NEW YORK -- George Washington University Law School will begin its fall semester next month, but the Class of '94 will commence without Ray Handley. That's because the 1991 New York Giants have begun their studies and Handley is the new headmaster.
His is an improbable rise to one of the most demanding and coveted jobs in professional football. On Jan. 28, the morning after the Giants won the Super Bowl, the 46-year-old Stanford University graduate with a keen mind for math and a bachelor's degree in history stood in a Tampa, Fla., hotel lobby planning to resign as the team's running backs coach and get on with the rest of his life.
Handley first contemplated law school in 1988. He took the Law School Admissions Test in June 1989 and was accepted into GW. He deferred his commitment for one year, told head coach Bill Parcells he would honor the final year of his assistant coaching contract, and seriously expected to be spending the next three years with his wife, JoAnne, studying law in Washington.
Then in March 1991, he signed a two-year deal and was introduced as Parcells' new offensive coordinator, the promotion that convinced him law school could wait. Two months after that, on May 15, he was introduced as Parcells' successor, the 13th head coach in the Giants' 67-year history.
For a deliberate, introspective and loyal man who in his 25 years as a football coach hadn't held a top job since 1977 at Reed High School in tiny Sparks, Nev., running the Giants is a life's dream. His path to an NFL head coaching job weaved through supporting roles at Stanford, Army, Reno High School, Stanford again, four years with the top job at Reed, Air Force, Stanford a third time and the Giants since 1984.
How did someone so close to an NFL head coaching job almost take a dramatic detour? For one, he didn't know how close he was. For another, he had grown frustrated and impatient tutoring running backs.
"This is not necessarily a condemning statement, but I had been doing the same thing for seven years, or when I decided to go to law school, for six years," Handley said from his Lake Tahoe, Nev., home, where he was enjoying the final days of a brief vacation before camp opened July 15.
"Things were getting to the point where there was a lot of repetition. I was looking for some different type of challenge. I wanted to give myself some credibility to, perhaps, pursue other avenues within football. I didn't necessarily think I would go to law school and definitely come back to football, but I was looking to try to get into some different level because it didn't look to me like the opportunities were going to avail themselves, to move on the coaching ranks."
The question is why? At the news conference to announce the Giants' coaching change in May, Parcells spoke of Handley's intelligence and leadership abilities. General manager George Young spoke of Handley's organizational skills, his industriousness, his ability to deal with people. Didn't Handley know what his bosses thought?
"I felt I had gotten stuck in a position," he said. "I've never been the type of person to try to make that small move ahead by leaving one organization for another organization. I had a tremendous amount of loyalty to Bill. I wasn't looking to leave. But after six years, things were getting a little too routine. I needed something in my life. I haven't really assessed it as a mid-life crisis, but I'm sure some people out there would look at it and say that it was.
"I did not envision myself, at age 55, still coaching the running backs at the New York Giants."
After the 1988 season, Handley began spending two to three hours a night studying for the LSAT. He returned to Lake Tahoe in June 1988 and structured for himself a two-week, eight-hour per day studying regimen. "My wife stayed upstairs and read every magazine over the last year and I stayed down and took practice exams and worked on various other areas," he said.
He took the LSAT in mid-June at the University of Nevada-Reno. He applied to two Western law schools he would not name and George Washington, which piqued his interest because it was in the nation's capital, it was emerging as a well-respected law school, and because U.S. News and World Report had ranked it among the top 25 in the nation.
Dean Bob Stanek, the director of law school admissions at GW, remembered Handley's application when he read that Handley had been named the Giants' head coach.
"He went to undergraduate school at Stanford," Stanek recalled. "His test scores were very strong. His undergraduate record, coupled with his experience, was strong. For older applicants, we also take a look at the applicant's work experience and accomplishments." The five-member admissions committee not only found Handley's application interesting. It found it unique.
"We get over 8,000 applications per class year, of which we accept approximately 450," Stanek said. "You count the number of applications in which the candidate is leaving a successful career on your fingers and toes."
