Carolina Panthers

His turn to shine

With his return to Giants Stadium tonight, Carolina Panthers coach John Fox goes back to the place where his career took off.

The amazing part, in hindsight, is how close he came to never leaving.

Fox, who has revived the Panthers quickly this season after many thought he was on the verge of losing this job, almost stayed in New York.

To the Giants organization, there's a hint of "the one that got away," wistfulness every time they discuss their former defensive coordinator. So much so that former Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi freely admitted last week how close he came to hiring him in 2001, before the Panthers ever got the chance.

In the days following their run to the Super Bowl after the 2000 season, one of the first orders of business was to work out a contract extension for head coach Jim Fassel. It was, as Accorsi described it, "a reward" for pushing the team through an improbable run which included a bold guarantee followed by seven straight wins down the stretch. It also included a 41-0 shutout of the powerful Minnesota offense in the NFC championship game, a game plan orchestrated by Fox.

Premium head coaches at the time were pushing the $3 million-a-year mark. Fassel and his agent were working for every bit they could. It took a month to reach a deal, but at one point, the negotiations hit what Accorsi called "a rough spot," as Fassel's agent didn't like what he was hearing.

"I told his agent very clearly," Accorsi recalled. "If you don't like this, I can always walk out of my office, turn right, walk down the hall and hire John Fox."

Eventually, they worked out a four-year, $10.75 million deal for Fassel, the expedient move at the time, because it made him one of the five highest-paid coaches in the NFL and it maintained stability for a team coming off an amazing run.

At the same, time, Accorsi knew what it meant.

"I knew at that moment, that we had just lost John Fox," he said. "If the circumstances and timing were different, though...

"We were ready to go with what we had at the time, and I know Mr. Mara felt that way, too."

That's because the Giants owner, the late Wellington Mara, had been through a similar situation before.

The Giants had won the 1956 NFL championship under coach Jim Lee Howell, and two years later, had just lost "The Greatest Game Ever Played" to Baltimore. Their success made Howell's assistants hot properties. He had a guy named Vince Lombardi running his offense, and a young Tom Landry as his defensive coordinator.

While Lombardi turned down an offer to coach Philadelphia in 1958, they knew he wouldn't pass too many chances. So according to Accorsi, Mara went to Howell with a question. "How much longer do you want to do this?" Howell told him he thought he had another three or four years in him.

That left the Giants in the uncomfortable position of watching those groomed young leaders leave, knowing there was nothing they could do.

And when it happened again more than four decades later, they knew the feeling all too well.

"I remember when John went to Carolina, Mr. Mara talking about how much it reminded him of losing Vince Lombardi," Accorsi said. "Now, at the time he left, no one knew Vince was going to win five championships in seven years, just that they felt he was going to be a very good head coach in time."

Granted, Fox hasn't won a championship yet, but he has clearly set the Panthers on a new path, one that became clear from his first season. Since he took over in 2002, only four teams have won more games than the Panthers -- New England, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. And while they haven't won a title yet, Fox has kept this team in a consistent proximity to the playoffs, never falling farther than 7-9.

And the way he's doing it reminds many of the way he worked as an assistant, tirelessly, aggressively, with an edge.

Fassel said he remembers getting a call from Panthers team president Mark Richardson when they were exploring hiring his defensive coordinator. This was when the Panthers were coming off a 1-15 season, and they needed just about everything.

"I remember telling Mark, 'I think you guys really need somebody with that energy about them,'" Fassel said. "And then I told him, 'John is that guy.'"

The telling part of that remark was that weeks earlier, upon firing George Seifert, that Panthers owner Jerry Richardson had said he needed someone to "pump the energy," back into his club, so Fassel's words were exactly what they needed to hear.

Those who worked with him then used the same set of words about Fox you'll hear from his current co-workers and employees.

"He has every ingredient you want in a head coach," Accorsi said. "It starts with his intelligence, he's very smart. But he also has that charisma, that natural leadership.

"You could list all the characteristics, but sooner or later you just have to get a feel, and he has the instinct."

Fassel described his former assistant as "a fun-loving guy," but that translated most into his relationship with players. Fox was beloved by his players when he ran the Giants defense, and his relationship with them has carried through now that he's in charge of a whole team.

"So many people think that 'players coach' means easy," Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme said. "I think he's a players coach because he has the pulse of the team. He has a feel, he's not aloof, he's not unapproachable."

Delhomme said one of the things that has impressed him the most about his boss is the way he relates to everyone on the roster -- not just the stars.

"I've seen coaches who don't know the practice squad guy's names -- John's not like that," Delhomme said. "He has a relationship with everybody. It works out good, because you don't want to let him down. Hey, we know this is a business, it's not like college or high school. But it's a family feel where you don't want to let him down.

"If you make the team, you have guys who are backups, you know that. But when it's your turn to play, there's no doubt he has faith in you, and you feel that from him. That's one thing I've noticed from the beginning, he tells guys all the time: 'I wouldn't keep you here if I didn't think you could help us.' If you get called upon, there's a belief he has in guys. 'Hey step up, it's your turn.'"

The Giants had a belief in him that way once, but never got to give him the turn he's enjoying now.