(Jan. 25) For people who didn’t suffer through the first 21 years of the New Orleans Saints football team or endure Hurricane Katrina, it is almost impossible to imagine the distress caused by seeing head coach Sean Payton retire.

Although coach Jim Mora made the Saints an occasional winner beginning back in 1987, and although the Saints finally won a playoff game (after 34 years) in 2000 under coach Jim Haslett, Saints fans still felt habitually woebegone until Payton arrived on the scene in Katrina’s wake.

The Saints already had a legendarily close tie to their city and region, one forged through years as a perpetual underdog in an already small market whose anchor city population was shrinking and beset by social woes. Then, of course, Katrina left 80% of the city underwater for days and about a fourth of it uninhabitable for years to come. The Saints had to play home games elsewhere, and owner Tom Benson briefly flirted with a permanent move while the team fell to a 3-13 record.

But Saints stars such as Deuce McAllister and Joe Horn publicly insisted the Saints should return to New Orleans, and Benson recommitted.

Then came Payton.

A coaching wunderkind, brash and intense and infectiously upbeat, Payton was just the tonic the city and team needed. He convinced the Saints to make a splash by signing badly injured quarterback Drew Brees and drafting Heisman Trophy-winning running back Reggie Bush, but other than that, the team’s draft and free agent signings were rather unheralded.

Looks deceived.

Even as the city still struggled a full year after the hurricane, Payton and Brees engineered a remarkable turnaround, leading the team all the way to the NFC championship game in their very first year. The Saints were, undisputedly, the major rallying point for the whole storm-struck region, providing a reason for social cohesion, hope, and celebration amid destruction and desolation…. [The full column is at this link.]


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