July 14, 2010
Posted: 04:10 PM ET
Below is an excerpt from New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton from his new book "Home Team: Coaching the Saints and New Orleans Back to Life", which just hit the New York Times bestseller list this week!
All the blue tarps.
That’s what I saw first as the American Airlines flight from Dallas prepared to land at Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans. On the roofs of many of the houses—what was left of them—were these bright blue plastic tarps. They seemed to be covering everything. When I got off the plane, the airport was eerily quiet, almost empty, motionless. It was different from any airport I’d ever seen. You know what it felt like? It felt like they had only one flight a day here, the one I’d just gotten off of. The airport was whatever the opposite of bustling is.
Mickey Loomis, the Saints’ general manager, was there to meet me. It was just a ten-minute ride from the airport to the team offices and practice facility on Airline Drive. But as we rode in Mickey’s car, the blocks we passed didn’t look much busier than the airport. This was early January 2006, four months after Katrina. The floodwaters had finally receded. People were trickling back. But most of the houses still looked empty. The stores and the restaurants were hit-and-miss. Cars were still up on people’s lawns. Everything just seemed very still. The grass and the weeds were growing. There were trailers here and there. But you certainly didn’t hear a lot of construction noise.
As Mickey and I pulled into the parking lot, I glanced at my cell phone for any sign of a text message or a voice mail from 920, the area code for Green Bay, Wisconsin.
It wasn’t like I hadn’t heard about Katrina. I’d seen the pictures on television and read the newspaper accounts. I knew about the people on the rooftops and the families in the Superdome. I knew FEMA had stumbled. I knew about the Lower Ninth Ward. I knew the failure of the levees was worse than the storm. But all that media coverage had still failed to prepare me for this: the immensity of the devastation and so much quiet. When I arrived from Dallas for my official Saints interview, New Orleans looked like a third-world country with most of the people gone.
I’d been to the city before. For coaching conventions. For a few games. Always in on a Thursday, out on a Monday, with hardly any rest in between. I always had a great time in New Orleans. But for me, it was one of those cities like Miami or Las Vegas. You were happy to visit, but not in your wildest imagination could you think of living there. And that was before Katrina.
After my third season in Dallas with Parcells, I felt like I knew the modern canons of football. I had confidence in my own coaching abilities. I had firm thoughts on how to win. I believed I was ready to coach my own NFL team. Thankfully, some other people agreed. Though I’d stepped back from the Al Davis offer in Oakland two years earlier, now the time seemed right. Several teams were looking for new head coaches in early 2006. I’d flown up to Green Bay and had a terrific interview with the Packers. That’s a great organization—a team I had followed since I was a kid. I felt optimistic about that possibility and was expecting to hear something soon. The Buffalo Bills had expressed interest in me as well. I’d also had a nice-to-meet-you dinner with Mickey in San Antonio. Now, with this trip to New Orleans, that preliminary conversation was being elevated to a formal interview.
The Saints were displaced like everybody else in or near New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The day before I got there, the team had returned to Airline Drive from its Katrina-year headquarters in San Antonio. Mickey showed me around the sprawling facility—the indoor and outdoor practice fields, the locker and weight rooms, the executive and staff offices. I could see that plenty of work still had to be done. There’d been damage from the storm and the flooding. The National Guard had used the place as a temporary headquarters. They’d been landing helicopters on the practice field. They treated the offices more like a field command center than an executive suite. The building got three years of wear and tear in three hard months. Clearly, the top-to-bottom fix up still had a ways to go. Walls had to be painted. Carpets had to be pulled. Tarps were hanging everywhere. The furniture was half assembled. As Mickey began to introduce me around, I didn’t say anything, but I did think to myself: “They’re running an NFL team—from here?”
They’d set up a makeshift meeting area in one of the breakout rooms. Besides Mickey, I met with Greg Bensel, the team’s vice president of communications. I saw Rick Mueller and Russ Ball, who’d been at dinner with us in San Antonio and death with player-personnel issues. And that afternoon I had a chance to sit down with Mr. Benson. As far as I could tell, no topic was off-limits. I was struck immediately by everyone’s openness. The previous season’s 3-13 record. The need to hire a new head coach. The unique challenge of rebuilding a football team in a city that itself needed rebuilding. The uncertainty about the team’s long-term future in New Orleans.
Visiting with Mr. Benson could not have been more different from my Al Davis interview. No game-day strategies. No run-front defenses. And no cheeseburgers. Mr. Benson asked me about my family and told me about his.
