Grilled Tuna

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For you folks out west, this might be nothing more than the Battle of Grating Accents with Bostonians and New Yorkers hurling indecipherable insults at each other and exchanging headline barbs across the back pages of their tabloid newspapers.

But here in Boston and Danvers and Quincy, where there’s a sports pub at the ends of almost every street, this weekend is being billed as a religious experience. And although Bill Parcells, the former Patriot coach, a.k.a. “the Big Tuna,” has been excommunicated for his betrayal, he has yet to do his penance and must now be publicly humiliated upon his return to New England as coach of the New York Jets.

It is only Wednesday, and already the “Can the Tuna” T-shirts are almost sold out at the New England Patriots’ gift shop, two days before things really get going at the official downtown “Tuna Barbecue and Pep Rally” in preparation for “Tuna Bowl I.”

“In my opinion this whole thing has been overblown,” Patriot quarterback Drew Bledsoe said.

The hype is just beginning, and by week’s end the Tuna will be grilled, chopped and devoured, probably leaving Parcells to regret that haunting remark he made in 1980 while working as Patriot linebacker coach when he yelled at Rick Sanford: “Who do you think I am? Charlie the Tuna, where I believe everything everybody tells me?”

One newspaper here already has shown a picture of New England wide receiver Terry Glenn, once called “she” by Parcells, celebrating with a tuna held high over his head. A radio station has been carting a whale-sized replica of Parcells around town all week. Football fans are urged to vote: Bill Parcells or Pete Carroll? at https://patriots.projo.com.

“It’s kind of what the fans have been waiting for, what certain players have been waiting for,” said linebacker Chris Slade, who particularly disliked Parcells’ way of doing business. “No, it’s not just another day at the office. It’s going to be a special week for us.”

Imagine the reaction of 60,000 fans when it comes time to officially harpoon the Tuna in pregame introductions, or after the game, which the Patriots are overwhelming favorites to win.

“I’m a grown man and I know you can’t go through this world without being stung once in a while,” Parcells said.

Never mind that this franchise was dead in the water before Parcells’ arrival in 1993, 2-14, rumored on its way to St. Louis and selling fewer than 25,000 season tickets a year.

Now the team will be playing in front of its 34th consecutive sellout with a season-ticket base of 59,000, and so why isn’t Parcells being greeted by a standing ovation?

Too much bad blood, because even though the Patriots went to the Super Bowl with Parcells as their coach last season, when the team plane returned from New Orleans, Parcells was not on it.

Unhappy with having some of his power revoked by Robert Kraft, who had bought the club a year after Parcells had been hired, the Big Tuna returned to the Big Apple to make really big bucks.

The Patriots received four draft picks as compensation for losing Parcells, including the Jets’ No. 1 pick in 1999, but the people were angry, siding with Kraft, who had pulled rank on Parcells earlier and vetoed the selection of a defensive lineman in order to take Glenn, now the Patriots’ game-breaker.

“You either like him or you hate him,” said Ray Lucas, a special-teams performer for the Patriots last season and now an employee of the Jets.

If you like Bill Parcells, you see Patton pushing his troops beyond human endurance, bodies falling everywhere, but victory ultimately and gloriously being achieved. If you don’t like Parcells, you take note of his lackluster 32-32 record in four years at New England, the fact he elected to kick the ball to Desmond Howard in a 35-21 Super Bowl XXXI defeat to Green Bay, and his acrimonious departure without saying goodbye to his team at a time when everyone else wanted a parade.

“I don’t think there was going to be a real pleasant way to end it there,” Parcells said. “I tried to take the high road. . . . I tried to make contact with many of those players during the course of the year, and I’ve been successful, but not with all.”

If you are a real New England loyalist, cheering for the Red Sox and Celtics for no other apparent reason, love him or hate him, there remains a bitter feeling that Parcells’ pending abdication hogged the Super Bowl spotlight from his players.

“It took away from some of the things that could have been written about the players and some of the attributes we had that week,” admitted tackle and team leader Bruce Armstrong. “The whole thing was a little messy--it could have been handled a little differently.”

