By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
NEW ORLEANS — Jim Haslett knows it will be cold inside the Superdome Sunday. The air conditioning is always cranked up there — and so are the fans.
"It'll be loud," Haslett said. "They've got great fans down there."
Cold and loud. Other than that, Haslett doesn't know what to expect.
Will his return to New Orleans be greeted with boos, cheers, or indifference?
Will the memories flow as he walks onto the stadium turf for the first time since the 2005 preseason?
And what will it be like to see the players? About one-third of the current Saints roster was brought in during Haslett's six-season tenure there as head coach.
"I don't know what it's going to be like until I walk in there," said Haslett, in his second season as Rams defensive coordinator.
From 2000 through 2005, Haslett made his presence felt in New Orleans. His 2000 squad won the NFC West championship with a 10-6 record, marking only the sixth winning season in 34 seasons of Saints football. In the playoffs, the Saints toppled the defending Super Bowl champion Rams 31-28 in the first round. It was the first playoff victory in Saints franchise history, the town went wild, and Haslett was NFL coach of the year.
The 2002 squad scored 432 points, which remains the franchise record. From 2000 through '04, Haslett's Saints experienced only one losing season. It wasn't uncommon for several thousand fans to be waiting for the team when it returned home from a big road victory, lining the streets outside the New Orleans airport.
"That was the No. 1 thing I'll probably never forget," Haslett said. "It was unbelievable."
Back in the day, Haslett would walk into a restaurant and people would put aside their gumbo or jambalaya for a moment, stand up, and applaud their fiery head coach.
"I would be like, 'What are these people doing?' " Haslett recalled. "And all of a sudden, you realize — and you're so embarrassed. I just remember things like that, how appreciative the people were and the fans were when you won."
But Haslett couldn't replicate the success of 2000. Things began to change for the worse in 2002, when New Orleans squandered a 6-1 start, losing its final three games to finish 9-7, and missed the playoffs.
And then came 2005 and Hurricane Katrina. When the Saints were evacuated from New Orleans before the start of the regular season, Haslett left with three days of clothes for San Antonio. He — and his team — ended up spending the entire season in Texas. But on game day, they were vagabonds, playing home games in the Alamodome, LSU and even Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands.
To this day, Haslett doesn't like to talk about that season.
"I try not to think about it," he said. "Unless you were there, and you experienced what was going on ... "
He didn't finish the thought.
"The whole thing was a bad experience," Haslett said. "It was probably the most unprofessional environment ever to try to win a game. But I give credit to the players who were there, because they worked hard and they practiced hard.
"Hopefully, nobody else in this league will ever have to experience something like that again. We had people lose their homes, their mother's home, their kids' homes. We had like 15-20 players lose their homes. And again, it's not just the coaches and the players — I'm talking about the people that worked for the organization and still work for the organization."
The losses mounted and the season took its toll on Haslett. Before the Dec. 12 game in Atlanta, he had dinner with general manager Mickey Loomis. Haslett said he brought up the topic of not returning to the Saints in '06 — not Loomis.
"It wasn't really a firing," Haslett said. "We came to an agreement."
If the Saints stayed in San Antonio, as was being contemplated by team management, Haslett was willing to stay on and finish out the remaining two years of his contract. If the Saints moved back to New Orleans, Haslett suggested it might be best to start fresh with a new coach.
"We really discussed it over the next three weeks," Haslett said. "I think Mickey was kind of leaning that way anyway."
After a 3-13 finish, Haslett was out. At the time, Haslett thought it was the right move. And now?
"I don't know if it was the right decision," he said.
If he had known the Saints were going to sign quarterback Drew Brees in the offseason, and that running back Reggie Bush would fall into their laps in the draft, he might have lobbied Loomis to stay.
Instead, he cast his lot with the Rams and neophyte head coach Scott Linehan.
"Obviously, I came here because I want a chance to be a head coach again," Haslett said. "I thought we could get things turned around, score a lot of points. Obviously, it's not working out that way right now. But maybe in the future it will."
Who knows how that 3-13 Hurricane Katrina season will affect his desire to return to head coaching.
"We were (four games) above .500 going into the last year," Haslett said. "I know people don't look at that. There's no asterisk by it or anything. I'm not saying there should be — but there's nothing there that says that this team was displaced, that we had injuries, lost our best player (running back Deuce McAllister, to a knee injury in Week 5).
"It didn't say any of that stuff. It just said we were 3-13. But the thing I'll take away from it was the bonding with the players and the people. ... We didn't get it done. But the guys stuck together."
And many of those players, McAllister, Jammal Brown, Will Smith, are part of the current Saints nucleus.
"So from that standpoint, I was proud of the way we got it done," Haslett said. "But obviously, nobody really looks at that. They don't say, 'I'm going to hire Jim Haslett because we don't count that last year.' "