Haslett, Saints Meet Again 

Bengals linebackers coach Jim Haslett was an NFL Coach of the Year with the Saints.
Bengals linebackers coach Jim Haslett was an NFL Coach of the Year with the Saints.

When Jim Haslett sees the helmets of the New Orleans Saints before they play Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19) at Paul Brown Stadium, he figures it won't be as emotional as it would have been a decade ago.

 "It's going to be more like, 'That's a heck of an offense they've got,'" says Haslett, the Bengals' third-year linebackers coach.

The Saints are flying. They're 7-1, they've won seven straight and just beat the best team in the league with quarterback Drew Brees re-writing the NFL record book. But then, off and on, it's been kind of that way since Brees and head coach Sean Payton arrived in 2006 and teamed to give the Saints their first Super Bowl championship three years later.

But before there was Brees and Payton and the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and the voluminous NFL record book, there was James Donald Haslett.

"It was just kind of a weird situation," Haslett says about his made-for-TV-but-no-one-would-believe six-year run as head coach of the Saints that began with sweeping out losing and ended up sweeping up parking lots.

"It's something that never happened before and I hope it never happens again."

Jeff Duncan, New Orleans' esteemed sports observer who covered the Saints for the Times-Picayune when they began the century still the 'Aints, thinks the current fan base needs a history course.

First lecture? The impact of Haslett.

"Has restored the franchise to respectability and respect that had been lost in the Ditka era," says Duncan, headed to Cincinnati this Sunday as the newspaper's sports columnist. "It basically had become the laughingstock of the league. He's underappreciated in Saints history. There are a lot of fans here that joined up with Brees and Payton. It wasn't always like that. They don't really have a regard for the history."

Haslett's first year in 2000 changed it all. After a four-year run of 18 wins, the Saints stunned the world at 10-6, won their first play-off game in franchise history shocking the defending Super Bowl champion Rams and Haslett was named coach of the year. They never got back to the playoffs and while a December 2002 loss at PBS to the worst Bengals team ever that would have put them back in it may have defined the inconsistency of his run, Duncan argues it shouldn't take away from what Haslett built.

"He had a really good coaching staff. Has never got outcoached," Duncan says. "But you just never knew what they were going to do. One week they'd beat the Rams in their hey-day and the next they'd lose to a team like that Bengals team."

Haslett's offensive coordinator was future Super Bowl head coach Mike McCarthy and his defensive coordinator was Ron Zook, who vaulted into college head coaching after a top ten ranking.

"Good staff," Haslett said. "We had fun. We were all in there just trying to turn it around. When we got there we really didn't have a starting quarterback. By the time we left we had three. Aaron Brooks, Jake Delhomme and we drafted Marc Bulger. Really, the offensive and defensive lines were the strength of the team."

But nothing could withstand Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005. The Saints were in Oakland playing a pre-season game when they watched one the nation's deadliest disasters hit their city.

"We're sitting there and we're saying, 'My God, what are we going back to?'" Haslett recalls. "But we never got back."

There had already been intense rumblings about the Saints moving to San Antonio and that's where the offices and some games were re-located, nearly 600 miles from New Orleans in the Alamodome. Other games were played in Baton Rouge at LSU, but it wasn't only the logistics and rumors of a move that were overwhelming for a football team. It was just surviving. Haslett's house had its windows blown out and floor torn up, but he had players that lost everything.

"When you have a team, your whole life is around winning," Haslett says. "But then the people in the building, suddenly their No. 1 priority is just living. Just surviving. It has to be. Families were torn apart. People's lives were upside down. The people were great to us in San Antonio.  Very gracious."

But who could plan for this? They had to leave the Alamodome because of a volleyball tournament and he remembers the Saints moving to an old water works plant for their meetings. That's where he had to sweep off the parking lot when it rained so they could do a walk-through. Players would have to drive to practice. Haslett remembers the Baton Rouge Holiday Inn the night before games and coaches sleeping on air mattresses.

"Hard to win… It just wasn't NFL-ish" Haslett says. "Looking back on it, the NFL didn't react to it very well, but how can you blame them? Something like that had never happened before. I'm sure now they've looked into it and have plans, but you just never think something like that is going to happen."

They went 3-13. "An anomaly," Duncan says. "No team could have gone through that. Unprecedented." Haslett says it was pretty much a mutual parting of the ways after the season.

"I think everyone needed a fresh start," Haslett says. "There's no question when they got Drew (in 2006) that's how they ended up winning the Super Bowl and both he and Sean have done a great job there. They're fun to watch. I'm happy for the city.

"My kids grew up there. I've still got friends there. My wife still has friends there. The people are nice and friendly. It really is southern hospitality."

Haslett is an old-school linebacker. Bloodied but resolved and respected. There is no time to think about how things might have gone if the winds never came.

At the moment he's preparing for Brees' 76.3 completion percentage without his best linebacker, his fastest linebacker and a middle linebacker that has been hobbled since Opening Day. So there have been other things to think about this week.

"Maybe if it was ten years ago. Eight years ago," Haslett says of the pull of emotions. "Not now. Like I said. That's a heck of an offense."

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