New Orleans Saints Coaching History—Jim Mora (1986-1996)
The John Mecom era in New Orleans ended in 1985 after 19 years.
It was a colorful era, filled with exciting halftime shows at Tulane Stadium, two glorious moments provided by John Gilliam and Tom Dempsey, ushering in a new, transcendent stadium in the Superdome and big personalities as head coaches.
Unfortunately, none of it included winning.
Fortunately, it would not take long for the Tom Benson regime to produce a winner, thanks to two big hires.
First, Benson hired Jim Finks on Jan. 14, 1986.
A former NFL player, Finks was a highly respected NFL executive who built winners in Minnesota and Chicago and even presided over a rare playoff appearance for the Chicago Cubs of Major League Baseball.
The Saints finally got it right.
Then, Finks got it right by hiring Jim E. Mora.
A proven assistant coach at the college level and in the NFL, Mora was highly successful in the USFL, leading the Philadelphia and Baltimore Stars to the championship game in all three seasons of the league’s existence, winning two titles.
With the USFL folding, Mora drew interest from the Arizona Cardinals and the Philadelphia Eagles.
He accepted the Saints offer, largely because of Finks, whom he respected greatly, and because of the passion for football in the south. The final factor was that the Saints had never had a winning season and Mora liked the challenge.
Mora was a great hire.
He inherited some star players, including Rickey Jackson, Bruce Clark, Dave Waymer, Hoby Brenner, Stan Brock, Brad Edelman and Eric Martin. He had a young quarterback in Bobby Hebert that he was familiar with from the USFL. John Tice was a solid tight end. Steve Korte and Joel Hilgenberg were good players up front as well.
Additionally, Mora inherited a very good kicking game with Morten Andersen and Brian Hansen.
Then, because of the smart hire, Mora used his knowledge and contacts from the USFL to bring in Sam Mills, Vaughan Johnson, Antonio Gibson, Chuck Commiskey, Herbert Harris and Mel Gray.
Mills and Johnson would become great players as part of the best linebacker corps in NFL history with Jackson and Pat Swilling and all would become Saints Hall of Fame inductees while Jackson earned Saints Ring of Honor and Pro Football Hall of Fame honors.
Finally, the Saints had a terrific draft in 1986.
In the first round, offensive lineman Jim Dombrowski arrived and he would be a pillar for 11 seasons. Running backs Dalton Hilliard and Rueben Mayes were next, in the second and third rounds, respectively. Both were superb and became Pro Bowl players.
The next third round pick was Swilling, who became the best edge pass rusher in the NFL, earning NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1991. Swilling was elite.
Barry Word also came in the third round and because of the crowded backfield in New Orleans, Word eventually became a star with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Dombrowski, Hilliard, Mayes and Swilling would all become Saints Hall of Fame inductees.
Brett Maxie was already on hand and would emerge. Gene Atkins was a seventh round pick in 1987 and would become an outstanding safety as well. So would cornerback Toi Cook. Guard Steve Trapilo was another solid pick would became a starter and physical player up front.
After starting 1-4 in 1986 following a brutal training camp, the Saints got better, rallying to get to 6-5, but lost four of their last five and that elusive winning season escaped once again.
That would change in 1987.
The Saints opened the season 1-1 before an player’s strike arrived.
Rather than missing games, league owners and management opted to hire replacement players to resume the season after missing just one game.
Finks and Mora did a good job of identifying good talent and had a few key starters cross the picket line. The Saints went 2-1 with the replacement players before the regulars returned with New Orleans at 3-2.
In the first game back, the Saints lost 24-22 at home to nemesis San Francisco.
Andersen kicked five field goals but missed a potential game winner.
Mora struck the perfect tone afterwards with his infamous “coulda, woulda, shoulda” speech. It was classic. It was telling. The message got home to his team.
The tirade was memorable for many lines. Here is the text of it.
“They’re better than we are; we’re not good enough. We shouldn’t be thinking about beating these 49ers; we shouldn’t be talking about it, ’cause the Saints ain’t good enough. And you guys shouldn’t write about us being a playoff team and all that bullstuff—that’s malarkey.
“We ain’t good enough to beat those guys and it was proven out there today. It’s that simple. We’re not good enough yet. We’ve got a long way to go; we’ve got a lot of work to do; we’re close, and close don’t mean shit. And you can put that on TV for me.
“I’m tired of coming close, and we’re gonna work our asses off until we ain’t close anymore, and it may take some time; we’re gonna get it done; we aren’t in there—we aren’t good enough. They’re better than us—black and white, simple, fact!
“Could’ve, would’ve, should’ve” is the difference in what I’m talking about! The good teams don’t come in and say “Could’ve.” They get it done! All right? It’s that simple! I’m tired of saying “Could’ve, should’ve, would’ve.” That’s why we ain’t good enough yet! ‘Cause we’re saying “Could’ve” and they ain’t!
