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Fassel's the toast of N.Y. with Giants atop NFL East

IT WOULD BE hard to blame New York Giants coach Jim Fassel for looking smug. If that's an I-told-you-so look on his face, he's earned it. He may have left Salt Lake City with a shove, but right now he's coaching the best team in the NFL East division.

These days, Fassel is a walking cliche, a testament to every old adage about sports imaginable. For instance, "What goes around comes around." That's a good one. Or "The worm always turns." Perfect. Or maybe "There is nothing to fear but fear itself." Don't forget the ever-popular "When the going gets tough, the tough get going."You could fill the Meadowlands with the cliches about athletes and coaches who overcame obstacles. It's what sports stories are about. If it weren't for that kind of stuff, there would never have been a "Rudy." Apollo Creed would have been the heavyweight champion of the world.

So it is that Fassel, the former University of Utah coach, is looking remarkably like a man who has landed on his feet. There he is, in the middle of the most antagonistic media contingent this side of Fleet Street, and enjoying every moment. He has them eating out of his hand.

Getting along with the media in New York, of course, isn't a mystery. You don't have to coach long to figure out things only get ugly when you lose. Eight games into the season, Fassel's Giants are 5-3, on a four-game win streak, and all alone at the top of the division. What's to criticize? The Dallas Cowboys are struggling to stay above .500. The Philadelphia Eagles, having abandoned another guy with ties to football in Utah, Ty Detmer, are still 11/2 games behind. Washington - a half-game back, along with Dallas - wasted its chance by losing to Tennessee.

Meanwhile, Fassel is looking like the smartest guy to work in Jersey since Albert Einstein.

That the Giants would be here, now, leading their division, isn't something even Fassel could have predicted. Eight years ago he left the U. in a bad way. His quarterback, Scott Mitchell, was thinking of going pro after his junior season - which he did. The Utes were finishing up a 4-8 season.

The problem was, the Utes didn't just lose, they got annihilated: 52-22 to Fresno State, 67-30 to Hawaii, 45-24 to Wyoming, 50-10 to Colorado State. Defense wasn't just a dirty word, it was a foreign one. They made a good case for adding a third digit to the scoreboard. The clincher was a 70-31 loss to BYU.

Fassel was history.

Calling a press conference to denounce the administration didn't help.

But his dispute with the university was far away after the Giants beat Detroit 26-20 in overtime on Sunday. The wire-rimmed coach was back to his old dashing self. The sly smile, the daring plays, the high-tech savvy were all in place. Fassel had his team run the ball numerous times in the third quarter against the Lions. But the move paid off when he called a risky pass to Chris Calloway in overtime that turned into a 68-yard touchdown run.

And he thought the 57-28 win over BYU was big.

Now the Giants are coming off what is being termed their biggest win in four years. Of their five wins, they were underdogs four times. Strangest of all is that Fassel's defense is getting much of the credit for the Giants' four straight victories.

This, of course, wasn't supposed to happen. Fassel was supposed to have a season in which nobody paid too much attention to the Giants. They were the league's youngest team, with a first-year head coach. Even in New York, they may have given him some slack. The media focus was supposed to be on the Jets and the return of controversial coach Bill Parcells.

But that was before Fassel got his team rolling. Four straight wins and the Giants are suddenly the toast of New York, which is a good thing to be. Win in New York, you have the keys to the city; lose and you might end up sleeping with the fishes.

Thus, as the sun set Sunday, and the Giants were pinching themselves to make sure it was real, offensive tackle Scot Gragg told a reporter, "Now we've got the respect. What are we going to do with that?"

In Fassel's case, he may want to mail it back to Utah.