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Friday, September 22, 2017

Craig Kimbrel the best reliever of this decade?

A few months ago, with Craig Kimbrel in the midst of a 15-inning scoreless streak, fellow Boston Red Sox reliever Matt Barnes took stock of the closer's excellence.
"Craig has been this good for, what, six years?" Barnes asked.

Eight, actually. But Barnes' point was well taken. Since the first time Kimbrel scaled a major league mound, on May 7, 2010, in Philadelphia, he has been pure, unadulterated nasty. With a fastball that averages 97.8 mph, a curveball that bends like a banana and a pre-pitch stance in which he holds out his arms like a bat’s wings while he leans in to read the catcher's sign, he has turned out the lights in the ninth inning for three teams, including the Red Sox for the past two seasons.

So, yes, Kimbrel's early-season five-week run of not allowing a run and retiring 46 of 49 batters -- 28 by strikeout -- was impressive. But it was hardly out of character.

It also is a microcosm of Kimbrel's season. Entering Friday, he hadn't allowed a run in 55 of 63 appearances, while permitting 47 baserunners in 65 innings and striking out 121 of 240 batters (50.4 percent). He had a 1.38 ERA, a 0.66 WHIP and 33 saves in 37 chances. Kimbrel has allowed only 101 balls to be put in play and is holding opponents to a .131 batting average. Right-handed hitters are 12-for-122 (.098) against him.

"Nothing is ever given or automatic," Red Sox manager John Farrell said, "but he’s pretty darn close."

Indeed, at a time when the Red Sox are trying to close out the American League East, get Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts hot at the plate, keep Dustin Pedroia healthy, determine whether David Price is viable as a reliever and figure out why ace Chris Sale has ceased dominating like Randy Johnson over the past two months, their closer is one thing they need not be worried about.

"Guy throws anywhere from 97 to 100 mph from down here," Barnes said, dropping his arm to mimic Kimbrel's release point, "and then he has a breaking ball that comes right off of that same plane. When he's commanding it, the numbers kind of speak for themselves. I think he's been undoubtedly the best closer in baseball as long as he's been in the league."

Barnes is biased, of course. He also might be right. A strong argument can be made that Kimbrel is the best reliever of the decade.

Consider, for one thing, that this might not even be Kimbrel's best season. In 2012, his third year in the big leagues, he struck out 116 of 231 batters (50.2 percent), posted a 1.01 ERA, notched 42 saves in 45 chances and allowed opponents to bat only .126. At one point, he gave up just two runs in 37 appearances spanning 16 weeks.

Kimbrel made his debut for the Atlanta Braves in 2010 and became their closer the following year. Among relievers with at least 100 innings pitched since 2010, he ranks first in ERA (1.79), saves (289), WAR (17.7), strikeouts (767) and strikeout percentage (42.0); second in strikeouts per nine innings (14.8) behind New York Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman (14.92); and third in WHIP (0.909), trailing Koji Uehara of the Chicago Cubs (0.833) and Los Angeles Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen (0.872).

About the only thing Kimbrel hasn't done is win a playoff series, but that isn't his fault. He converted his only save opportunity in eight postseason appearances, including two non-save situations for the Red Sox in last year's division series sweep by the Cleveland Indians.
"I've always liked Kimbrel at the top," one National League scout said when asked for his list of the decade's best relievers. "He gets you out three ways if he wants to. Filthy breaking ball, and he pounds the swing-and-miss from the letters in the zone to eye level. Excellent fielder. Does the little things so well."

Unlike most closers, Kimbrel was raised to be a reliever. He got his first taste of it during his freshman year at Wallace State Community College in Hanceville, Alabama. After dropping a panel of drywall and breaking his left foot while on a construction project with his father, he was eased back to the mound in a relief role before going back to starting again.

"His conditioning was riding a bicycle, and I decided, I said, 'Look, we're just going to put you in that closer's role,' because I had doubt, to be honest, about whether he could condition enough to be able to go six or seven innings," Wallace State coach Randy Putman said. "So it kind of fell into place for him, and he loved it. He loved it."

While Kimbrel's broken foot healed, he maintained his arm strength by throwing from his knees, part of a program developed by Putman. The result: Kimbrel built up his lower back and obliques and picked up steam on his fastball. Suddenly he was lighting up radar guns in the mid- and upper-90s, velocity not typical at the junior college level.

