N.O. Saints coach Sean Payton

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Head coach of the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints shares how he gets his players beyond distractions and to buy into the vision that ‘it’s not just about football.’

New Orleans Saints football coach Sean Payton led his team to Super Bowl victory in '09, after coaching the team through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He coached college football at San Diego State before starting his career in the pros as a quarterback coach with the Philadelphia Eagles in the late '80s. Stints with the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys followed. He hosts The Sean Payton Show on Fox and shares his inspirational story in his new book, Home Team: Coaching the Saints and New Orleans Back to Life.


Tavis: I’m sorry, I’m asking the — yeah, you can keep rolling — I’m supposed to be introducing the coach here and I got distracted by his ring. So let me do the introduction first and then I’ll come back to the ring. (Laughter) I think when you see this ring you’ll see why I got distracted. I’ve never been that distracted in seven years of doing this show, but it’s a big ring. (Laughter)
Anyway, let me do this first. When Coach Payton took over the head coaching position with the New Orleans Saints just months after Hurricane Katrina, he knew he was getting into something much bigger than just sports.
Four seasons later, he led the Saints to their first-ever Super Bowl victory over my hometown Indianapolis Colts, I might add, and in so doing helped lift the spirits of an entire region, and we had to salute that, even Colts fans.
His new book is called “Home Team: Coaching the Saints and New Orleans Back to Life.” The book is about to make its debut, as you might imagine, on “The New York Times” bestseller list. Coach, good to have you on the program.
Coach Sean Payton: Great to be here, I appreciate it. Thank you.
Tavis: Nice to meet you. No, I thank you. Now to that ring — can I see this thing? (Laughter)
Payton: You sure can.
Tavis: I was just — golly. I don’t know if y’all can zoom in on this, it’s so, it’s so —
Payton: There’s a log of bling there, yeah.
Tavis: There’s a lot of bling there, yeah. It’s probably blinging too much for the camera, but that’s my first time holding a ring like this, so thank you for letting me — you’d better take that back. (Laughter) I’ll be at the pawn shop in about 25 minutes. Good to have you on the West Coast.
Payton: Thank you, it’s good to be here, or excited to be here.
Tavis: Out here for the ESPYs?
Payton: We are. Wednesdays night we’ve got a number of team awards that we’re up for, and it’s good. It’s good to be out here with a bunch of the players, representatives from our team and a number of other teams. They’re all getting in.
Tavis: With all due respect to the ESPYs, when you have won the championship of the world, do awards matter? Does anything else matter?
Payton: It’s different. I think it’s different than maybe some of the other awards where you’re waiting to receive that award. I think in this case the teams that are represented have all either won a championship, a national championship, a basketball championship or — I think you’re right.
Tavis: Have you been able since the victory some months ago now, have you been able to kind of contextualize what the journey was?
Payton: I think beginning in 2006 it started — I think it was apparent to all of us that this was bigger than football. There was so much unknown in regards to — forget the team or the Superdome, there was so much unknown in regards to the city and that region, and when the Superdome reopened on that Monday night, our first home game in ’06, I think all of us grasped at least a little bit of what we were playing for.
Now four years later and having won a championship and these people not just in New Orleans but people throughout the Gulf South that had waited so long, it was something that was bigger than what we had gotten into athletics for.
Tavis: You talk about it in the book, but let me just ask — you knew in 2006, to your earlier point, that you were involved in something much bigger than just sports. Sports is pretty big itself, but you were into something even bigger than that.
But there was disappointment before there was the ultimate victory, so how did you and how did the team navigate this feeling, I suspect, of feeling like it let the city down? You knew they were looking at you to be that shot in the arm, but it took you a few years to actually make that happen after the storm.
Payton: I think in that ’06 season just being back and being home and playing in front of our crowd and having success was something that brought a lot of hope, a lot of joy to the fans that we’ve had. After that 2006 championship game where we lost to Chicago, I think we all realized we have to find a way to play this game in the Superdome.
We’ve got to find a way to play this game in front of our home fans, and I think here we are four years from that point and each year we grew closer, each year we learned from maybe the challenges that came to us, and this year really ended up culminating in what was a great season, but more importantly a championship season, and it was amazing just to see the reaction of not just one fan but there was a parade and then there was the Mardi Gras parade, and then more importantly the stories that we get, I think all of us, on an individual basis, whether we’re out in the community — because it’s a very small region and it’s not an area where you disappear into your suburbs.
