Sean Payton did more than just rebuild a football franchise in 2006. As head coach of the New Orleans Saints, Payton helped to rebuild the spirit of an entire city devastated by the disaster that was Hurricane Katrina in August, 2005.
In his first season as a head coach, Payton led the Saints to a 10-6 record and a first place finish in the NFC South. Just one year earlier, the Saints struggled to win just three games as they moved between Baton Rogue and San Antonio while the city of New Orleans coped with the aftermath of the terrible storm.
Wrote Barry Wilner in the New York Post: “Payton and his team gave the city – indeed, the entire Gulf Coast – something it desperately needed: a reason to smile.”
Payton not only led the Saints to a division title, he led them to their first-ever NFC Championship Game. It was a remarkable achievement for the 35-year-old Payton and it earned him the Maxwell Football Club’s Earle “Greasy” Neale Award as the pro coach of the year for 2006.
“I’m honored and somewhat humbled,” Payton said. “This is a time in our league right now where there are probably seven or eight Hall of Fame coaches currently coaching. I still have the tags hanging out of my Reebok gear on the sidelines.”
Payton lived in the Philadelphia suburb of Newtown Square prior to his family moving to Chicago when he was 13. He attended Eastern Illinois University where he was a star quarterback and broke most of the school’s passing records. In 1987, he had a brief stint as a replacement player with the Chicago Bears during the NFL strike, but he found his true calling in coaching.
Payton worked his way up the ladder as an assistant at San Diego State, Indiana State, Miami of Ohio and Illinois. He broke into the NFL as quarterback coach with the Eagles in 1997. From there, he went to the New York Giants as offensive coordinator and helped them reach the Super Bowl in the 2000 season. He joined the Dallas Cowboy staff in 2003 and spent three seasons directing the offense for head coach Bill Parcells.
Payton developed a reputation as one of the NFL’s brightest young coaches and Saints owner Tom Benson hired him last year to put that troubled franchise back on its feet. He turned over more than half of the roster – there were 27 new faces on the Saints in 2006 – and he led the team to within one game of the Super Bowl.
“It’s just been the right mix of guys who believe in each other,” Payton said. “Players putting the team ahead of everything else. I think that’s the biggest thing that we’ve been able to do to date. That’s what is most important. That’s what we were looking for in the off-season: character, toughness, those are things you win with.”
“Coach Payton has created a real winning atmosphere,” said quarterback Drew Brees, who signed with New Orleans as a free agent and passed for a career high 4,418 yards and 26 touchdowns. “I wasn’t here last year, so I don’t know what it was like, but I’ve heard stories.
“A lot of these guys probably felt beaten down. For Coach Payton to come in here and reverse that attitude, to make everybody on this team feel like he has a key role, that’s really something.”
“You have to trust your gut and follow your heart,” Payton said. “There certainly were going to be some challenges coming into this region at this time. But I think the city is very committed to this team and it’s really an amazing fan base that we have here, not just in New Orleans but in this whole Gulf South area.
“I’m excited that we can provide a little juice for these people during the course of the week and get them excited about football.”
New Orleans Saints