061: Jim Mora Sr. on His Football Career, Life, Achievements, And Disappointments
Moving forward to your dream path is not always about taking on the uphill climb. Sometimes, you meet some downward turns that test you. The same goes with former NFL head coach of the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts Jim Mora Sr. His NFL career took its own ups and downs, but with hard work, timing, and luck in between, he has taken the challenge and moved up to the Big League. He shares his path to success and reminisces about the events that took him to where he is now—from taking interviews and the infamous robbery incident, to picking Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf. Finally, he talks about leaving after four years while remaining loyal to the people around him.
We continue to be on a major roll in terms of getting rockstar guests. Jim Mora, Sr. is another one that falls into that category. Coach Mora, Big Jim, is a guy who I have known for years. My best friend is his son, Jim Mora, Jr. He and I played together at the University of Washington. During that period is when Coach Mora was on his rise into the professional ranks. He made his way into the USFL as a Head Coach. He had coached at several colleges throughout the way mostly in the PAC-8, in those days, which is now the Pac-12. He had been a Head Coach for eighteen years in the NFL and the USFL. He went on to winning two championships, being in the championship three times, and winning it twice. He has been a long-time coach for the New Orleans Saints and the Indianapolis Colts.
We go through his long historic career and all the people he rubbed shoulders with. There are some amazing influences, people he coached with somewhere along the way that he networked, and then they brought him up when they landed in amazing title positions. I continue to golf with him and it’s been a joy to be part of the Mora clan. He has always accepted me as that. Coach Don James and Coach Mora were the two biggest influences in terms of how to get things done. There’s no black and white. You either win or you lose. We all like to be on the winning side.
I’ve got more clients coming, I’ve got a book on the horizon. We are sponsored by VioletsAreBlueSkincare.com. They are great, all-natural products. I encourage you to check it out. Cynthia Besteman is the founder behind that. She has overcome an adversity which she shared on a prior podcast.
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Jim Mora Sr. on His Football Career, Life, Achievements, And Disappointments
In this episode, I’ve got a guy who I’ve known for years. I go way back when I was at the University of Washington playing with his son. Eventually, he would become a Head Coach down in New Orleans. I’ve got Jim Mora, Sr., Head Coach for a long time in the NFL, eighteen years when you throw in the USFL together, which is amazing for anybody to accomplish. You’ve been in college, you’ve been around the sport and to be in a profession where it’s all about results and to survive that long is amazing. What do you think was the magic formula for you to make it that long both in the USFL were where you were successful? You’ve won two out of three championships into the NFL and being with two different teams, the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts.
I don’t think there’s any magic formula. Some of it is luck being in the right place, the right time, with the right people so that you are succeeding. I have a lot of friends in coaching that couldn’t get to the right place. They maybe had a job as an assistant coach at a university or college where they didn’t have a chance to be successful. My friends, like myself, coached in places like University of Washington, Stanford, UCLA, Colorado, major universities, all competitive in football. I was with good head coaches and we had chances to succeed. When you’re in situations like that and you’re successful and people know about you, then you’ve got a chance to continue to advance up the ladder. I was fortunate to be in those situations. When I made it a decision to go to a school like the University of Colorado back when they were one of the top teams in the country, a member of the Big Eight, with the head coach like Eddie Crowder. I made that decision, which turned out to be a good decision because we had good teams.
At Colorado, I met Don James. We were both assistant coaches on the staff. He was the defensive coordinator and I was an assistant with him. Then when he got the head coaching job at the University of Washington, I had been at UCLA for a year. He offered me the defensive coordinator at Washington because he knew me from Colorado and we had stayed in touch. I took that job, which was a step up for me and we had success there. We went to the Rose Bowl his third year. Those things happen and a little bit of it is luck and being in the right place at the right time. It’s also a question of making the right decision as far as your career is concerned to where you’re going to be in and give you a chance to be successful. When you’re in coaching, the important thing is to win. It’s a lot more fun winning than losing. I’ve always felt that losing sucked, it’s a killer. People say you try your hardest, you worked hard. When it comes down to what matters and enjoyable to people is coming out on top on Sunday or Saturday, then coming out on top at the end of the season. You want to make decisions, and I did along my career, where I felt I went with teams and schools that had a chance to be competitive. That helped me in my career.
What was your vision? Let’s go back to when you went to college. You went to Occidental. One of your roommates was Jack Kemp. He would later go on to be a famous Buffalo Bills quarterback, and then congressman. He ran for president as well. When you’re back at Occidental, what was the vision for you? Was there a mentor prior to that that led your path towards wanting to be in coaching as a career?
