It’s time for Jim Finks, Jim Mora to be enshrined in Saints’ Ring of Honor
The NFL season ends this week.
The climax is the Super Bowl game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday.
But this also is the time of year when selections are made for the highest individual honors for football personnel, both locally and nationally.
This week the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee will select the class of 2023 that will be inducted in August in Canton, Ohio.
The New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame selection committee is in the midst of selecting its next class, which will be announced in the spring and honored during the season next fall.
And so this is an appropriate time to ponder the options for adding to the Saints Ring of Honor inside the Caesars Superdome next season.
The Ring of Honor “commemorates former players, administrators and individuals with significant contributions to the franchise.”
Perhaps a better way to understand the criteria for inclusion in the Ring of Honor is simply to look at the exclusive membership – Archie Manning, Rickey Jackson, Willie Roaf, Morten Andersen, Will Smith, Tom Benson and Sam Mills.
That’s Saints royalty.
Soon Drew Brees will be so honored. At some point Sean Payton will be so honored, though his recent return to coaching with the Denver Broncos makes the timing of his enshrinement a bit trickier. Others connected to the Super Bowl champion team of 2009 will demand consideration.
But we’re talking 2023.
The suggestion here – and it’s a really strong one – is that the Saints’ next additions to the Ring of Honor should be Jim Finks and Jim Mora. And it should happen during the upcoming season.
The two Jims – commonly referred to as “Mr. Finks” and “Coach Mora” because of the respect they engendered during their tenures – belong among the best of the best. In fact together they elevated what constituted the Saints’ best as much as any individuals in the history of the franchise.
Mr. Finks was inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995. His candidacy was based primarily on his accomplishments as general manager of the Minnesota Vikings and the Chicago Bears, though his tenure with the Saints at the end of his illustrious career also was significant on an NFL scale – and historic in New Orleans.
Mr. Finks stature was such that he was on the verge of becoming NFL Commissioner before NFL politics intervened and led to Paul Tagliabue becoming Pete Rozelle’s successor in 1989.
As impressive as Mr. Finks’ resume outside of New Orleans is, this is about his resume in New Orleans.
So let’s put this into context.
The turning point in the Saints evolution from NFL laughing-stock to exemplary franchise came in 1985 when Tom Benson bought the franchise from John Mecom Jr.
Benson, an astute businessman with no football experience, evaluated his new business during the 1985 season and decided to fire general manager and head coach Bum Phillips.
Technically Phillips resigned with four games left in the season to give his son, defensive coordinator Wade, a futile on-the-job audition to be his successor but the hand writing was on the wall. Benson’s Saints would be making a fresh start in 1986.
Benson smartly leaned on his more experienced NFL colleagues for advice on whom to entrust his football operation. They pointed him toward Finks and he wisely followed their advice.
At the news conference announcing Finks’ hiring, Benson displayed dozens of overflowing manila folders containing hundreds of resumes and supporting documents on a table to demonstrate the level of interest in the job.
“We told you we were going to hire the best man for the job,” Benson told the audience, “and that’s what we did.”
Unquestionably they did hire the best man for the job.
Mr. Benson’s first hire as Saints owner was the first in a lengthy series of moves that justified the late owner’s inclusion in the Saints Hall of Fame.
Mr. Finks’ first hire was equally astute.
He plucked Coach Mora from the United States Football League, where Mora had led the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars to three championship games and two titles.
The USFL was folding and Mora was a professional-football championship head coach who was suddenly a free agent. The Philadelphia Eagles had strong interest in him and the St. Louis Cardinals offered him their head coaching position.
But after meeting Mr. Benson and Mr. Finks, coach Mora knew he wanted to work for them. He also cited the attractiveness of the talent on the roster, which belied the 5-11 record in Phillips’ last season, as well as the long-demonstrated passion and loyalty of the Saints fans, who were starving for success.
Mora’s familiarity with the personnel in the USFL and Finks’ overall personnel acumen produced a bonanza of signings after the league folded, and Finks orchestrated perhaps the greatest NFL draft bonanza in Saints history in 1986.
The Finks-Mora era got off to an unimpressive start with a 31-10 loss to the Atlanta Falcons in the 1986 season opener in the Superdome.
Times-Picayune sports editor Peter Finney perfectly captured the angst over the performance when he led his column on the game thusly: “Welcome to the USFL.”
The chide stuck in Mora’s craw for years because he knew one game was not a fair gauge of his and his team’s ability to exceed the performance of the organization prior to his arrival.
By the end of the season Mora had gone from being defensive about criticism to being reluctant to accept praise about a mediocre season.
Mora was a guest on a local Sunday night TV sports program after a 4-4 finish completed an encouraging 7-9 season. The Saints entered the season finale with an opportunity to finish at .500 – which would have matched the franchise’s best finish ever – but lost to Minnesota.
When the show’s host, understanding that the first season had provided legitimate hope to a community that had become accustomed to little other than false hope, congratulated the coach on the season.
Mora bristled at the suggestion that a losing record could be seen as anything other than failure. The standard, he emphasized, was now much higher than it had been before 1986.
The message was eye-opening to Saints followers, who had been conditioned to expect below-average results if not the worst in the NFL.
When Mr. Benson bought the Saints, the business operation turned around.
When the owner wisely brought in Mr. Finks and Coach Mora, the football operation turned around.
In 1987, the second season of the Finks-Mora era, the Saints had their first winning season, clinching a winning record for the first time with a 20-16 victory at Pittsburgh.
When the team’s flight arrived home after the game, cars were lined up all along the road outside the airport as fans celebrated.
Mora would later reflect in retirement by calling that greeting “one of the highlights of my career.”
The highlights were just beginning, and the degree of support from the community became even greater as the unwavering loyalty was finally rewarded with a football operation worthy of the unbridled passion.
The Saints finished 12-3 and reached the playoffs for the first time, losing to the Vikings in a wild card game.
New Orleans returned to the playoffs in 1990, won its first division title in 1991 and again went to the playoffs in 1992.
The Saints never won a playoff game during the Finks-Mora era, but the turnaround of the organization was dramatic and sustained – clearly worthy of inclusion in the Ring of Honor.
Mr. Finks left the final day of the 1993 NFL Draft early and didn’t speak with reporters. Mora said his boss had been very ill during the process.
Finks used the No. 8 pick in the draft to select Louisiana Tech tackle Willie Roaf, who would later join Finks in the Saints and Pro Football Halls of Fame.
The day after the draft Finks checked into the hospital and was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died barely a year later.
In the absence of Finks’ leadership the Saints didn’t have another winning season during Mora’s tenure, which ended when he resigned midway through what would become a 3-13 season in 1996.
But the Finks-Mora tenure featured five winning seasons, four playoff berths and one division title for a franchise that had none of the above during its 19-year history before their arrival.
Mora, who turns 88 in May, is retired in California, but frequently appears on WDSU as a Saints analyst, a role he has filled since 2010.
He and Mr. Finks belong in the Saints Ring of Honor.
It would be appropriate for them to be enshrined as a tandem.
And that should happen in 2023.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…