Let's start this with a blatantly obvious statement. Saints fans really love their team. It's so intense; it's so personal. Perhaps no example sums this up better than the following: just minutes after the Saints won the Super Bowl in Miami, a man approached our very own Sharief Ishaq (working for KALB-TV at the time) with a request. As he stood on the field below, the man in the stands asked Sharief to spread the ashes of his deceased mother onto the turf. A life-long fan, his mother had always dreamed of watching her team win the Super Bowl. That didn't happen, so this was the next best thing. The highly emotional man handed Sharief the bag, sobbing as her ashes were spread. Yes, some Saints fans REALLY love their team.
With that fierce love, comes equally powerful insecurity. It's the same kind of insecurity LSU fans felt throughout Nick Saban's tenure with the Tigers, and likewise, his constant flirtation with the NFL. We all know Saban eventually took the Dolphins dash on that chilly, Christmas Day of 2004. Professionally, he and Saints head coach, Sean Payton, are so much the same man. Both inherited train wreck situations, and both delivered championships in a remarkably short period of time. With that, both fan bases were/are petrified that their coach would/will jump and bring all those good times with him. The NFL was Saban's dream; and while Payton hasn't pursued other jobs, many feel the Dallas Cowboys might be his dream. Which is why many members of "The Who-Dat Nation" don't want their coach any closer to Cowboys' owner Jerry Jones than necessary. In their eyes it makes persuasion so much easier for ole' Jerry. Honestly, I'm shocked Jones didn't make a serious run at Payton this year after Wade Phillips was dumped. Maybe feelers were made behind closed doors; they probably were. Whatever happened - it didn't happen.
In an interview with WWL-Radio Tuesday night, Payton shot down "Big D" possibilities. He spoke of wanting the Saints to be "his last coaching stop" and said he couldn't see himself "coaching for another 10-15 years" like his mentor and former Cowboys' coach, Bill Parcells, did. Payton also says he understands the fear of the fans, adding that it truly communicates "how much the team means to them."
Let's put aside the possibility of working for the Cowboys for a moment and attack the real heart of the matter. This is a perception thing. There's no doubt many New Orleans residents are thinking to themselves, "Oh, so we're not good enough for him?" Yes, many of the same Saints fans who rejoiced on that magical, historic night of February 6, 2010 are experiencing feelings of resentment and rejection now. Sounds a bit silly, doesn't it? So what if Head Coach Sean Payton moves his family to Dallas? As long as he's still coaching the Saints and still doing a good job, it's a moot point right? That's for you to debate and decide.
I will admit this….I was a bit disappointed in Coach Payton Tuesday afternoon. His issued statement fell so far short of what I expected. After the firestorm of emotions from angry Saints fans, I expected Payton to smooth things over, stroke some egos, lend them some reassurance. But the statement hardly seemed reflective of the same guy who wrote "Home Team," even though similar thoughts appeared in that very same book. Payton stated,
"When my wife and I relocated our family from Dallas, we had always dreamed of someday settling there. We feel that now is the best time to do this. It's a decision that I'm sure many families have to confront, and I don't know if there is any one right or wrong decision - just the best one you can make for your own family."
That was it? Three sentences? Some of you might be thinking it's absurd that a coach even needs to release a statement on such a private matter. Perhaps you're right, but I expected some sort of endearing comment to be made about the city Payton coaches in. Something like, "Despite this family decision, New Orleans obviously holds a special place in our hearts and it always will."
Maybe that's understood and redundant. I don't know. I just felt a bit empty and hurt for the Saints fans after reading it. Instead of saying something endearing to them, he praised the city of Dallas. It just felt ...cold.
My feelings changed a bit after listening to Payton's interview with WWL's Deke Bellavia and Bobby Hebert. It was simply a much more effective and sincere way to tackle the matter. He quickly thwarted the juiciest gossip, explaining that he and his wife, Beth, were not separating. His wife and two children would visit on weekends for games and other occasions. And Payton says the kids were the biggest reason for the move, "as they approach high school age." Again, these are issues that have nothing to do with the most important aspect of the franchise - winning. GM, Mickey Loomis, echoed those very sentiments Tuesday night saying, "My job….is to make sure people do their job effectively." Until the Saints go 6-10, Payton has proven that he does his job tremendously well. Still, Saints fans were just as interested in hearing him talk about the new house in Dallas as they were about potential draft possibilities.
It's been a thrill to cover the Sean Payton era. I've been lucky enough to cover all of the big moments. I generally consider him pretty polite to the media, especially compared to other NFL coaches. I read coach Payton's book and the countless stories about what the Saints meant to New Orleans and the entire Gulf South after Hurricane Katrina. The team was nothing before Payton arrived; likewise, the coach was a bit of an unknown himself. Together, with the unwavering support of the fans, they both rode to the top together. It's the ultimate success story, as chronicled in Jeff Duncan's brilliantly titled and written book, "From Bags to Riches." The Saints can certainly hoist the Lombardi Trophy again whether Payton and his family live on the Northshore or not. Perhaps one day we'll look back on this story as no story at all.
But I do know this - Saints fans rightfully worship their coach. Sean Payton brought the franchise the impossible. Now, his family is moving out of a city that absolutely adores them.
Something just doesn't feel right.