BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 12/14/2016

The ‘pretty weird’ story of interim Rams coach

John Fassel has zero ambition to be an NFL head coach, even though his dad was one for seven years with the New York Giants. But now John’s in charge against the mighty Seahawks.

John Fassel is a guy who never aspired to be where he will be Thursday night. / Los Angeles Rams

Of rumors linking him to the Los Angeles Rams coaching vacancy, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Tuesday they were “lies made up by our enemies.”

Less paranoid was the response from Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. On a call with Los Angeles media Tuesday, he first said “no comment,” then was asked if he would like to rule out entirely the possibility of coaching the Rams, Carroll laughed and said, “Yes.”

Then we have John Fassel. He has the job, the interim successor to Jeff Fisher, fired Monday before the Thursday game with the Seahawks.

But Fassel has no ambitions to it.

At all. Or any head coaching job.

Not even in his wildest dreams.

Yet there he will be on national TV Thursday night, making his head coaching debut in the most hostile of NFL territory in a clash between rivals after humiliating losses for each.

“Honestly, I never aspired to be an NFL head coach,” he said by phone Tuesday. “I can’t even say I’ve considered it. I guess at some point, if it happens, it happens. But I don’t do my stuff on special teams, or try to move over to the offense or defense side to try to become a head coach.

“I love coaching special teams.”

As Fassel spent more than 10 minutes amiably chatting up two Seattle reporters, he revealed himself to be utterly unpretentious; guileless, even. He seemed to be a cross between Woody Boyd, Woody Harrelson’s bartender character in the TV show Cheers, and Dave, a film starring Kevin Kline playing a dead ringer for a comatose U.S. president he is asked to imitate.

Asked if this was his first interview with out of town reporters, he said, “Well, I guess it is; the honor’s mine.”

He had us right there. Such words have never been heard in a coach-interview call in NFL history. Nor are they likely to be heard again. Fassel doesn’t fit the mold.

Daunted by the task, are you, John?

“I haven’t felt that way yet,” he said. “I have a great support staff. I feel like it’s running itself, really. I don’t feel daunted at all. The short week just accelerates all the installs and the work. It’s a good group of hungry players, and we’ll see what happens.”

Well, we certainly will. Suddenly, I’m three times more interested in this game.

Fassel, 42, who’s been the Rams special teams coach for five years, is probably best known for being the son of Jim Fassel, who was a quarterback at USC when Mike Holmgren was doing the same thing there. Jim Fassel coached the New York Giants for seven seasons, peaking in 2000 when he took the Giants to the Super Bowl, where they lost to the Baltimore Ravens.

For as far back as can he remember, John was always around his dad on the football sidelines. As a little guy, he was a nuisance, sometimes running away and hiding. One time he got in big trouble for building a fort out of tackling dummies on the practice field.

“Just a pain in the ass,” he said, “getting in the way.”

As he grew up, he started to do football stuff.

“I spent years on the sideline,” he said, “a hundred games holding his (headset) cord or catching (practice) punts.”

He grew into a wide receiver at Weber State, moved into college coaching and finally landed in the NFL with the Ravens in 2005 as a special teams assistant. And through no plan or ambition of his own, he will be in charge Thursday of the pride of one of the world’s richest men, Stan Kroenke, who somehow finagled the NFL into believing he knew what he was doing by jerking the Rams from St. Louis in order to occupy a Taj Mahal of a stadium in 2019 that will cost $2.6 billion. Mostly of his own money.

But before any of that, Jim Fassel is flying to Seattle to be at his son’s side Thursday at the Clink.

The moment may never come again. For those who remember Ken Griffey Sr. and Ken Griffey Jr. taking the field together as Seattle Mariners, get out the towel-sized handkerchiefs.

“We flip it around,” John said. “He was super proud. Pretty unique — to have my dad on the sideline, and me coaching. Maybe I’ll have him hold the red flag, or something. I used to do that for him too.

“Kinda weird. Kinda cool, but pretty weird.”

For those asking why would a special-teams coach advance to the top job in the midseason change, it’s simple: The offensive and defensive coordinators, should either advance, would be harder to replace than the special-teams coach.

Fassel knew that in two other emergency situations in the NFL this year, at Minnesota and Denver, special teams coaches filled in. But he didn’t know what was coming Monday.

Fisher called a staff meeting at 11:15 a.m, and said he had been fired after a 4-9 record, his fifth losing season in his five-year tenure. That meant they all were vulnerable.

