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Saints' Jim Mora: the Quiet Leader in Noisy and Jubilant New Orleans

January 03, 1988|DAVE SELL | The Washington Post

NEW ORLEANS — Even for a town known for music and merriment, this city is full of song and celebration over the success of the Saints. Black and gold are the colors of choice. The old Monkees song "I'm a Believer" has been altered to champion the Saints' mission and can be heard about every 15 minutes on area radio stations. "Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints," is the phrase that plays in town, and at one area school, children with good grades earn the title of Who Dat Scholar.

But some would argue that the person having the least fun is the man most responsible for bringing about this 12-3, playoff season. Why, some ask, won't Coach Jim Mora just once jump in the air, let out a holler or roller skate down Bourbon Street?

"It wouldn't just surprise me if he did," said rookie guard Steve Trapilo with a smile. "I would probably die. He would never do it. It's not even a maybe. There's a better chance of it snowing in the jungle."

Mora has heard this wet-blanket theory. In one breath he says it's unfair and in the next talks about the perils of partying before the final play.

"I really am excited," he said. "And yet, our job isn't done. We can't celebrate yet."

He knows he comes across as unexcited, even dour, but says he is not immune to mood swings.

"I hide it," he said, chuckling. "Well, not hide it, but it's important I project that. I feel the highs and lows inside. The exhilaration when you win and the disappointment when you lose--it's there. There is no in between. You're either first or last when you walk off the field. But I try not to let that affect our approach to the team or how we prepare for the next game."

In just his second season, he has instilled his approach and attitude in his team.

"I think this team reflects him," nine-year veteran tackle Stan Brock said. "We just won . . . a game and you don't hear any whooping and hollering in here. It doesn't work that way. We won the game and tomorrow we go back and find out what we did wrong. We'll be excited when we find out how this team ends up. We're treating it like a golf game. No one cares what you got on the ninth, 10th or 11th holes. They want to know your final score."

Discipline and organization seem to be the cornerstones not only of Mora's personality, but of his approach to football. The practices are long because he and his staff try to cover every possible contingency.

"He pays attention to details," said his wife, Connie. "And he likes other people to pay attention to details."

The Saints have paid attention to him, although he has given them little alternative. Stars or subs, they all pay fines.

"He's demanded discipline and that you be on time," said kicker Morten Andersen. "There were a couple instances when I wasn't on time and I was fined. You find out you have to be on the same page. But he gets it done. He's a good organizer, good disciplinarian, up-front and fair."

The Saints don't necessarily like him, but then, as quarterback Bobby Hebert said, "It's nice to have a buddy-buddy relationship, but it's better if you keep it all business. In the long run, no one's feelings get hurt."

Mora replaced Bum Phillips, whose son Wade served as interim coach until Mora was hired. When Bum Phillips left, so did an easygoing approach to practice.

"When he left, it was like part of our family was taken away," Brock said. "We were orphans and they were bringing in somebody else to raise us. I wasn't going to like him and that's how it was going to be. But Coach Mora has earned the respect of everybody. He did it last year, which is the reason we had such a quick turnaround. I've never believed that you had to respect a man just because he has a title in front of his name. He has to earn it. I don't think Coach Mora is concerned if everybody likes him. Some like him, some don't. But everybody respects him."

Mora, 52, spent 23 years as an assistant coach before getting his first job as a pro head coach. After graduating from Occidental College in 1957 and serving a three-year tour in the Marine Corps, he was an assistant for four years and head coach for three years at his alma mater. After a year at Stanford under John Ralston, he spent six at Colorado under Eddie Crowder. He spent 1974 at UCLA under Dick Vermeil, and then spent three years at Washington under Don James. In 1978, he stayed in the same house but switched to the Seattle Seahawks and worked there until 1982, when he became defensive coordinator for New England.

"People always ask me which head coaches I learned from," he said. "Well, I learned from all of them, but I also learned from a lot of assistant coaches. There are a lot of terrific assistant coaches who have just not had the opportunity. And there are some guys who are less qualified who have gotten the opportunity."

Then the Philadephia-Baltimore Stars called. Three winning seasons and two USFL championships later, Mora took over the Saints after listening to several offers.

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