I think the players, coaches, members of the organization are very visible in that community and great ambassadors for our organization. So it was pretty strong.
Tavis: I want to ask you two questions now in follow-up, Coach, to what you just said. Since I see it on the screen now I was just about to say that we have a prime time special here on PBS that’s airing next Wednesday, July 21st. It’s called “Been in the Storm Too Long.” It’s a look at Katrina and a look at the city of New Orleans and the people, quite frankly, five years later.
I think, and I don’t know if we left it in the piece; it may have gotten cut, I don’t know, but I ask in one of the many conversations I had over weeks down there filming this special, I recall asking someone and now I want to ask you how it is that you celebrate the victory of the Saints, as it ought to be celebrated, and not allow that celebration to give people the impression five years later that everything in the city is cool just because the Saints are the world champions. Does that make sense?
Payton: That makes complete sense. I think the one thing all of us realize, and certainly there’s big some progress from when we got there January, three months after Katrina, and there’s been baby steps, if you will, small victories off the football field.
Conventions that have begun to come back, restaurants that are now open for business, the tourism industry. A city that’s really hosted Super Bowls for so many other cities now had a chance to host their own, and yet I think that visibility this season still brought attention to the many areas that there’s still suffering.
Certainly most recently now the oil that’s in the Gulf, and that unto itself is a whole ‘nother challenge. So it’s an amazingly resilient community, and I’m not just talking about New Orleans or Louisiana, but Mississippi, Alabama. That Gulf South and what they’ve gone through for the better part of the last five or six years has been unbelievable.
Tavis: How do you get your players, as you’ve done so well, get your players to buy into the city? I can talk about Breeze, I can talk about Bush and a host of other players, of course, some from that region, born and raised in that region. How do you get your players to buy into that, because we’ve been reading stories of late about all kinds of players who didn’t want to get traded to this town, didn’t want to get traded to that town
Poor LeBron James and all the hate being directed at him for selling out his hometown, or at least Cleveland, near his hometown. So how do you get your players to buy into the notion that this is not just about us playing football, but this vision of rebuilding this city?
Payton: I think most importantly the beginning step is recognizing who we’re looking for in the player, and that was a very important step as we began to assemble our team in 2006. Certainly we know there’s plenty of distractions and challenges about having a pro football team in the city of New Orleans, and yet we really identified all the little things that we think make up someone who has a chance to contribute in a successful way to the team.
I think from that point on that bond that began in ’06 and has continued to gain momentum all the way up to this season, whether it was through Drew Breeze’s great leadership, Reggie Bush you mentioned, Jon Vilma, Will Smith, you go on and on.
But the beginning step was most critical, and that was identifying who we were looking to have as representatives of the New Orleans Saints, finding the right guys. Because when you do that and they’re exposed to 15,000 people on a return flight at the airport after a regular season game, or they’re exposed to just a number of the events that we try to take part in, they do the right thing and they get it.
So it’s something that’s been unique in that we’ve kind of gained some momentum from our fan base, and in turn I think have given back and they’ve gained a little bit of confidence and good feelings, if you will.
Tavis: To your point about the fan base, Coach, this might be deemed by some as an underhand slow pitch for you to put over the fence, and it’s not. I’m asking because I really do believe this.
There are great fans, of course, all across the country, from college sports to professional sports, all kinds of great fans. But to your point, there is something unique about these Saints fans in part because they suffered through so many years of having seasons where they felt deflated and defeated.
On the one hand they keep coming back every year, as you know, but to your point of a moment ago, when you’ve got 15,000 people meeting you at the airport when you come back from a regular season home game and they’re cheering you at the airport, those fans are a little bit different, a little unusual.
Tell me about of all the place you’ve been in your career, how do you assess the fans in New Orleans?
Payton: Well, not having had a chance to ever live there or in that area, we had just come from Dallas, where we were with the Cowboys, and I’d been with the New York Giants, the Philadelphia Eagles and coached in college for the better part of 11 years.
What we found was — and again, right after Katrina, all of a sudden an area of people that had a history with their team, although their team had not had great history — grandfathers, fathers that had seen the team play back in the late ’67, ’68s, the early seasons — and although there had been a lot of trying times there was something uniquely different in that they seemed to believe in that next season, that next season.
