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Still Not A Saint New Orleans coach Jim Haslett has mellowed a bit since his raucous playing days, but no one would accuse him of being a choirboy

Dec. 17, 2001
Dec. 17, 2001

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Dec. 17, 2001

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Still Not A Saint New Orleans coach Jim Haslett has mellowed a bit since his raucous playing days, but no one would accuse him of being a choirboy

He has tempered his intolerance with end-zone dancers. He has
learned to cope with a helmet-throwing, tattooed player whose
insolence may have blown a game. However, even as Jim Haslett
settles into a long-delayed adulthood, the New Orleans Saints'
second-year coach has no patience for dogs. "Get down, dammit!"
he snaps at Hasbro, his 2-year-old vizsla, on a recent Friday
night at his home in Destrehan, La.

This is an article from the Dec. 17, 2001 issue Original Layout

Then Haslett, to the chagrin of his nine-year-old son, Chase,
and five-year-old daughter, Libby, clicks a remote-control
device that sends a jolt of electricity through the dog's
collar. Hasbro takes his paws off the kitchen table, where a
plate of ham, cheese and crackers lies. "He has a food fetish,
and this keeps him in line," Haslett says, waving the remote
device. "I wish I had one of these for [Saints wideout] Joe Horn."

All is well for the next several minutes. Haslett tells tales of
his raucous past, from hog-tying Buffalo Bills teammates to
their training-camp beds to driving cars over embankments after
frequenting bars along the shores of Lake Erie. Then Hasbro
strikes again, lunging toward a slice of ham. In an instant
Haslett's eyes are ablaze with the fury he displayed as a
two-time Pro Bowl linebacker in the early '80s. He jumps from
his chair, clamps his hands around Hasbro's snout, squeezes the
dog's jaws shut and shakes its head for emphasis. "Hey," he
hisses, spittle flying from his lips, "I swear to God, I'm gonna
kill you!"

It is not uncommon for men in Haslett's profession to make
over-the-top threats, but with the possible exception of his
former boss, the Pittsburgh Steelers' iron-chinned Bill Cowher,
no NFL coach sells his ire quite so convincingly. Young football
fans know Haslett, who turned 46 on Dec. 9, as the bold, intense
yet personable motivator who shook the Saints from their Mike
Ditka-induced doldrums: New Orleans won the NFC West and its
first-ever playoff game last season and, after Sunday's 28-10
win over the Atlanta Falcons, is 7-5 and fighting for a playoff
berth. Yet seasoned observers recall how much bite is behind
Haslett's bark, from his infamous cleating of helmetless
Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw in 1979 to his brawls on the
field, in the locker room and at bars throughout the Northeast.

"I know he's a coach and a family man now, but any troublemaking
that anyone has done in football, he has done it too," says Fred
Smerlas, Haslett's former Bills teammate and frequent partner in
crime. "Deep inside, he's still the Jim Haslett who chased young
women down the street with me in Boston until the cops pulled
over my Jeep and asked us to stop." (Reminded of this incident,
Haslett says, "That was all Freddie. And he was driving down the
sidewalk.") "When you think of the way Haz was then," Smerlas
continues, "who would have thought in a million years that he'd
be here?"

Haslett's unanimous selection as NFL coach of the year in 2000
shredded conceptions about the proper path to a head-coaching
job. What's next, Jose Canseco as a baseball manager? Dennis
Rodman as an NBA coach? In fact, Haslett's ascent to authority
figure makes sense precisely because of his background. He can
both intimidate players and relate to their experiences, even to
behavior as excessive as the recent tirade that landed Saints
All-Pro tackle Kyle Turley in anger-management classes. "Jim has
an instinctive ability to connect with players, and the way he
communicates with them is the best I've seen," says New Orleans
general manager Randy Mueller, who hired Haslett in February
2000. "They know he's not phony."

Exhibit A: After clashing at first with Ricky Williams, Haslett
evokes this compliment from the gifted but eccentric Saints
running back: "I know it's not a word you often use to describe
a football coach, but he's very compassionate."