It was a small school. Jack and I were roommates, classmates, teammates and close friends. It stayed that way until he passed away. I didn’t have any mentors in high school that had a great influence on me. Through college I would say that the one person that I respected the most as a coach was my freshman football coach at Occidental, and his name was Payton Jordan. I don’t know if that rings a bell with you or with some people. He was the head track coach at Occidental. They had a good track program that competed against SC and Stanford. He went on to become the head track coach at Stanford in one year. He was the head USA track coach in the Olympic Games. Even though he coached me as a freshman, he was around the college. It was a small college, so you had connections with the staff and the coaches. He was around there for the four years that I was at Oxy, but he was a special human being, a special coach. There were things that I took from him that I feel helped me a little bit of my career.
I didn’t become a head coach, so I was a little bit older compared to some guys I know that got to be head coaches earlier. I had chances to be a head coach, but I didn’t feel it was the right situation for me, so I didn’t take it. My philosophy always was, “Do the best job that you can do at the situation you’re in, at the job you have and good things will happen.” When I was an assistant, I was always looking to be a head coach, that wasn’t the case. I wasn’t always on the phone, “I want to apply for this job as a head coach.” Sometimes you don’t want to take a job to be a head coach because maybe that job isn’t in a situation where you can be competitive and winning. I know friends of mine that were in the coaching profession that did that. They had a chance to be a head coach, they jumped at it, took it, but it wasn’t a good situation. That’s the right way to go. Going back to Oxy, that’s the philosophy I’ve had all the way through my career.
It’s applicable in life. I know most people have had the career you’ve had in terms of head coaching. Do the best job that you can do, then things will take care of themselves if you do the work and you concentrate on those particular things. You went from being an assistant coach from being a player, then an assistant coach to becoming the head coach at Occidental. After three years and a successful record, you’re at eighteen wins and nine losses. You ended up getting an opportunity to go to Stanford as the head coach. I’m correlating this with Lane Kiffin. He signed a ten-year deal with Florida. It’s a lesser tiered school. He’s going through for security and he had a great year last year and so he’s got himself locked up. As the head coach at Oxy, why did you want to jump up and become an assistant at Stanford?
I was energetic and looking to better myself. I played at Oxy. I’d never played a major college and I hadn’t coached at major college. After I graduated from college, I went in the Marine Corps for three years and back then, they had entered team football. We played Camp Pendleton where I was at Quantico, one year in Camp Lejeune and both played two years. For both places, we had a football team and it wasn’t inter-mural football.
When I was at Quantico, in my first year I went in the Marines, we played Boston College and we played Boston University. We played some smaller colleges back there. The same thing happened when I was at Camp Lejeune. We didn’t play Boston College then, but we played some smaller schools plus other service team. We played Bolling Air Force Base, Fort Lewis, and Fort Lake all across the country. We played thirteen games and 90% of them were against service teams. All these service team had former collegiate players that played for them. It was definitely a step up for me as a player from Occidental College to what we had in the service. When I first stepped foot on that Quantico practice field after graduating from Occidental, there were a bunch of guys from the Naval Academy that had chosen the Marine Corps as a career, mostly college graduates. Quantico is where they have schools and that’s where you go after you graduated. You’re a newly commissioned officer, you go there for nine months of basic school. All these guys had played at Texas, Oklahoma, Naval Academy, Michigan state, places like that. I go there at Occidental colleagues. I did good.
Were you tied in?
I was tied in defensive. We were both ways back then.
The word on the street is that you played like Gronk.
I wasn’t as good as Gronk. When I took that Stanford job as a coach, I wanted to find out what it was like being in the big-time major college. After my second year at Oxy, I had a chance to go to interview at Stanford with John Ralston and I said no. The next year I did it again with him. He approached me. I said, “The heck with it. I’m going to give it a shot.” If I don’t like it or I don’t make it, I can always come back to this kind of situation. We went to Stanford. That started out as an assistant at a number of major schools and then went on to the NFL.
You know my background, you’ve known me for a long time. If you’re not growing, you’re dying. One of the things that is the most uncomfortable, the thing to do for people, is to take risk and to put yourself out there and do things that maybe aren’t as comfortable. You’re sitting there as the head coach on a successful team at Oxy. I’m sure it’s easy to ride that out for as long as you want to because it’s not as much pressure as other colleges and you’re doing well. You’re going from the head coach, the person coming up with a game plan, talking to the coach, the players, coaching the coaches, and assistant coaches. You go and do a Stanford situation where you’re not the head coach. You weren’t a defense coordinator either, right?
What you wanted to do is you want it to better yourself and that those days, it was probably the Pac-8, right?
I don’t remember. We didn’t have the Arizona schools. Utah. Colorado, probably PAC-8.
You’re advancing your career from Colorado to UCLA and that’s where I played with my head coach, Don James. You knew him in a different way than I knew him. He was my coach versus you were co-coaching together and you’ve known him for a long time. There has been a couple of great influences in my life and Coach James has been one of those, for me in terms of navigating the path, the pyramid of success, the things that you need to do as an individual and as a team to get to that pinnacle of success. I know that you took a lot of those same philosophies. You took a collection of things from different coaches along the way, but Coach James, for you, is a highlight in your life.
