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Still Not a Saint
Michael Silver
December 17, 2001
New Orleans coach Jim Haslett has mellowed a bit since his raucous playing days, but no one would accuse him of being a choirboy
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December 17, 2001

Still Not A Saint

New Orleans coach Jim Haslett has mellowed a bit since his raucous playing days, but no one would accuse him of being a choirboy

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The complaint sounds convincing until you consider Haslett's past. For three years in Buffalo he and Smerlas cohosted the popular Fric and Frac Show on Monday nights on a local radio station, often insulting upcoming opponents and once drinking on the air. The show's end came after Haslett's next to last season with the Bills, in 1984, when Buffalo struggled to a 2-14 record. After enduring a succession of salty callers, at least one of the two cohosts—each blames the other—pressed buttons and issued obscene two-word rebukes until the phone lines were cleared.

"We lived like the guys in North Dallas Forty" Smerlas says. "We would fight anybody, anytime. But I can't go into the wild, wild stuff, because he's married with kids now, and I wouldn't want to embarrass him." Haslett was married back then, too, to his first wife, Julie.

As hard as he partied, Haslett had a strict work ethic. He grew up near Pittsburgh in Avalon, where his father, Ira, was a high school custodian. After walking on at Indiana (Pa.) University, Haslett scrapped his way to the NFL, and he was determined to make the most of his talent. "A lot of times we'd drink until 2 or 3 a.m.," Haslett recalls, "and then we'd go straight to the facility to watch film and work out. At least that's what I did. Freddie just slept."

The pivotal moment in Haslett's career came in 1986, when he broke his leg during a Bills preseason game against the Chicago Bears. Writhing in pain, he began contemplating his future. "Our coach, Hank Bullough, came out to check on me, and I asked him, 'If I can't play again, will you give me a coaching job?' " says Haslett. "From that point on I started to pay attention to what the coaches did."

The injury led to another important change in Haslett's life. While watching that Bills-Bears game on television with members of her family, a Buffalo hotel catering manager named Beth Wood blurted out, "That Jim Haslett is so obnoxious, I hope he breaks his leg." Two plays later he did. After hearing the story from teammate John Kidd—who had met the remorseful Wood at her hotel, where the Bills stayed the nights before games—Haslett called her and jokingly accused her of being a witch. They agreed to meet at a local establishment called Libation Station, and it was love at first beer. Beth and Jim married in 1989, two years after his retirement from the NFL. Meanwhile, having been offered assistant coaching jobs with the Bills, Colts and San Diego Chargers, Haslett instead had taken an assistant's position at the University of Buffalo so, he says, "I could see if coaching was even something I wanted to do."

Haslett kept following his gut. When Kay Stephenson, one of his former coaches with the Bills, took a job with the World League's Sacramento Surge in January 1991, Haslett headed west to serve as the Surge's defensive coordinator—only days after the birth of his and Beth's first child, a daughter named Kelsey, who remained in Buffalo with Beth for several months. Two years later Haslett went to work as linebackers coach for the Raiders' Davis, whom he reveres, though Haslett admits that he "used to mess with the guy. They would bring him breakfast wrapped in cellophane, and I'd eat half of it when no one was looking."

Haslett's star rose through stints as an assistant with the Saints and the Steelers. He's a tireless worker who typically sleeps no more than four hours a night. He maps out daily schedules two months in advance and charts the calories he burns during workouts. "When we go on vacation," Beth says, "we don't do the beach thing, because it's way too relaxing for him."

While he grows into his role as a head coach, Haslett struggles to control his temper and his tongue. New Orleans players laugh at their coach's meandering pep talks, and he sometimes regrets his public candor. Following the Saints' victory over the Rams on Oct. 28, Haslett told reporters that in his halftime address to his players he had decried St. Louis's reliance on "bull-crap plays," and he seemed to mock a few trick plays the Rams had pulled off. By NFL coaching standards the quotes were the equivalent of an invective-laced rant in a rappers' feud, but Haslett called Rams coach Mike Martz to clarify his intent. "What I was trying to say is that if I had those players, I'd do that stuff too," Haslett says.

Sitting at his kitchen table as he recounts the conversation, Haslett looks like a man who wishes he could still go out on the field and kick some butt. "We did a lot of wild things when I was in the league," he says, "but we worked hard, and we played our asses off." He starts to raise his voice, but Chase and Libby hardly notice because they're so engrossed in a cartoon show on the family-room TV.

Only one member of the household offers his rapt attention, and it does not go unrewarded. As Haslett launches into another anecdote, he grabs a slice of ham and lofts it over the table. Hasbro catches the meat on the fly and devours it in a single bite.

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