Before the New York Giants could become one of the more successful teams in recent history, they had to reinvent themselves in what turned out to be an organizational turning point -- in New Jersey
By Judy Battista | Dec. 7, 2015
The headquarters of the New York Giants could double as the team's private Hall of Fame, so filled is it with reminders of the franchise's glory. From Frank Gifford to David Tyree -- with four Lombardi Trophies by the front door -- it is a monument to one of the longest-running success stories in sports, one that dates nearly to the beginning of the NFL itself.
Go looking for relics from the late 1960s and most of the 1970s, though, and you'll spend a lot of time trying to find the sepia-toned pictures and celebratory headlines that link the days of Y.A. Tittle to those of the Big Tuna. Those were forgettable -- and better left forgotten -- years for the Giants, dotted by a fractious family feud, a deeply controversial move and a dynasty's long drought. From 1964 to 1980, the Giants had just two winning seasons and no playoff appearances.
"I still have this vision of [Joe] Namath, of all godforsaken people, running a bootleg to beat us," said John Mara, the Giants' owner, recalling a 1974 game in which the Jets quarterback hobbled for a touchdown run to force overtime, leading to a Giants loss. "That's one sight that is forever ingrained in my memory."
Mara has a lot of memories of that period, most of them bad, some of them, in hindsight, comical. They only improved in the early 1980s, when it was clear the Giants had finally hired the right man (George Young) who hired the right coach (Bill Parcells) and started making the right draft choices (Phil Simms and Lawrence Taylor among them). But it was a long, painful slog before the machinations that finally led those rescuers to the Giants' doors, a slog that stretched from New Haven, Connecticut to East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Mara had a unique view of the fallow decade and a half, of the terrible losses, the failed attempts to improve and the decisions that finally led to the Giants' rise out of their long low point. He is one of the most influential owners in the NFL now. But then, he was in college and law school, seeing tabloid headlines that detailed his family's arguments and the losses that piled up.
Mara grew up going to games at Yankee Stadium, and he was still a teenager when the team decided it would move into its own stadium in New Jersey. He, like many Giants fans, could not comprehend why the team, then led by his father, Wellington, would do it.
"I couldn't quite understand as a teenager why we'd be going across the river to swampland," Mara said.
It was, of course, the right decision, freeing the Giants from worries about both the Yankees' schedule and a renovation that made that stadium smaller, and giving them their own home in a state-of-the-art facility. But in the meantime, it set the Giants on a peripatetic path, through games at the Yale Bowl and Shea Stadium, a period of time that quarterback Craig Morton, who had a brief, terrible stint with the Giants, recalled, in an interview with Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine, as being "absolute havoc. ... We had no weights, no nothing. If you got there early, you might get a pair of socks that stayed up or a jock that wasn't broken."
Mara does not remember that era with much more fondness. He was in school at Boston College in the early 1970s, and he would drive down to the Yale Bowl for Giants home games, enduring miserable drives back -- the Giants won just one home game in New Haven, despite spending most of 1973 and all of 1974 there.
"One day I remember, it was the last game of Alex Webster as head coach," Mara said. "It was a very cold day at the Yale Bowl. I used to sit on the bench in those days. I remember a lot of players were sitting on the bench, gathered around the one heater we had. Webster was getting so upset that they weren't paying attention to what was going on on the field, he calls me over and asks me to disconnect the heater. Made me real popular with the players. I can remember him coming up to me at halftime in tears and saying, 'I'm sorry I couldn't bring you a winner. I wanted to do that more than anything in my life.' "
Webster's tenure ended after that game, which brought the Giants' 1973 record to 2-11-1. His replacement, Bill Arnsparger, managed to do even worse the next year, going 2-12. The Giants were being run then by Wellington and Wellington's nephew, Tim, and the clash in styles and visions for the franchise abetted the dysfunction that manifested on the field.
"We kept trying to fix it with Band-Aid approaches, by making trades, particularly for quarterbacks," Mara said. "I learned a good lesson that the quick fix doesn't work; the name of the game is making good draft choices. We traded all those picks to get Craig Morton [from the Cowboys in 1974], and one ended up being [used on] Randy White, who ended up terrorizing us for years.
"Obviously I'm not over all of this."
The most famous play from that era is vividly remembered -- and featured in endless faded replays -- as marking the team's nadir. It is called the Miracle at the Meadowlands, and it brought the Giants' foibles freshly to their new home, where they'd moved in 1976. It was miraculous only for the Philadelphia Eagles, who faced certain defeat in the Nov. 19, 1978 game until Giants quarterback Joe Pisarcik botched a handoff to Larry Csonka while trying to run out the clock. The fumble was returned for a touchdown by Herman Edwards. The Giants were the league laughingstock.
"It was embarrassing; it was tough to take," Mara said. "When I was in college and law school, I always worked as a spotter in the broadcast booth. The last game I worked was the Pisarcik fumble. My fist hit the table so hard the microphones fell all over the place. I think by mutual agreement with CBS we decided I was not best-suited to be in the booth.
"It wasn't so funny at the time."