I coached with Don at Colorado when we were both assistant coaches. He was the coordinator and I was a defensive line coach. We only lived a few blocks away in Boulder. We got to know the family really well and I was close with Don. It was hard to get really close to him in that situation. We became good friends and when he got the head job at Washington, I’d been at UCLA for one season as the linebacker coach. He got the job at Washington as a head coach and he called me and said, “I’d like to hire you as a defensive coordinator.” I jumped at the chance because it gave me a chance to get an advancement. I came from a position coach to a coordinator and to work with, and for a guy like Don James. I jumped at the chance and took the job to go to Washington.
I made some moves that you do in coaching. I got tired of recruiting in college. Wherever I was, UCLA, Stanford, Washington, they always gave me an area to recruit as an assistant coach, not locally. I was always on the road and back then, recruiting lasted forever. It’s different than it is now. I got tired of the travel and the recruiting and talking to the parents. After my third year at Washington, after we’ve gone to the Rose Bowl and lead Michigan, I had a chance to get on the staff with the Seahawks and they’d only been in existence for one year. I took that, which got me eventually into the NFL.
The hardest move I ever made was when I left Seattle. We lived there for seven years. My three sons had all grown up there. We loved it there and I was with the Seahawks and things were going pretty well. I had a chance to go to the New England Patriots as the defensive coordinator and this was a huge move for me. All my coaching experience had been West. Colorado was the furthest East, Stanford, UCLA, Occidental, Washington, places like that. All of a sudden, I’m going to go from Seattle to New England and be a defensive coordinator with the staff that I didn’t know very well. It was an opportunity for me to progress up to go from an assistant to a position coach in the NFL to a defensive coordinator in the NFL. That move was the stepping point for me getting a head job in the USFL and the success there got me a head job in the NFL. If I wouldn’t have made that move to New England, I don’t know if I’d ever been a head coach in the NFL.
You were talking about being in the right place at the right time and luck gets involved somewhere in there. I was one of the guys. I used to go to the University of Washington football games with my grandfather and sit up in the stand. I can recall when people were out there doing what would become a hall of famer, Warren Moon, in those days. You guys were on the cusp of, “Was he going to survive?” You went to the 1997 Rose Bowl. You lost the first two or three games in a row before you got in. He happened to win the right combination of games. It got down to some tiebreaker in there and UCLA was playing USC, their final game. One of his other guys knocked off the other one, which allowed Washington to go to the Rose Bowl. I got there two years later and that’s when that whole wave started, the momentum of coach teams becoming legends.
That game between USC and UCLA, the right team had to beat the other team for us to go. I forgot who had to win that game. If the other team would have won, they would have gone to the Rose Bowl and we wouldn’t have. I remember we’re all over Don James’ house that day because it was a week after we’d finished our season. All the coaches and their wives were over there and we were watching this game on TV, when the right team won, we were one excited coaching staff. We went down to Pasadena as a big underdog to Michigan and we ended up beating them.
Not only did the right team had to win for Washington to go to the Rose Bowl, but it got down to the last second field goal. The drama all played out perfectly. Being in the right place at the right time, then you went down and you guys had an amazing game plan and a tremendous amount of underdogs. Washington hadn’t been to the Rose Bowl since 1964. A lot of frustrated Husky fans and all of a sudden, we find ourselves in that situation. Then you guys pulled this rabbit out of your hat and made that happen. I heard that you used to practice over in Cheney, Washington, hotter than anything, and Jack Patera would not allow the players to drink any water during practice.
When I joined the team in their second year of existence as a defensive line coach, that’s when I left University of Washington. We had training camp in Cheney. It was hot. He did not allow the players or coaches to drink water during practice. I was over there for four years. That was old school back in those days. That wasn’t the only team that felt that way. I don’t know what other teams were doing at that point. Now, you can have as much water as you can possibly hold during practices. There’s even somebody feeding you with water as a player. I can account for that because I was there every day for four years.
You were not only there but you were thirsty.
He’d have somebody print popsicles out and that was about it. That didn’t happen very often, but it happens but no water.
In 1982, you are back in in New England and you’re coaching for the Patriots. You get a defensive coordinator position that is a stepping stone towards becoming a head coach. The USFL, that had been defunct many years, comes into existence. Whoever the owner was of that team tabs you as the head coach, right?
