Outside, the snow started to fall Friday and Jim Fassel walked the cold corridors of Giants Stadium on his way back to his office. He wore his gray sweat suit, the one with "New York Giants" and his initials stitched on the front, and walked with his hands stuffed in pants pockets. He had completed two weeks of planning, practice, and news conferences. These promised to the longest 48 hours for him, the time ticking down to a moment of truth on Sunday. He had the chance to catch his breath, consider the journey.
And yet here in the January cold, the Giants' coach promised there wouldn't be a warm winning memory out of long ago lingering in his mind.
"There are times in my life where I reflect back on those things, but really right now I don't," Fassel said. "My thoughts are, 'What can I do today that's going to affect tomorrow?' "
To truly tuck the trust of this organization's championship dreams under his arm, what the Giants coach needs to do is get a playoff victory on his resume today. Fassel hasn't been on the winning side of a postseason game for 27 years, going back to his days as quarterback and coach for the Hawaii Hawaiians of the World Football League. It was a warm, sunny day in Anaheim, Calif., for the 32-14 victory, his double duty made easier when three of the best players for the Southern California Suns hadn't been paid and refused to dress for the game.
He never made it to a bowl game as a college assistant and later as the head coach at Utah, never made the playoffs in the pros with Oakland and Arizona, and lost a 1993 wild-card game as offensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos. And always, there will be the Giants' complete playoff collapse to the Vikings in '97. The timing's right now. Between the warm sun of his California home in 1974, and the snowy sidelines of Giants Stadium, Fassel has come a long way, turned into a terrific coach, and finally comes face to face with the demon he must delete today in this playoff game with the Philadelphia Eagles.
"We won the division two out of the past four years and I want to go further than that," Fassel said. "Hopefully, we've built this thing where we can. My first year, I guarantee . . . everybody was surprised we were there. I'm still mad at that game because we should've won it. But we didn't. That's the fact. But we're more prepared right now. Everybody's expectations are higher."
Higher of the Giants, and higher of him. The value of a victory over the Eagles isn't just to get the Giants within 60 minutes of the Super Bowl, but to validate Fassel's vision. He's won the contract extension, the undying devotion of his players, and playoff success is simply the next threshold for him.
There's a foundation now. There's stability. There's hope again. Most of all, there's an opportunity now. They have to take it. He has to take it. When the Giants take over a first-place schedule next season, playing St. Louis, Minnesota, and Denver on the road, they could be an improved team and still end up 8-8 and miss the playoffs. So, yes, he needs this one on his shelf, to go with his NFL Coach of the Year trophies from 1997.
Things changed so suddenly for the Giants and Fassel this season. One moment, they were overachievers, fighting for a wild-card spot. The next, they're 12-4, NFC East champions, and a No. 1 conference seed.