Most football coaches are either unbearably uptight or
shamelessly political--or both. Haslett is a guy (albeit an
intense one) with whom you'd be happy to pound a few beers. He
laughs at himself, and he's as unpretentious as he was when he
used his 1979 defensive rookie of the year trophy as a doorstop.
"He's a cool dude," says Saints safety Sammy Knight, the target
of a Haslett tirade after he celebrated a touchdown during the
coach's first regular-season game. "He can be your best friend
and worst critic, but he's a players' coach."

Those last two words are guaranteed to make Haslett grimace. "I
don't know what players' coach means," he says. "I'm just a
coach, and the players and I are not on the same level. One
thing I never do is lie to these guys, because people lied to me
as a player, and there was nothing I hated more."

This is one coach who has been true to his conscience. In a
profession in which most men would go weeks without solid food
for the chance to advance, Haz has turned down more high-profile
jobs than he has taken, beginning with Al Davis's clandestine
offer to make him the Raiders' defensive coordinator early in
1993, Haslett's first season as an NFL assistant. (Haslett
persuaded Davis to stick with Gunther Cunningham, then warned
Cunningham to watch his back.) Later he passed on chances to
become Tony Dungy's defensive coordinator in Tampa Bay
(Haslett's wife, Beth, was going through a complicated
pregnancy) and the Saints' interim coach after Jim Mora's
resignation midway through the '96 season (Haslett didn't think
he was ready). "In this business you've got to be a risk-taker,"
he says, "but you need to advance because you're putting a good
product on the field, not because you're a self-promoter."

After accepting the New Orleans job Haslett eschewed four- and
five-year offers from owner Tom Benson and signed a three-year
deal. It appeared that the gamble might pay off in the form of a
lucrative contract extension following Haslett's rookie
campaign, in which the Saints, who had gone 3-13 in '99,
finished 10-6 despite injuries to five key players, including
Williams and quarterback Jeff Blake. But Benson, who had given
Ditka a three-year, $7.5 million extension as a reward for a
6-10 season in '97, made no such gesture to Haslett, whose 2001
salary of $850,000 makes him the league's lowest-paid coach. Now
Haslett faces the prospect of free agency following the 2002
season, and there is speculation that he will bolt for greener
pastures. (Benson declined to comment on the matter until after
the season.)

So, while Haslett commands a smaller fortune than less
accomplished pro coaches like the Cleveland Browns' Butch Davis
($3.3 million per year) and the Detroit Lions' Marty Mornhinweg
($1.4 million) and is not even the highest-paid football coach
in Louisiana--LSU's Nick Saban ($1.5 million) holds that
distinction--his job status has not generated the same national
interest as that of Oakland coach Jon Gruden, whose below-market
deal also expires after next season. Like Gruden, Haslett has
been contacted in recent weeks by at least two major colleges
that were considering changing coaches. "You can't worry about
that stuff," Haslett says. "All you can do is try to win games,
and that takes care of everything."

Still, New Orleans has been a disappointment this season. The
Saints and their fans had high expectations after last
December's playoff triumph over the reigning Super Bowl-champion
St. Louis Rams, but the team has been maddeningly inconsistent.
One setback was particularly galling. Trailing the New York Jets
by seven points with 1:41 remaining, the Saints were on the
march when New York safety Damien Robinson grabbed the face mask
of quarterback Aaron Brooks, who had run for a first down at the
Jets' three-yard line, and twisted it violently. Turley,
incensed, went after Robinson, grabbed his helmet and hurled it
toward the sideline, punctuating the throw with an obscene
gesture. The resulting penalties moved New Orleans back to the
20-yard line, and it failed to score.