Yes, but here’s how it happened. When I was at UCLA for one year in 1974, Dick Vermeil had gotten a head coaching job. I had been at Colorado for six years as an assistant coach. Our head coach, Eddie Crowder, either quit or got fired. I forgot, but we’d had some pretty good success there. The assistants were out of a job. Dick Vermeil and I had coached at Stanford in 1967 and I was only there one year, too, because I left to go to Colorado. That’s where I first met Dick. We stayed in touch. Dick gets the job and he was an assistant at the Rams. When the UCLA job opened in 1974, Romeo got hired as the head coach of the UCLA Bruins and I had gotten let go at Colorado. He offered me a job to coach the linebackers at UCLA. I didn’t have a job, so I took it. I was there one year at UCLA.
Another coach on that staff was the guy by the name of Carl Peterson. Peterson coached the receivers. I got familiar with the coaches. I still stayed in touch with Dick. Carl and I became good friends, but I left after one year. I went up to the University of Washington when Don got the head job and I got the coordinator job. Carl and I stayed in touch. When Dick went as the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, Carl went there as an administrator and he became head of scouting and assistant general manager. When the USFL started, Carl Peterson was the president, GM of the Philadelphia Stars. He had been in Philadelphia with the Eagles. My one year at New England, halfway through the season, he calls me, and he said, “I’m looking for a head coach. Would you be interested?” I said, “Yes, Carl but I’ve got the New England this year. I don’t know anything about the USFL. I don’t want to move again.” He says, “Let’s wait until after the season, then I’ll talk to you.” I said, “We’ll wait until after the season.”
We ended up going to the playoffs at New England. We got beaten the first game by the Dolphins down in Miami. Carl contacted me right after that game and he says, “I still have an interest in you if you want to be the head coach of our team.” I said to Carl, “I don’t want to move again.” He said, “Come on down for a few days and check our organization out.” I said, “Okay, I’ll do that.” I went down there with no intention of taking the job. I became very impressed with the whole organization. The owner, the scouting department, Carl, I’ve always had a lot of respect for him. I went down there, and I said, “I’m impressed. I can always go back to the NFL as an assistant coach. Let’s give this a run.”
I got the job about two weeks before we went to training camp as a Spring League. We started training camp down in DeLand, Florida. I finished the one season with the Patriots. The night before our first practice in DeLand, Florida was the first time our whole coaching staff got together. I already met a couple of them because I had hired them on recommendations from friends of mine. We started out and we had the best team in the Lake for three years. We went to all three championship games and won two. That’s how strange things are. I saw crazy things happen.
Carl Peterson is a long time GM President. Was it his job to pluck that talent for you? You walked into a fantastic situation.
I walked into a good situation. The USFL was made up of young players, rookies coming into the pros for the first time or guys that had been in the NFL who maybe played two or three years. They weren’t quite good enough to hang onto it with a team. Every team in the USFL had territorial schools. They have schools, college teams. Only guys from those teams could go to your team, like Penn state. Guys from Penn state, if they were going to go into the USFL, they could only go to the Philadelphia Stars, our team. We had good players from Penn state. Carl and the scouting staff were the ones responsible when I got there for having that team. We’ve gotten some good kids out of college, too, that went on to play in the USFL and then have good careers in the NFL. We had the best players for three years, no question about it.
I saw a fantastic episode a couple of years ago on one of those ESPN’s 30 for 30 It had to do with the rise and fall of the USFL. It got into a situation. Whoever the owner was, he got into it with Trump. It was blamed on Trump, the downfall for whatever move he wanted to make or didn’t make that forced the thing into the ground to try to compete with the NFL. Does that recollect with you at all?
Trump wanted the USFL to go play in the fall and compete head to head with the NFL. That wasn’t a good idea. The USFL was a much better league, a more competitive league, and better players than the media ever gave it credit for. We were the little guys and we weren’t as good as the NFL. There’s no question about it but we had a lot of good players. Jim Kelly, Steve Young, Reggie White, to name a few that played in our league that had great careers in the NFL after the USFL folded. He owned the New Jersey Generals, which is coming from New York, they had Herschel Walker. Somehow there was a problem. The league ended up folding.
You go to the championship all three years and you won it two out of three. Did you go directly from there to New Orleans as the head coach or has the league folded and then you went to New Orleans?
After our last year in the US have failed, the word was out that we probably weren’t going to be continued. We still had jobs. For two years, we were in Philadelphia Stars, then we became the Baltimore Stars. One of the reasons we moved to Baltimore is because we weren’t competing with an NFL team. We weren’t Philadelphia against the Eagles. If we were going to compete with the NFL, we would be the only pro team in Baltimore. We didn’t move anything except we played our games down in that area, but we stayed as far as practice and all that kind of stuff up in Philadelphia. When the USFL did fold, I was still getting paid and our coaches were looking for jobs.
