Many will call it foolish to suggest that Bill Parcells, just named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, should think of Colorado Springs as the turning point of his remarkable coaching career. But they don't know Parcells' story.
It's true that Parcells had been an assistant at five schools, including Florida State and Texas Tech, before coming to Air Force as head coach in 1978, replacing the legendary Ben Martin. But his time in the Springs set the stage for Parcells becoming one of the National Football League's most influential figures.
Only a few head coaches can claim two Super Bowl rings (with the New York Giants) and other playoff experiences, making history during 20-plus years of running the show with such famed franchises as New York's Giants and Jets, the New England Patriots, Dallas Cowboys and finally, as an executive, the Miami Dolphins.
But none of that would have happened if not for Parcells' experiences here, as he has admitted on several occasions. He thought he would become a big-time college coach, but that dream ended at the academy — and actually led him to consider other options locally before embracing the NFL.
He started his AFA tenure putting together a staff who would go far: Ken Hatfield, the offensive coordinator and later head coach at Air Force, Arkansas, Clemson and Rice; Al Groh, the defensive coordinator who eventually would be in charge of Wake Forest, the Jets and the University of Virginia; Ray Handley, who would replace Parcells as head coach of the Giants; Walt Harris, later head coach at Pitt and Stanford; and other respected coaches such as Denny Fryzel, Tom Backhus and Bobby Trott.
Parcells' year at Air Force produced a 3-8 record, and I'll never forget walking off the Falcon Stadium field with him after the final home game, a 42-21 loss to Georgia Tech with GT star Eddie Lee Ivery running for an NCAA-record 356 yards. "This job is going to take a while," Parcells said that day, but a few months later he decided he wasn't the right person. He enjoyed the cadets and got along well with fellow New Jersey native Col. John Clune, the AFA athletic director, but battled the limitations and what he saw as lack of commitment from the military.
Just a few weeks before 1979 spring practice, Parcells suddenly accepted a job as a defensive assistant for the Giants. Hatfield took over at Air Force, adding to that staff such later-recognizable names as Chan Gailey and Fisher DeBerry, and led the Falcons toward what has become three decades of near-constant success.
But that wasn't the end of Parcells' time here. When he bolted from Air Force, his wife and kids stayed here to finish that school year. They didn't want to leave, and within a few months, Parcells was back again, leaving the Giants before training camp and returning to Colorado Springs as what he later would call "athletic director" at Gates Land Co. and the Country Club of Colorado.
During that 1979 season, Parcells moonlighted doing commentary for local high school football broadcasts on KRDO-AM. He would come to the Garry Berry Stadium press box, wearing an overcoat with a flask inside to spice up the hot chocolate or coffee, and we'd talk football at all levels. Fascinating, to say the least.
His family was happy, but he wasn't. So when the NFL called again in 1980, Parcells was gone to New England for a year, then to the Giants. He became their head coach in 1983, and the rest is history.
Parcells never forgot Colorado Springs. Whenever we've bumped into each other, he's stopped to reminisce. He always felt proud of that AFA staff he assembled, and he singled out players such as quarterback Dave Ziebart, linebacker Tom Foertsch and defensive end Dave Scott. To Parcells, those Falcons' commitment and spunk put them right alongside NFL stars he coached, from Lawrence Taylor and Phil Simms to Curtis Martin, Keyshawn Johnson and more.
Where would Bill Parcells have gone if he hadn't spent those two years in Colorado Springs? We'll never know, but we do know that he left here determined to succeed at football's highest level —which is exactly what he did.