Handley's Lake Tahoe townhouse is less than an hour's drive from Reno, where his wife's family, his younger brother Gary, and his closest friends live. JoAnne and Ray's two grown children, Donnie and Cami, live near Sacramento, Calif. Although Handley was born in Artesia, N.M., his family moved to Nevada when Handley was an infant. Handley's father, Robert, who died when Ray was 14, was a rancher who graduated from the University of Nevada in the 1930s with a degree in math. His late mother, Ruby, was a teacher.
Handley's roots are imbedded in western Nevada, even though he doesn't boat, swim or fish in "the 99.9 percent pure" Lake Tahoe.
"He really doesn't have a lot of interests or hobbies other than football," his brother Gary said.
So he enjoys the picturesque setting of the Sierra Nevada countryside, the valley in which Lake Tahoe sits, and the snow-capped Sierra mountains that on summer days form a breathtaking contrast to the warm, brilliant skies.
"Can I see snow from here?" he is asked while he stands in front of his townhouse window and surveys the blue lake. "No. Not from where I am now. I'd have to move a few feet."
Handley is intensely proud of his home state. Whether it's dinner and a Diana Ross concert at one of Tahoe's major casinos, fussing over a barbeque or sitting around talking football with Phinnie Marsh, a friend for over 20 years since both coached at Reno High, this is where he belongs.
"This is the retreat," he said. "Those are the things that are important to me, friendships that have developed over the years, family, that sort of thing."
Neither Gary Handley, Phinnie Marsh nor George Young describe Handley without mentioning his intelligence. Parcells last year gave his assistant complete credit for recognizing that the Giants had clinched a playoff spot one week before the NFL deciphered its complicated format.
"And you know Ray's got a photographic memory," Marsh said. "I remember one time when I was coaching at Reno and Ray was at Reed. We went together to scout an opponent who was in our league. Here I'm sitting, writing things down and Ray's not taking any notes. I say to him, 'Aren't you going to take notes, Ray?' And he said, 'I'll remember.' "
Handley chuckled at what he considered an apocryphal anecdote.
"I don't know if I have a photographic memory," he insisted. "Phinnie probably is exaggerating. I don't want to question Phinnie's memory, but he probably doesn't remember. He probably had a chance to tell the story and is embellishing it. I'm sure I took notes."
Handley was a high school math teacher who in the late '60s took a year of graduate courses at Stanford in educational
studies in case he didn't make it as a coach. "My mathematical background comes from my dad. It took a long time before I could understand a lot of the notebooks he had left on the shelf from his college math classes."
Robert Handley recognized his oldest son's athletic ability when Ray was in third grade, so he took up farming and moved his family from Reno to the small town of Lovelock, Nev., in the 1950s. It was his way of enhancing Ray's chances of succeeding in sports. The Handleys eventually returned to Reno, where Ray was an all-state high school halfback. From there he earned a full scholarship to Stanford, where he enjoyed an All-America career in the mid-1960s.
"I started out [at Stanford] to be a math major, but I didn't pursue that after I got to school," he said. "I changed to history only because it was a convenient major. You were required to take 12 units of history as a freshman. I studied history and political science as an undergraduate. Part of that was because I wanted to have myself prepared to go to law school if I chose to. Part of the reason I was a history major is because I really didn't know what I wanted to do. I was a jock when I was at Stanford. I played football first, and I was a student second."
Handley, the school's all-time leading rusher until Darrin Nelson broke his records in 1978, was a sophomore when another Stanford running back, Steve Thurlow, was a second-round pick of the New York Giants in 1964.
"Of course the Giants screwed me up quite a bit because they drafted Thurlow," Handley said with a laugh. "I immediately said, 'Geez, I'm as good as Thurlow.' I wasn't, of course, but I said that. Then I thought for sure that I'd be a professional football player."
That notion didn't last long. Undrafted after he graduated in '66 and ignored by the NFL, Handley was invited by head coach Sid Gillman to the AFL San Diego Chargers' training camp.
It took him only a few days to realize he was the smallest and slowest back in camp. "When I told Sid I didn't think there was a place for me, he sort of agreed."
There is a place for Ray Handley now, a very challenging place. The Giants will try to repeat as Super Bowl champs. He will try to forge his identity under the imposing shadow left by Parcells, the most successful coach in franchise history. This excites Handley, but doesn't worry him. He has always left himself options. He has always had places to go.