He has tempered his intolerance with end-zone dancers. He has learned to cope with a helmet-throwing, tattooed player whose insolence may have blown a game. However, even as Jim Haslett settles into a long-delayed adulthood, the New Orleans Saints' second-year coach has no patience for dogs. "Get down, dammit!" he snaps at Hasbro, his 2-year-old vizsla, on a recent Friday night at his home in Destrehan, La.
Then Haslett, to the chagrin of his nine-year-old son, Chase, and five-year-old daughter, Libby, clicks a remote-control device that sends a jolt of electricity through the dog's collar. Hasbro takes his paws off the kitchen table, where a plate of ham, cheese and crackers lies. "He has a food fetish, and this keeps him in line," Haslett says, waving the remote device. "I wish I had one of these for [ Saints wideout] Joe Horn."
All is well for the next several minutes. Haslett tells tales of his raucous past, from hog-tying Buffalo Bills teammates to their training-camp beds to driving cars over embankments after frequenting bars along the shores of Lake Erie. Then Hasbro strikes again, lunging toward a slice of ham. In an instant Haslett's eyes are ablaze with the fury he displayed as a two-time Pro Bowl linebacker in the early '80s. He jumps from his chair, clamps his hands around Hasbro's snout, squeezes the dog's jaws shut and shakes its head for emphasis. "Hey," he hisses, spittle flying from his lips, "I swear to God, I'm gonna kill you!"
It is not uncommon for men in Haslett's profession to make over-the-top threats, but with the possible exception of his former boss, the Pittsburgh Steelers' iron-chinned Bill Cowher, no NFL coach sells his ire quite so convincingly. Young football fans know Haslett, who turned 46 on Dec. 9, as the bold, intense yet personable motivator who shook the Saints from their Mike Ditka-induced doldrums: New Orleans won the NFC West and its first-ever playoff game last season and, after Sunday's 28-10 win over the Atlanta Falcons, is 7-5 and fighting for a playoff berth. Yet seasoned observers recall how much bite is behind Haslett's bark, from his infamous cleating of helmetless Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw in 1979 to his brawls on the field, in the locker room and at bars throughout the Northeast.
"I know he's a coach and a family man now, but any troublemaking that anyone has done in football, he has done it too," says Fred Smerlas, Haslett's former Bills teammate and frequent partner in crime. "Deep inside, he's still the Jim Haslett who chased young women down the street with me in Boston until the cops pulled over my Jeep and asked us to stop." (Reminded of this incident, Haslett says, "That was all Freddie. And he was driving down the sidewalk") "When you think of the way Haz was then," Smerlas continues, "who would have thought in a million years that he'd be here?"
Haslett's unanimous selection as NFL coach of the year in 2000 shredded conceptions about the proper path to a head-coaching job. What's next, Jose Canseco as a baseball manager? Dennis Rodman as an NBA coach? In fact, Haslett's ascent to authority figure makes sense precisely because of his background. He can both intimidate players and relate to their experiences, even to behavior as excessive as the recent tirade that landed Saints All-Pro tackle Kyle Turley in anger-management classes. "Jim has an instinctive ability to connect with players, and the way he communicates with them is the best I've seen," says New Orleans general manager Randy Mueller, who hired Haslett in February 2000. "They know he's not phony."
Exhibit A: After clashing at first with Ricky Williams, Haslett evokes this compliment from the gifted but eccentric Saints running back: "I know it's not a word you often use to describe a football coach, but he's very compassionate."
Most football coaches are either unbearably uptight or shamelessly political—or both. Haslett is a guy (albeit an intense one) with whom you'd be happy to pound a few beers. He laughs at himself, and he's as unpretentious as he was when he used his 1979 defensive rookie of the year trophy as a doorstop. "He's a cool dude," says Saints safety Sammy Knight, the target of a Haslett tirade after he celebrated a touchdown during the coach's first regular-season game. "He can be your best friend and worst critic, but he's a players' coach."
Those last two words are guaranteed to make Haslett grimace. "I don't know what players' coach means," he says. "I'm just a coach, and the players and I are not on the same level. One thing I never do is lie to these guys, because people lied to me as a player, and there was nothing I hated more."
This is one coach who has been true to his conscience. In a profession in which most men would go weeks without solid food for the chance to advance, Haz has turned down more high-profile jobs than he has taken, beginning with Al Davis's clandestine offer to make him the Raiders' defensive coordinator early in 1993, Haslett's first season as an NFL assistant. ( Haslett persuaded Davis to stick with Gunther Cunningham, then warned Cunningham to watch his back.) Later he passed on chances to become Tony Dungy's defensive coordinator in Tampa Bay ( Haslett's wife, Beth, was going through a complicated pregnancy) and the Saints' interim coach after Jim Mora's resignation midway through the '96 season ( Haslett didn't think he was ready). "In this business you've got to be a risk-taker," he says, "but you need to advance because you're putting a good product on the field, not because you're a self-promoter."