Jim Haslett’s time in the UFL earned him one more shot as a defensive coordinator in NFL


In 2009, Jim Haslett coached the UFL’s Florida Tuskers, alongside Jay Gruden and Sean McVay. In 2014, the three — and other former Tuskers — are running the Redskins. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post) (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
Columnist

The wheels had already come off by mid-December of last year. Jim Haslett had been there before. Sure as old linebacker joints throbbed on winter mornings, he knew he would lose his job as the defensive coordinator of a 3-13 grease fire.

See, Haslett was hired as head coach in New Orleans when the Saints finished 3-13 the year before. And Haslett moved on from New Orleans when he finished 3-13, after a Hurricane Katrina-devastating 2005. The symmetry in Washington last season was perfect — perfectly awful.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

When asked if one particular moment defined last season’s collapse, Haslett thought hard over the telephone eight months ago.

“Look, does it really matter?” he finally replied. “We’re all getting fired anyway.”

One of Haslett’s laments was his daughter Libby had accepted a volleyball scholarship to VCU in Richmond. He would have to move away for his next NFL job and see Libby play when he could. “I wished it had worked out here, I really do,” he said, resigned to his fate. “This is such a great place.”

The Post Sports Live crew offers bold predictions for the Redskins record, team MVP and more. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

Less than a month later, the defunct Florida Tuskers saved his job.

Maybe we should explain.

Relationships are everything in pro football. Beyond raw talent, who you know and who you work with still often defines your career ascent in the NFL.

It’s why Jay Gruden didn’t obsess over Haslett’s defense giving up more points than all but one other NFL team in 2013 when Dan Snyder made Gruden his seventh coach in 15 years. The numbers wouldn’t define Haslett to Gruden. They couldn’t.

Because they had history — Tusker history.

After the Arena League folded in 2009, Gruden agreed to become Haslett’s offensive coordinator and talent recruiter for a 6-0 team that lost in the United Football League’s inaugural title game the same year. When Haslett left to be the St. Louis Rams’ defensive coordinator a year later, “I told Jay I would help him get the head job,” he said, which Gruden did in 2010.

Sean McVay, now Washington’s 28-year-old offensive coordinator, was the quality control-wide receivers coach for the Tuskers.

The Post Sports Live crew offers bold predictions for the Washington Redskins season opener at the Houston Texans on Sunday. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

When wide receivers coach Ike Hilliard, special projects coach Bret Munsey and assistant strength and conditioning coach Chad Englehart are figured in, almost one-third of Washington’s 2014 staff coached under Haslett, Gruden or both for the Tuskers, part of a defunct league lasting three-plus seasons. (Kurt Beathard, son of Bobby Beathard, Joe Gibbs’s incomparable general manager during the Super Bowl years, was the Tuskers’ running backs coach in 2010.)

Beyond Bruce Allen’s Tampa connections that included Gruden, McVay and Hilliard, a between-NFL-jobs stop for Haslett and a virtual coaching apprenticeship for Jay ended up being the catalyst for an NFL staff.

“Once you work with somebody, and you feel good about them, it makes all the difference in the world,” Haslett said.

All the difference.

It’s still surreal to think Haslett survived a purge no other defensive coordinator with his numbers might have survived, that he’s actually still here.

“When Mike [Shanahan] was let go, there were seven or eight of us coaches waiting to see what happens,” he said. “We were in a limbo for a while. I talked to Bruce [Allen, the GM] a couple times, but I had no idea who they were going to hire.”

Essentially Lazarus with a headset, Haslett actually laughed when someone told him his return was a bigger upset than Auburn beating Alabama last season.

“Crazy league,” he said then. “Never seen anything like this before.”

When he spoke about it Monday afternoon, he added, “Anytime you’re 3-13 you expect [being fired] to happen — it’s kind of the nature of the business. I liked the area. My wife likes the area. I got a son now playing at Indiana, Pa. [Haslett’s alma mater]. But you know you’re still a football coach. If you don’t win, you move on.

“[Hiring Jay] just happened. They hired the perfect guy. And it’s turned out to be a great situation.”

The Post first reported last December that Shanahan’s micromanaging had usurped some of Haslett’s decision-making, including actual defensive calls that badly backfired — but for which the company man shouldered 100 percent of the blame.

DeAngelo Hall publicly exonerated his coach, but Haslett won’t talk about it. Shanahan gave him an NFL job when he had none, and that’s that. Still, this is genuinely his defense now.

Gruden has never had a head job at this level. McVay is the youngest coordinator in the NFL. Allen clearly gambled on people he knew and felt comfortable wouldn’t undermine him.

It’s even more reason why Haslett’s experience was needed. Now he needs to show his blitzing schemes are as contemporary now as they were when he was the NFL’s coach of the year with New Orleans in 2000.

Haslett’s only other coach of the year award came in 2009, when Gruden and McVay were on his staff, when the Florida Tuskers were refining the talents of three men who would become the game-day brain trust for an NFL franchise in need of new blood — a transfusion that resuscitated a defensive coordinator who was convinced he was done.

“I thought I was a goner — I think everybody did,” Haslett said soon after he learned he was officially returning. “Just goes to show you . . . ”

“Show you what?” he was asked then.

“I don’t know yet. I’ll think of something before the press conference.”

Looking back, something as simple as “Tusker Power, baby,” might have worked.

For more by Mike Wise,
visit washingtonpost.com/wise

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