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The New Orleans Saints’ Sean Payton is one of the most influential coaches in the NFL. He’s the second-longest tenured head coach in the league, now in his 15th season on the job. He can say that because he has enjoyed great success, turning the once-woebegone Saints into perennial playoff contenders. He’s also one of three coaches on the nine-member competition committee, which carries a lot of juice in the NFL.
As head coaches in the league go, Payton has arguably become the most outspoken when it comes to issues of social justice and racial inequities, though Seattle’s Pete Carroll and Miami’s Brian Flores are in that conversation as well.
Payton’s beliefs were on full display this week, when he chatted with Jim Trotter and Steve Wyche for the “Huddle & Flow” podcast, and it was clear that when it comes to a few topics — the lack of diversity in head coaching hires, the backlash he might face from those who disagree with civil rights for all — he’s fresh out of patience.
Payton is vocal on Twitter
Payton hasn’t held back his thoughts on gun regulation, spurred to speak up after the killing of former Saints defensive end Will Smith in 2016, and now has added his voice in matters of race.
On June 2, he tweeted pictures of Ahmaud Arbery, allegedly stalked and killed in broad daylight by neighborhood vigilantes, and George Floyd, killed under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, writing, “Were Murdered not ‘Killed on Video’. How many have we not seen?”
They aren’t popular stances with some, and Payton knows why he can speak up with fervor.
“It’s fine by these folks as long as I’m winning,” he said. “You with me? As long as I’m winning it’s OK.”
Players knowing that their coach has their back is impactful, not just in private but in public forums like Twitter, where Payton is nearing 400,000 followers. He’s not just doing the acceptable or non-controversial thing, like encouraging voter registration (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but he’s retweeting his players when they post about the hypocrisy of a Fox News host who told LeBron James to “shut up and dribble.” He has shared his political opinions but supported Drew Brees’ right to say what he wants when it comes to kneeling during the anthem, as well as the full thread on the reality of being a Black man.
NFL’s lack of coaching diversity
As to the lack of non-white coaches, Payton called it “disturbing,” and placed the blame where it solely belongs: with those who make such hires.
“It’s an ownership topic, number one. It’s a general manager topic, number two,” he said.
Payton brought up the case of Stanford head coach David Shaw, whom he worked with on the Philadelphia Eagles’ staff in 1997. Shaw has said that he doesn’t want to leave the college game, but as Payton noted, Steve Spurrier and Nick Saban and first-year Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule all said they didn’t want to leave the college game — until teams made it crystal clear that they wanted them, and stepped up their compensation to make it impossible for those men to say no.
“Why is it that a young, talented coach, Stanford graduate, West Coast offense, offensive guy, and I always begin with David because I know him and I know how talented he is,” Payton said. “Now he may turn down all of those opportunities, but you know what, he didn’t have those opportunities where someone said, ‘We have to have him.’ Because someone said, ‘We have to have Nick’ or Steve or one of these other college coaches or Matt, and don’t get me started.
“I’ve had one owner tell me, ‘Well, it wasn’t a strong list this past year’ and I called b.s. I called b.s. He said it in a meeting and I just looked and shook my head, and so where are you looking, are you looking to win?”
While the NFL keeps fiddling with the Rooney Rule, with the latest change being a token “reward” to teams that develop Black/minority head coaching and general manager candidates with end-of-the-third-round draft picks, Payton has his own idea: create a timeline for all teams hiring coaches.
“I think the hiring cycle right now is awful. I think the idea that we’re going to hire and interview during the postseason is ludicrous,” he said. “I think the Monday after the Super Bowl the process should begin, and at that time you can begin to discuss and talk with future head coaching candidates.
“I don’t care that it doesn’t match the college schedule; that doesn’t bother me. The hiring cycle should be no different than the free agency cycle. Monday we can begin negotiations, the hiring of a new head coach can be Wednesday after the Super Bowl, and then the following Wednesday you can begin talking to assistant coaches, therefore you’re not losing out on the assistants that any of these teams might want to hire.”
Saints making diverse hires?
The Saints are walking the walk, at least on the personnel side: they announced three promotions this year, naming Jeff Ireland and Terry Fontenot to vice president and assistant general manager, and Khai Harley to vice president of football administration. Fontenot and Harley are Black men, and Fontenot is reportedly among those being interviewed by the Atlanta Falcons for their GM opening.
“Those guys are doing a great job for us,” Payton said. “They were deserving.”
On the coaching side, Payton’s actions don’t fully support his words. In 15 seasons he’s had two offensive coordinators, three quarterbacks coaches, five special teams coordinators and six defensive coordinators, and none are a person of color. When it comes to the offense in New Orleans, you’re not going to mess with a good thing — Payton’s first QBs coach, Pete Carmichael Jr., has been OC for the past decade — but he has had chances to make hires on defense and special teams when those units were lagging.
If defensive coordinator Dennis Allen gets a head coaching gig for next season, Payton will get the chance to fill that role.
But if you’re among the misguided who want Payton to stop, who think he should suffer in some way, he has a message for you:
“I’m fortunate enough and blessed enough to have coached here long enough that I’m not worried about the Quiznos sandwich deal or the Burger King sandwich deal if it doesn’t come around,” he said. “I really don’t give a flip. Tough.
“When I saw how Will Smith died, and I knew I had a belief all along in a certain thing about these guns ... and I know that our Founding Fathers weren’t envisioning where we’re at today and we get caught up with that [Second] Amendment and watch [mass killings] and watch and watch and don’t make any changes, it just amazes me.
“And so I really don’t give a flip how you feel, honestly. I don’t give a flip if you don’t agree with me, this is what it is. Buck you.”
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