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Mitchell: I Am Forever Grateful For Coach Fassel’s Wisdom, Timing

LANDOVER, MARYLAND - DECEMBER 03: Jim Fassel head coach of the New York Giants looks on during the game against the Washington Redskins at Fedex Field on December 3rd, 2000 in Landover, Maryland,USA. (Photo by Simon Bruty/Anychance/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – How did BYU’s 1986 top football recruit, a Latter-Day Saint quarterback from Utah County, who was related to legendary coach LaVell Edwards, grew up a massive BYU football fan and had several very close ties to some of the most well-known names in BYU’s sports program like Gifford Nielson, and baseball coach Gary Pulins, not go to BYU? I’ll tell you how, Jim Fassel. 

Coach Fassel called my home late on a Monday night in mid-February 1986, two days before the national letter of intent day while I was in the middle of a prayer asking for heavenly guidance about where I should go to school. I did not want to take his call but reluctantly agreed to. I did not expect to have a life-changing experience as I sat very impatiently on the stairs halfway between the basement and the upstairs of my house, with the only phone in my house turned upside down and barely pressed against my ear. Giving the impression that I was completely uninterested in what I was about to hear. 

Let’s just say that halfway through a conversation I never spoke a word, nor remember a word that Coach Fassel said, but I had an unmistakable feeling come over me, as if warm soothing water was poured over my entire body, giving me an overwhelming sense of peace. The feeling was so powerful and moving that it became evident my prayer had been answered and it was very clear as to what I should do. 

The next day while Coach Fassel sat under a picture of LaVell Edwards in a local Springville diner called, of all things, Coaches Corner. I informed him that I was a Utah Man, am I.  It became one of the best decisions of my life. A true cornerstone moment for me.

I’m not sure that Coach Fassel ever fully understood the magnitude of that moment and how prominent of a role he played in shaping my life and who I’ve become. What I do know is that coach Fassel was not afraid of what seemed to be an insurmountable challenge.  In my situation, Utah was my third choice behind BYU and Stanford. Yet, Coach Fassel never seemed to be bothered by that. He stuck with it and me and because of that was in the right place at the right time. 

Which reminds me of his time as the Giants head coach. New York is not a friendly place to average football coaches or teams. If the media hounds smell blood they are on it and will not let go until they have you. Coach Fassel found himself in the crosshairs of the media. 

In the moment that you would think a coach would retreat from the media, lay low, dodge bullets, deflect the blame to his QB or assistant coaches, as so often happens in the NFL when a team is not playing well. Coach Fassel said, “Nope, we are going to the playoffs, this is all on me.” 

Just like so many who said there is no way Scott Mitchell is going to Utah. There is no way that Jim Fassel is going to lead the New York Giants to the Super Bowl. Well, in both cases he proved everyone wrong. He defied the odds, he met his challenges face on and overcame what people would say could not be done.

How could any Utah faithful ever forget 1988 or any BYU faithful want to remember the 57-28 pounding BYU received against Utah.  The first Utah win in 10 years of the celebrated rivalry. There was coach Fassel shocking the world again. He led us into believing we could win against a team we really had no business beating. He taught us to be bold and to shoot for the moon. Of course, he also taught us to never back down from what seemed to be an insurmountable challenge. 

I remember sitting in a meeting a few days before Coach Fassel was fired as head coach at Utah and thinking, he’s finally figured it out. It was a rough go for the Utes back then. We were barely an above .500 team.  With internal player issues that resulted in prison time for several players. It had been rough on a coach that was hired so young and inexperienced. 

Coach Fassel had finally figured it out and unfortunately, his time was over with the Utah football program. I believe that his time up on the hill was invaluable to his future success. As all of us in life find, our greatest success is founded on a mountain of failure. Coach Fassel ultimately found that success not only as a coach but in his personal life as well.

I was profoundly saddened when I heard the news of Coach Fassel’s passing. Almost a sense of disbelief. Unfortunately, we had not stayed close through the years since I retired from football.  I know if I called him on the phone at any moment he would answer, and we would have a great conversation. Of course, this time I would have the phone firmly pressed against my ear and engaged in what I would be sure would be an amazing life-changing conversation. 

As I sit here with tear-filled eyes I realized that Coach Fassel had finally figured it out just in time to journey off into Heaven. I am forever grateful for our time together and a phone call at just the right time.  My thoughts and prayers go out to his family.

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