Towards the end of the season, head coaching jobs started to open in the NFL and I was approached. I interviewed with the Eagles. I interviewed with the Arizona Cardinals, which was then the St. Louis Cardinals before they moved to Arizona. I interviewed with the Saints. I had a chance to go to the Cardinals. I had a chance to go to the Eagles. I didn’t like the GM. He never offered me a job. I could have gone there considering the success we’d had. I got excited about the new president and GM of the Saints. Jim thinks they’d never had a winning season in nineteen years. I knew people were excited about football down in the South. They love their team and they never had a good team. I took that job.
One of the biggest reasons I took it was because I felt the challenge of being able to go down there and have some success. It would mean a lot to my career. I mean a lot to the Saints. It would mean a lot to the fans and the whole thing. I had the utmost respect for Jim Finks. He was in the Pro Football Hall of fame and that’s why I took that job. I didn’t take it until the USFL season ended. It was all the fall that the NFL was playing, and the USFL people didn’t know what was happening for a lot of that time. When the NFL season was over, and I was interviewing with those jobs, we knew that we weren’t going to have a USFL anymore.
It was a gap year, a little bit for you, then you waited. At the end of NFL season, there’s always the coaching carousel and then you took advantage of a great opportunity. Carl Peterson seemed to be that plug for you, that understood talent and a fantastic evaluator. You guys work well in terms of you coaching and doing the things that you need to do on the field, and Jim Finks providing you with a lot of fantastic talent.
Most of the coaches that I had on my staff in the USFL I took with me to New Orleans. Back in those days, when they had twenty assistant coaches, we only had nine or ten. Jim thinks he was the best I ever worked for. I stepped into a good situation in New Orleans. You were a part of that team for a few years. We had a good nucleus of guys that had been there, Stan Brock, Ricky Jackson, Hoby Brenner, guys that had been there but had not been successful in their fourth or fifth year and right at the prime of their career. On the first year, we had an excellent draft and we’ve got some good players. Dalton Hilliard, Rueben Mayes, Jim Dombrowski. We’ve got guys coming in from the USFL and guys that we were familiar with.
I’ll mention that the best one, Sam Mills at Philadelphia for three years. He’s a great player. We had the returning veterans that were in the prime of their career and we had to let go of some of the older guys that we didn’t like. We didn’t have a winning season that first year. We were 7-9, but the next year, we were 12-3. You don’t win without good players. I had learned that a long time ago, but we had good players and that’s why we were successful. Morten Andersen, our kicker, I can’t forget him, is hall of famer.
He is one of the most disciplined athletes and well-rounded athlete for a kicker I’ve ever been around. Anything he did, he did very well. He played football for 25 years, which was very difficult. He’s a close friend. I feel so blessed that I was able to be around some people with greatness and he was one of those guys in that group. I will forever be grateful that you brought me down to New Orleans post Raiders in 1987. Overall in your ten years in New Orleans, you had over 93 wins. Over nineteen seasons, they had a total of 90 wins. I’d always come from University of Washington. We were number one half the time we were there. Every year, we’re in a Rose Bowl, Aloha Bowl and Orange Bowl. We always ranked in the top ten, top twenty.
When I was drafted by the Raiders, my rookie year, we went to the playoffs. We lost to the Patriots, but always had been on successful teams. I never lost my entire career. My first week, we were playing the Cleveland Browns’ Bernie Kosar and it was an upset win at home. We came in the locker room and people were crying, weeping, and hugging. I didn’t understand it because I’d always been in a winning culture. I didn’t understand all those guys, the veterans, that had been through all that hell and all that pain. We went on that year to go 12-3. We were the team of the year. It was amazing to be in that city, to go out. I don’t think I ever paid for a meal. They cheered us. It was so much fun for a West Coast kid, a guy who grew up in Seattle, to experience what winning can do not only for the team but for the city.
I agree with you. I could have run for governor. After games, we’d come back and we fly our charter plane in and then we’d get off and there are people lining the streets coming out of the airport. New Orleans is a unique town. Those people are emotional people. They love to eat, drink, and party. They love their parades. They love their Saints.
There are a lot of great things that were going on at that period of time. I was there for a couple of years and one of my regrets of all time, this is something you can’t take back and I can’t take back, was when I left the Saints. I went to the Seahawks and a plan B for agency deal. It was the beginning of the end and I regret it to this day. The only thing I can do going forward is to learn from situations like that and understand when you have something, a great situation going. That’s one of those learning things that I had to take with me and tuck it away for future other obstacles that I’ve come across.
I always want to make sure how grateful I was for that opportunity because it was such an amazing experience. You and Coach James are two of the most important life influencers in terms of understanding the difference between black and white, winning and losing. You had a tirade after a game when we lost, “You put out a great effort but you either win or you lose and either you make mistakes or you don’t.” You showed me the path and those things have carried into businesses I’ve started and in these crazy mountains that I’m now climbing around the world, to doing the small things you need to do to then have that winning result.
