Book Reviews   

The Final Season: My Last Year as Head Coach in the NFL
By Bill Parcells with Will McDonough

Review by Rich Sheppard


July 14, 2001 -- Bill Parcells, self-described “Jersey Guy,” marches to his own drummer, and whether you agree with his booming tune or not, from his perspective he doesn’t care.   What matters above all for Parcells is winning football games, and Bill (or as the tabloid press in New York likes to call him, “Tuna”), has demonstrated a knack for getting that job done.  Say what you will about the Tuna, what he lacks in charm he makes up for with a fiercely-honed sense of what motivates football players and makes them believe they can win any game, any time.  Anything that doesn’t win football games is a far second in the Tuna hierarchy, losing eats the Tuna alive.

"...Tuna’s overkill “will to win” causes two complimentary and yet diverging realities: He HATES losing, so as the Jets struggle in 1999, he wonders about his balky heart condition. ..."

In The Final Season, Tuna recounts his 1999 tenure as head coach of the New York Jets.  In many ways, for a coach used to success or at least steady progress in rebuilding, the 1999 slate was a season from hell.  At the very end of the previous 1998 season, during the AFC championship game, the Jets were leading the Denver Broncos at halftime – just 30 minutes from the Super Bowl.  It would have been, perhaps should have been, Tuna’s fourth appearance in the ultimate football game, and the triumph of a remarkable 3-year rebuilding program that brought the Jets from sewer to the penthouse skybox.  But the Jets lost that game; the coaches, the players, and especially the fans, however, had good reason to “wait ‘til next year.” 

With hope dancing dreamily in1999, things do not start well, and then they got worse.   Before the season the Jets’ beloved and football-suffering owner Leon Hess died; Tuna considers Hess one of his closest friends in football – one of the sport’s true gentlemen.  In the very first 1999 game, prize Jet quarterback Vinny Testerverde suffers a season-ending Achilles’ heel injury, plunging the team into uncertainty.  Tuna acquires been-around QB Rick Mirer to run his offense, but Rick has limitations and isn’t cutting Tuna’s mustard.   With the ship listing and the Jets losing close, Tuna-killing games, the coach turns with fervent optimism to another Jersey Guy - Ray Lucas - for QB salvation. 

Though at one point during 1999 the Jets were 1-6 and bleakly staring at a true hell-hole season, Tuna - along with the shaky/brilliant/Tuna-competitive Lucas – manages to rally the team to an 8-8 season.  But before the final game of that bittersweet season, Tuna decides he’s had enough.  He would stay in football and with the Jets in an indeterminate but authoritative role, but he would roam the sidelines no more.   No question, the game was losing one of its most colorful and competitive coaches.

The reasons for his retirement reveal a good deal about Tuna, as do many anecdotes from The Final Season.   Tuna is the very definition of “driven.”   He has set ideas about how to win football games, and he relentlessly pursues these theories until they pan out or bust: Win the time of possession battle, minimal penalties, minimal mental mistakes, field position, clock management.  And then he gets players who follow his creed: with his Super Bowl-winning Giants, QB Phil Simms and LB Lawrence Taylor (Tuna positively loves the erratic Taylor).  With the Jets, Testerverde, Lucas, LB Bryan Cox, and Tuna’s favorite running back (whom he dubs “Wonder Boy”), Curtis Martin. 

Tuna’s overkill “will to win” causes two complimentary and yet diverging realities: He HATES losing, so as the Jets struggle in 1999, he wonders about his balky heart condition.  In order to win – or at least salvage the 1999 season - Tuna skirts the borderline in nearly working himself to death.  For sheer survival alone, Tuna had to leave the sideline after 1999, although his heart wasn’t in imminent danger of failing.  He didn’t feel he could sustain the effort to start all over again in 2000.

Readable throughout, and written with Boston Globe sportswriter Will McDonough, The Final Season can be considered a long essay from the sports section.  Tuna recalls his struggles with players, their agents (he refuses to speak any longer with since-traded wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson’s agent), the referees, the league, and his uncertainty over the emerging new ownership of the Jets following the sale of the team by the Hess family.   Lacking in the book are anecdotes about Tuna’s legendary give-and-take with the press.  There are few scenes more compelling than watching Tuna during a post-loss press conference particularly after a tough loss, fielding and battering media questions, some which he dismisses with hilarious disdain and rancor.  Given how frustrating the 1999 season was, more elaboration on the media’s coverage would’ve been very welcome.  Perhaps sportswriter McDonough’s participation in the project influenced this exclusion?

Ultimately, Tuna’s exit from the sidelines causes organization unrest for the Jets.  His hand-picked successor as coach, Bill Belichick, decides at the very last minute he doesn’t want to coach in the huge darkness of Tuna’s shadow.  In steps another long-term Parcells assistant, Al Groh, to helm the Jets, but that’s where The Final Season ends: Tuna has come, Tuna has seen, Tuna has conquered.   In his wake he nearly left a winner; some would say he left turmoil.  In the end, he took a franchise that had an almost Red-Sox like curse for losing, and made them believe, even if he smashed some drums in the process. 

-- Rich Sheppard