“That was the first we heard,” Fassel said. “They let me know that I possibly was going to be the guy. Then we had a team meeting right away. (General manager Kevin Demoff) said they were going to make me the interim. Twenty minutes later we had our special teams meeting. It happened super fast.”

The whipsaw of emotions was intense.

“I had the utmost respect and love, really, for coach Fisher,” he said. “Initially, it was just a bummer that a guy I really respected and admired just lost his job. Then suddenly having to switch over and figure out how to do this thing on the fly. It’s been emotional, which is a good thing, I think.”

Or nuts. Either way, Fassel’s in charge, unburdened by his own history or the conventions of coach-speak. Asked how it was that the Rams have won three in a row and four out of the past five games against Seattle, he answered with the most concise answer in the football universe.

“The players,” he said, “have played good.”

He went on a bit.

“We don’t look at Seattle as particularly a special game, more than any of the other teams we played. Maybe we caught them at the right time in a couple games, where maybe Kam Chancellor was out, or certain situations where we capitalized.”

As in special teams. The Rams have a tee-hee history of out-smarting the Seahawks with passes from the punter and misdirection on punt coverage. Is that all you, wise guy?

“No, I can’t take full credit,” he said. “Some of the unique stuff that has happened, not only against Seattle, is easy to draw up but it’s hard to execute. It comes down to the players paying attention.”

The sports-nation tumult that accompanied the move of the Rams from St. Louis was followed by the franchise’s temporary vagabond existence in several Southern California communities.

Now the firing of Fisher and the vacancy in Los Angeles have created a whirlwind throughout college and pro football. Kroenke’s wealth and LA’s market size mean exactly every premier coach is in play: Carroll, Harbaugh, New England’s Bill Belichick and Alabama’s Nick Saban will all be questioned until the job is filled.

But the man of the moment is John Fassel. What did you think about as you drove home?

“I did drive home last night, actually,” he said. “I (slept) here a couple of nights in a row. I’ve have an opportunity to think about it.

“We were in Oxnard. We’re in Irvine. We’re in Thousand Oaks. Honestly, it’s been a great adventure. My buddies say, ‘It’s all about the stories.’ We’ve created some pretty incredible stories.”

And if somehow Fassel and his Rams out-wit Carroll and his Seahawks Thursday night, there will be the incredible story of how Jim Fassel flew home without a plane.


YourThoughts

  • Comrade Suge

    I’ve always admired all the nepotism involved in coaching.

    • art thiel

      Kinda like Republican and Democratic politics, huh?

  • Matt712

    Sounds like a pretty cool guy. I wish him all the luck in the world, starting Friday morning.

    • art thiel

      Definitely a guy to have beers with. Not a guy to captain a ship, as even he knows.

      • Comrade Suge

        What about Mike Tomsula?

        • art thiel

          He’s a fine gentleman also unqualified for the top job.

  • WestCoastBias79

    I’m still trying to figure out why people think LA is such a prime job. This is anecdotal, but I live in LA, and can count on one hand how many conversations, live, or on social media I’ve had about the Rams that didn’t involve the Seahawks (my hometown team) or someone else’s adopted team, even with people who grew up in LA. I know one Rams fan, and he’s from St. Louis. There’s a reason why there was no NFL for 20 years, no one here cares, and it seems that the NFL is hellbent on foisting themselves on the city with a second NFL team. This city is fickle with a ton of stuff to do that’s a lot more pleasant than spending Sunday afternoon sitting in a 100 year old fresnel lens being baked. This is partially because they suck, but the Rams are currently sitting behind the Lakers, Dodgers, Kings, USC and even Clippers on the sports hierarchy. UCLA hoops even seems to get more play. The honeymoon ended about week 3. It might be reignited with the new stadium, but the anonymous NFL Sunday afternoon game experience doesn’t really mesh with LA culture.

    • art thiel

      Your points have been made by numerous Angelenos over the years, and it all seems true. Which is part of why Kroenke’s stadium plan is going way over the top. He knows that to compete, it has to be a day-long destination with a roof/AC and lots of the things to occupy the short-attention-span locals on 10 Sundays a year. Maybe 20 if the Chargers move.

      That’s why he’ll spare no expense on the coach/GM that can help do that task. Which is why Carrroll tops his wish list. It could be a great job, but everything has to work right to work in LA. The current season was destined to be a mess, no matter what.