Haslett hadn't stopped seething at 1 a.m. when an apologetic
Turley called him at home, and he didn't calm down until two
hours later, when he viewed a replay of the incident and saw the
severity of Robinson's transgression. The next morning Haslett
recounted the chain of events to his players, at one point
saying, "Last night I couldn't sleep. I wanted to kill Kyle."
Later he told reporters he had contemplated cutting Turley
before seeing the replay. Instead the Saints fined Turley
$25,000 and ordered him to attend anger-management classes.
Still, the incident left emotional scars.

"It was confusing to have a coach say he thought about cutting
me, but I chalk that up to emotion," says Turley, who wonders
whether Haslett's uncertain future has affected his behavior
this season. "I think he says things sometimes that he doesn't
really want to, because he gets ahead of himself. One great
thing about last year was that you knew he had your back. But
this year the expectations and pressures are different. Too many
coaches can let that affect their personalities, and if they're
not careful, they start worrying more about their jobs than they
do about their teams."

Other Saints disagree with Turley's implication that Haslett has
not remained loyal to them. "Expectations are so high this year,
I don't think anyone could stay the same," Williams says. "It's
harder to coach when you're on the top, and even going back to
last year, we've been a team that does well as underdogs but
falters when people expect us to win. I can see why Kyle is
frustrated, and Haz and I clashed at the beginning, too. But the
bottom line is, he puts the team first, and as a player you have
to respect that. He definitely has our backs."

Don't get the impression that a rift exists between Haslett and
Turley. Shortly before halftime of New Orleans' 34-20 victory
over the Indianapolis Colts last month, officials infuriated
Haslett by placing an extra second on the game clock, permitting
Indy to kick a field goal as the second quarter expired. When
Haslett accosted the referee and vented his anger, Turley
cracked up fans behind the Saints bench by pointing at his coach
and yelling, "I might have to bring him along to
anger-management class."

"Send in the damn rookie," Haslett told his secretary on a
Thursday evening in November. In an instant, linebacker Sedrick
Hodge entered the coach's office and attempted to explain why he
wanted to skip out on a live radio appearance at a French
Quarter restaurant that night. "Our meeting ran long, and by the
time I go home and change clothes, it'll be too late," said
Hodge, who was wearing a T-shirt and shorts.

"Sedrick, it's a radio show," Haslett replied. "It doesn't
matter what the f--- you wear." After a pause he added, "Look, I
don't like doing my radio show either. If you want to say no
when they ask you to do it, that's fine. But once you say yes,
you've got to honor your commitment."

Hodge nodded, left the room and headed downtown. "This is the
crap I do every day," Haslett said, shaking his head.

The complaint sounds convincing until you consider Haslett's
past. For three years in Buffalo he and Smerlas cohosted the
popular Fric and Frac Show on Monday nights on a local radio
station, often insulting upcoming opponents and once drinking on
the air. The show's end came after Haslett's next to last season
with the Bills, in 1984, when Buffalo struggled to a 2-14
record. After enduring a succession of salty callers, at least
one of the two cohosts--each blames the other--pressed buttons
and issued obscene two-word rebukes until the phone lines were
cleared.

"We lived like the guys in North Dallas Forty," Smerlas says.
"We would fight anybody, anytime. But I can't go into the wild,
wild stuff, because he's married with kids now, and I wouldn't
want to embarrass him." Haslett was married back then, too, to
his first wife, Julie.

As hard as he partied, Haslett had a strict work ethic. He grew
up near Pittsburgh in Avalon, where his father, Ira, was a high
school custodian. After walking on at Indiana (Pa.) University,
Haslett scrapped his way to the NFL, and he was determined to
make the most of his talent. "A lot of times we'd drink until 2
or 3 a.m.," Haslett recalls, "and then we'd go straight to the
facility to watch film and work out. At least that's what I did.
Freddie just slept."

The pivotal moment in Haslett's career came in 1986, when he
broke his leg during a Bills preseason game against the Chicago
Bears. Writhing in pain, he began contemplating his future. "Our
coach, Hank Bullough, came out to check on me, and I asked him,
'If I can't play again, will you give me a coaching job?'" says
Haslett. "From that point on I started to pay attention to what
the coaches did."

