Redskins Branched Out in Search
As Fans Soured on Fassel, Brass Kept Coming Back to the Holmgren Tree

By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 11, 2008

On Thursday afternoon, after emerging from one of his initial staff meetings as the offensive coordinator of the Washington Redskins, Jim Zorn received word that team owner Daniel Snyder wanted to have lunch with him at his Potomac home. Zorn, shaken, began scrambling to prepare for inquires about the upcoming draft and free agency period, only to be asked instead by Snyder if he would like to interview for the vacant head coaching position.

"I was a bit taken back, if you will," Zorn, 54, said. "But not quite speechless, because the first words out of my mouth were, 'Certainly, I'd like to do that.' It was a bit shocking, and after that I just geared up and got my game face on."

That was the last twist in a 32-day saga that resulted in Zorn replacing Joe Gibbs only two weeks after being hired as the team's offensive coordinator and shocked the NFL world as well as Redskins players and coaches. Zorn's candidacy came about after New York Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo withdrew his name from consideration Wednesday morning following 28 hours of interviews, according to numerous sources who spoke to the parties involved in the hiring. He was the 10th and final person to meet with Snyder and executive vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato about the job -- and the only person offered it.

"We conducted a full search and ended up with the right guy," Snyder said during yesterday's news conference at which Zorn was introduced as Snyder's sixth head coach since the 2000 season.

On Wednesday, when Spagnuolo told the Redskins he was signing a new deal with the Giants, the team was left with Jim Fassel topping a list of remaining finalists who had met with them. The list also included Indianapolis defensive coordinator Ron Meeks and former 49ers and Lions coach Steve Mariucci. The negative fan reaction to their earlier courting of Fassel had soured Snyder and Cerrato on that option, so Wednesday afternoon they began to mull in-house candidates. Snyder and Cerrato discussed the merits of both coordinators -- Zorn and recently promoted defensive coordinator Greg Blache -- and, impressed with Zorn and believing him to a young coach on the rise, focused on him. Blache, 58, had been considering retirement before being promoted.

Spagnuolo's interviews also served to reaffirm some of their beliefs about Zorn, league sources said. Repeatedly, when questioned about his merits for the job, Spagnuolo mentioned that his relative lack of experience -- one year as an NFL coordinator -- was offset by his schooling and mentors. Spagnuolo, who spent eight seasons working with Coach Andy Reid in Philadelphia, stressed how Reid had risen from a quarterbacks coach directly to a head coach, and stressed the qualities of coaches from the Mike Holmgren tree. The words resonated with Snyder and Cerrato and they began to think more seriously about Zorn, who has never been a coordinator but spent seven years as Holmgren's quarterback coach in Seattle.

"That's when they really started considering [Zorn] as a head coach," said a source with knowledge of the situation. "They didn't feel good about the public reaction to Fassel and they kept coming back to the Holmgren tree. You could trace Zorn right back to Mike."

Zorn headed to Snyder's home Thursday -- where almost all the candidates for the head coaching vacancy were interviewed -- and, after agreeing to interview, he returned to Redskins Park. Snyder told him, "Let's do this right," according to sources, and Zorn rummaged through his office, which he was still setting up, to find a suit and tie. He returned to Snyder's home for a long session, and spent most of Friday with Snyder and Cerrato as well, drawing the attention of several people around Redskins Park who noticed his office vacant.

That evening Snyder sent a plane to Seattle to pick up Zorn's family and he met with them until after midnight, with the sides agreeing on a three-year deal with club options for 2011 and 2012. On Saturday Zorn was back at Redskins Park in business attire to sign.

"When we were talking about offensive coordinators, as each coach [to interview for the head coaching job] came in, he was a name that was on everybody's list," Cerrato said. "It was a name that came back and all the people we talked to -- we talked to a lot of people, probably 50-60 people about Jim Zorn -- there was not one negative comment from anybody. Fabulous coach, great guy, great teacher. He had a plan. Every question and every situation he was prepared for."

Cerrato was one of Zorn's strongest supporters throughout the process, league sources said, becoming enamored with his work when Cerrato was a college scout with the San Francisco 49ers and Zorn was at the University of Minnesota. Snyder was quickly impressed during Zorn's interview for the offensive coordinator position Jan. 23, leaping at the chance when Seattle permitted the Redskins to interview him. (Snyder called Zorn one of the league's "very smart, upcoming offensive minds"). The Redskins offered him the coordinator job following that interview -- a three-year deal with no out clause for a head coaching job in the first year, sources said -- but he declined at that time, with Snyder and Cerrato telling him either Gregg Williams, Meeks or Fassel would be his head coach.

"I was a bit uncomfortable about that," Zorn said of his hesitance.

Two days later the sides struck a deal. Zorn had hoped to be in line for an offensive coordinator job in Seattle, with Holmgren in his final year before retirement, but the Seahawks were working on a deal for Jim Mora, who had taken himself out of contention for the Redskins job. League sources said Mora prefers Oakland assistant Greg Knapp as his future coordinator, leaving Zorn with fewer options for advancement in Seattle. At the time, Zorn could never have imagined he would end up leading a franchise before Mora coached Seattle, and yesterday was still trying to grasp his new title.

"It's quite miraculous for me to even say," Zorn said.

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