells' career, did he dishonor? Let us count the ways.
Within days of winning his first Giants Super Bowl in '86, having taken a previously somnolent team (that Ray Perkins finally had begun to invigorate) to a convincing championship, the Jersey guy's agent was negotiating with the Falcons for muy more money. Pete Rozelle shut those negotiations down.
Four years later, within months of Norwood's ever-so-slightly shanked kick, after patching together an unlikely winner with the likes of Jeff Hostetler, Ottis Andersen and Stephen Baker -- in other words, when little glory could have been anticipated thereafter in the swamps of Jersey -- he quit.
Then he reportedly took the Tampa Bay job ... but then backed out. "I feel like I've been jilted at the altar," Bucs owner Hugh Culverhouse said at the time. Instead, Parcells took the Patriots job. Within four years, he had New England in the Super Bowl -- although, Sports Illustrated reported, Parcells had already decided to jump to the Jets before the game was ever played. After the Pats lost -- because Desmond Howard broke their backs with a 99-yard kickoff return and 90 punt-return yards, against the coach who had always preached that special teams were one-third of every game -- Bill did not fly back on the plane with his team. By any measure, in sport at any level, that's not a misdemeanor; it's High Treason.
He then took over the Jets, and while I largely will resist the temptation to inject the gist of our two-hour conversation when he was in his third year as the Jets' coach, I will insert here one anecdote possibly germane to my argument. When I asked him how long he'd coach the Jets, he told me, "I'm going to do it 'til God tells me, 'Hey Parcells, you don't want to do this anymore.' Soon as he says it, I'll know it like this," he told me, snapping his fingers. (That he also assured me that this was his last coaching job only puts me in good company; he said the same, many times, to very esteemed scribes.)
Then in 2003, apparently not having heard yet from The Big Man, Bill took the Cowboys job. Over four years, his teams went 34-32 with no playoff victories. At the end of his fourth season in 2007, he proclaimed that he wasn't sure if he'd return. It was reported that he'd asked the Giants about being their GM, but the Giants weren't interested.
In December, 2007, he took over as executive VP for football operations in Miami, in a four-year deal. In his first year there, the Dolphins went from 1-15 to 11-5 under head coach Tony Sparano. The next three seasons, they deflated in ugly fashion: 7-9, 7-9 and 6-10. Bill's football operations weren't operating real well.
Of late, when Sean Payton was suspended in New Orleans, he reportedly asked Bill to fill in. Apparently, at that point, Thus Did The Big Man Say, "Hey Parcells, you don't want to do this anymore."
We'll see if His words hold. I'm not laying odds.
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I am not suggesting that most of the members of the Hall of Fame weren't outstanding football players; they all were. Nor am I suggesting that the aberrant, off-field behavior of the likes of Michael Irvin and LT represent anything but exceptions, in terms of inductees' character. (Although, to this day, for the life of me, how Irvin got in after all that pharmaceutical weirdness ... not to mention allegedly stabbing a teammate as they waited for haircuts ... and the topless models at the Marriott party, after which a cop took out a hit on him ... well, never mind.)
So here's my radical suggestion: Let's have the NFL keep the Pro Football Hall of Fame for players and coaches whose numbers are inarguable, since judging "character" and "morality" from afar, without knowing the man, is a very subjective exercise. Let's put Bill's bust in there, maybe with a bleached bronze hair-do (couldn't resist). (And let's keep this Hall in that weird building that resembles the pod about to unpeel its suckered fingers and clamp onto John Hurt's face in Alien, planting the seed that grows into the thing that blasts out of Hurt's stomach.)
And then let's ask the league that governs America's Sport to take the sporting lead and found a very hallowed hall -- the Hall of Honor -- where "honor" equates with ... class.
What's class? Much harder to define than fame. Maybe it's the kind of character attribute wherein, over the course of many years, you know it when you see it. Let's assume that the men who have votes for the "H of H" know what the word means, when it comes to bringing honor to the NFL: players, coaches, GMs, equipment and towel guys, receptionists, the whole inside community of professional football. (Media, clearly, would have no vote. Honestly, who among us -- not an inhabitant of the inner locker room, the bus to the airport, the hotel rooms -- can ever say we know the true man? If we pretend to, we're lying to our readers and ourselves.)
In my notion of the NFL H of H, on-field numbers would count, but they'd be only one variable. The others? Well, I wouldn't presume to know. I'd leave that up to the football community. I would think they'd go beyond charitable foundations and charity work. In a league where the average salary is $2 million -- including all those minimum-scale rookies and free agents, which means a whole lotta guys are making a whole lot of millions -- well, I'd expect them all to be charitable and visit children's hospitals, wouldn't you?
No, I would think that "Honor" would have something to do with the way a man comports himself, over enough time for his true character to reveal itself to those who see him daily.
As the mounting arrest blotters off the field blot out the true athletic beauty of its brutality on it, it's time for the NFL to find a way to separate the wheat from the chaff. Look, Bill Parcells didn't break any written laws. But he sure as hell didn't honor the profession.
It's time for the league to find a place to really put its best game-face forward. Professional football now dwarfs all other sports in its ability to influence future generations. The least the NFL owes to every kid with, say, a Ben Roethlisberger or Ray Lewis poster on his wall -- not only a future season-ticket-holder, but also a future adult, in a society that desperately needs to stop its slippery slide -- is a higher bar, for a history that it is defining.
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Peter Richmond has written for five newspapers, been featured in 14 anthologies and spent 13 years on staff at GQ. He has written about everything from sports to murder to movie stars to vasectomies, and has published six books, one a New York Times bestseller. His most recent, "Badasses," a history of the Oakland Raiders of the 1970s, has been released in paperback.