I’m pissed off right now. You bet your ass I am. I’m sick of coulda, woulda, shoulda, coming close, if only.”
There would be no more moral victories. There would be no more excuses. The clear goal was to accept responsibility, play 60 minutes and to win.
The message got through in gigantic fashion to players and it resonated with long-suffering fans.
The Saints responded by ripping off nine straight wins.
The first statement was a 38-0 win at Atlanta on Nov. 1.
They clinched their first-ever winning season with a memorable goal-line stand in Pittsburgh in a 20-16 victory on Nov. 29.
They clinched a first-ever playoff spot with a 44-34 home victory over Tampa Bay on Dec. 6.
The offense averaged 31.1 points the remainder of the season.
The Saints would lose 44-10 to Minnesota in the playoffs but they had broken through and winning would become a regular thing.
The Saints missed completely with 1987 first round pick Shawn Knight and second round pick Lonzell Hill was just okay. Third round pick Michael Adams would not amount to much, either.
New Orleans went 10-6 in 1988. They started 9-3 but lost three straight and, despite 10 wins, did not make the playoffs in a loaded NFC.
The 1988 draft included first round pick Craig Heyward, who was solid but never outstanding in New Orleans. Brett Perriman arrived in the second round and was a decent player. There was not much else, if anything to talk about in the 1988 draft.
In 1989, the Saints started poorly at 1-4.
After a loss to Detroit on Dec. 3 which finished the Saints’ chances at the postseason, Mora made a change at quarterback, going to John Fourcade, who had been the quarterback of the replacement team in 1987 and had earned a permanent spot on the roster.
Fourcade rallied the Saints to three straight wins to close the season as New Orleans had another winning season at 9-7 but missed the playoffs for a second straight year.
The move would not be permanent and it would not benefit the Saints heading into 1990.
Hebert got into a contract dispute with Finks. Neither side would budge and Hebert sat out the season.
In the 1989 draft, the Saints got a gem in defensive lineman Wayne Martin in the first round. He was a star for 11 seasons and would become a Saints Hall of Fame inductee. Corner Robert Massey was solid in the second round and wide receiver Floyd Turner was a good pick in the sixth round.
Fourcade would get a chance to start the 1990 season but it did not go well.
The Saints started 1-3. The team traded for Steve Walsh.
In his first game, Walsh led the Saints to a 25-20 win over Cleveland but he never became the player the Saints thought he could be. The trade was a bad one as the Saints gave Dallas a first round pick and a third round pick. It was a fleece job by Dallas, the beginning of many bad moves by the Saints which would ultimately catch up with them.
In a weaker NFC, the Saints beat the Rams 20-17 on New Year’s Eve on a last second field goal by Morten Andersen to reach the playoffs. New Orleans, with poor quarterback play, lost 16-6 at Chicago in the playoffs.
Renaldo Turnbull was the first pick in the 1990 draft. While he was a good athlete and showed flashes of being good, he never lived up to the investment. Corner Vince Buck was a good pick in the second round. Joel Smeenge, James Williams and Chris Port were other productive picks.
In 1991, Hebert returned and the prodigal son made a difference.
The Saints started 7-0 with their leader back in the fold.
In a 20-17 loss to Chicago, Hebert was injured and would end up missing seven games. Walsh was pressed into action. The difference was obvious.
Hebert was 8-1 as a starter while Walsh was just 3-4 that season.
The Saints finished 11-5 and captured their first-ever division title, winning the NFC West.
In the playoffs, the Saints were missing three of their four starting defensive backs and it cost them against the hated Falcons.
The Saints carried a 20-17 lead into the fourth quarter but could not hold it.
Chris Miller ripped the replacements for 291 yards and three touchdown passes, including a game-winning 61-yard score to New Orleans native and future Saint Michael Haynes as Atlanta prevailed 27-20. The Saints offense did its part in the loss, committing three turnovers, including two interceptions of Hebert.
The draft was not productive.
Without a first round pick, the Saints chose Wesley Carroll in the second round and he flopped. Reggie Jones was decent in the fifth round and Frank Wainwright was a dependable player who arrived in the eighth round. The best choice was Fred McAfee in the sixth round, who became a dependable running back and the best special teams player in franchise history.
The 1992 season was the last vestige of the outstanding run for Mora in New Orleans.
With its star players near the end of their prime, the Saints went 12-4, consistently good from start to finish. The defense was terrific, holding 10 opponents to 14 points or less.
The beginning of the end of the Mora regime came in the playoff game, at home against Philadelphia, on Jan. 3, 1993.
The Saints controlled play in the first half and led 17-7 at the break. That lead grew to 20-7 in the third quarter. It was 20-10 going to the fourth quarter.
Then, the roof collapsed.
The Saints folded in all aspects.
The Eagles outscored New Orleans 26-0 in the final quarter in a 36-20 win.
All-time great Reggie White sacked Hebert in the end zone for a safety. Future Saint Eric Allen picked off Hebert and returned it 18 yards for a touchdown.
