AFTER A YEAR'S vacation from football, ex-University of Utah Coach Jim Fassel is back in business as the quarterback coach for the New York Giants. The matchup was a natural. The Giants wanted someone relaxed and laid back, someone ready to step into a potentially stressful and assuredly controversial situation - and Fassel was just coming off the 18th green.
"I'm ready for this job," says Fassel, who was fired after Utah's 1989 season and said at the time he might leave football. "I'm rested and I'm ready."Which is a good thing since not only are the Giants a marked team after winning the Super Bowl, but they have managed to create one of the NFL's hottest quarterback controversies as they get ready for the 1991 season.
On the one hand they've got Phil Simms, their veteran quarterback who led them to the 1986 Super Bowl. On the other hand they've got Jeff Hostetler, the career reserve who led them to the 1990 Super Bowl.
Hostetler was Simms' backup until a broken bone in Simms' right foot knocked him onto the disabled list just as last season's playoffs were beginning. Enter Hostetler, who didn't lose a single game in December and January and capped his Horatio Alger run with the one-point Super Bowl win over Buffalo.
Last week, the Giants held their first minicamp workout since the Super Bowl.
There was Simms, his right foot well healed.
There was Hostetler, his stock higher than ever.
And there was Fassel.
"Everybody's always said that if you want to be anonymous, become an assistant coach in the NFL," says Fassel wryly.
His arrival with the Giants has not gone unnoticed.
After the first day of minicamp, Fassel, Simms and Hostetler were pictured together in a color photo in The (N.J.) Record.
Underneath the photo, a headline read, "QB Coach a Big Hit." Both Hostetler and Simms were quoted praising their new coach. No surprise there.
In the same day's New York Post, there was another photo and a headline that read, "Giants QB Coach Set to Take Heat." In the article, Fassel said he was prepared to evaluate the two quarterbacks and recommend who should be the 1991 starter. "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen," he said.
"It's a sensitive situation, for sure," said Fassel this week as he returned to Salt Lake to prepare for his family's move to New Jersey. "I don't know what's going to happen, but I know it's going to be controversial. The media's already making a big deal of it."
After further evaluation this summer, Fassel will pass on his decision on who should be the starter to Ray Handley, the Giants' new head coach who replaced Bill Parcells a month ago.
"Ultimately, it's Ray's decision of course," said Fassel. "If I say Hostetler and he says Simms, it'll be Simms. If he says Hostetler and I say Simms, it'll be Hostetler."
Whatever the case, Fassel is happy to be in the middle of it. Being out of coaching for the first time in almost 20 years last fall left him anxious to return.
His dismissal by Ute officials - a kneejerk reaction after a disappointing 1989 season - came as a surprise and left Fassel without a career game plan.
The terms of his long-term Utah contract stipulated that he be paid until he found other employment.
Fassel spent slightly more than a year lining up coaching possibilities for the 1991 season. The Giants' offer came as the phone was also ringing from NFL franchises in Tampa Bay and Cleveland.
Fassel got a strong endorsement from Handley, who was the Giants' offensive coordinator when Parcells gave Fassel the quarterback coach position. When Parcells resigned, Handley's promotion to head coach only enhanced Fassel's staff security.
The relationship between Fassel and Handley dates back to the 1979 season at Stanford, when they were both new assistant coaches to Coach Rod Dowhower.
Curiously, in 1983, when they were still at Stanford, both were contacted by the Giants about a new staff position. The Giants didn't know whether to hire a coach to handle the running backs or the quarterbacks. If they'd chosen quarterbacks, they would have hired Fassel. As it was, they chose to create a running back position, and Handley was hired.
He has been a Parcells aide ever since, while Fassel moved from Stanford to Utah.
Now the two coaches are back together, armed with the defending Super Bowl championship team and two Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks. The season should be a lot of things, anonymous not being one of them.