Payton marched in and wowed Saints

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NEW ORLEANS – Paesano’s has been a local favorite for years in San Antonio, a hip Italian restaurant located in an upscale shopping center off Highway 281, tucked between downtown and the airport.

But these days, the place probably holds an even more special meaning in New Orleans. Heck, as far as Saints fans are concerned, it should be worthy of landmark status.

Paesano’s is where the Saints’ front office brain trust of Mickey Loomis, Russ Ball and Rick Mueller first met with Coach Sean Payton, flying him in from Dallas for an informal chat as they began their search for a head coach.

That was Jan. 4, 2006. Two weeks later, Payton was introduced as the 14th head coach in Saints history.

“It was a trip down to San Antonio. Went down there, got on a plane and flew back,” Payton said of the whirlwind meeting, recalling that it took place, ironically, while Saints tailback Reggie Bush was playing against Texas for the national championship on a television in the background.

“I probably at that moment didn’t know (I would eventually be hired),” said Payton, who was flying to Green Bay the next morning for an interview with the Packers. “I mean, I walked away from that dinner thinking, “I’ve got to get back on this flight and still go back into the office to get a binder ready for the next day in Green Bay.’ So there was a lot going on.

“But it was good to meet them and get a good feel for the people that would be involved in that process, especially Mickey. And so I felt very good about how the dinner went.”

Payton came to New Orleans a week later for an interview. He was one of five candidates, joining former head coaches Mike Sherman and Mike Martz and assistants Maurice Carthon and Donnie Henderson.

But there was something about this young offensive assistant from the Dallas Cowboys that continued to stick with Loomis, Ball and Mueller from that first meeting.

“I remember distinctly after that, thinking, “Wow, this is a pretty good guy,”‘ said Loomis, the Saints’ general manager, who was in charge of hiring a coach for the first time in his career as an NFL executive. “I had a really strong, good feeling about him. And I know that Russ and Rick had the same feeling.”

So did Saints owner Tom Benson, sort of. Benson, who met with Payton for the first time during the interview in New Orleans, said he originally wondered if the Saints should seek an experienced head coach because of all the issues the team would be facing in its return to the hurricane-ravaged city.

But Benson liked what he saw in Payton, and more important, he put his trust in Loomis.

“I didn’t make any recommendations. But of the five people that we talked to, Mickey made his decision, and I backed him,” Benson said. “I think the conversation went, “Loomis, your ass is on the line.”‘

Needless to say, Loomis is sitting comfortably these days.

The Saints are in the NFC championship game for the first time in team history. Payton was chosen the NFL’s Coach of the Year by The Associated Press. And Loomis was voted the league’s Executive of the Year by Pro Football Weekly and the Pro Football Writers Association.

Loomis began the most important task of his career basically from scratch. The first thing he did was request a series of videotapes from the league office with pre-taped interviews from dozens of assistant coaches.

That’s where he got his first impression of Payton, who had been asked by the league to make a tape the year after he helped lead the New York Giants to the Super Bowl as an offensive coordinator in the 2000-01 season.

“It’s just a program where a lot of coordinators and assistants are basically interviewed on a camera and someone asks these 28 questions that are the same for everyone,” Payton said. “Where are you from? How long have you coached? How do you carry yourself? Just very simple questions that introduce a candidate for a team. It was probably a 45-minute session.”

Loomis, who thinks he watched about 20 or 30 of the tapes, said he liked the way Payton communicated and presented himself. Later, Loomis became even more impressed by how detailed and thorough Payton was about every aspect of running his team, from practice schedules, to roster makeup, to the kind of assistant coaches he hoped to hire.

Most of all, Loomis liked how much Payton preached about discipline, which probably was the Saints’ No. 1 area of emphasis when seeking a coach.

“Definitely, when we were through with that process, he was definitely the guy we wanted, no question about it,” Loomis said. “That’s not to say from the first moment that, “Hey, this is our guy,’ and he had the job. But I would say that at no point did I ever have any hesitation about Sean. No, “Ahh, maybe this isn’t the guy.’ I never had that.