[bctt tweet=”You’ve got to take chances sometimes and you’ve got to have confidence in yourself.” via=”no”]
You were a good football player in the NFL. You were a talented player and it was a pleasure having you on the team for a couple of years. I thought you had a lot to do with our success and I mean that. You’ve got to take chances sometimes and you’ve got to have confidence in yourself. Sometimes they work out and sometimes they don’t. The toughest move for me was from Seattle to New England. I suffered emotionally back there even though we went to the playoffs. If I wouldn’t have made that move I wouldn’t have gotten the USFL job, and without us and the success in the USFL, I wouldn’t have gotten the Saint’s job. That move to me was the key move in my career so far as becoming a head coach in the NFL.
That one went well for you. We talked about finding your summit diversity and all the wins and losses and the adversity that we went through as teachers, as coaches, and as a unit. Every game is like a whole new season. Moving from week to week, people don’t understand the physical and the mental toll it takes on everybody as we come together to create a winning environment. You guys did that, and you did it well for a long time.
We’re going to jump into Indianapolis and this is the story that a lot of people either don’t remember or don’t know about, but I was down there, and it was pretty intense. For all the success that you had in New Orleans and how you were so well, the team, too, celebrated for many years down there. I remember there was a Thanksgiving or Christmas time when you and your wife, Connie, were held at gunpoint. Tell me about that.
It was 1987 and we had clenched a winning season and we’re going to go to the playoffs. This was the first time in twenty years. This was the 20th season for the Saints that we were going to have a winning season. Everybody was all fired up about it. It was our wedding anniversary. We were going to leave the next morning and go play Cincinnati in Cincinnati. It was towards the end of the season. We had a little Christmas party for the staff, the coaches, and their wives. Connie and I went and had dinner in downtown New Orleans and we exchanged gifts. I put the gifts in the trunk of my car. Connie and I drive home back into Metairie. As I’m driving into our house, I noticed the car across the street. It was an older car in a nice area where we live. It’s not fancy, but it was nice. I don’t recognize that car, but then it went out of my mind. I pull into the driveway and I had an electric garage door opener. I opened the garage door, I drive my car into the garage and I take some stuff. Connie and I go into the house but I had something in the front seat.
[bctt tweet=”Sometimes things work out and sometimes they don’t.” via=”no”]
I had to go back out again to shut the garage door and get some stuff out of the trunk. I walk into my house and I’m walking down a little hallway we had between the garage and the dining room. I’m going into the kitchen and this guy steps out in front of the dining room and he points a gun at my head. You don’t know what to think, but he’s pointing a gun at me and I take his arm, which was stupid to do, and I pushed his arm with my hand. I pushed his arm with the gun up in the air and I say, “You better not be messing around with something to this extent.” He says, “I have a partner here and he’s got your wife back in the master bedroom.” The first thing in my mind is that these guys had gotten into our house while we were gone and for some reason were waiting for us. I couldn’t figure that out. All this stuff’s going through my mind quickly.
He says, “Get in the kitchen. Come here. Lay down on the floor.” I say, “I’m not going to lay down.” I had a suit on and coat and tie because we’ve been out to dinner. I got down and he says, “Give me your wallet.” I said, “I’m not going to do that.” He said, “You better give me this or I’m going to blow your brains out and my pal back there is going to take care of your wife.” I gave him my wallet and my watch. I know Connie’s back there with this guy and I got this guy in the kitchen. I didn’t know what to say and I’m lying on the floor. He’s tearing my clothes and grabbing my arm. I’d given him my wallet and my watch and I said, “I don’t know whether you know this or not but I’m Jim Mora, the head coach at the Saints.” He’s standing over me with a gun check in my wallet and he says, “You’re Jim Mora?” I said, “Yes.” He calls back to his partner in crime and these two guys were bad looking guys. They look like criminals. He said, “Let’s go. We’re getting out of here.” That’s what he yelled back to this guy. This guy, according to Connie, comes out and they took off. They both took off out the front door quickly.
I called the cops and the cops came. They got one guy. My neighbor saw this car out there and he noticed these two guys walking into our house. My neighbor took down the license plate of this car. The cops followed it and they arrested one of the guys the next morning. The other guy, they got a few months later. They had been in the neighborhood looking for somebody like us to come home and they were going to follow them into their house some way and rob them. When we went into the house the first time, they followed us in through the open garage door. When they saw us drive up in the driveway, they got out of their car and they came over and they followed us into the end of the house. They were hiding when I went back out again. Then when I came back in, they had already accosted Connie and then they got me and that’s what happened. They weren’t waiting for us.
