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‘He wasn’t afraid to try the impossible’: Former Ute remembers Jim Fassel

Scott Mitchell had narrowed his choices of schools to BYU and Stanford, but then, at the 11th hour, he received a phone call from Fassel that changed everything

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Former Utah football coach Jim Fassel, who led the New York Giants to the 2001 Super Bowl, has died. He was 71.

N.Y. Giants head coach Jim Fassel reacts to a referee call Monday, Oct. 22, 2001. Fassel, a former Utah football coach who was named NFL Coach of the Year in 1997 and led the team to the 2001 Super Bowl, has died. He was 71.

Jeff Zelevansky, Associated Press

There was no way Scott Mitchell, a superstar quarterback at Springville High at the time, was going to play for the Utah Utes as signing day approached in February 1987. Mitchell was the hottest recruit in the state, a 6-foot-6 southpaw who was BYU’s No. 1 recruit. Mitchell had grown up in Springville, next door to BYU. He was related to LaVell Edwards, the legendary BYU coach, and had ties to former BYU quarterback Gifford Nielsen and baseball coach Gary Pullins. He was a lifetime BYU fan and BYU was Quarterback U. “There was not any chance I was going to Utah,” he recalls.

And then Jim Fassel, the young Utah coach, swooped in at the last moment and stole him from the Cougars.

Mitchell went on to star for the Utes and delivered their first win over BYU in a decade before moving on to a long NFL career.

Mitchell recalled this on Tuesday when it was learned Fassel had died of a heart attack at the age of 71.

“I look at Coach Fassel and his life; he wasn’t afraid to try the impossible,” says Mitchell. “He thought big.” As Mitchell tells it, he was considering Stanford and BYU but leaning toward the latter three days before signing day. He began to pray to know which school to choose and during his prayer the phone rang. It was Fassel. “I didn’t want to talk to him; I was trying to get an answer to a prayer,” Mitchell says. He picked up the phone anyway. “I didn’t hear a word he said; it was just a lot of coach talk, and I was zoned out,” recalls Mitchell. “But halfway through I had this incredible feeling of warmth and peace and I knew that’s where I should go.”

The next day they met at a restaurant in Springville with Fassel sitting under a photo of Edwards, and Mitchell told him, “I’m a Utah man.”

“He was persistent about it,” says Mitchell. “He called me at that moment; no one else did. I remember watching him years later with the (New York) Giants when he told the media they were going to the playoffs when the team was struggling, and then they did (in 1997). He taught you to be bold and think bigger. He was able to pull it off.” 

But not everything went his way. Fassel was fired as Utah’s coach in November 1989 after his fifth season, much to the surprise of many. He had a cumulative record of 25-33. Fassel, who had signed a contract extension the previous year and had three years left on the deal, was mad about the dismissal — so mad that he called a press conference to say he had been wronged — and then eventually he got even. A few years later he was named the 1997 NFL Coach of the Year and three years later he took the Giants to the Super Bowl.

Mitchell sensed bigger things like that were coming for Fassel in a meeting the coach had with his team shortly before he was fired. “He told us this is what we’re going to do, this is the plan, this is what needs to be done,” says Mitchell. “I thought, he’s figured this thing out. He was a young coach and you could tell there were a lot of things he was figuring out. I was super excited. I thought, we’re on our way. Three days later he was out.”

Fassel was the innovator, the mad professor with a football field as his lab. Jack Reilly was his offensive coordinator and a brilliant innovator himself, but Fassel’s calling card was offense, too, as he would prove in the NFL.

The hallmark of the Fassel era was a wide-open offense at a school that had lived and died with old I-formation football. Fassel was the innovator, the mad professor with a football field as his lab. Jack Reilly was his offensive coordinator and a brilliant innovator himself, but Fassel’s calling card was offense, too, as he would prove in the NFL.

“(Fassel) had his thumbprint on everything,” Mitchell says. Under Reilly and Fassel, the Utes threw the football all over the field, and they weren’t afraid to throw downfield. The offense morphed and remorphed, and one of its iterations was called the “duck offense,” featuring crazy formations. One of them featured a wide receiver and two slot receivers on one side of the field, while the tackles, guards, tight end and running back split wide to the other side. It even worked sometimes. Fans showed up in the stadium with duck calls, the things hunters use to attract ducks.

Utah quarterback Scott Mitchell led the Utes to a surprisingly lopsided victory over the BYU Cougars in 1988.

Utah quarterback Scott Mitchell, shown here dropping back to pass, led the Utes to a surprisingly lopsided victory over the Cougars in 1988.

Utah Athletics

It looked like Fassel was toying with defenses, but there was more to it than that. As Mitchell explains, “It was out of necessity. We had so many linemen hurt in camp that we decided to tuck them to one side of the field and go seven on seven. That was the genesis. … We did some fun, crazy things. It was really exciting. It’s hard for me to watch football now; there’s much more teams could do. It’s pretty vanilla (at BYU and Utah).”

Under Fassel, the Utes scored a lot of points.

So did their opponents.

That was a problem. Fassel and Reilly didn’t have their equivalents working on the other side of the line of scrimmage.  

In 1989 — the last of Fassel’s five seasons at Utah — the Utes were No. 3 in the nation in pass offense, averaging 339 yards per game and 30.4 points. They ranked 106th in defense and 104th in scoring defense, giving up 43.7 points per game.

Fassel was sent packing, but just because a coach is fired does not necessarily mean he’s not a good coach and that was the case with Fassel as he proved many times. There was no shortage of opportunities for the man who had coached John Elway at Stanford and Mitchell at Utah, both of whom played many years in the NFL.

The Giants hired him as a quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, and then he moved on, working as offensive coordinator for the Broncos, quarterbacks coach for the Raiders and offensive coordinator for the Cardinals before the Giants hired him again in 1997, this time as head coach.

He was named NFL Coach of the Year that year. During the 2000 season, he took his team to the Super Bowl, where they lost to the Ravens. Fassel was one of a long line of coaches who had been fired by one team and then turned around and took another team to football’s biggest stage (along with Andy Reid, Dan Reeves, Bill Belichick, Tony Dungy, Pete Carroll).

Asked about his dismissal just days before the Super Bowl, Fassel said, “That was a low point. But I did what I preach to the team — successful people have to come through tough times.”

“I had three different ADs,” he said. “I worked with the school president. They all said to clean up the program (increased graduation rates). I did what they wanted me to do.”

Fassel of course more than redeemed his reputation, if it was needed at all.

Fassel’s departure opened the door for Ron McBride, who had worked as a Utes assistant under two head coaches (including two years under Fassel), to return to the school, this time as head coach. Mitchell, with one year of eligibility remaining, might have played for McBride, but his hiring came so late in the recruiting process that the quarterback was wary.

“I thought, I’ve got one year left and there are a lot of holes here, and how are we going to turn it around in my last year,” he recalls. “I don’t know if I was ready for the NFL, but it worked out.” Mitchell made himself available for the draft and was taken in the fourth round by the Dolphins. He had a solid 10-year career.

“My introduction to complicated offenses and reading defenses was developed more at Utah than anywhere else,” he says. “It was an amazing foundation. We ran the (Chargers’ famed) Air Coryell offense. We used the same nomenclature. We threw the ball downfield; we weren’t throwing bubble screens.” He received personal attention from Fassel. “Players would tease me and call me the golden child because coach Fassel would go off with me during practice and work with me and do drills. He took a very special interest in me.”

Mitchell heard of Fassel’s passing Monday night. “It was terrible to hear,” he says.