Mickey and the others didn’t try to sugarcoat anything. When the storm hit, Mickey told me, he had just laid the foundation for a new house in Metairie. Now he was actually sleeping at the complex. The task at hand was immense. It was all a little surreal, to tell you the truth. And, honestly, I wasn’t taking any of it to heart. It just seemed interesting and huge. My basic reaction was: Man, these guys have their hands full! I was most likely going to Green Bay. This was their problem, not mine. I was just here for an interview.
When we finished our various meetings, Mickey drove me downtown to the Renaissance Hotel. At least it was open. I had about an hour and a half to relax before dinner. We were meeting at seven at Tommy’s Cuisine. I went up to the room. I took off my coat and loosened my tie. I was relaxing on the bed, almost dozing off. The cell phone began to vibrate. I had a message from 920, Ted Thompson, the Packers GM. Ted got right to the point. “Hey,” he said, “the process has gone well. We’ve decided to go in a different direction, and I wanted to let you know as soon as possible. It hasn’t come out yet. Please don’t say anything until we announce it.”
I wanted to cry.
I appreciated the heads-up. But damn! I really thought there was a good chance I was getting the Packers job. Without a doubt, Green Bay is where I wanted to go. Knowing the tradition. Coming from the Midwest. Growing up around all that. And Beth too—I knew she could see herself in Green Bay, despite those winters that never end. In that one short voice mail, the Packers job was gone. But I had no chance to reflect on the deeper meaning. It was almost seven. I had just enough time to look in the mirror and straighten my tie. But for the very first time, on my way out to dinner, one thought did creep into my mind. It was more like a sigh followed by a question:
“Oh, man, could I really be going to New Orleans?”
I liked Mickey Loomis from the first time we met. In an industry of loud egos, he had a quieter style. At the time, he’d been with the Saints for six years and before that he’d spent fifteen years with the Seattle Seahawks. He’d worked for successful guys like Chuck Knox and Mike McCormick. I think I have pretty good instincts and intuition. My first impression was dead-on. Trustworthy. Steady. Intelligent. Patient. He was like that in my early meetings with him, and that’s how he is today. He has never once glossed over anything.
We talked at dinner about all the issues the Saints would be facing that year and beyond. The issue of getting players to come. The issue of recruiting coaches. All of it was right out on the table. He said, “We’ve got to discuss this A to Z—all of it.” That’s Mickey. This was a team that had obviously gone through a lot. They had played their home games in San Antonio, Baton Rouge and East Rutherford, New Jersey. Their stadium was on the injured-reserve list. They had challenges no other NFL team had ever experienced. 3-13 was only the beginning of it. There was just a huge amount of chaos they needed to deal with. Clearly, they had to make a change at quarterback. It was time to move on from Aaron Brooks. And there were real questions about where the team’s permanent home. They’d be back in New Orleans for the 2006 season, if they had somewhere to play. The NFL was insisting on it. But how long would the team stay? I don’t think anyone had all the answers. Mickey didn’t pretend to. He told me what he knew. He told me what he didn’t. Sometimes the answer was just: “We’ll have to see.”
I think Mickey was looking for a head coach who wouldn’t be overwhelmed by an extreme situation, someone who might even view it as a challenge to be excited by.
Here’s something I noticed as we talked: When we got our salads, I was saying “you” about all the Saints’ issues. By dessert, I was mostly saying “we.” We could run this kind of offense. We could make a certain trade. We had to do it all amid the post-Katrina turmoil. No job had been offered. No deal had been made. I certainly hadn’t discussed any of this with Beth and the kids. I had a pretty good idea of what they might say. But as Mickey and I talked late into the night, with Green Bay now off the table and his frankness washing over me, the first-person plural was definitely creeping into my sentences. I was getting my head around that question I’d asked myself in the mirror. Without my even realizing it, an answer was gathering in my mind.
I brought up the idea of my family staying in Dallas and me coming here to work. Mickey wasn’t keen on that at all. Whoever came would have to be all in, he said. It was essential that the New Orleans Saints head coach be as much a part of the team and the community as any player, any team official or any fan. This was not a job a head coach could just phone in.
Before I left New Orleans, Mickey drove me all over the area, everywhere. He showed me the French Quarter, which hadn’t flooded and looked relatively normal. We rode through Uptown, with its stately historic homes. But we also drove through Lakeview, Mid-City, the Ninth Ward, New Orleans East—neighborhoods that all had flooded badly, places that four months later still looked like ghost towns. He skirted nothing. As Mickey talked and I was taking it all in, I was already thinking about the next conversation I would have: explaining all this to Beth.
