The New York Giants' locker room is as much a shrine to the franchise's glory days as it is a place for the 1997 Giants to dress. The walls are adorned with large color photographs of New York players, and a handful of the classic wood lockers, which give the place a men's-club feel, carry gold plaques etched with the names of former stars. It was here that coach Jim Fassel addressed his team before the Giants' season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles: a rookie NFL coach talking to a team that finished last in the NFC East in 1996 and that had the youngest roster in the league. Fassel likened the task New York was facing to someone's riding a bike on a tightrope strung between two mountaintops. He paused, then added, "I'm the one driving the bike. Who'll risk everything to jump on and come with me?" A few arms shot up immediately and a few more soon thereafter until, finally, every player had a hand raised.
Fifteen weeks later, after the Giants had beaten the Washington Redskins 30-10 to win their first division title since 1990, Fassel stood near the spot where he had made his opening-day speech. This time tears streamed down his face. You could hardly blame him.
Linebacker Corey Miller stepped forward and handed Fassel a game ball. "Coach, we're all very thankful for what you and the rest of the coaches have done," said Miller, "and we're looking forward to many more good things to come." Fassel choked out these words: "From worst to first. No one believed it was possible except the guys in this room." Then he walked around the locker room and shook every player's hand.
Off to one side New York's 81-year-old president, Wellington Mara, holding an NFC EAST CHAMPIONS T-shirt, stood with his grandson John Jr. When the Giants started 1-3 and fans were asking for Fassel's head on a platter, the franchise's patriarch remembers writing to a friend in the league that even though New York was struggling, something special seemed to be happening. Last Saturday, Mara was asked if this, the most unlikely of the 17 division titles with which he has been associated, had made him cry, too.
"I only cry when we lose," he said, perhaps thinking ahead to the playoffs, where the 9-5-1 Giants could very well get whacked by a wildcard team. "What do you say we give this team five more years before we start comparing it to any of our great older teams? We've got the youngest team in the league, right? Well, I bet they'll be pretty good when they grow up, huh?"
If the silver-haired Mara, a 1997 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee who kept his tie in place on Saturday with a clip commemorating the 1962 NFL Championship Game (in which the Giants lost to the Green Bay Packers), is old school, then Fassel represents the future. He's just not what New York fans have come to expect in a coach.
Fassel is a seemingly laid-back 48-year-old Californian who could pass for Mr. Peabody's son, Sherman. With his sandy-colored 'do, he must have looked just the part when, before getting a job as a Utah assistant coach in 1976, he worked as a salesman for an air-conditioning company. How un-New York is Fassel? When the car of his wife, Kitty, was stolen in November, he dialed the car phone number and—God love him—told the alleged thief, "I want my car back." (He still hasn't recovered it.)
Fassel is a stickler for detail. Every week the Giants' offense practices in the same colored jerseys New York will wear in its upcoming game. Aware that it was possible to spy on practices from a nearby hotel, he moved workouts for his team's first meeting with the Redskins inside Giants Stadium. On the night before games, phones are turned off in the team hotel so no one is bothered, and when on Nov. 9 New York played the Tennessee Oilers in the Liberty Bowl, which has small locker rooms, he staggered the arrival of the team buses so that players wouldn't have to wait to get taped.
"The difference between this year and [life under former coach Dan] Reeves is like night and day," says cornerback Jason Sehorn, who returned the second of his two interceptions on Saturday 35 yards for a fourth-quarter touchdown. "We have the youngest team in the league. Who do you think would work better here: a guy who had been doing things with a lot of success for 20 years and saw no need to change, or someone who is new at this and more flexible and is constantly telling us, 'This is your team, tell me how to run it better.' "
This isn't to suggest that Fassel is a pushover. In the preseason, for example, he blistered left tackle Roman Oben for getting beaten on a pair of sacks. "I've really let a few of the guys have it this year," says Fassel. "But nobody ever wilted. And that's the key to this team. Under all the pressure and all the obstacles, none of us wilted.