It took them 43 years (laughter) but they were there, and what was more interesting is after Katrina the Superdome sold out in 2006 and had a waiting list for season tickets that first ’06 season. ’07, they were sold out again with a pretty good waiting list. ’08, ’09, there’s probably 50,000, 55,000 people now on a waiting list for season tickets in a very small area, in an area that many people you might say struggle making the payment on coming up with those dollars for entertainment.
It’s what they do on Sundays, and it’s an area that basketball has been relatively new, with the Hornets; LSU is pretty significant up the road; but on Sundays the New Orleans Saints have been their team. They’ve been our home team, and that really captures what we were trying to do with this book.
What you just asked me, the unique bond of this community that all of us have grown to fall in love with was really what inspired us. Because we didn’t want a project that was going to be a winning on the field and off the field or an Xes and Os book or a leadership. This book was going to be more about hey, this is pretty unique here. Shortly after Katrina to the Super Bowl parade, this is our story.
We do think we’ve got the best fans in the world.
Tavis: You mentioned earlier the distractions that exist, and of course any city has distractions — New Orleans has its own unique kinds of distractions for players who don’t have their heads screwed on straight.
But in the evaluation process — this is inside baseball, but I’m curious, because every team has to go through this — how do you know, how do you figure out when you’re drafting, trading for, bringing in the right kinds of players who can handle the unique distractions of this particular environment?
Payton: That’s a great question. Obviously, the combination of first finding the player that has the talent to be successful in our league, but trying to find the player that is motivated past money, that is motivated to excel.
Tavis: Is that possible these days?
Payton: Well, I think it is. I think it is. What I mean by that is certainly what you’re trying to find is that person that’s driven to be great, and certainly they’re going to make an awful lot of money, and not as much as maybe a basketball player might or a baseball player, but the person that’s driven to win and are we perfect with that?
No, but I do think that there can be mistakes made that can set you back if you’re not attempting to do that, and I think that became one of our big focal points in ’06 with the draft, with free agency, was really trying to identify those players that we felt had something uniquely special.
That might be interviewing high school coaches, college counselors, as best we could to research a player’s background. The risk, even with the signing of Drew Breeze with the shoulder injury that he had, the most telling sign with him is that he would overcome something like that. He was so successful in high school and college with the Chargers, it’s kind of always followed him.
If we continue to attempt to find the right players that put winning first and put the team first — and I’ve said this before. New England gave us the blueprint in the early-mid part of 2000, 2002. They’re teams that really put the team first, and it was an organization that won with certainly great coaching, great quarterback play, but also a philosophy that they stood strong to and we try to pay attention to that.
Tavis: Speaking of distractions, let me throw these three at you. I’m going to lump them all together, and I know that two of them, one in particular, you’re only going to say so much about because there’s litigation going on.
But I throw them all under the category of distractions because they could be — you tell me if your team can handle it. The distraction with the Vicodin story, the Reggie Bush USC story, and maybe even the victory itself and the ESPYs and all the stuff that come along with celebrating and trying to repeat next season.
So with all those and other distractions in the off season, how do you prepare to do it again?
Payton: I think number one you go back to leaning what we just talked about. You lean on the leadership in that locker room. We’re a team that since we began in ’06, we’ve been displaced because of Gustav for a week in Indianapolis, we played over in London, England for a week. We’ve been — we’re a team that has been able to handle that spotlight, if you will.
We asked for this. This was our goal beginning in 2006, to be successful, and knowing that with success comes just what you’re talking about, be it the Vicodin issue that came up right after the end of the regular season or the post season this season, certainly with Reggie’s case involving USC.
Then lumping what is I guess the Super Bowl hangover potentially together, I think you come right out and discuss those things and talk about being special and once again leaning strongly on the character of your locker room and the leadership in your locker room, and studying closely history and how it’s been fairly unkind, if you will, to teams in our league, in football specifically, on having success the year after a Super Bowl.
So looking at our schedules, adjusting some of those things, and yet taking some of those things square on and saying, “Hey, if we truly believe we want to be special, then here’s our chance to prove it.
Tavis: Quick follow-up on the Vicodin story, and I’m asking this in part because you’re so open about everything else in this book, and you mentioned leadership a moment ago, so I’m following up on that.
Have you had any sense since this Vicodin story broke that your team feels let down by its leadership?
