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Pro Football / Bob Oates : Saints Go Marching With New Leadership

July 22, 1986|BOB OATES

One goal of most National Football League teams--particularly those with veteran coaching staffs--is to improve each year. They come back, line up, and play, and hope that they're doing something better.

With the beginning of any season, the league's most exciting teams, by contrast, tend to be those with the new coaches.

Getting a fresh start, these teams can, theoretically, improve enormously. Maybe, they tell themselves, they've got the next Lombardi, or the next Shula.

The NFL is a league in which a few such grand experiments are undertaken almost every summer. And this summer, none is grander than the experiment at New Orleans.

The Saints have overhauled their organization. They have a new president, Jim Finks, as well as a new coach, Jim Mora, plus a new outlook, a new system, and some new talent.

With the Saints, indeed, there remains only one key link with the past--a burning desire to win more games than they lose.

The Saints, in their 20 years in the NFL, have never done that. Their best is 8-8, a record that last year's team proudly matched.

They believe that there are two reasons why they'll finally beat 8-8 this time--the two Jims, Finks and Mora.

A veteran NFL executive, Finks, 58, was last seen in Chicago, where, as general manager of the Bears, he recruited most of the champions' starting personnel before turning to baseball for a while with the Cubs.

Mora, 51, was last seen in the United States Football League, where he coached the Philadelphia-Baltimore Stars to the last two USFL championships.

He would have won all three if, in the USFL's first title game, the Stars could have handled Michigan Panther quarterback Bobby Hebert, who on that day resembled a good NFL quarterback.

Some think he still does, Mora among them. Now in New Orleans, Hebert is the front-runner to become Mora's starting quarterback. Behind Hebert are Richard Todd and Dave Wilson.

"We need one more thing," Finks said. "We need a significant contribution by some of our new players."

This was first a concession that the 1981-85 coach, Bum Phillips, didn't quite have the horses, except on his Houston ranch.

Second, it expressed the organization's hope that Finks' first New Orleans draft produced at least one quality new blocker and one quality new back.

The blocker could be 300-pound tackle Jim Dombrowski of Virginia, the Saints' first draft choice.

The runner could be any of three subsequent choices in what appeared to be one of the NFL's most successful 1986 drafts: Dalton Hilliard of LSU, Rueben Mayes of Washington State and Barry Word of Virginia.

Mayes, the first new back to sign, made it in time for mini-camp this spring.

"An excellent prospect," Mora said afterward. "In relation to his weight, Rueben tested stronger than anyone on the team."

Mayes, however, wasn't the hit of the week. Mora was. Starting his NFL career with an eight-day mini-camp, one of the NFL's longest and most grueling, the new coach put a memorable stamp on his new team.

"He let us know that training camp won't be a party," linebacker Jack Del Rio said.

Mora agrees.

"You play like you practice," he said as training began in Hammond, La. "And we're going to practice hard."

This won't surprise anyone who knew Mora in the USFL, where he invariably seemed cold, aloof and tough.

"Businesslike" is the best he gets from any associate.

In terms of strategy and daring, Mora's New Orleans teams won't be breaking new ground. He'll concentrate on playing orthodox football soundly. Like Vince Lombardi did, Mora always has.

For, like Lombardi, he spent an extraordinarily long apprenticeship as an assistant coach. For 21 years, Mora labored as an assistant, examining all kinds of styles and systems and leaders.

He knows what wins. He may not be able to do it in the NFL, but he knows how.

He has coached in no fewer than nine college and pro organizations, catching nobody's eye as either a New England Patriot assistant or a Seattle Seahawk assistant.

The truth is that owners rarely turn to sound but low-key coaches, Mora's kind.

All told, he had to produce not one but three USFL championship-game teams before anyone in the NFL saw anything in him.

They see it now.

Los Angeles-born, son of a TV film editor, Mora played and coached at Occidental in the 1950s and '60s. He was there for 11 years before anyone, elsewhere, saw anything in him.

They see it now.

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