But that game also marked the critical turning point in the franchise's history. It convinced the Maras that it was time to modernize the team's operations. The friction between Wellington and Tim Mara brought decision-making to a standstill. They could not even agree whether to hire a head coach or general manager first. Each side was submitting names, with the other side rejecting them. The commissioner of the NFL at the time, Pete Rozelle, got involved. Finally, several people, among them Gifford, who was close to both sides of the Mara family and was trying to mediate their dispute, suggested that the Giants look at a former high school history and political science teacher who was then a personnel executive for Don Shula in Miami.
Wellington knew that if he suggested Young, Tim's side would likely reject him. So Wellington proposed to Rozelle that he raise Young's name to the family members. Rozelle went along with the plan, and after Tim ran the suggestion by Gifford, Young was hired in 1979.
It was, it turned out, the pivot point in the history of the Giants, the decision that took them from being a storied, if moribund, part of the NFL's past and established them as one of the most well-run, stable teams in the modern league. The four Super Bowl championships all have direct links to Young and the overhaul he enacted with the Giants.
"I had never heard of him before, and I can't say when I saw him for the first time I thought this was going to be the savior," Mara said. "The term I use -- he professionalized our entire organization, from our trainers to our equipment to our scouting to our pro personnel.
"We needed somebody with a strong personnel background. And a strong personality, just taking control of the draft and all the personnel decisions and starting to make changes. At the time, we had too many people who were former players as employees, people my father was loyal to but perhaps not best-suited for those jobs."
Young was private and dignified, good-natured but often cranky. He was not embraced with universal acclaim. His first significant decision was met with a roar of boos when Rozelle announced it at the 1979 NFL Draft: the Giants' selection of quarterback Phil Simms with their first-round pick.
"The hot name was Jack Thompson, The Throwin' Samoan," Mara recalled. "That was the popular choice. Nobody had heard of this guy from Morehead State. (Then-coach) Ray Perkins gets some credit; he said he had a rare talent. George repeated that to us. That started to get me excited, because I hadn't heard that term about one of our quarterbacks in a while."
Thompson was selected third overall by the Bengals, for whom he went on to start five games in four seasons. Simms played for 14 seasons and was part of the Giants' first two Super Bowl-winning teams. Two years after Simms was drafted, Young re-hired Bill Parcells (who spent a brief stint with the team in 1979, then coached the Patriots' linebackers in 1980) as the team's defensive coordinator and drafted Lawrence Taylor.
"I wasn't convinced about anything until the '81 season, where we won some tough games," Mara said. "That's when I finally felt, when we made the playoffs after all those years, the jury was still out on Phil, but our defense was starting to come around -- that's when I felt we had turned the corner on this thing."
Two years after that, when Perkins left to coach Alabama, Young elevated Parcells to the top job, because he was the only member of Perkins' staff with previous head-coaching experience -- albeit just one season's worth, at the Air Force Academy in 1978. He did it quickly, too, explaining to Tim Mara that the Giants job should be one that coaches ran to, not walked away from.
Parcells was, like the Giants, fully of New Jersey. He had been born in Englewood, only about 10 miles north of Giants Stadium. When his family moved a little farther north to Oradell, he encountered the man who would become his mentor and a legendary figure in New Jersey athletics. Mickey Corcoran, who died on Nov. 29, was Parcells' basketball coach at River Dell High School, and Corcoran had himself been coached in basketball at St. Cecilia High School by Vince Lombardi, who was also coaching football and teaching Latin there. Corcoran became a lifelong confidant to Parcells and often attended Giants practices and traveled with the team during Parcells' years there. The Giants went 3-12-1 in Parcells' first season, 1983.
"The end of that season, George is thinking Parcells is not the guy," Mara said. "He was going to go after Howard Schnellenberger. He was the hot name. I remember George coming back to us and saying, 'I can't get him this year, but I think I can get him next year. Let's give Bill one more chance.' "
They did not look around again. The Giants went to the playoffs in 1984 and again in '85, the first time they had been in the postseason in consecutive years since they lost back-to-back NFL Championship Games in 1962 and '63. And in 1986 came the breakthrough, when the Giants won the Super Bowl. Since then, only one other team -- New England, which has lost two Super Bowls to the Giants -- has won as many championships as the Giants. They won it again in 1990, before Parcells temporarily retired because of health concerns. Parcells and Young sometimes sparred, largely because Parcells wanted greater control of personnel. And Young called his hiring of Ray Handley to replace Parcells his worst decision.
But in 1994, Young hired Ernie Accorsi, who would succeed Young when he left the Giants to work in the league office in 1998. Young's final hire with the Giants also came in 1994: a young regional scout named Jerry Reese, who is now the general manager. The Giants' most recent Hall of Fame inductee, Michael Strahan, was a Young pick, but it was Accorsi and Reese who were responsible for assembling the rosters that won the two most recent Super Bowls, the effect of Young still being felt even as the Giants scratch to make another postseason this year.
When Young died in 2001, Wellington Mara said, "George's legacy is greater than two Super Bowls." With two more already added to the trophy case in the Giants headquarters since then, Mara was certainly right.
"In 1984, I felt like at that point we were on the way," John Mara said. "That made me feel like we were going to be a competitive team each year. And have some pride and not worry about embarrassing ourselves."