      • Husky73

        Isn’t Carroll the oldest coach in the NFL? Do people think he has one more job in him?

        • Comrade Suge

          More likely an upstairs role rather than as HC. Having said that, he seems energetic for his age.

          • Alti

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        • art thiel

          He is, and he stays in great condition to keep open that possibility. I’m not sure he knows what he’ll want to do when he reaches 2019. Do any of us?

          • Tman

            The whole Seattle-LA thing begs the question, “What’s a sophisticated urbanite like yourself doing in a rustic setting like this?

          • Buggy White

            Blazing Saddles!

          • Buggy White

            Have been retired for three years?

      • WestCoastBias79

        Points taken, but I’d hazard a guess that’s just going to make the new stadium a cold weather team visitor destination. I can see it now, a stadium half full of disinterested LA fans that show up late, leave early, and the other half rabid fans of the other team there all game. Maybe that’s why they’re putting the stadium in a place that’s logistically convenient to only LAX. It would be a nice weekend to get away from the cold. Disneyland on Saturday, football on Sunday with a flight out after the game. Pretty sure a guy who sold out his home state doesn’t care where the money is coming from.

        • art thiel

          That’s part of the appeal. A bigger part is to make it the place to be seen for the celebrity industry. If it’s cool and trendy, locals will fill it up.

      • 1coolguy

        I believe as much as his ownership in the Rams, the new complex is what this is all about. This is a huge property, near LAX, and LA has nothing that can compete for conventions, concerts, and other gatherings. Look at what Jerry’s World hosts other than Cowboy’s games, then put it on steroids. Kroenke develops real estate and this is a dream come true for him – possibly the largest (298 ACRES!!!), contiguous piece of undeveloped, AVAILABLE real estate in LA. It’s akin to when Allen picked up the acreage in SLU for $10m, as though THAT was ever going to be a park.
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/City_of_Champions_Stadium

        • art thiel

          The deal was all about Kroenke’s over-the-top vision to make a small, NFL-branded city.

          If Allen’s Commons plan had worked, there could have been an arena at the south end of Lake Union.

    • Comrade Suge

      …because it’s the second biggest media market in the country. The reason LA waited 20 years for an NFL team was because they smartly refused to build a stadium using public money. As for the Rams, yes, they aren’t a franchise like the Cowboys but they are the sole NFL team in LA. Let’s also not forget if it weren’t for the voters here approving a taxpayer-funded stadium, the Seahawks would have stayed in LA in 1997.

      • art thiel

        Good points. Private funding is a big deal in blue states like CA and WA. Only Sacramento threw in public funding on its arena among the modern era of sports venues in CA.

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        What kind of loser beta male stalks a girl on Disqus – like you are, @duckstream????????

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  • Tman

    Why does Rick Neuheisel come to mind?

    • art thiel

      I see your point, but Fassel isn’t as cunning or clever. Rick is always thinking three steps ahead. Fassel seems to be more at the Lebowski end of the scale.

      • 1coolguy

        Perfect description of Ricky, except I beg to add one more aspect “was always looking out for himself first”. Remove that part of his DNA and he’d be a successful HC.

        • art thiel

          Barbara Hedges never figured out that part.

          • SeaRaays

            Babs was also just looking after herself first.

  • Husky73

    First a Dave reference, and then Lebowski. And last night I watched Fargo.

    • art thiel

      You live an exotic, fulfilled life, yes?

  • MrPrimeMinister

    34 degrees and rain/sleet snow here. 67 and sunny in LA. what more need be said?

    • art thiel

      120 and no wind in summer. What more need be said?

  • 1coolguy

    Fisher proved to be another Lambright – a very good assistant, well liked, etc, but not the head guy. He should have been done as an HC during his Tennessee days.

    • art thiel

      I think beating Seahawks four of the last five elevates him to NFL head coach-worthy.

      • 1coolguy

        Everyone gets lucky once in awhile. Remember he’s tied for most losses as an NFL coach and hasn’t had a winning season in 7 years. He’s sort of like Romar – really well liked and respected as a person, but doesn’t win, yet keeps his job against all logic. Would never make the “Just win baby” club of Al Davis, even though Al hadn’t fielded a winner in some time.

        • art thiel

          Let’s not forget Fisher was working for a lousy owner who debilitated the franchise in order to move it.