METAIRIE, La. — New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton can “remember it like it was yesterday.”
Christmas night, 2002, 9 p.m. A phone call from Bill Parcells, whom he had never met. It was maybe the most important call of Payton’s coaching career.
“There was nothing definitive. He ‘might have something going on,'” recalled Payton, who knew full well that it meant Parcells was coming out of retirement to become the next head coach of the Dallas Cowboys since he had read the reports of Parcells’ not-so-secret meeting with owner Jerry Jones at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey.
What Payton — who was then still employed as the New York Giants‘ offensive coordinator — didn’t know until a year or two later was that he came highly recommended to Parcells by Chris Mara, the son of late Giants co-owner Wellington Mara and the team’s current senior vice president of player personnel.
After a series of phone conversations, Parcells eventually hired Payton to be his assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach.
“I just took my chances because I had good faith in not just Chris but a couple other people in the organization — and a couple of them [including longtime trainer Ronnie Barnes] had spoken pretty highly about Sean,” Parcells said. “So that was good enough for me, really.”
Three years later, Payton was hired as coach of the Saints. Nearly 18 years later, Parcells has become one of the closest people in Payton’s life — and he still calls him every Father’s Day among the countless other times he calls to pick his brain throughout the year.
It’s possible Payton would have become one of the most successful coaches in NFL history without any big breaks along the way.
We’re talking about the guy who called a surprise onside kick in Super Bowl XLIV and devised one of the most prolific, aggressive offenses the league has ever seen. If needed, he would have kicked down doors and forced his way in.
But Payton’s story really is no different than that of most other successful coaches, which is that you have to make some important connections and get some golden opportunities.
Payton got two especially big breaks — when Parcells hired him; and when he got his first NFL job as the Philadelphia Eagles‘ quarterbacks coach under offensive coordinator Jon Gruden in 1997.
That opportunity came about because Eagles offensive line coach Bill Callahan had heard about Payton from people who had worked with both of them at the University of Illinois.
Payton and Gruden — who will face off for the first time since 2008 when the Las Vegas Raiders host the Saints on Monday Night Football — spent just one year together. But that is where Payton learned much of his offensive foundation. And the two remain close friends to this day.
“I say this all the time, some of it is just good fortune,” Payton said. “And I was lucky enough to be around some people that had real good pedigree, and that certainly had a lot to do with where I am now.”
Climbing the ranks
Payton’s first big NFL break came in 1997 after he had climbed the college ranks for nine years as an assistant at San Diego State, Indiana State, Miami (Ohio) and Illinois. He had just recently taken a job at Maryland before he got the call from Callahan.
Callahan said Gruden was looking for “someone that could be molded, someone that was young, that really had a thirst for the game.”
Callahan got the recommendation on Payton from a close friend at Illinois — associate athletic director Mike Hatfield.
“I was just peeking around, inquiring, looking at some old places where I’d been and looking for recommendations on people,” said Callahan, who now coaches the Cleveland Browns‘ offensive line.
“[Hatfield] said [Payton] was a bright up-and-coming coach. He saw a lot of positive traits in him. And he just got along with the players, had a great personality, had a great way about himself.”
So Callahan arranged to meet with Payton at the NFL scouting combine, agreed with the recommendation and set up an interview with Gruden and head coach Ray Rhodes.
“And he knocked it out of the park,” Callahan said.
It’s hard to believe that Payton spent just one year working with Gruden before Gruden left to become the Raiders’ head coach in 1998. Because so much of Gruden’s influence can still be seen in Payton’s offense — and because Payton tells so many great stories from that year.
“I really didn’t even have an office. I had a portable phone in an area in Jon’s office — like literally on the couch, just a little makeshift area. It wasn’t even a desk,” said Payton, who used to drive into work with Callahan but never remembers beating Gruden to the office.
“He was in there, door cracked, lights off, film on. And he loved it, he breathed it,” said Payton, who learned much of the West Coast offensive principles under Gruden. “He was very committed to constantly pressing the boundaries of what you want to do or think offensively and thinking outside the box. Very creative, very detailed teacher. And he was a huge influence on me as a young coach to have that opportunity.”
Gruden joked that Payton was “on my couch probably as my psychiatrist most of the time to calm me down.”
But he also speaks in glowing terms of Payton, saying, “I have more respect for him than most people I’ve met in football.”
“He was just a bright, energetic, positive source of good stuff that we needed. And he loved football like I did. I still remember those days as some of the best days of my life,” Gruden said of a staff that included current Stanford coach David Shaw. “We had a lot of fun together and a lot of fun coming up with new ideas.”
Payton also had plenty of stressful moments that came courtesy of Gruden’s intensity — like when the coach-to-quarterback headset went out in Week 3 and Payton had to signal in all of Gruden’s elaborate playcalls by hand.
“I’m scrambling like Barney Fife,” Payton said. “I can’t believe it’s Monday Night Football, Texas Stadium, and the headsets are out. Is this happening to me? Jon’s screaming at me from upstairs. And it was as stressful as you can imagine.”
Did Gruden cut him any slack under the circumstances?
“No. Hell no,” Payton said. “He was screaming at me. [Quarterback Ty Detmer] is laughing at me. And I’m in the middle of it. It was just like one of those, ‘You gotta be kidding me.’
“So being in that position with him, and then years later Bill [Parcells] on the sidelines over the headsets, I got scars all over my body. But both obviously fantastic coaches, and they were very essential to my growth.”
‘You might want to hire him now’
Chris Mara also vividly remembers the call he got from Parcells in 2002.
