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'Doctor' Haslett Cures the Saints

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Jim Haslett’s reward for transforming the New Orleans Saints from woebegone losers into playoff winners was another doorstop for his collection.

The former IUP All-American (1976-78) earned Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year honors in a landslide vote, but the trophy he received is as likely to wind up on the floor as on the mantel. Just like the one Haslett received in 1979 as the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year.

“I came home one day, and my wife was using it to prop the door open,” he said. “So I guess this is just another thing for her to hold the door open with.”

Haslett outpolled runner-up Andy Reid of Philadelphia 30½-9½ in the balloting. That margin underscored his remarkable—some might say miraculous—feat of breathing life into a team whose pulse was as faint as its hopes.

Jim Haslett

Jim Haslett

The Saints were perennial patsies, their image defined by long-suffering fans who watched games while wearing paper bags over their heads and rechristened their team the Aints. Since its 1967 debut as an expansion franchise, New Orleans had recorded only five winning seasons and had finished in last place on thirteen occasions.

Then Haslett arrived from Pittsburgh after spending three seasons as the Steelers’ defensive coordinator and, like a modern Merlin, magically broke the spell. Fans accustomed to a yearly dose of football follies were treated to a winning season for the first time since 1992. It was as if the Bad News Bears had morphed into the New York Yankees.

“I came into a really bad situation,” Haslett acknowledged. “The franchise wasn’t in great shape. Guys who had been here a long time had never won, had never had a winning season. We had to try to change people’s thinking and teach them how to win, how to deal with adversity, how to deal with success. Our goal was to build a team and an organization people would be proud of.”

Mission accomplished. In their first year under Haslett, the Saints executed a stunning worst-to-first reversal, from a 3-13 record and a last-place finish in 1999 to a 10-6 record and the NFC West title. They followed with a 31-28 defeat of the defending Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams, the first playoff victory in franchise history.

Not even a psychic could have predicted the Saints’ Jekyll-and-Hyde about-face. After all, this was a team composed of low-round draft choices and free-agent castoffs, players anonymous to all but friends and family. Prognosticators pegged the Saints as noncontenders, long shots to even escape the NFC West basement. They just weren’t skilled enough, or big enough, or deep enough to reach .500, much less the playoffs.

But in the end, the team long regarded as a laughingstock had the last laugh. The Saints shrugged off their shortcomings and crashed the NFL’s postseason party by becoming a reflection of Haslett the player, a spindly linebacker whose heart was outsized even if his body wasn’t. They played like a pack of pit bulls: aggressive, ferocious, relentless.

“We don’t match up with anybody,” Haslett said of his team. “We just play hard, battle, fight, and scratch. And we find a way to win.”

Even in the midst of an injury epidemic that would’ve crippled most teams. Haslett lost three starters for the season even before the opening game. In November, running back Ricky Williams broke his left ankle one week and quarterback Jeff Blake broke his right foot the next. All told, ten starters were sidelined for extended periods.

But the Saints and their unflappable coach weathered the storm. After a 1-3 start they reeled off six consecutive victories and then beat St. Louis on November 26 to climb into the division lead. The Saints never did relinquish their grip on first place and, for only the second time in franchise history, clinched a division championship. Their subsequent playoff victory affixed an exclamation mark on a season punctuated by success on a scale that would have seemed utterly inconceivable twelve months before.

The honors just keep coming—for the team and for the coach.  In August, Haslett the player, the three-time All-American linebacker at IUP, will be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

“Doctor” Haslett rejuvenated an ailing franchise that had long languished in the depths of the NFC West. New Orleans advanced deeper into the playoffs than ever before, fans discarded their paper bags, and the rookie coach took home a glistening trophy, capping the NFL’s feel-good story of 2000.

As with any story, this one requires a title, something that captures the essence of the Saints’ giddy turnaround from pretender to contender. Actually, the choice is as much a no-brainer as the decision to punt on fourth-and-thirty: From Doormats to Doorstops.