It was major news across all the wires, the local television shows. The team heard about it and we were all concerned. You guys weren’t necessarily targeted, but you lived in a nice area and they were looking to rob somebody. What would have happened if you hadn’t pulled out that card. It was not egotistical for you to say who you were because I was there. I was living in that town and we talked about before how insanely ecstatic the entire city was with this team that was winning all these games and we’re on a roll. It was one after the other and we’re on fire. The head coach can take all the credit, but it can also go the other way, too, and he gets all the blame. In those days, in that year, that month, you were like a rockstar and you were the savior in that moment. I don’t know if those guys ever got out of jail or not, but they were going to go away for a long time.
They both went into the State Pen. I went over there one time and talked to the inmates. They asked me to come over and talk because they have sports over there. One of the guys was in it and the other guy had been arrested in Houston. I got a letter once from one of the two guys, apologizing for it and I told the police about it. They said, “Don’t reply and say that’s okay, I forgive you. Don’t even reply to him because they’ll use it when they’re up for parole.” I often wonder what would have happened if we were still having a losing season.
You have a ten, eleven-year run in New Orleans until Sean Payton came along. He was a fantastic quarterback in teams. He is now the winning coach of all time, but then you move on to the Indianapolis Colts. You had an opportunity to have a choice between drafting Peyton Manning, a legend in his time or Ryan Leaf there. I saw it while I’m playing in college and I saw him play against the Huskies. This guy was a man among boys. He was big, he was strong, and there was a lot of debate about where he should go. He ended up in San Diego. Bobby Beathard, another legendary GM, picked him. How did you guys come to the decision about picking up Peyton Manning and not taking Ryan Leaf?
Physically, they were both excellent players in college. Peyton at Tennessee and Ryan at Washington State. In my whole career as an NFL coach or a pro-coach, we had the first pick in the draft. We needed a quarterback right from day one. We were going to pick one of those guys. We scouted them, evaluated them, and looked at them more than any other player that I’ve ever been around when I was through my coaching career. We had to make the right decision. If you screw up the number one pick and pick the wrong guy, especially if he’s a quarterback, that’s going to be the face of your team and community. You can’t screw that up.
We did a thorough job as you could imagine. I looked at all the film and all the physical stuff and very comparable. In some ways, Ryan was more impressive on film than Peyton was. He had a stronger arm, he was big, but Peyton was big, too. We interviewed them at their respective schools. I knew Peyton because he grew up in New Orleans. I knew his dad, Archie, his mom, his family. When I was coaching the Saints, that’s his home town, he used to come over and watch practice when he was in high school, when he was in Tennessee. I knew what kind of person he was. Ryan did not measure up to Peyton character-wise. I’m not saying he was a bad kid. He wasn’t a bad kid, but there were some things about him and I don’t want to get into the details. I can tell you a couple of instances where we talked to him, he gave us some doubts, but there were some things character-wise, maybe. Leadership character, that kind of thing. He wasn’t a bad guy, don’t get me wrong. Peyton had the edge. Peyton was perfect in all those areas, leadership, intelligence, hard work, and team-oriented. He had it all.
Your son and I went down to Tanzania and climbed Kilimanjaro. Prior to that, I was up in LA working at a place with Jay Glazer. He has this cool program going on up there. In the program, the workout facility and after the workouts we all get in a circle. It’s a collection of former NFL guys. They’ve been military people and it’s helping people transition over. Ryan has become instrumental to it. Then I got to know Ryan a little bit during that time when we talked. He understands the gravity of what he did in his past. He takes ownership of life after football, of being addicted to drugs, pain pills, breaking and entering into people’s homes, and stealing different things. He seems like he’s come full circle and he was very transparent about what those things were, where he’s been. He can’t take back his career, but he can do everything he can to move forward in a positive way and it seems like he is doing that.
I’m happy for him. I’ve seen some things of him on television, the programs that he’s in, and giving talks to people. He was in prison for some time. He had some addiction problem. We made the right decision and we did a thorough job of scouting vote to these guys. Physically, they were very comparable. Peyton just had an edge from a leadership standpoint, team-oriented, and it turned out to be the right one. What a work ethic he has.
I love playing with Bobby Beathard. It would have been a dream to play with Peyton. He seems like such a great guy, such a fantastic family. His dad, Archie, used to call at games. He seemed to be very rooted in what was important in life and what the purpose of him being in the NFL and the leader of that team for all these years.
My first year in Indianapolis after we drafted Peyton, they’d have some losing seasons prior to that. We had a new general manager, Bill Polian, and Jim Irsay was our owner. I got the job and they had won about three games. The season before, they’d fired their coach and Polian went out on limb with Irsay. They hired me because I’d had a year off from the Saints. I worked for NBC and then NFL Games on Sundays, but I hadn’t coached. They’d hired me, and we drafted Peyton. We drafted him the very next week, we had our first minicamp. It was my first minicamp as the head coach there. Peyton went into the huddle as our starting quarterback. A rookie and he was our starter throughout the season.
