January 10, 2003
Scoop Or Shill? That Was Will
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
His long and storied career could possibly be about one article.
On the morning of January 20th, 1997, I was enjoying a day off due to a holiday. That naturally meant that I awoke late in the morning instead of early. It was a Monday morning, and the interminable countdown to Super Bowl XXXI had finally run inside of one week. It was a two-week prep period back then, and the Patriots were slated to play the Green Bay Packers the following Sunday in the only place the Patriots have ever played a Super Bowl, the Louisiana Superdome.
Living in central California, I get my Boston sports news off of the Internet. On this particular morning, I went to the breakfast table and sat down with the morning paper, The Californian. This paper is derided and despised by many locals. It is a small-potatoes product which drives many locals to buy the Los Angeles Times, causing them to prefer top-flight news coverage over local stories. But it's the only paper in town that gets delivered to your door.
I sat down with a breakfast that former Globe weekend columnist Ernie Roberts would have been proud of, and went right to the only section of the paper that is worth anything. I took out the sports section, and above the fold (a term which you hear only from Don Imus, it seems) was the news that ruined the next two months of the sworn citizens of Patriot Nation.
Bill Parcells to leave Patriots after the Super Bowl.
The author was Will McDonough of the Globe. Now and then, our poor little local paper will pick up stuff written by McDonough, as well as Bob Ryan, Dan Shaughnessy, Gordon Edes, Bob Hohler, Peter May, Kevin Paul Dupont and Ron Borges. The Globe has its national reputation as the finest sports section in the nation, so it is no surprise that this story went national. Thus our tiny little newspaper, whose every story seems to find its way back somehow to Cesar Chavez, delivered the worst news Patriot Nation would want to hear six days before the Super Bowl.
Immediately I left the breakfast table and the delicious fare behind and bolted for my home computer. I logged on, and there it was. Parcells was really gone. Speculation no longer, the Tuna was going to jilt the Patriots at the high altar, and bolt for the New York Jets as soon as he could get his fat tush out of Foxborough.
Once the shock of the story abated (and calling it "shock" is correct despite the fact that everyone knew that his leaving was a foregone conclusion), I began to seethe in anger. Not at Parcells. At McDonough.
As an aspiring amateur journalist, I began to have conflicting thoughts. McDonough was merely doing his job. But, in this one instance, should he have not?
McDonough passed away suddenly Friday morning at the age of 67 at his home in Hingham. The longtime icon of the Globe sports department, McDonough enjoyed national prominence with his work on NBC and his coverage of the NFL in general and the Patriots in particular. If there was anyone who knew the Patriots inside and out from Day One to the present, it was McDonough.
McDonough, a native of South Boston, leaves behind a wife and five children. One of his sons, Sean, has been the preeminent television voice of the Red Sox since 1988. Sean's rise to prominence in the broadcasting industry, himself also becoming a national figure like his father, made it a true "family affair" for McDonough, and added a lot of distinction to the already estimable family name.
McDonough will be best remembered for his ability to provide the Holy Grail of journalism, the "scoop". Scooping hot news items is what most every journalist strives for. You want to be the one that "breaks the story". Even though the general public really could care less who breaks the story so long as they merely get the story period, McDonough was one of the very best at breaking that hot news item. He knew the right people, as well as ways to get stories no one else could.
The ultimate compliment you can be paid as a sportswriter is if your articles are classified as "must read". McDonough was always in this category, thanks to years and years of inside scoops and tidbits that only he could unearth. If there was a hot story lurking out there, it was a foregone conclusion that McDonough would find it and be the first (and often the only) person who would tell you.
Which brings up back to the Parcells issue, and whether it was a good thing that he broke the story of his leaving when he did.
McDonough and Parcells grew to be very good friends. During Parcells' tenure as Patriot head coach, McDonough made with some very pro-Parcells articles, which prompted many people to refer to him as "Will the Shill". It seemed that if Parcells needed a particular story broken, he'd go to McDonough. McDonough would seem to put the exact face on a given situation that Parcells wanted to have. It is no surprise that for his biography, My Final Season In The NFL, Parcells chose McDonough as his collaborating author.
All that said, did McDonough do the right thing in breaking the story about Parcells leaving the Patriots? Or rather, did he do the right thing in breaking the story when he did?
The Patriots were 14-point underdogs to the Packers. They faced a daunting task in trying to stop Brett Favre, and an equally daunting task in dealing with the Packer defensive line that featured Reggie White, Santana Dotson and Gilbert Brown. The one edge in the Patriots' favor that they possessed was that Parcells was a master coach who had won the big game, and could justifiably outcoach Mike Holmgren. As NBC's Mike Ditka pointed out, "If there's one coach who can prepare his team for a Super Bowl, it's Bill Parcells!"
That "edge" vanished on the morning of January 20th. McDonough did his journalistic duty and broke the story of Parcells leaving the team after the Super Bowl. What was known and presumed by all was now definite. This effectively destroyed what little chance the Patriots had in winning this game, causing one distraction after another for the players. It also forced Parcells to pay undue attention to this issue, an issue in which he disingenuously tried to sidestep all week long.
Which begs this question: Did we need to know all about this at this time? McDonough would perhaps have laughed at me if I had ever gotten the chance to ask him. But there is a very important tenet that comes into play here, and it involves the very mission of journalists in general.
Journalists sometimes forget that it's the readers whom they write for, not the players, coaches, owners, or themselves. As an amateur journalist, it is a great rush to be able to be the first to get out a story. As a consumer of the print media, it really matters not to me who breaks the story, so long as I get all the facts presented to me in a concise and accurate manner. It is a difficult dichotomy to try and figure out.
The reason it is difficult goes back again to that Parcells story that McDonough broke. What harm would it have done if McDonough had waited until after the Super Bowl (a week) to tell everyone that Parcells was definitely leaving the Patriots? Personally, if it meant that the Patriots would have played better in Super Bowl XXXI with clearer heads, and if it had meant that Parcells could have devoted his entire attention to coaching the team rather than answering questions about his status with the team and Bob Kraft, I would have been very happy with McDonough's decision to delay the story a week, if he had indeed done so at the time.
The 35-21 loss to Green Bay was bad enough, but all the maneuvering that ensued in the days following the Super Bowl made the loss even worse. Parcells was indeed leaving the Patriots, and was trying to become the Jets' head coach through means of subverting NFL rules and contractual obligations.
Looks like McDonough was a prophet.
There are numerous sidebars to this story, on both sides. It was no secret that Parcells was leaving. There is also a common perception that Parcells did not coach the game to the best of his ability because he did not want Kraft to win a Super Bowl while he was greasing the skids for his departure. Also, McDonough, as well as the Globe, would have suffered tremendous embarrassment if, say the Herald wound up breaking the story when McDonough knew about it all along. It was a situation where, as McDonough would likely tell you, he did the job he simply had to do. If he didn't break the story, someone else likely would have.
But would they have? There was also a perception at the time that McDonough was a huge publicity shill for Parcells (hence Will the Shill). If Parcells wanted something leaked, or if something juicy had to get out, he'd get McDonough to do it for him. This story was widely viewed as McDonough being a conduit for Parcells, and Parcells wanted this story leaked one week before the Super Bowl. This was likely a story that was McDonough's exclusive, a story that only he could break.
Whether Parcells engineered the story or not, one major issue ought to be addressed: Were the consumers of sports news properly served by McDonough breaking this story when he did? Put it this way: If most of the readers are rabid Patriot fans who were rooting like crazy for their team to beat the Packers, and if this story about Parcells leaving was the main reason for the Patriots playing so poorly in the actual game, McDonough's readers were not properly served, no matter how correct a journalistic decision it was to go ahead with the story on that day.
Parcells was, is, and always will be about himself and his own agenda. It is therefore ironic that a distinguished sportswriter with such a reputation for being true to himself be associated with a master manipulator like Parcells, and that he would be so acquiescing to the whims and attitudes of the former Patriot head coach.
It is a shame that McDonough forged this kind of questionable relationship with Parcells, one of the more conniving figures in NFL history. It sometimes clouded his outstanding journalistic skills, and demeaned the many stories he did break over the many years which did serve the readership well.
Perhaps Ryan summed up why this happened the best. In a recent article last year about the 1976 Patriot playoff loss at Oakland which ended with Ben Dreith's questionable call on Raymond Hamilton, Ryan spoke of his mindset at the time versus McDonough's. Ryan said, "I admit. I root!" He went on to explain that McDonough took a more neutral stance at all the games he attended. While Ryan was screaming and yelling for the Patriots to win, McDonough merely watched the game with no emotion at all. This lack of emotion would explain why he would do such a damaging thing to the Patriots as to break a story of a coach leaving his team six days before it plays in a Super Bowl.
McDonough was a tough reporter, which paralleled his persona. He was well known for a 1979 altercation with Raymond Clayborn in which he basically kicked the former Patriot cornerback's posterior. His articles reflected this toughness, as well as his unwavering zeal for getting the story to the reader, and being the first, if not the only, reporter to do so. The Globe ran a nice account of his career at the paper, with the main theme being that McDonough was "his own man" to the very end.
It's just a shame that for one day, he chose not to set that zeal aside and not destroyed what little hope the Patriots had to win Super Bowl XXXI.
Because McDonough should be remembered as nothing but a great reporter, one who gives great inspiration to all who aspire to be like him.
And not for stuff like Will the Shill.
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