When Saints go marching, Mora takes lead Coach directs tone of team with firm and steady tempo

August 25, 1992|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Staff Writer

Jim Mora is the picture of stoicism standing in front of the New Orleans Saints bench. Headset in place, eyes riveted on the field, concentration unbroken.

He is trim, tanned, and in control. In a word, he is unflappable.

Mora, the man who coached the Saints out of the Mardi Gras shadows and into the national spotlight, comes by his reputation as a disciplinarian honestly.

A former Marine captain, Mora waited 23 years to get his first head coaching job. His window of opportunity came with a new league (USFL) and at a strange time (spring). But in the nine years since, he has had only one losing season.

His Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars dominated the USFL with a three-year mark of 48-13-1, winning the championship game twice. His Saints have gone 57-41 since the USFL folded in 1986, making the playoffs three times.

"He's an extremely detailed guy," Saints president Jim Finks says, trying to explain Mora's success. "It drives me crazy. He's got a drawer for everything, he's got that kind of discipline. I operate by the seat of my pants."

Still, Mora is more than the strong, silent type who will man the headphones for Thursday's preseason game against the Miami TC Dolphins at Memorial Stadium. He is an engaging blend of football taskmaster and devoted family man. He cares intensely about winning, yet when his wife's breast cancer was diagnosed in the fall of 1987, Mora reorganized his priorities and "took charge" of her treatment, surgery and recovery period.

This is where Mora's reputation as a disciplinarian breaks with tradition.

Connie Mora, Jim's wife of 32 years, remembers when their three sons were growing up.

"When the boys wanted something, they went to Dad because I was the disciplinarian," she said. "To this day, if the boys want something, they ask their dad."

In one breath, she says that winning is everything to her husband ("Losing is like death to him"). But in the next, she talks without contradiction of his family commitment. It precluded him taking some jobs that might have meant career advancement.

"A lot of choices he refused because it was not right for the family," she said. "I'd say he sacrificed several times just because of us.

"In Jim's mind, his family has always been first. He puts his kids first as far as schooling and environment. He has his priorities."

Never were those priorities more evident than in 1987, Mora's second year in New Orleans, when Connie found out she had cancer. Mora had already dealt with a players' strike when he learned of the illness.

"He was supportive in that he was there and was very understanding," she said. "He took charge and did a thorough investigation. There was nothing he wouldn't do to find out all the answers to our questions. If there's anything new in breast cancer, he knows about it."

Incredibly, Mora guided the Saints to a 12-3 record and first-ever playoff appearance that year.

His family life intervened on football again this year when he hired one of his three sons, Jim, to coach the Saints' secondary after long-time assistant Dom Capers joined the Pittsburgh Steelers.

It was an easy decision for the son, but not the father -- because of potential nepotism charges.

"He agonized over it," Connie said of her husband's decision. "But Katie Sidwell [wife of defensive coordinator Steve Sidwell] sealed the deal when she said, 'Why penalize him because his name is Mora?' I saw Jim go through an NFL directory trying to find somebody more qualified, and he couldn't find anyone."

Jim, the son, turned down a chance to join David Shula in `D Cincinnati, but jumped at the chance to work for his father. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime deal," he said. "It's really neat when he comes and stands with me behind the secondary."

Mora wins in the NFL the same way he won in the USFL. With relentless defense, a stout running game and solid special teams.

"We play defense and win games the way we did with the Stars," said Bill Kuharich, the Saints' director of player personnel, a job he also held with the Stars. "We're not playing any differently in '92 than we did in '83."

The only noticeable difference is postseason performance. The Saints are 0-3 in the playoffs, and New Orleans fans were growing restless after last year's 27-20 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.

"There are reasons why we didn't win those games," Mora said. "But it boiled down to the fact the other team was better on that day."

Along the way, Mora gained the label of conservative coach. But Finks deflects the charge.

"They called Bill Parcells conservative when he was winning two Super Bowls," Finks said.

Mora is in the last year of his contract, but will only say that his status "is not a concern to me."

The Saints clearly feel the pressure to win, though.

"We've created a monster," said defensive line coach John Pease, perhaps only half-kiddingly. "We won and made the playoffs. Now the fans want us to win the NFC. They're mad . . . and we're mad, too. We want to win it all."

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