In one more comical sidelight, the Jets scheduled Parcells’ telephone conference call with the Boston-area media Wednesday at the same time and only time the Patriots were making their players available for interviews--and for the most part the media stuck with the coaching icon and ignored the 2-0 Patriots.

“I have no idea what the reception will be when I come back,” Parcells said. “After I left I received about 1,500 to 2,000 letters from people in New England and not one of them said anything [about being a traitor]. If there is that feeling there, it certainly has not come to my attention.

“Our team is at a much different stage than the Patriots; we’re just getting started. To say a 1-15 team can come in and compete week in and week out with a Super Bowl team, well, that would be difficult.”

The master motivator is at work again, and with the team he previously coached, pumping the players up for the upset.

“We’re going for the win,” New England safety Lawyer Milloy said. “I don’t care who’s coaching.”

That’s the football way of saying many of the Patriots just plain don’t like Parcells, hate the notion that he got all the credit for getting New England to the Super Bowl and have set out to prove this year that they can go all the way without him--without anyone.

“It’s different this year,” safety Willie Clay said. “This is the New England Patriots coached by Pete Carroll. Pete has turned this team over to the players. It’s our team. Last year we were just players on Bill’s team.”

So far this year the Patriots are arguably the best team in football, outscoring the opposition in the first two games, 72-13, with Bledsoe throwing eight touchdown passes to eight receivers.

Ah, Bledsoe, Parcells’ whipping golden boy, who without saying it, has said it all in telling the world he’s having fun again playing football.

How many times did Parcells rag on Bledsoe, berate and belittle him, and then deliver that scary glare? The Boston media have already speculated that Parcells will be screaming at Bledsoe on Sunday from the sideline to rattle him, and based on Wednesday’s performance, it will work.

“I don’t really want to talk about him anymore,” said Bledsoe, waving his arm as if trying to ward off a fly.

So what else is there to talk about five days before the biggest grudge match in Patriot history?

“I don’t want to talk about him anymore--what else have we got?” he said.

Why, sure, but back to Bill Parcells. . . .

“We had some very good years and some not-so-great years, and now he’s gone and we’ve moved on,” Bledsoe said. “I think we’re on the way [to proving the Patriots are a great team without Parcells], but obviously this game is going to be a lightning rod of that topic.

“We got the feeling a little bit last year that some of the things we accomplished were discredited because we had one of the all-time great football coaches coaching our football team. Now we have to prove with Pete Carroll maybe we can be a better team.”

Carroll, of course, has his own demons to purge. Three years ago he was sitting in Parcells’ seat as coach of the Jets, and after going 6-10, was fired and replaced by Rich Kotite. Rich Kotite!

“It happened very quickly, and I won’t say the words that I thought in my mind,” said Carroll, who lost the last six games he coached for the Jets, including a 24-13 decision to Parcells’ Patriots.

After that game, a reporter asked Parcells if he had outcoached Carroll, which prompted a profanity-filled tirade from Parcells, calling the reporter a “jerk,” while also seriously defending Carroll.

Carroll is a head coach again, and while the Patriots are hellbent on showing the world they can win without a sideline commander, New England has found a polar opposite to Parcells’ overbearing and intimidating approach with the players.

“It’s easier to just go out and have fun playing the game and enjoy what you’re doing with Pete,” Bledsoe said.

Parcells got a good chuckle out of that.

“You take over a team that has gone 9-39 as opposed to taking over a team that has just been to the Super Bowl, and you can take a different approach,” Parcells said. “I really don’t know what kind of team I’m bringing to New England. We’re just getting started.”

And so is all the hype, suggesting a whopper of a game Sunday night, or at the very least some kind of fish story.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The Great Tuna Debate

“It’s different this year. This is the New England Patriots coached by Pete Carroll. Pete has turned this team over to the players. It’s our team. Last year we were just players on Bill’s team.” WILLIE CLAY, PATRIOT SAFETY

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“We got the feeling a little bit last year that some of the things we accomplished were discredited because we had one of the all-time great coaches.” DREW BLEDSOE

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“I’m a grown man and I know you can’t go through this world without being stung once in a while.” BILL PARCELS, FORMER PATRIOT AND CURRENT JET COACH