The Saints and Mora would never be the same.
The 1992 draft did not help.
Running back Vaughn Dunbar was a bust in the first round and there was no second round pick.
Corner Tyrone Legette was serviceable in the third round, safety Sean Lumpkin was okay in the fourth round and wide receiver Torrance Small was a solid fifth-round pick but that is not good enough.
The 1993 season was revealing.
Great players were nearing the end of their careers.
Swilling, who still had plenty of game, had been traded to Detroit but it turned out to be a good deal as the Saints drafted future Saints Hall of Fame, Saints Ring of Honor and Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Willie Roaf with the first round choice obtained in the Swilling deal.
Tight end Irv Smith was decent but perhaps not worth a first round pick.
Lorenzo Neal was a good fullback but would not stay in New Orleans long-term.
New Orleans native Tyrone Hughes of St. Augustine High School was an outstanding fifth-round pick, becoming the best kick and punt return man in the NFL for a period of time and would eventually be inducted into the Saints Hall of Fame.
Hebert had been turned loose and he went to rival Atlanta. Stan Brock departed for San Diego.
To replace him, the Saints brought in Wade Wilson and that would last one year.
In 1993, stalwarts like Jackson, Johnson, Martin, Atkins, Maxie and Cook would play their final season in New Orleans.
It still looked like the Saints were a winning playoff team.
New Orleans opened the season 5-0 and the Wilson-led offense looked good.
Then, after a bye week, the Saints went to Pittsburgh and were walloped 37-14. The offense was exposed.
The rest of the way, New Orleans averaged just 16.6 points per game.
New Orleans was still 7-4 but stumbled late to finish 8-8 and missed the playoffs.
The 1994 draft yielded an excellent first round pick in defensive lineman Joe Johnson, who would go on to be inducted into the Saints Hall of Fame. Mario Bates and Winfred Tubbs were decent picks in the next two rounds.
Mora brought in Jim Everett to take over at quarterback.
New Orleans was a mediocre team, at best.
The Saints started 4-8, never getting to .500, and rallied to finish 7-9.
The end of the season would be the end of the line for greats Sam Mills and Morten Andersen.
The last remnants of an excellent core of players was gone. The Saints were essentially starting over.
The 1995 draft brought a good, athletic linebacker in Mark Fields in the first round and a decent fullback in Ray Zellars in round two but nothing else.
The Saints were virtually done by the first week of October at 0-5. Four of the five losses came by five points or fewer.
After a bye week, the team got its act together, going 7-4 the rest of the way for another 7-9 season. Everett through for 26 touchdowns. Bates rushed for 951 yards and seven scores. Quinn Early caught 81 passes for 1,087 yards and eight touchdowns.
Things got worse, make that much worse, in 1996.
The Saints started 0-5 yet again before winning two straight games.
Then came the traumatic experience at Charlotte.
The Saints were futile offensively in a 19-7 loss to the Panthers and Dom Capers, a former assistant with the Saints to Mora.
The Saints gained a paltry 188 total yards and committed two turnovers. The defense held on as long as possible against Carolina quarterback and future Saint Kerry Collins.
It was my first year working on Saints broadcasts.
As the post game press conference took place, Mora was down, bitter, beaten.
As it was taking place, I turned to color analyst Archie Manning and told him I thought he sounded like he was about to quit.
A day later, Mora did so in mid-season.
Fortunately, it occurred heading into a bye week.
Mora ended his regime 93-74 with four playoff appearances in his 10 seasons with the Saints. He had given New Orleans a winner and was a good, sometimes very good coach. He was the NFL Coach of the Year in 1987. He would eventually earn induction into the Saints Hall of Fame but his time in New Orleans was clearly done.
Clearly, Mora missed the presence of Finks, who had gotten sick (cancer) and eventually died in 1994. Without Finks, there was no clear leadership or direction and it showed.
Mora had the bad fortune of coaching the Saints at a time of the dynasty of the 49ers under Bill Walsh and then George Seifert. The NFC also had great teams in New York with Bill Parcells, in Washington with Joe Gibbs and, ultimately, in Dallas with Jimmy Johnson. Had the Saints been in the AFC at that time, who knows what could have occurred?
Mora would get a chance to coach again in the league with the Colts and enjoy similar success, building a winner but coming up short in the playoffs. He remains the second best coach in franchise history.
Mora departed and gave way to Rick Venturi as Interim head coach for the remainder of the 1996 season and we will detail Venturi’s short tenure at the helm.
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Born and raised in the New Orleans area, CCSE CEO Ken Trahan has been a sports media fixture in the community for nearly four decades. Ken started NewOrleans.com/Sports with Bill Hammack and Don Jones in 2008. In 2011, the site became SportsNOLA.com. On August 1, 2017, Ken helped launch CrescentCitySports.com. Having accumulated national awards/recognition (National Sports Media Association, National Football…