Parcells Unbound

 FILING OUT OF Section 320 at Giants Stadium last Sunday, none of us really thought it was the last time we'd see Bill Parcells coaching the Jets-let alone that he'd be followed out the door by Bill Belichick. If my friend Rick had, he probably wouldn't have taken along a lapsed Giants fan like me. It hadn't been a great game - the first quarter actually looked pretty awful - but it was about as good a finish as a salvaged season can get.In fact, as everyone in the section bid farewell to Bubba, the hard-hatted cheerleader up front, and the chant "One more year!" went up all over the stadium, I just shook my head. Although I knew Parcells had an option left, I never imagined his not coming back. Neither did a lot of Jet fans - and, to judge from reactions so far, plenty of people don't believe him.There aren't many guys like Parcells around any more. No, he never looked very special (maybe now they'll take down those scary Long Island Rail Road ads) and his wisdom seldom shows in interviews. He's always been smarter than he's let on and, while playing dumb around the media won't endear you to the media, sometimes it's the only way out.No, what was most impressive about him, apart from his shrewd motivational instincts, is how well he understood how football coaching had changed and how he could use his personality to get the most from his players and from his career.Thirty years ago, in the days of Vince Lombardi and then Tom Landry, a head coach commanded the respect of a sort of secular bishop: moral exemplar, beacon of grit, integrity and success. Post- Vietnam, post-"North Dallas Forty," the job became less exalted, more technical and just plain smaller. The coach of the present day is more apt to have the character of a hustling, manipulative control freak (Jimmy Johnson) or a slippery corporate executive (Dan Reeves) than the soldierly dignity of a George Halas. These days, the only difference between a guy like Mike Ditka being a lovable tough guy and a foul-tempered Neanderthal is his won-lost record.Of course, the changes in the United States over the years - the widespread prosperity, the shortened attention span, the focus of athletes and owners on money - are beyond any football coach's ability to alter. And so Parcells managed to find a way to overcome what most other coaches see as liabilities and turn them to his advantage. If the modern football coach could no longer motivate his players from a pulpit, he could relate to them simply as one man - ableit a smarter and more powerful one - to another.If high-salaried athletes threatened to disrupt coaching authority, Parcells managed more out of his superstars. (Just consider how well he handled the greatest player of his generation, Lawrence Taylor - and try not to think about how Taylor might have run amok during his career under a weaker or less shrewd coach.) By contrast, even if you consider that Dan Marino's career is probably over, Johnson handled the situation this year in such a petty, mean way he scarcely could have done a better job of undermining Marino's confidence if he'd tried to do it deliberately.At the end of last year's baseball season, I complained to a friend about what I thought were the manic-depressive characteristics of a certain well-known local baseball manager who led his team to the playoffs last season. The guy said to me, "Growing up as a Yankee fan and watching Billy Martin, I never had any illusions about the relationship between character and success." Realizing that your leaders aren't necessarily very heroic does seem to be a part of growing up. But finding out that once in a while there's one who embodies class and genuine respect is also a rare treat for adults, not to be taken lightly.So, is the Tuna off the hook? Maybe he's being cagey - maybe, since the team is about to undergo a change of ownership, he understands a transition period isn't a good time to continue, which Belichick as much as said yesterday.And, of course, there's that hope of most Jet fans, that he's borrowing a page from New Jersey's last favorite son, Frank Sinatra, who proved time and again that nothing beats a comeback. So, enjoy the golf, Bill - and then come back. Without the posters next time, OK?