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Former Utes football coach, longtime NFL coach Jim Fassel dead at 71

FILE - New York Giants head coach Jim Fassel reacts after referees overturned a ruling on a completed Philadelphia Eagles pass in the fourth quarter at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., in this Monday, Oct. 22, 2001, file photo. (AP Photo/Jeff Zelevansky, File)

FILE - New York Giants head coach Jim Fassel reacts after referees overturned a ruling on a completed Philadelphia Eagles pass in the fourth quarter at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., in this Monday, Oct. 22, 2001, file photo. (AP Photo/Jeff Zelevansky, File) (Jeff Zelevansky, Associated Press)



SALT LAKE CITY — With a winding career that took him from the collegiate game to the pros, Jim Fassel loved to play and coach football throughout his life. It's a game he couldn't get away from even if he tried.

On Monday, Fassel, 71, who at one time served as the University of Utah football head coach in the 1980s and as an assistant coach at Weber State, died at a Las Vegas hospital Monday night, according to the Los Angeles Times. He died of a heart attack, the LA Times said, after suffering chest pains earlier in the day.

"We express our deepest sympathies to the family of Jim Fassel," Utah Athletic Director Mark Harlan said in a statement. "Coach Fassel played a significant role in the 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."

Fassel was survived by his wife Kitty and their four children, including John Fassel who followed in his father's footsteps and is now the special teams coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys.

The Fassels have another son, their first-born, who they put up for adoption three days after his birth. But after 34 years the family was reunited with their son, John Mathieson, and his family.

"For John, Kitty and myself, we have lived with an unanswerable question for all these years," Fassel told the New York Times in 2003 when the family met for the first time. "If someone had granted us one wish in the world, it would always have been to be together and to know things were OK. Instead, you carry this question around with you and you never know how it will come out. So to have a day like today, it is a miracle."

Mathieson, who had a family of four daughters, got the surprise to know his biological father was a well-known coach in the sport he loved, though Fassel was the coach of the New York Giants and Mathieson was a diehard Denver Broncos fan.

"I was already in shock just knowing my natural parents had found me,'' Mathieson told the New York Times. "But when Jim said he was the head coach of the New York Giants, that put me in cardiac arrest."

The longtime football coach was born and raised in Anaheim, California, and graduated from Anaheim High School. He went on to play quarterback at Fullerton College, USC and Long Beach State before being drafted in the seventh round (No. 167) of the 1972 NFL draft by the Chicago Bears where he was quickly ushered out of the organization.

Fassel moved around to the San Diego Chargers and the Houston Oilers that year before a one-year stint with the Toronto Argonauts in Canada. He finished his playing career in the World Football League with The Hawaiians in the two years the league was around. He's credited with throwing the last pass in the league's history before it shuttered on Oct. 22, 1975.

Following his professional playing career, Fassel jumped to the coaching ranks at the collegiate level. He took over several assistant and position coaching roles as well as that of offensive coordinator at Weber State from 1977-78, which followed a one-year gig as the quarterbacks and receiving coach at the University of Utah.

After serving as an offensive coordinator at Weber State, Stanford and with the New Orleans Breakers of the United States Football League, Fassel got his first head coaching position at Utah on Nov. 30, 1984.

According to a Dec. 1 report in the Deseret News, Fassel told reporters that his philosophy at Utah was to "hire good people and let them coach." He added that there were "two kinds of football coaches: Those who are fired, and those who are going to be fired," though the Deseret News made mention that "he wasn't exactly speaking from experience."

While at Utah, Fassel went a meager 25–33 but helped turn the tide slightly in its rivalry against BYU, who was the juggernaut in the state with then-head coach LaVell Edwards' dominance in Provo. Of the rivalry, Fassel said: "I'll think about BYU the week we play them. They're an opponent. I respect them and we'll address BYU when we get there."

In the five years Fassel coached at Utah, BYU claimed victory in four, including Fassel's last year (1989) where BYU trounced Utah 70-31. But on Nov. 19, 1988, Fassel's team got the upper hand and snapped a nine-year BYU winning streak with a 57-28 victory over the Cougars.

While at Utah, Fassel entertained fans with what he called the "duck" offense. He'd create unusual formations — even naming several formations Donald, Daisy and Daffy — where only one player, with the QB in shotgun, was near the ball at the line of scrimmage to hike the ball. The other linemen, as well as wide receivers and tight ends were spread out on the side of the field. A pair of running backs could be in the backfield or utilized as receivers.

The crazy formations worked to some extent and got players like Eddie Johnson the ball in the open field while also transitioning a predominately run-heavy system at Utah to a pass-heavy offense, most notably with all-time passing leader Scott Mitchell at QB.

"Jim Fassel was a staple in the football community," current Utah head 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, though, was later fired on Nov. 28, 1989, by athletic director Chris Hill. The coach, who had never been fired from a job before, criticized the university for being let go and said "I think the bottom line in college athletics is you'd better win." He added that he had "bitter feelings about college athletics" and would look for a job in the NFL — of which he did.

Nearly two years after being let go by Utah, Fassel was hired by the New York Giants as an offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Fassel later moved around as an offensive coordinator or quarterbacks coach with the Broncos, Oakland Raiders and Arizona Cardinals before being given the head coaching position with the Giants in 1997.

Fassel's first season with the Giants as head coach, where he was named the NFL coach of the year, the team finished first in the NFC East but failed to get out of the wild card round of the playoffs in a loss to the Minnesota Vikings. The Giants eventually made it to the Super Bowl under Fassel — his fourth season with the Giants — but the team lost to the Baltimore Ravens 34-7.

The Giants would be the last and only head coaching position he'd take in the NFL after he was fired in 2003. He concluded his NFL coaching career with the Ravens as a senior offensive consultant in 2004 and as an offensive coordinator from 2005-06.

Not to be outdone by his long-standing career, Fassel took over as head coach of the Las Vegas Locomotives of the United Football League in 2009 and claimed the first-ever UFL Championship with a win over the undefeated Florida Tuskers. He repeated that performance in 2010 with another win over the Tuskers to claim the top prize.

The league was later suspended in 2012, ending a lifetime of coaching for Fassel, though he stayed in Las Vegas till his death. Despite his firing from Utah, Fassel made several appearances on campus after the fact and even took part in a Coaches Clinic in 2018.

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