Former University of Utah football coach Jim Fassel died Monday evening at the age of 71.
He suffered a heart attack and died while under sedation at a local hospital near his home in Las Vegas, the Los Angeles Times reported. Fassel had been experiencing chest pains earlier in the day and was taken to the hospital by a friend.
A significant part of his legacy will always be tied to his time as New York Giants head coach, which included a memorable midseason news conference and rant in which he guaranteed a playoff berth, and the ensuing run to Super Bowl XXXV, but Fassel’s first head coaching gig was at Utah.
Fassel coached the Utes from 1985-89, compiling a 25-33 record, including a 14-26 mark in the Western Athletic Conference. Utah went 8-4 in Fassel’s first season in 1985, but the program’s high-water mark under the Anaheim, Calif., native came in the 1988 season finale when the Utes defeated in-state rival BYU, 57-28, at the old Rice Stadium.
That Utah win snapped a nine-game losing streak to the Cougars, and was the Utes’ lone victory in the series over a 14-season span from 1979-92.
“We express our deepest sympathies to the family of Jim Fassel,” Utah athletic director Mark Harlan said in a statement Tuesday morning. “Coach Fassel played a significant role in proud history of the Utah football program, and mentored some of the program’s most-prolific offensive performers. His legacy will always be remembered here at Utah.”
The final three years of Fassel’s tenure were highlighted by Salt Lake City native and future NFL quarterback Scott Mitchell under center. In 35 games across three seasons from 1987-89, Mitchell threw for 8,981 yards, 69 touchdowns and 38 interceptions, while completing 57.4% of his passes. Mitchell spent all or parts of 11 seasons in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins, Detroit Lions, Baltimore Ravens, and Cincinnati Bengals.
Fassel was fired from Utah following the 1989 season, then spent the 1990 season helping out at Judge Memorial High School, where one of his sons, John, was a junior quarterback.
“Jim Fassel was a staple in the football community,” Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham said in a statement. “We are privileged to have him as part of our Utah Football family and are saddened to learn of his passing. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends at this time.”
Fassel then moved to the NFL where he spent time as Giants offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach (1991-92), Denver Broncos offensive coordinator (1993-94), Oakland Raiders quarterbacks coach (1995), and Arizona Cardinals offensive coordinator (1996) before spending six seasons as Giants head coach.
In those six seasons, Fassel went 58-53-1, with three playoff appearances, including the aforementioned Super Bowl appearance in 2000. Fassel was named NFL Coach of the Year in 1997 after the Giants went 10-5-1 and qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 1993.
That 2000 season featured arguably Fassel’s most-famous moment. On Nov. 22, three days after a second-straight loss dropped the Giants to 7-4, Fassel guaranteed the Giants would make the playoffs.
“If you’ve got the crosshair, you’ve got the laser, you can put it right on my chest, I’ll take full responsibility,” Fassel said that day. “I’m raising the stakes right now. This is a poker game, I’m shoving my chips to the middle of the table. I’m raising the ante. Anybody wants in, get in. Anybody wants out can get out.
“This team is going to the playoffs.”
The Giants responded to Fassel’s guarantee by winning their final five regular-season games, claiming the NFC East title, and riding that all the way to the Super Bowl, where they fell to the Baltimore Ravens, 34-7. One of the enduring memories of that playoff run was a 41-0 blowout of the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC championship game at Giants Stadium.
Fassel is survived by his wife, Kitty, and their four children, including John, who is currently the special teams coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys.
The Fassels have a fifth son, their first-born, who they put up for adoption three days after his birth and before they were married. In 2003, the family was reunited with their son, John Mathieson, and his family.