Giants coach's son faces daunting job at New Mexico college

Updated: August 28, 2003, 4:05 AM ET

LAS VEGAS, N.M. -- The couch in his office has seen a lot more of John Fassel this month than his bed at home.

The rookie head coach at New Mexico Highlands and son of New York Giants coach Jim Fassel typically is up by 5 a.m and lucky if he gets to bed before midnight.

"I've slept at home maybe four times this month and sometimes it's just easier to sleep there," says Fassel, pointing to the small couch covered with a blue and gray Giants blanket.

That's how it is when you're trying to turn around what last season was one of the worst football programs in NCAA Division II.

The Cowboys, 0-10 in 2002, open this season Saturday at Northern Colorado. The game will mark Fassel's head coaching debut.

"I've been on the sidelines, right on his (Jim Fassel's) hip pocket for many years, watching and learning," says the lanky, fast-talking 29-year-old with the crewcut hair and seemingly endless energy.

"John has always liked to take on projects," Jim Fassel said in a telephone interview. "Without a doubt, he was the hardest worker, always wanted to help. I didn't have to tell him to go out and cut the grass."

John Fassel has been shadowing his dad on the sidelines ever since he was in elementary school. From the University of Utah to Jim Fassel's NFL coaching stints in Denver, Oakland, Arizona and New York, John has been there.

"I'd hold the red flag you throw for (instant replay) challenges," John Fassel said. "I've always been right in the mix. You look at 29 as being inexperienced, but I think I've learned from the best."

Fassel said while his mom, Kitty, knows little about football, his parents taught him the values of organization, work ethic, attitude and personality.

"Those are things, I think, are more important than Xs and Os," he said.

Fassel probably will need all of that and some luck too as the Cowboys' coach.

Founded in 1893, New Mexico Highlands has been playing football since 1900. Rarely worse than in 2002.

The Cowboys, who also lost the last two games of the 2001 season, consistently were beaten by double-digit margins last year while giving up an average of 53 points a game.

The season started with a 53-7 loss to Tarleton State and included losses of 70-28 to Eastern New Mexico, 62-14 to Mesa State and 62-0 to Chadron State. Only a couple hundred fans showed up for the Cowboys' final two home games.

"It was frustrating," senior quarterback Nick Higgs said. "Talent-wise, we were not an 0-10 team, not so bad as to be losing by 60."

The school fired coach Greg Critchett and hired Fassel, the receivers and running backs coach last season. Fassel, who joined Critchett's staff before the 2002 season, said his name probably helped him get the job.

"I'm not naive to those facts at all," he said. "I know the name ... might have some promotional value. I'm not too proud to say let's use the name and promote the school."

Being the son of an NFL head coach has brought other perks.

Last spring, Jim Fassel invited John and his assistants out to New Jersey to spend some time with the Giants' coaches.

"They all stayed at our house, came into our office every day and visited with our coaches by position," Jim Fassel said. "It was kind of a clinic."

Jim Fassel said he and John talk frequently.

"I don't try to influence him," the Giants coach said. "He has a great feel for motivating and organizing people."

Highlands athletic director John Lumley said the reaction in the community to the hiring of Fassel has been a collective "Wow," but adds, "I try to give John credit for being John and not his dad's son."

Lumley, who was hired in June, said fans have told him there was no enthusiasm on last year's team.

"There didn't seem to be any fire and this group has it," Lumley said. "The big question is can they keep it if the going gets tough."

Youth abounds on John Fassel's staff and team. His defense and offensive coordinators, Santos Carrillo and Arna Bontemps, are both 31 and the other assistants range in age from 26 to 30. The majority of the team is comprised of freshmen and sophomores.

"It's going to be a tough go and that's what's required of that job," Jim Fassel said. "They don't know the difference and they're ready to take on the world."

Carrillo, one of three assistants from last year's staff retained by Fassel, said about a fourth of the players didn't return.

"We had a lot of junior college transfers who pretty much wanted to do their own thing," Carrillo said. "Now we have kids that are putting out a lot of sweat and tears. They don't want to lose again."

Higgs and senior wide receiver Darnell Crowder say they stayed because Fassel got the job.

"He knows what we went through and what we need to get better," Higgs said.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index