"I'll never forget, his sophomore year, we were playing in Tuscaloosa in a fall game, and I'd say there were probably 25 scouts in to see him. Every pitch was at 98, 99, and it was on the kneecaps," Putman recalled. "That was the tip of the iceberg. He had signed at Alabama, and I told the coaches there, 'You ain't getting him. He's going to go [pro].'"

Indeed, the Braves scooped up Kimbrel in the third round of the 2008 draft and had no doubt about his role. They saw him as the mirror image of Billy Wagner, the former All-Star closer with the undersized body and rocket arm.

Kimbrel didn't make a single start in 121 games in the Braves' minor league system. As a matter of fact, 80 of those appearances lasted only one inning, a pedigree that has shaped why Farrell has been so reluctant to extend Kimbrel beyond three-out saves the past two seasons.
"At the time, I think the preferred development path for even relievers was to give them multiple innings to allow them to develop their pitches," said former Braves general manager Frank Wren, now the Red Sox's senior vice president of player personnel. "But I think that's what was exceptional about Craig. It was pretty universal in our thought process that we will try to get him multiple innings at times, but this guy is a closer."

Kimbrel was traded to the San Diego Padres on the eve of the 2015 season and dealt again to the Red Sox before last season. By Kimbrel's standards, 2016 was a down year. He posted a career-high 3.40 ERA in large part because his walk rate skyrocketed to 5.1 per nine innings. Not one to make excuses -- or talk about himself, for that matter -- Kimbrel can safely attribute his struggles to midseason surgery to repair cartilage in his left knee.

"His health and usage are huge keys this year," the NL scout said. "I also think he's comfortable knowing AL teams now, whereas he was very cautious when he first arrived."
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Sunday, August 09, 2015

Blue Jackets are Campbell’s kind of team

Fact: the Blue Jackets have a reputation around the NHL as a fast, physical and aggressive team that opponents loathe to play.
Another fact: that’s right in Gregory Campbell’s wheelhouse.
Campbell, who signed a two-year deal in Columbus two weeks ago, figures to assume a bottom-six role as he did with the Boston Bruins for five years – highlighted by a seven-game Stanley Cup Final victory against Vancouver in 2012. He’s been around the league in a 780-game career (regular season and playoffs), seen it all and been through the rigors of deep playoff runs, which is part of what attracted the Blue Jackets.
When the NHL’s free agency courting period open, Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen and president of hockey operations John Davidson made early calls to Campbell’s agent, and they remained in pursuit late into the afternoon on July 1. For Campbell, signing in Columbus made the most sense because of his style, the team’s style, and what he felt he could add to a young team that’s riding into a new season with high expectations once again.
And make no mistake: he’s not here to replace departed players or try to be a player different than he’s been the last 11 years. If Gregory Campbell does what Gregory Campbell can do, the Blue Jackets feel they're a better team for it.
“You have to go in and be yourself,” Campbell said. “When I went to Boston (in 2010), not many people knew who I was or what kind of style I played. I kind of embraced the team philosophy and the way they played, which is very similar to the way this team plays: a hard game and a strong, fast game. I think I always embraced that in years past that I was comfortable as a role player; penalty killing, defensively, or whether it is contributing offensively when you’re not expected to contribute as much as everyone else.
“I definitely think this team is built with a lot of depth, so it will allow me to play with some good players. I’m not really looking at replacing anybody, just coming in here and helping this team.”