The injury led to another important change in Haslett's life.
While watching that Bills-Bears game on television with members
of her family, a Buffalo hotel catering manager named Beth Wood
blurted out, "That Jim Haslett is so obnoxious, I hope he breaks
his leg." Two plays later he did. After hearing the story from
teammate John Kidd--who had met the remorseful Wood at her
hotel, where the Bills stayed the nights before games--Haslett
called her and jokingly accused her of being a witch. They
agreed to meet at a local establishment called Libation Station,
and it was love at first beer. Beth and Jim married in 1989, two
years after his retirement from the NFL. Meanwhile, having been
offered assistant coaching jobs with the Bills, Colts and San
Diego Chargers, Haslett instead had taken an assistant's
position at the University of Buffalo so, he says, "I could see
if coaching was even something I wanted to do."

Haslett kept following his gut. When Kay Stephenson, one of his
former coaches with the Bills, took a job with the World
League's Sacramento Surge in January 1991, Haslett headed west
to serve as the Surge's defensive coordinator--only days after
the birth of his and Beth's first child, a daughter named
Kelsey, who remained in Buffalo with Beth for several months.
Two years later Haslett went to work as linebackers coach for
the Raiders' Davis, whom he reveres, though Haslett admits that
he "used to mess with the guy. They would bring him breakfast
wrapped in cellophane, and I'd eat half of it when no one was
looking."

Haslett's star rose through stints as an assistant with the
Saints and the Steelers. He's a tireless worker who typically
sleeps no more than four hours a night. He maps out daily
schedules two months in advance and charts the calories he burns
during workouts. "When we go on vacation," Beth says, "we don't
do the beach thing, because it's way too relaxing for him."

While he grows into his role as a head coach, Haslett struggles
to control his temper and his tongue. New Orleans players laugh
at their coach's meandering pep talks, and he sometimes regrets
his public candor. Following the Saints' victory over the Rams
on Oct. 28, Haslett told reporters that in his halftime address
to his players he had decried St. Louis's reliance on "bull-crap
plays," and he seemed to mock a few trick plays the Rams had
pulled off. By NFL coaching standards the quotes were the
equivalent of an invective-laced rant in a rappers' feud, but
Haslett called Rams coach Mike Martz to clarify his intent.
"What I was trying to say is that if I had those players, I'd do
that stuff too," Haslett says.

Sitting at his kitchen table as he recounts the conversation,
Haslett looks like a man who wishes he could still go out on the
field and kick some butt. "We did a lot of wild things when I
was in the league," he says, "but we worked hard, and we played
our asses off." He starts to raise his voice, but Chase and
Libby hardly notice because they're so engrossed in a cartoon
show on the family-room TV.

Only one member of the household offers his rapt attention, and
it does not go unrewarded. As Haslett launches into another
anecdote, he grabs a slice of ham and lofts it over the table.
Hasbro catches the meat on the fly and devours it in a single
bite.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DANNY TURNERCOLOR PHOTO: BILL HABER/AP Turleyburly Haslett says he was ready to cut Turley for tossing Robinson's helmet until he saw a replay of the Jets safety's foul.COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER Rumblin' man As a linebacker for the Bills, the hell-raising Haslett, here in 1979, was as likely to brawl off the field as on it.COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Odd man in The eccentric Williams says he clashed with Haslett at first, but now he calls the coach loyal and compassionate.COLOR PHOTO: IAN SMITH Make room for Daddy Haslett, with (clockwise from top) Beth, Chase, Kelsey and Elizabeth, is a family man but no couch potato.
Haslett was unanimously selected NFL coach of the year. What's
next, Dennis Rodman as an NBA coach?
"We did wild things when I was in the league," Haslett says,
"but we worked hard and played our asses off."
"The bottom line is, he puts the team first," Williams says of
his coach. "He definitely has our backs."
"When we go on vacation," Beth says, "we don't do the beach
thing, because it's way too relaxing for Jim."