Payton: Not at all. I think, number one, our team recognizes with our success came an ex-employee for the better part of a year and a half who had basically come to the club looking for not just a small but a huge financial gain. The one thing that we’ve been fortunate with throughout this process is our ownership, and Mr. Benson has stood strong. This is something, really, that’s become a club matter with this individual employee that they’re handling in what is now arbitration.
But his leadership through this has been outstanding, and I think our team has seen that as well, and I think our team understands clearly the motives behind this, and that’s what they’re a lot more privy to because they’ve worked with the individuals on a daily basis.
Tavis: Let me shift gears a little bit, because it’s impossible to have a Super Bowl-winning coach here and not talk about sports more broadly if I can.
Payton: You bet.
Tavis: Especially if you’re here for the ESPYs, so it’s all about sports. (Laughter) It’s all about sports tonight.
Your thoughts on the LeBron James trade to Miami, and I’m asking this particular question not so much about the details of it but about the back-and-forth in the media about whether or not it was too narcissistic, speaking of the ESPYs, the whole ESPN thing.
What’s your sense of how a player, no matter how big he or she is, ought to handle making that kind of decision, how they ought to deal with the media? I don’t want to color it too much, but what’s your take on it?
Payton: Well, listen, I think certainly we’ve seen, in a very short period of time, the landscape of sports constantly change, and as someone who’s not as familiar with the basketball salary structure, I do appreciate and understand —
Tavis: Unlike football, Coach, it is guaranteed. (Laughter)
Payton: It’s a different deal.
Tavis: That’s the best part about it, it’s guaranteed.
Payton: But it’s the first time that I can recall growing up a Chicago Bulls fan, living outside of Chicago, and remembering when Michael Jordan was drafted. We had hard times for a while there. We couldn’t get past Detroit. Then finally we acquired the Scottie Pippins and the other players that were going to be instrumental in that team having success.
I think there’s a traditionalist in me that loves to see the player, the Magic Johnson who’s in L.A., the Larry Byrd in Boston, Jordan we talked about. So when it changes a little — and hey, that’s the landscape of basketball, though; everything that was just done was done and collectively bargained for — I think what’s a little different was I don’t know that any of us were prepared for an hour-long (laughter) TV show to announce it.
Tavis: The decision.
Payton: The decision, that’s right. (Laughter) I really felt like it was the “Idol” final. (Laughter) Who was it going to be?
Tavis: Yeah, Miami won, that’s for sure.
Payton: But I’m telling you what, it’s changed and I think that that’s what sells. The ratings were off the charts, I understand, and so now back to the traditional side of me, I like to see the player that makes the difference in the team that has never won. The player that comes to New Orleans and ends up putting them over the top and let’s make history here.
So no one ever looks back on it and says, “Well, we just put together this conglomeration that won four championships.” (Laughter) But I understand that and the success Kobe has had here, the success that I think it’s a little sweeter, and yet I certainly understand and respect the decision and it was a little bit uniquely different this off-season in the NBA that I can ever recall.
Tavis: Big free agent class.
Payton: Yeah, and the way it just seemed like it was a big class, and certainly it’s a very — just like our leg, it’s a very small business when you look at ownership, coaches and players, and those are big decisions.
Tavis: So after all this conversation, you hopeful about your chances next year?
Payton: I’m very hopeful. I’m very hopeful. I think — and I said this before. We’ve talked about it as a team. That moment last year certainly was our moment, but we also believe that this is our time, and we’ve gotten younger. The bulk of our players are back and I think we’re ready for the challenge.
Tavis: How do you feel, finally, since it’s about the home team, how do you feel five years later about this city’s chances to rebuild and revitalize itself?
Payton: I think probably stronger than any one season’s predictions. That is a certainty. Now, what’s more important is how efficiently and how quickly it’s done, but the certainty is the strength of that group of people and their ability to shoulder what is the Gulf problem now with the oil, to continue to shoulder Katrina challenges, and it’s what’s made that region so different and it’s what’s made those people special.
Tavis: One thing is for certain — as they navigate their way forward through these trials and tribulations that they are enduring now on the Gulf, they’ll be rooting for the home team throughout the whole process, and the home team is, of course, the New Orleans Saints.
Pleased to be joined by their coach, Sean Payton, out with a new book called just that — “Home Team: Coaching the Saints and New Orleans Back to Life.” Coach, have a great time at the ESPYs. Good to have you on the program.
Payton: Great stuff, thank you.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm