Here is something you need to know about John Fassel, the Los Angeles Rams’ interim head coach, who debuts at the Seattle Seahawks on Thursday night. It comes from his father, Jim, the former Giants and longtime pro football coach who watched his son grow from a young ball boy to become the new Rams leader.
Jim was driving on a Los Angeles Freeway on Tuesday morning when he shared this chilling experience over the telephone:
"Last year, that summer, the family was out at the ocean near our home in Manhattan Beach (Calif.), all of us including John and his wife and two kids. John began board surfing. We all were watching. If you are around the ocean enough, you know a rip tide when you see one. I recognized one coming. I started watching John more closely. Then all of a sudden, he and another surfer start going lickety-split into the rip tide. Of course, we were concerned and couldn’t figure it out.
"We see them pull another surfer out of the water. They are able to get him on a board and bring him to shore. The young man was on the beach for a couple of hours with the lifeguard and the Manhattan Beach paramedics. He survived. John and the guy who saved him said they saw him struggling, that he had been going under and up in the water. They both told me privately they believed another 20 seconds of that and he could have died. It was last gasp when they finally got to him. But John gave all of the credit to the lifeguard and the Manhattan Beach paramedics. It wasn’t important to him at all to be recognized as a hero. He would have none of that."
So, this is the man the Rams have chosen to salvage a drowning season and franchise. After Jeff Fisher was fired on Monday, Fassel was named the coach to lead and finish the Rams’ final three games, starting in Seattle.
He has been the Rams special teams coach since 2012. In the Rams’ bleak 4-9 season, their special teams have been superb. They lead in several special teams categories and have been among the league’s best for each of Fassel’s seasons with the team.
Fassel turns 43 on Jan. 10. He was a ball boy for his coaching father beginning at the University of Utah in 1976 and on with the Raiders and Giants. He played wide receiver at Weber State. He began his coaching career as a graduate assistant in 1999 at Bucknell. He was an NFL assistant with Baltimore and Oakland before joining the Rams.
The Rams turned to Fassel not only because of his coaching acumen but also because of his unifying spirit. He is a favorite among the Rams players and coaches. The feeling among them is that if anyone can pull the Rams from underwater the rest of the way, it’s John Fassel.
Jim Fassel said his son has averaged about two hours of sleep per day since being named interim head coach.
Think about that — he got the word on Monday with a game to be played on Thursday.
Even by NFL standards, that is an incredible turnaround.
"He’s in phenomenal shape, so that helps him," Jim Fassel said. "He loves the game. He has never questioned coaching. I tried to tell him before he chose it that it’s a tough profession. I tried to warn him. But he tells me about coaching, ‘Dad, I’ve never worked a day in my life.’ He just loves it. He is able to just be himself in it. He’s fair to his players. He’s fair to his coaches. You know what? I’ve never heard him say a cuss word in his life.”
Jim Fassel will fly from Los Angeles to Seattle on Thursday to see his son’s debut. In one way, he says Seattle coach Pete Carroll will meet his match.
"You talk about a cheerleader on the sidelines, I think anyone watching this game will see that in John with the Rams," Fassel said. "He’s just like Pete Carroll in that way, both coaches of great enthusiasm. You’ll never see John on the sideline with his head down. He will create some life among his players."
Jim Fassel remembers receiving word when he left the Raiders in 1996 to become Arizona’s offensive coordinator that then Raiders owner Al Davis was looking for John. Davis was asking where was that kid from last year who was always throwing the ball around, always cleaning up the locker room, always brightening things up around the place? They told him that was Jim Fassel’s kid. He’s in Arizona. In true Al Davis fashion, in only Al Davis fashion, Davis asked, "Can we go get him and bring him back here, anyway?"
Fassel said he has given his son one piece of advice. He told him that players don’t want to know how much you know until they know how much you care. But then Fassel reminded himself he didn’t need to offer that to John.
"That’s his signature, anyway," Fassel said. "He’ll do just fine."