The other night, Sean Payton did hot yoga for the first time in a while. That’s something the former NFL coach has more time for now, since announcing at the end of January that he was stepping away after 15 seasons of coaching the New Orleans Saints. Which isn’t to say he’s done strategizing or thinking in schemes. “If you ever do hot yoga, you have to really position yourself near where there’s airflow—or [where you have] the ability to step out,” he says, over the phone from Florida, where he and his wife are living while some work is done on their New Orleans home. “Occasionally, you get into a class late and you’re trapped in a corner, and you’re in the hot spot of the class—I felt like that’s where I was yesterday.” It’s this quality—what he calls a “maniacal” attention to detail—that made Sean Payton so successful during his remarkably long career in New Orleans. (The only current coach to have a longer tenure is Bill Belichick, widely considered the best coach in NFL history.)
But a coach doesn’t stay in one place for long because he’s good with preparation. Eventually, you have to win. When Payton was hired in January of 2006, the Saints had only made the playoffs five times in 39 season—and the city was still reeling in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But he won anyway. In his first season, with the help of new quarterback Drew Brees, the Saints went 10-6 and made the NFC Championship game. In 2009, they won the Super Bowl. Payton brought them back to the playoffs in seven of the following twelve seasons. (He was suspended for the entirety of the 2012 season as punishment for “Bountygate,” in which it was discovered that Saints’ players were offered “bounties” for attempts to injure opposing players.) In the last five years, his team has won more games than all other NFL teams except the Kansas City Chiefs.
At the press conference in which he announced that he was leaving, Payton said that he didn’t want to call it a “retirement,” leaving the door open to speculation that he might coach again in the future. But he has also insisted that he is committed to staying on the sidelines in 2022, and hopes to break into TV broadcasting. Whenever he does officially retire, he will likely end up going into the Hall of Fame. GQ called up Payton ahead of the Super Bowl to ask about building a winning culture in the aftermath of Katrina, almost drafting Patrick Mahomes, and how close Drew Brees came to coming out of retirement this year.
GQ: When you started with the Saints, did you have any sense of the degree to which Hurricane Katrina would become a part of your first season?
Sean Payton: We were naive to what was getting ready to take place. We, like everyone else, saw Katrina from afar, the pictures, the news coverage. I was getting ready to go interview with Green Bay, and I also knew the Saints were interested. On a Tuesday morning, I’m on a flight to Green Bay. I came back on Wednesday. I thought it went really well. A few days later, I went to New Orleans. That evening, I’m at the hotel room, freshening up for dinner, when I found out that Green Bary was hiring another coach. I remember throwing my phone into the pillow, because I knew I had a good interview with them. And look, my first 24 hours on this Saints interview was just blue tarps [everywhere], no one in the airport. I liked Mickey Loomis, the GM, but I thought, man, this is his problem, not mine. Have you ever found yourself somewhere where a realtor is showing you a house and you already know you don’t like it, when you are in the hallway? But then you have to finish and see every room, and she’s like, “Any questions?” And you’re like, “None.”