“Every answer to every question, every presentation that he made was right on. Sometimes I didn’t necessarily agree that that’s what I would do. But the presentation of it and the implementation of whatever he was presenting made sense. So that’s what you’re looking for, for a guy to have a philosophy, to stick with it, to have answers to tough questions. And he did. He was very thorough.”

Payton, 43, was about as prepared as any first-time head coach can be.When he went to work for Dallas Coach Bill Parcells in 2003, it was by design almost a graduate school for a coach-in-training. Parcells is one of the most accomplished and respected coaches in NFL history. After one year with the Cowboys, Payton interviewed for the Oakland Raiders head coaching job, but late in the process he pulled his name from consideration.

“I just didn’t think the situation was right. I thought it was best to stay in Dallas,” said Payton, who got a chance to study under Parcells for two more years and was given an opportunity to call plays for the Cowboys during the 2005 season.

Then in 2006, the Saints and Packers came calling, and New Orleans was the right place at the right time.

“I remember saying, him being a young man, “You know, the worst thing that could happen to you, maybe it’s not your fault, but if things don’t work out that could hurt your career a great deal,”‘ Benson said. “But he was very positive about everything.

“I’ll tell you one thing about him. He looked at you straight in the eye. You could see he had a plan. He was going to get results from his players. And you had the feeling right from the beginning when you were visiting with this guy that they had to be part of the team, or they weren’t going to be on the team.”

Benson, who is something of a buff when it comes to World War II generals, said Payton reminds him a little bit of those guys. They talked about that in their first meeting, among other topics.

It was during the grueling training camp in the heat of Jackson, Miss., though, when Benson knew for certain the Saints had hired the right man.

“I would sit in the cafeteria with my wife for an hour, sometimes two, and I tried to watch the players to get a feeling out of them, after the practice in the evening, especially,” Benson said. “Are they worn out? Are they just talking to themselves, or not talking, just sitting there feeling sorry for themselves? We weren’t getting any of that.

“We were getting guys that looked like they’d just been through the 100-degree weather out there and thought they were going to drop dead, and yet they were ready to go again.”

When asked for their first impression of Payton, most players gave a similar response.

“A disciplinarian,” Bush said. “Serious about what he expected from everyone.”

“No-nonsense,” veteran cornerback Fred Thomas said.

“Straightforward,” receiver Joe Horn said.

Other players talked about his attention to detail. Linebacker Scott Fujita’s first impression of Payton came when they were both with the Cowboys last season. Fujita was traded from Kansas City shortly before the season.

“I remember in practice he used to always say, “Repeat it again on the ball, please.’ It was a little redundant. I haven’t teased him about that yet. I was thinking, “Who is this guy?”‘ Fujita said. “But the time I got to know him best was the week we played Kansas City, and all of a sudden he wanted to be my best friend and be all up in the Kansas City playbook.

“So my first impression was that he was curious. Very studious.”

Saints quarterback Drew Brees has forged a particularly special relationship with Payton, whose career had been spent coaching quarterbacks and offenses.

From the moment Brees was signed as a free agent in March, the two have collaborated on installing the Saints’ playbook, designing it around Brees’ strengths and preferences.

Brees, who finished runner-up in the league MVP voting, said Payton has been instrumental in taking his career to the next level.

“If you walked in the door, you wouldn’t know he’s a first-year head coach,” Brees said before the Saints’ season opener in September. “Because he’s got it together. He’s in control of this deal, and we all obviously respect him. He’s gained our respect as we’ve gone through this because we see that he’s earned the spot that he’s in right now.”

Four months later, Payton and the Saints have earned a spot in uncharted territory for this franchise, a Sunday afternoon date in the winter chill of Chicago’s Soldier Field.

The winner of Sunday’s game will advance to the promised land, Super Bowl XLI in Miami.

Perhaps someone envisioned this, while Payton, Loomis, Ball and Mueller were chatting over pasta that first night at Paesano’s last January. Probably not.

But from that moment on, everyone at that table felt like something special was possible.

“By the time we hired him, I knew that, “Hey, this is exactly the right guy for us at the right time,”‘ Loomis said. “And I’ve said that almost every day since then.”

(Mike Triplett is a staff writer for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans. He can be contacted at mtriplett(at)timespicayune.com.)

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