“I don’t remember a lot over the last 20 years, but I remember that phone call. He kind of put me on the spot and he just said, ‘Hey, tell me about this Sean Payton guy,'” recalled Mara, who worked as a scout for the Giants while Parcells was head coach in the 1980s. “I said to him, ‘Well, listen, I think the world of Sean.’ My dad thought the world of Sean. And I said, ‘I think there’s a good possibility in the years to come he might be a high commodity, so you might want to hire him now.’
“So I guess the rest is history.”
The Giants went to the playoffs that season. But they gave Payton permission to consider other job opportunities after some tension had developed between Payton and head coach Jim Fassel.
In Week 4, Fassel overruled Payton’s decision to take a knee shortly before halftime — and it led to an interception return for a touchdown and a loss to the Arizona Cardinals. Payton took offense when Fassel made it sound like he “let” Payton call the pass instead of explaining to the media what really happened.
Then later that season, Fassel stripped Payton of his playcalling duties when the offense was sputtering. Payton admitted that the playcalling switch worked out well for the team. Nevertheless, Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi said he felt like it was only fair to let Payton seek another job. And the Mara family agreed.
“He’s right at the top for me as far as the best coaches, the best people. I loved working with Sean,” Accorsi said. “And I cared about him so much and I knew he had such a future that I did it for him even though it hurt us.
“Now, when I did it, I wasn’t exactly sure where he was going. But I thought his career and life were more important.”
Sure enough, when Wellington Mara realized that Payton was heading to a division rival, he asked Accorsi if he had put any conditions on where Payton could go. But Accorsi said he hadn’t, and the Maras respected that.
“And they felt the same way about Sean too. It wasn’t like I had to convince anybody. I don’t want to make it like I’m the hero,” Accorsi said.
“Wellington was, man, one of the best,” Payton recalled. “The last thing I got when I left there, Wellington gave me a letter with a penny in it to give to Parcells. They had a long history — Wellington would always put a penny in his locker on game day. Heads up.”
Payton turned down an opportunity to work for Cardinals coach Dave McGinnis after the 2002 season. There also was a possible opening on Gruden’s staff with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And Payton said he would have been willing to stay in New York if the right opportunity hadn’t come along.
But all of those options paled in comparison with the chance to work with Parcells — which Payton described as “law school” for guys like himself and friends Mike Zimmer and Tony Sparano, who also joined that same Cowboys staff.
When Parcells met ‘Dennis the Menace’
Payton actually got hired by Parcells before he ever met him in person.
“The last phone call was, ‘Hey, I’m gonna hire you. I don’t know what your title’s gonna be. How much do you want to make? Do you want a two-year contract or a three-year contract?'” Payton recalled. “That took all of about 60 seconds. He said, ‘Perfect. Meet me at Republic Airport, 9 a.m. We’re gonna fly from Long Island to Dallas.’ And so I took a cab — there wasn’t Uber back then — I took a $148 cab ride from Wayne, New Jersey.
“And Bill and I got on Jerry Jones’ private plane, and it was just the two of us, and we flew from Long Island into Dallas. I’ll never forget it. We spoke football the whole way.”
The most amazing part of the Parcells-Payton connection isn’t how it started. It’s how it grew from there.
It took a little while for Parcells to warm up to Payton’s aggressive tendencies. He nicknamed Payton “Dennis the Menace” and once said Payton could get the “disease” as an exotic playcaller. At one point, Parcells even laminated a practice playlist and banned any additions.
But soon Parcells trusted Payton enough to hand him playcalling duties. And Parcells remains as close to Payton now as any former assistant.
“I just like him,” Parcells said. “He likes football. Football’s important to him. He was a very dedicated guy, he worked very hard, he was trying to get better. He had high aspirations, and you try to help those kind of guys — I always tried to, anyway.
“You know, really, there’s only a few people that really know. And sometimes a head coach needs somebody to talk to that understands. I had a guy named Al Davis that I could call and talk to. And I had a couple other people as well. And that was very valuable, because I would have made more mistakes than I did make if it hadn’t have been for those people.”
Payton, whose own father died in 1997, calls Parcells a “father figure.” And it’s unmistakable how much influence Parcells has had on everything from Payton’s mannerisms and expressions to his philosophies on running the organization to building a roster.
“I think any one of us who was passionate about football realized, ‘Man, this is a great window of opportunity’ that you don’t always get … getting this hands-on education and taking advantage of it as much as possible,” Payton said of his time under Parcells. “And I think he saw something in me. I think it was probably the passion for the game. He might disagree with something — it didn’t mean it wasn’t without conflict — but if you were passionate about it, you were gonna get along just fine with him.
“And if you weren’t, it wasn’t gonna be a pleasant experience.”
Payton’s other mentors
Parcells and Gruden are Payton’s most famous mentors — but hardly his only ones. Here are three others he singled out:
J.R. Bishop, his high school coach at Naperville Central. He let Payton call his own plays at quarterback as a senior. “He was the high school coach that really got me going and helped me in so many different ways, just as a young player and as somebody that wanted to get recruited,” Payton said.
Al Molde, his coach at Eastern Illinois. Payton set the records for career passing yards and TD passes at Eastern Illinois (before they were broken by two guys named Jimmy Garoppolo and Tony Romo, respectively). “Al was a little ahead of his time,” Payton said. “We were in a one-back offense in 1983, ’84, ’85. And if you really went back and looked at the history of offenses in college, there weren’t a lot of teams in the ’80s in that true one-back, three-receiver set.”
Randy Walker, head coach at Miami (Ohio). Miami was Payton’s third college stop (1994-95) and his first as an offensive coordinator. “There was such great structure and tradition there, and the work ethic. Randy was fantastic that way,” Payton said of Walker, who died of a heart issue in 2006 after serving as head coach at Northwestern. “We lost him way too early.”