You think the Giants are a mess these days? It’s nothing compared with what George Young faced when he was named general manager in February 1979.
The Giants hadn’t made the playoffs since 1963. They’d had just two winning seasons in the 15 years since losing the NFL Championship Game that year. The co-owners — Wellington Mara and his nephew, Tim Mara — were not only at odds over longstanding disagreements about the direction of the team; they weren’t even on speaking terms.
Rock bottom came on Nov. 19, 1978.
The Giants lost to the Eagles, 19-17, when Philadelphia cornerback Herman Edwards ran back a fumbled handoff exchange between quarterback Joe Pisarcik and Larry Csonka in the game’s final seconds. Known simply as “The Fumble,” that disastrous play brought the iconic franchise to its knees. The collective rage of Giants fans was best summed up by the banner flown over Giants Stadium during the team’s next home game: “15 Years of Lousy Football — We’ve Had Enough.”
That’s the Giants team that Young inherited, a rebuilding situation that makes the challenge facing this year’s club pale in comparison. Today’s Giants go into the 2020 season having missed the playoffs seven of the last eight years — but at least have the Super Bowl championships of the 2007 and 2011 seasons to celebrate.
Young stared down the barrel at one of the most daunting situations in pro sports history. A compromise choice that the Maras agreed to — with help from commissioner Pete Rozelle, who suggested the bespectacled personnel executive on Don Shula’s Dolphins team would be a good alternative — he went about the painstaking task of resurrecting the team from the ashes of a decade and a half’s worth of abject failure.
Young, a former schoolteacher in Baltimore who played at Bucknell and later became a Colts assistant coach, turned into the Giants’ savior.
His hiring of Ray Perkins and drafting of Phil Simms in 1979, followed by the arrival of Lawrence Taylor and then Bill Parcells, set the stage for a remarkable renaissance that turned the Giants into one of the NFL’s most successful franchises.
“When he came to us, we were in shambles,” said Giants president and co-owner John Mara, Wellington’s son. “We had been through so much chaos. He transformed the entire operation here and made us champions.”
Simms overcame injuries in the early part of his career to become a reliable starter. Taylor quickly became the most dominant defensive player of his era — and perhaps NFL history. Parcells persevered after a 3-12-1 rookie season in 1983 that nearly cost him his job. And the Giants morphed into two-time Super Bowl champions on Young’s watch.
Young now takes his rightful place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Young was selected as one of three contributors in the Hall of Fame’s centennial class as a part of the NFL’s 100-year anniversary. He joins former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and legendary NFL Films director and producer Steve Sabol in the contributor category. Jimmy Johnson of the Cowboys and Bill Cowher of the Steelers were the two coaches selected, and former Jets offensive tackle Winston Hill was one of 10 former players selected by a blue-ribbon panel of experts commissioned by the Hall of Fame.
"[Young] is one of the best GMs in the history of the league," said former Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi, who succeeded Young after the 1997 season. “I started listening to his philosophy on personnel from my first day with the Colts in the 1970s. He was a great mentor to have and a great, organized builder of an organization. He influenced a lot of people along the way, including me."
Among the players Young drafted, signed as free agents or acquired through trades: Simms, Taylor, Carl Banks, Joe Morris, Leonard Marshall, Jeff Hostetler, Bart Oates, Jumbo Elliott, Sean Landeta and Ottis Anderson. Simms and Hostetler were the Giants’ Super Bowl winning quarterbacks, and Anderson was MVP of Super Bowl XXV.
“He deserves to be in Canton,” Mara said. “Not a lot of people could have done what he did, taken us from where we were.”
Young’s induction has been a long time coming. He should have been voted into the Hall of Fame years before now. The herculean task of building the Giants from the ashes of the failed teams of the mid-1960s and 1970s was an epic undertaking, and he handled it with a patient hand and unbending commitment to the principles he believed were imperative to building a winner.
He was a big proponent of building great offensive and defensive lines, and the championship teams Parcells coached reflected that philosophy. The two had some disagreements along the way, and Parcells was nearly fired after his first season in 1983. The coach dealt with the deaths of his parents and an assistant coach, the team was a disaster, and the Giants decided to make a run at University of Miami coach Howard Schnellenberger. A national championship winner at Miami, Schnellenberger wasn’t available because of his contractual situation, and Parcells made the most of his reprieve.
While Parcells often chafed under Young’s authority, the two formed a successful tandem, in part because Young served as a settling influence.
“George was a good guy to balance me,” Parcells said. “You can’t get more conservative than he was, and I was fighting every windmill. But here’s the one thing George and I never had a dispute about: What kind of players we were looking for. Now, we had to fight other people in the organization on that, but philosophically, we knew what we were looking for. We were like, let’s get the best available athlete.”
They won two Super Bowls together before Parcells retired because of health concerns after the 1990 season. Young didn’t win another Super Bowl, but he did hire two coaches — Dan Reeves and Jim Fassel — who won Coach of the Year honors in their first seasons with the Giants. Young retired from the Giants after the 1997 season and joined the NFL office, working there until his death in 2001 from a rare neurological disease that affected his brain. He was 71.
Today, he earns football immortality.
As he should. The man who rescued the Giants from their darkest days now joins his fellow NFL legends.