NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue ruled yesterday that Bill Belichick breached his contract with the New York Jets when he declined to accept the team's head coaching position on Jan. 4. The decision means that any team that wants to hire him will have to compensate the Jets, most likely with draft choices.
After the ruling was issued, the Jets announced they will hold a news conference on Monday, when former head coach Bill Parcells is expected to announce his intentions for the 2000 season. Parcells retired as head coach on Jan. 2, but new owner Robert Wood Johnson IV has been trying to talk him into coaching the team for one more season.
Belichick, a longtime Parcells assistant, still has three years remaining on an original six-year deal he signed when both he and Parcells left the Patriots after the 1996 season to join the Jets. In that agreement, Belichick was designated as Parcells's replacement whenever he decided to retire from coaching.
The Jets were stunned two days after Parcells's retirement announcement when Belichick said at a news conference that he was resigning from the head coaching position because of uncertainty over new ownership and how it would affect his contract with the team. At that point, Johnson had not yet been selected as the new owner by the estate of late owner Leon Hess.
Tagliabue did not completely rule in favor of the Jets, but did uphold their rights to Belichick through the 2000 season. He said Belichick, considered a leading candidate for the New England Patriots' head coaching job, cannot work for another team this year without the Jets' approval. But he also denied the Jets' claim that Belichick should be barred from leaving for another team for the remainder of his contract.
"Taken as a whole, the contract and the related memoranda constitute an agreement that Mr. Belichick would be the Jets' head coach except when Mr. [Bill] Parcells served in that capacity," Tagliabue ruled in a grievance filed by Belichick. "The agreement contemplated that Mr. Belichick would automatically succeed to the head coaching position if Mr. Parcells was no longer head coach."
Tagliabue rejected claims by Belichick that he never actually assumed the head coaching job. The commissioner cited "more than 10" discussions between Belichick and Parcells about the prospect of Belichick becoming head coach after the 1999 season.
Neil Cornrich, Belichick's attorney, said his client is considering legal action against the league. "We think the commissioner's decision is unlawful and we are actively assessing all of our legal options," Cornrich told the Associated Press.
Now that the grievance has been dismissed, if the Patriots are still interested in acquiring Belichick's services, they will have to negotiate an agreement with the Jets. When Parcells left the Patriots with a year left on his contract, the Patriots were awarded four future draft choices by Tagliabue as compensation.
"The commissioner's ruling and order are clear and self-explanatory," Parcells said in a statement released by the Jets, adding that the team would make no further comment.
The Jets had hoped to clear up their own head coaching situation by yesterday. Johnson met with Parcells again on Thursday for the third time in the past nine days in an attempt to convince him to come out of his self-imposed retirement.
Speculation has been that Parcells has been adamant about not wanting to coach again, and would prefer that Johnson hire Al Groh, his linebackers coach, to replace him. Parcells is working as the team's director of football operations, but Johnson said earlier in the week he was still uncertain about what role Parcells ultimately wanted to have, if any.
Johnson said Tuesday that if Parcells did not coach, he would likely also explore other candidates beside Groh, who never has been a head coach in the NFL.
The Patriots have interviewed at least five other candidates for their head job, all assistant coaches. They also are said to be interested in former Kansas City Chiefs coach Mary Schottenheimer, who resigned last year but is still under contract to the Chiefs. Kansas City also likely would demand compensation if the Patriots settled on Schottenheimer, who spent this season working for ESPN.
Tagliabue cited the uncertainty in the Jets' coaching situation, and told both sides to address three points by Feb. 1:
* Whether the Jets' contract rights to Belichick should extend through 2002.
* Whether the contract rights should remain in place if Parcells returns as coach.
* What procedures should be followed to determine whether the Jets are entitled to damages for Belichick's breach of contract.