Mickey Loomis had never hired a head coach in more than 22 years as an NFL executive. Then, as executive vice president of the New Orleans Saints, with his city in ruins and his team desperate for fresh life, the most important hire in the city became his task.
If no one else understood the significance of picking the right coach, Loomis knew within days of Hurricane Katrina, when he went with a group of players to a shelter filled with evacuees. The homeless and distraught came to the players with tears in their eyes. The Saints were all they had left, they said.
So as Loomis sat in the team's makeshift headquarters in San Antonio last January after firing Coach Jim Haslett, he knew he could not afford to make a mistake. "I wanted someone who would look at it like I did and could turn it into a positive and realize that he had an opportunity to make a little bit of an impact here," Loomis said.
Maybe even Loomis couldn't have known how perfect his choice, Sean Payton, turned out to be. Payton, a 42-year-old offensive coordinator with the Dallas Cowboys who had never been a head coach, came to town with the ideal balance of sympathy and fire and managed to turn a disheveled team into the story of this NFL season.
The Saints, with only one playoff victory in their 40-season history, are 9-4 and would clinch the NFC South with a victory over the Washington Redskins in New Orleans on Sunday.
"Every day after the day we hired him, he does something to affirm that it was the right decision," Loomis said.
But back in January, Loomis wasn't sure exactly where to start. He had signed players, traded them, drafted them and even once picked a coach for an Arena Football League team. But the most significant task of a team official had always belonged to someone more important, someone with an office farther down the hall.
He sat in San Antonio with a pile of interview tapes produced by the NFL in which all the league's top assistants sat before a camera and answered the same questions about leadership, coaching style and determination. It turned out to be a great guide because Loomis was able to compare each man's answers against the others. One voice kept sticking out, one youthful face with excited blue eyes. Loomis knew of Payton but had never sat before him in a room, listening to him sell a plan, explain a vision.
"I was just impressed with the way he presented himself," Loomis said.
They talked in San Antonio during a hasty two-hour meeting and Loomis wanted to see more, so Payton was brought to New Orleans. They spent a day touring the team facility, catching a glimpse of the destruction near the Saints offices. They talked a lot about football, but they also talked about what had been left behind and what needed to be repaired. And much of that had nothing to do with the practice fields outside the windows that had been a staging area for the National Guard in the weeks after Katrina hit.
"Our approach was we didn't hide anything," Loomis said. "We said, 'Here it is. Our circumstances are different than anyplace else, but it creates an opportunity.' "
Payton never once backed down. Two years before he had pulled himself out of the running to be head coach of the Oakland Raiders, deciding, according to reports at the time, the situation was too restrictive, he wouldn't have much control over choosing players and he wasn't sure the team was very good. The Saints went 3-13 in 2005, had evacuated to another state, their facilities needed to be repainted and re-carpeted and the Louisiana Superdome, their home stadium, had a giant hole in the roof. But Payton never wavered.
"I think you're always looking for something in your career that challenges you," Payton said recently, sitting in the office of the team's public relations director. "But you hope it's something that's an opportunity and not an impossible challenge."
He told Loomis and team owner Tom Benson that he wanted the task. Other candidates -- who reportedly included current Lions defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson and former Browns offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon -- said they understood the challenges brought by Katrina as well, according to Loomis.
But by then Payton had already made his impression.
"The thing I found out early with Sean was that he had a plan," Loomis said. "He knew exactly what he wanted to do."
If one thing has impressed the New Orleans players the most it is the organization of their new coach. He came in immediately with a demanding offseason conditioning program, followed it with the most grueling training camp they had experienced and, to make matters worse, moved the camp to Jackson, Miss., where the sun cooked the ground and the players sweated through the afternoons.
He watched to see who couldn't keep up, who didn't seem to want to work hard and began cutting and trading those players. One, linebacker Anthony Simmons, once a rising star in the league, simply quit before training camp even began. And when those players left, Payton and Loomis moved quickly to replace them with players they believed in.
"First of all, you have to realize what's kept you from winning here and if as quickly as possible you can identify those things and address them, I think you have a better chance," Payton said.
It seems the players have responded, maybe in part because Payton is not much older than some of them and also because of a desire to control everything. No detail is too arcane for Payton. If the team is going on a road trip he wants to know in advance where exactly the buses will be, how many will meet the team and the precise procedure for checking into the hotel.
And there were the unusual requests that started coming to the team's public relations people. On the Thursday before the Saints played Cincinnati last month, Payton phoned the PR department to ask if it could find a tape of the 1977 boxing match between Vito Antuofermo and Eugene Hart in Philadelphia, in which Hart was pounding Antuofermo for four rounds until Antuofermo came back to knock Hart out in the fifth. Payton later told the players that after the fight Antuofermo told his trainer that each round his body ached so much that one more punch would finish him off. Except that punch never came; Hart never delivered it.
As Antuofermo recounted his tale, Hart -- listening in the adjoining locker room -- heard this, Payton said, and he began to weep, hearing the story of how close he was to victory and yet never finding the strength to seize it. The players listened, spellbound.
The story was an old gimmick of Cowboys Coach Bill Parcells, a tale Payton borrowed from his mentor. And though it failed to bring a victory against the Bengals, it was one of many such motivational moments that included a training camp speech by Dallas Mavericks Coach Avery Johnson, a New Orleans native, that was so moving the team still talks about it.
"You can tell he's a guy who's been preparing for this moment to be a head coach," said quarterback Drew Brees, who came to the Saints as the first big free agent signing after Payton was hired. "He doesn't seem like a first-year head coach. He doesn't act like it, everything you see, everything you hear, everything you feel within this organization now. I think it's absolute confidence that he has, absolute trust that he knows what direction he wants to take this thing and you can just tell he's had a plan.
"Now he's just implementing that plan. I think the biggest thing he's done is he's created this winning attitude this winning atmosphere, really that's how I describe it as an attitude."
Most of all, he has told them not to be afraid to seize the disaster for themselves. He has told his players the most important gift they can give to the city is winning. On Sept. 25, the first night the Saints played again in the Superdome, he told the team that the night would be a useless memory if they were to not win. Simply enjoying the night and then losing would leave everyone empty.
The Saints won that night and the recovering city has not stopped dancing.
"At the beginning of the year we talked about the things we can and can't control," Payton said. "We talked about embracing some of the responsibility of trying to understand and give this city a little something to be proud of and give this city a reason to get fired up about going to work on Monday and some of the challenges -- there is still a lot to do -- and from an organizational standpoint. [Benson] was clear we want to be out in the front of the effort to rebuild this town. We want to be one of the major players in helping to rebuild this city.
"Well, the first thing we can do is begin to play better, win games and, sure, there's going to be a lot of individual efforts charitable-wise and visits and all those things, but it goes back to the football. That's something that can help, too."
There is a very good chance the egomaniacal Parcells might not have been able to do this, or even the alternately stoic and folksy Joe Gibbs. Few men could have mixed the football and rebuilding and made it all work.
In the first hire of Mickey Loomis's career -- only the most important coaching hire anywhere in years -- he just might have gotten it right.