In addition to his experience, the Blue Jackets targeted Campbell because of his elite penalty-killing and defensive ability, as well as a relentless work ethic that’s earned him respect around the league.
Campbell knows first-hand what it takes to win a Stanley Cup, and he’s been on both sides: the elation of winning a dramatic series in 2011, and also, the agony of losing a heart-breaker to new teammate Brandon Saad and the Chicago Blackhawks two years later.
“It takes so many things to win a Stanley Cup; it takes luck, as far as being healthy and sometimes series are decided in a moment or overtime in Game 7,” Campbell said. “From what I learned from playoff experience, you have to have that commitment and belief in yourself. It’s a long road.
“It really takes everybody to win the Stanley Cup. You’re going to have to rely on everyone at some point in time. It’s about fitting in here, bringing what we can bring and what our strengths are. We’re just trying to be part of this team.”
Within hours of signing his contract with the Blue Jackets, Campbell heard from many of his new teammates, including captain Nick Foligno. While in Boston, Campbell got to know several current Jackets from their in-conference battles, including Scott Hartnell (Philadelphia) and Brandon Dubinsky (New York).
It helped reaffirm that he’d made a good decision, one that's enabled him to join a team with championship aspirations of its own.
“You’re automatically given 20 new friends when you move to a new city,” Campbell said. “People talk about us coming here and what we’ve done – winning, more or less – but I have lot of respect for guys in (the Blue Jackets) room. They’re hard to play against, whether they’ve been on this team or other teams.
“The captain, Nick Foligno, is a tremendous hockey player – not a flashy guy, but he’s really respected around the league. That’s kind of how this team is: not real flashy but it works hard, and I’m honestly really excited to be part of it.”

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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Sisters Divided In Murder Trial Of Ex-NFL Player

Two sisters are being torn apart by Aaron Hernandez’s murder trial.

aaron hernendez girlfriend and her sister
Shayanna Jenkins sits behind her fiance, Hernandez, the former New England Patriot. Shaneah Jenkins sits with the family of Odin Lloyd, her boyfriend and the man Hernandez is accused of killing on June 17, 2013.
The sisters, who introduced the men, now have a relationship that appears fractured. The rift was on full display last week as Shaneah took the stand against Hernandez while her sister sat in the front row, supporting him.
The once-close sisters, for a time, took similar paths, according to Shaneah’s testimony.
Shayanna, 25, and Shaneah, 23, grew up in Bristol, Connecticut, and both attended Bristol Central High School. Shayanna had an on-and-off relationship with Hernandez that spanned the last two years of high school. When Hernandez went off to Florida to play football, Shayanna went to community college.
After Hernandez was drafted by the Patriots in 2010, Shayanna left college and moved with him to a Massachusetts condo. Two years later, Hernandez signed a $40 million contract and, that November, Shayanna gave birth to a daughter. The family moved into a mansion in North Attleborough, not far from Gillette Stadium.
Shaneah, like her sister, enrolled in community college but later transferred to Central Connecticut State University. She held down several jobs while majoring in criminology: at a home care company, for a law firm and at a Comfort Suites hotel in Southington, Connecticut.

It was there that she met Lloyd, who was doing electrical work with a crew staying at the hotel, in January 2012. By March, they were dating. They talked every day and after Lloyd’s work in Connecticut ended, their relationship deepened.
Lloyd and Hernandez first met in August 2012, when, for the younger sister’s birthday, Hernandez got a skybox for a Patriots game at Gillette Stadium. After that, the men saw each other a few times a month, Shaneah told the court. She would stay with her sister and Hernandez when she went to Massachusetts to visit Lloyd every couple of weeks.
“Almost every time I went there, he was with me,” Shaneah testified.
During those visits, while the sisters would hang out upstairs, go shopping or get their nails done, Lloyd and Hernandez would sometimes hole up in the basement “man cave” and smoke marijuana, often with other people, Shaneah testified. A few times, the couples went to clubs together.
By May 2013, Shaneah graduated college and had big plans: pursuing a law degree at New England School of Law. She was moving to Boston, she testified, and she and Lloyd were planning to move in together.
The next month, Lloyd was dead.
Massachusetts lawyer
Shaneah, now a second-year criminal law student, tearfully testified about getting the call from police in the middle of the night. She called her mother. Her next call was to her older sister.
After heading to see Lloyd’s mother in Boston, Shaneah and her uncle drove to the home Shayanna and Hernandez shared. Surveillance video played in court from inside the home showed Shayanna giving her a long hug.
As she watched the video play from her seat in the front row, Shayanna put her hand on her forehead, then wiped away tears.
But other parts of Shaneah’s testimony seemed to agitate the older sister, who had her arms crossed and bounced her leg, occasionally emitting sighs as her sister spoke.
Shayanna pulled out a notebook and began scribbling notes at a few points, including when Shaneah insisted Hernandez had checked in with her only once to see how she was doing in the days after Lloyd was found dead. Hernandez’s Massachusetts lawyer presented Shaneah with her own grand jury testimony, when she said he had periodically asked if she was OK. Shayanna then shared the notes with Hernandez’s legal team.
It’s not yet clear if Shayanna will testify. Prosecutors say they might call her. They have accused her of getting rid of possible evidence at Hernandez’s direction, a box from the basement, using her sister’s car. Shaneah testified she saw her sister carry a garbage bag to the basement after getting calls and texts the morning after Lloyd’s body was found.
Shaneah Jenkins
Their mother, Jodi Jenkins, declined to comment for this story. They also have a 16-year-old sister.
Shayanna attended just one day of her sister’s testimony: Wednesday, when Shaneah was cross-examined.
During that time, the sisters did not make eye contact, except once.
Soon after she took the stand, the prosecutor asked if she saw her sister in the courtroom. Shaneah at first said no, until Shayanna craned her neck to make sure she was seen.
Hernandez was in the way.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Bill Belichick grows into champion

Ted Marchibroda can’t think of another NFL coach who has worked for a paltry $25 weekly salary.
Then again, “Billy” Belichick always has managed to distinguish himself among his peers, both as a 23-year-old apprentice and a Hall of Fame lock who is entering his 40th coaching season. That milestone has been met with pride and applause by the football minds who worked closely with Belichick throughout his career, particularly as they watched him feverishly hone his craft during eight stops, including this 15-year tenure with the three-time Super Bowl champion Patriots.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a coach that got $25 a week,” Marchibroda said recently. “I’m very happy for him and very proud of the guy. To me, a guy like Billy deserves it. He has worked for it and has earned every bit of it. He took the chance, whether it was a chance or not, but he didn’t get paid too much and decided to take it.”
Breaking in
Belichick helped his father, longtime Navy coach and scout Steve Belichick, break down film for years and desperately worked his connections to break into the NFL upon graduating from Wesleyan. Marchibroda, who was hired by the Baltimore Colts in 1975, needed an assistant to do the film work after general manager Joe Thomas’ cousin declined the job. Special teams coach George Boutselis recommended Belichick to Marchibroda, who was impressed enough to offer him the job after one interview.
“I decided to hire him because of the fact that I felt like, ‘Well, if he runs into any trouble, we have his father as a backup,’” Marchibroda cracked.
Belichick logged every roll of film that crossed his desk, tallying Colts opponents’ formations and plays based on the down and distance, time on the clock, score and hashmark, and he’d make a note of any plays the defense needed to practice. As the season progressed, Marchibroda noticed defensive players asking Belichick questions if their positional coach was unavailable.
Belichick also helped on special teams during practice and had the unenviable job as the turk, whose role is to tell players to bring their playbook to the head coach’s office to be released.
And he was the driver. Marchibroda got a few free rooms at the local Howard Johnson hotel in exchange for Colts parking passes, so Belichick would shuttle hotel mates Marchibroda, Boutselis and offensive line coach Whitey Dovell to and from practice. They bought Billy most of his meals and slipped him extra cash on occasion. Steve Belichick once told Marchibroda he still had to claim his son as a dependent on his tax returns because of his uniquely low paycheck. But Bill Belichick recognized a priceless experience with three respected coaches, and he simply listened and processed every word he heard.
Marchibroda’s staff turned a two-win team into a 10-4 outfit that ended a three-year playoff drought, and Belichick asked for a $4,000 salary for 1976. Thomas declined, and Belichick joined Rick Forzano’s Lions, who were willing to give him $10,000.

Setting a foundation

Forzano knew Belichick from a four-year stint as the Navy head coach and hired the 24-year-old to assist on special teams and coach the receivers. But Forzano resigned after a 1-3 start and was replaced by Tommy Hudspeth, who transitioned Belichick to the tight ends in 1977. The entire staff was fired after the 1977 season, and Belichick hooked on with the Broncos after his only two years coaching offense, which he always has acknowledged to be significantly valuable to his development.
Belichick again assisted on special teams and defense in Denver, where he focused on the secondary under Joe Collier, the coordinator and architect of the famed Orange Crush 3-4 defense. Though Collier’s 3-4 is different from Belichick’s modern-day unit, it gave Belichick a first-hand look at another philosophy.
“Just about everything we were doing at that time, he soaked up pretty good,” Collier said. “He was the early guy in the office and late to leave. . . . He fit right in with all the rest of the coaches.”
Belichick again assisted with the film breakdowns, but he didn’t overstep his bounds by piping up with new defensive schemes, even though Collier recognized those ideas were flowing. To this day, Belichick tells his players to “do your job” and not worry about others’ responsibilities. Collier admired Belichick’s grinding mentality.
“I could see his work ethic, how he is absorbing everything, how he is the son of a coach,” Collier said. “And his ambition, you could see his ambition. He didn’t want to stick doing what he was doing then. He wanted to advance. There was no question about it. Yeah, I could see he was going to be a success.”
Launching a legacy
Giants coach Ray Perkins hired both Belichick and Bill Parcells in 1979, but the two new assistants met a few years earlier. Parcells, an Army assistant in the 1960s, used to exchange film with Steve Belichick because of the programs’ agreement. Parcells then said he met Bill Belichick in the 1970s when his Vanderbilt squad was playing Army, whom Steve Belichick was scouting with his son.
Belichick joined the Giants to run the special teams and assist Parcells’ defense. His responsibilities increased through the years as Parcells asked Perkins to give Belichick more time on defense. Belichick harnessed even more defensive authority when Parcells became the head coach in 1983, and he officially was promoted to defensive coordinator in 1985.
Still, Belichick remained infatuated with league-wide activity, which wasn’t difficult to notice because the Giants coaches were confined to one small room. Romeo Crennel noticed Belichick’s note-taking during offseason and draft prep.
But make no mistake: Belichick advanced because of his work with the defense. Parcells instituted the basic philosophy, which he picked up during his 1980 stint with Patriots coach Ron Erhardt and coordinator Fritz Shurmur, but Belichick led the group.
“(Belichick) put his own ideas in it and refined it, and we kind of modernized some of the coverages a little bit as we went,” Parcells said. “We always were able to, and this is much to his credit, just go forward with what we thought was necessary at the time, and he did a great job with it.”
Belichick earned more exposure after the Giants were 14-2 with the league’s second-ranked scoring defense in 1986, a season that culminated in a victory against the Broncos in Super Bowl XXI, and he soon started to turn down head coaching offers because he wanted to be set up with an ideal opportunity.
It came after the orchestration of one of the great stretches of defensive game plans in NFL history.
Belichick asked Parcells to switch his positional concentration from the linebackers to the secondary in 1989, which led to the hiring of Al Groh to coach the linebackers. Belichick’s thought process: 
To be a great defensive coordinator, he must have a great grasp of the defensive backfield.
The Giants generally were a 3-4 team with zone coverages, but they proved their matchup philosophy in the 1990 playoffs against the Bears, 49ers and Bills.
“Within the basic structure of your philosophy, you had to have the flexibility to play the game we need to play. Every opponent presents you with different issues,” Groh said. “At the heart of it all was Bill Belichick.”
The Bears, who visited the Giants in the divisional round, led the league in rushing attempts, and quarterback Mike Tomczak replaced Jim Harbaugh because of a shoulder injury. So Belichick’s plan was to play the whole game with an eight-man box that included some six-man fronts that still utilized 3-4 techniques, and the Giants rolled, 31-3.
They visited the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game and were tasked with stopping Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and a West Coast offense that ranked second in passing. Belichick designed a nickel game plan with man coverages that took away easy completions. The Giants survived, 15-13.
The Super Bowl was Belichick’s greatest trick as he prepared for the Bills’ K-Gun offense without the luxury of a bye week.
“If Buffalo had been trying to prepare themselves for the game by studying the previous two games, there was nothing that was going to relate,” Groh said.
The Giants used a 3-2-6 scheme with myriad zone coverages. Linebacker Lawrence Taylor became a down lineman while Carl Banks and Pepper Johnson played inside with a pair of safeties as outside linebackers, which increased their speed in coverage and enticed the Bills to run more with Thurman Thomas. The Giants offense complemented it all by controlling the ball for 40:33 in a shocking, 20-19 upset.
“I think we had a good defensive plan that was a little different, but it was tested because that was a close game and they didn’t have nearly as many opportunities as we had,” Parcells said. “We were big underdogs in that game. Just managed to pull it out.”

First opportunity

The Browns hired Belichick as head coach in 1991, and he immediately cleaned up a locker room that got out of hand under Bud Carson. Belichick implemented structure, a firm practice schedule and set rigorous expectations.
Ozzie Newsome, a Hall of Fame tight end who retired before the 1991 season to join the Browns front office, immediately recognized Belichick’s credibility. Newsome still had friends on the roster who relayed their appreciation for Belichick’s football IQ and teaching abilities by using past examples.
“He was very demanding on, ‘This is the way it is going to be. I’m coming off a Super Bowl. This is what it takes to win Super Bowls.’ Nobody had won a Super Bowl in Cleveland,” Newsome said.
Belichick finally got the Browns to the playoffs after an 11-5 season in 1994, but owner Art Modell made an unprecedented decision midway through the 1995 season to announce the team would relocate to Baltimore in 1996, which sabotaged the campaign and, ultimately, Belichick’s tenure.
“I know — K-N-O-W — that he got the appreciation of the job that he had to do when the move was announced, to be able to get that team to finish that season,” Newsome said. “I don’t think you can put a measure on how tough that was.”
Belichick was fired after the 1995 season and joined Parcells’ Patriots staff as the secondary coach in 1996. Parcells, Crennel and Groh all recognized an assistant coach with a greater perspective of the entire operation, and Belichick continued to make strides as the Jets defensive coordinator under Parcells from 1997-99. He also was mindful that he’d get one more shot to lead a team.
“Whatever the results were in Cleveland, they were certainly results that were below what he had hoped for in the beginning,” Groh said. “So he had assessed then, ‘OK, the next time I get my next chance, what are the things I’m going to change, how can I improve the structure of things, how can I improve myself in this particular role?’ He made pretty good use of that time because he had a hell of a plan.”

Second chance

Patriots owner Robert Kraft strongly considered hiring Belichick after Parcells bolted for the Jets in 1997, but Kraft decided to ultimately wash his hands from the Parcells era and went with Pete Carroll.
When given a chance to do it over in 2000, Kraft was all in on Belichick, who resigned as
office relocation
Jets head coach after a day because of the pending sale of the organization. After the Browns office relocation, Belichick didn’t want uncertainty.
Kraft recalled rave reviews from the Pats defensive backs in 1996, and the owner coveted Belichick’s appreciation for the salary cap. During Belichick’s interview, Kraft asked him about a key player, and the coach broke down a formula that illustrated why that player would be overpaid based on future production.
League and network executives pressured Kraft not to hire Belichick because of his dry media appearances, and Kraft also withstood the Jets’ three-week standoff to release Belichick from his contract, but the owner identified what he wanted and remained persistent.
“I was patient and waited for him,” Kraft said.
After a 5-11 season in 2000 and Drew Bledsoe’s injury in Week 2 of 2001, Belichick rode Tom Brady the rest of the way. Belichick then sold the “one game at a time” mantra after a 30-10 Week 4 loss to the Dolphins by burying a football at practice.
“When you screw up and have concern about your job and all those things,” Crennel said, “I think that eased some of the tension and allowed guys to focus on the next game.”
Crennel, the Pats defensive coordinator from 2001-04, really noticed the players buying into Belichick’s message after a tight, 24-17 loss to the Rams that dropped them to 5-5, their last defeat of the season.
Crennel was part of Belichick’s two most historic game plans — Super Bowl XXV and Super Bowl XXXVI — and likened the prep work to his racquetball sessions with Belichick during the 1987 strike. Pinpoint the vulnerability (the Bills’ impatience, the Rams’ stubbornness, Crennel’s backhand) and attack.
The result, a 20-17 victory against the Rams, spawned a dynasty that includes more Super Bowl wins (three) and appearances (five), division titles (11) and victories (163) than any team in the league since Belichick took the helm.
He is a disciple of many and gathered valuable knowledge at every stop along the way, but anyone who has worked with Belichick during the past four decades has recognized a level of success that is his own doing. After all, if anyone else did actually coach for $25 per week, they probably didn’t last 40 years.
“It’s remarkable what he’s done there,” Parcells said. “The people in New England are lucky to have him.”
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