[bctt tweet=”The only way you’re going to learn is to play.” via=”no”]
I told him before the season, “Peyton, you’re going to be a rookie. You’re going to start every game. You’re going to play almost every play. I’m not going to take you out. I don’t care if you throw fifteen interceptions in the first half. I’m not going to take you out at halftime. The only way you’re going to learn is to play.” This is what we did with him and we were 3-13. He threw a lot of interceptions but he also improved every week towards the end of the season. He got to be good as a rookie. Throughout the season, we improved our defense a little bit and the next year, we were 13-3. It was the best turnaround in the NFL history. Some teams have matched that or improved on that since then. That was from 1998 to 1999 and he went on to have a fabulous career.
When you left after four years, did you leave because you were asked to let go some of your assistant coaches or you had your run there?
We had a little bit of an up and down career there. We were 3-13, 13-3, and 10-6 in the playoffs. Then 6-10 my last year. I still had another year on my contract. After my last press conference there, after our last game, he says, “Let’s get ready for the next season.” I was all set to go. He called me into his office and he said, “I want you to fire two of your assistants.” One of them was Vic Fangio. He might be the best defensive in the NFL right now. Vic is outstanding, and he’d been with me in the USFL. He’d been with me as the defensive coordinator at Carolina when they went to the Super Bowl. I’m not being prejudiced in any way. The guy’s outstanding and a good friend. One of the guys that Polian wanted me to fire was Vic. I couldn’t believe it when he asked me to fire him. He wanted me to fire another guy, too, and I would have fired him, but I didn’t like the idea that he’s telling me to fire these two guys.
He said, “I want you to fire him.” I said, “I’m not going to fire him. I don’t care what you do.” He says, “We’re going to go talk to Irsay.” We had meetings with Irsay and I explained my side of the deal. He said some things and he had been the president GM at the Carolina Panthers when Vic was the defensive coordinator there, and for some reason, they didn’t hit it off. They had great success. I remember the last day, Irsay called me into his office and he says, “I hired Polian and then he hired you. He says he’s been here longer.” He says something to Bill. He says, “I don’t want to fire you. If you’re not going to go along with that, I’ve got to let you go.” He let me go.
That says a lot to your character, too, in terms of being loyal to the guys that you believe in and not being swayed by others. Vic had a long career in the NFL and proved his weight time and again.
He does more with less than anybody I’ve ever been around.
Are you still broadcasting, helping out down in New Orleans when you go back and do some game analysis?
I’ve got a call from Fletcher Mackel, who is a sports guy at WDSU in New Orleans, which is the NBC affiliate. Usually on games when they’re on national TV, they do a pre-game show and a post-game show there in New Orleans in the surrounding area. They call it Saints on 6. They want to me to be a part of the pre-game show and the post-game show. It turned out to be four or five times a year either on the road or in New Orleans whenever they run on national TV. I said, “I’ll do it,” and I went down there. This is going to be my eighth season that I’ve been doing it.
That’s the only relationship I have with the Saints. They have a promotional deal when I go down there to promote the Saints on six shows. We go to training camp and I shoot the breeze with Sean. I was close to Tom Benson, the owner who passed away. I got people that were with the Saints when I was there. There’s not many left anymore. They helped me out with tickets. I stayed close to the organization in that regard. Mainly my work has been with WDSU, the NBC affiliate.
Keeps your mind occupied and keeps you engaged in the game. They’ve been wonderful to me. They continue to broadcast my journey, about what I’m doing, trying to become the first NFL player to climb seven summits. It’s not on a daily basis. They throw some shout out to the Saints’ ex-players community that they have. We’re all in this big massive email list and it’s cool to feel part of that organization. I’m proud to be a part of the group and playing under you. I want to wrap this up and say this it’s been a pleasure.
[bctt tweet=”Do more with less.” via=”no”]
I’m best buddies with your son, Jim Mora Jr. It’s great to have that kinship and I feel so blessed and fortunate to have somebody like him with the kind of character and moral compass that he has. I know that much of that has come from you and your awesome wife, Connie. I get to be connected to you and every once in a while, we’d get out in the desert and play a little golf with Tiger and his son, Eric. It’s been fun to share that journey, his journey, your journey with both you guys and be a part of the Mora family. I will always be grateful for that and I thank you.
We’re glad to have you in our family and you’re welcome anytime. I look upon you the same way. You’re a great guy and I’m glad you’re a good friend of Jimmy’s. I’ve gotten to know you through that association and it started back at the University of Washington. You’re top notch in every respect.
It’s been fascinating going back in time and understanding a guy with your success over time, battling through wins and losses, leading teams and moving on, how you progressed through your career, and having this whole thing about seeking to get better and learning and constantly being on that path. That’s very commendable and I have total respect for you. I want to have you keep going.