On the flight back to Dallas/Fort Worth, leaving the blue tarps behind, I finally had a few minutes to myself. I’ll admit I felt a little excitement about the whole idea of New Orleans. This city and this team needing so much now. What it was I might bring to both of them. If Mickey offered and I said yes, success was certainly not guaranteed. Hell, it might not even be possible. But I knew this already It would be the challenge of a lifetime.
I got back to Dallas and sat down with Beth. It was strange. I really hadn’t even convinced myself yet that New Orleans was a smart idea for us or even doable. And yet I could hear myself trying to sell the idea to my wife. I told her, “This is what I think. Green Bay is going to hire Mike McCarthy. And we’re not interested in going to Buffalo. The one thing about New Orleans is it’s a fifty-five-minute plane ride from Dallas.”
Beth raised an eyebrow. I was waiting to hear her say, “And . . .?”
We had a great life in Dallas. We had friends and a nice place in the community. We were building a beautiful home. Meghan was almost nine. Connor was almost six. Connor is not big on change, but Meghan also didn’t want to leave. She had close friends and loved the school she was in.
Whenever you take a new coaching job and you have a young family, you really spend a year away from them, at least to some degree. You’re starting the new job. You have to sell your old house. So you lose a good part of a year. You go ahead and leave. Your wife is left cleaning up the crumbs. And the strongest argument I was making awes, “Well, you can fly out of there quickly.”
We’d be moving into an area that hundreds of thousands of people just left. Maybe they left for a reason? Everything was a concern. The crime. Housing. Schools. The medical situation. The basic details of everyday life. We couldn’t get rid of those thoughts. And let’s be honest: A lot of those things were problems even before Katrina.
We’d always said we were up for an adventure. What an opportunity! What a challenge! What need!
A week passed as we thought through all these issues. There were plenty of them. But Beth and I both gradually began to see that New Orleans actually might be something like a calling for us—a challenge we were meant to take on. I don’t believe in destiny. But both of us really did feel that something was pulling us here. Maybe suburban Dallas wasn’t the only place we could thrive.
We left it there for the moment. This was all just hypothetical, wasn’t it? But that comfort didn’t last long. A few nights later, we were at a Bon Jovi concert, Beth and I, at the American Airlines Arena in Dallas. Somewhere between “Living on a Prayer” and “You Give Love a Bad Name,” Mickey called. I stepped out to the food court so I could hear. “How’d you like to be head coach of the New Orleans Saints?” Mickey said.
I went back into the arena and looked at my wife. She knew what the call had meant. We were going to New Orleans now. It wasn’t hypothetical anymore.
The night before the press conference announcing my hiring as the Saints new coach, I got home and Beth said, “Did you hear what your new mayor said?”
“You didn’t hear?” she said.
“He said New Orleans has always been a chocolate city,” she said. “It’s all over the national news.”
A what? “You’ve gotta be kidding me,” I said.
Ray Nagin had given a Martin Luther King Jr. Day speech at city hall. He was addressing the city’s black residents, who’d long been in the majority. “It’s time for us to rebuild a New Orleans—the one that should be a chocolate New Orleans,” he said. “And I don’t care what people are saying Uptown or wherever they are. This city will be chocolate at the end of the day. This city will be a majority African-American city. It’s the way God wants it to be. You can’t have New Orleans no other way. It wouldn’t be New Orleans.”
This is the mayor’s idea of promoting harmony on Martin Luther King Jr. Day?
Nagin tried to talk his way out of the uproar, saying he was actually encouraging integration. “How do you make chocolate?” he asked. “You take dark chocolate, you mix it with white milk and it becomes a delicious drink. That’s the chocolate I’m talking about.”
But that was not exactly how the comment was received by most people, including the Paytons of Dallas, Texas.
But as we prepared for the move, clearly, some people in Dallas thought we were nuts. But Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to clarify things for me. This was the last meeting I had with him after I knew I was going to New Orleans. I went in to say good-bye.
“With some of our greatest hurdles come our greatest accomplishments,” he said. “As I look back, Sean, some of my greatest achievements have come when I took the most risk.”
He talked about going out there and going after something as big as this. “Your reward can be bigger than you ever dreamed,” he said.
Big challenge. Big reward.
I didn’t know it at the time. I had no idea. But he couldn’t have been more right.
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