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Blazing New Trails
Jim Zorn Has Tackled BMX Racing, Mountain Climbing and Competitive Kayaking, But as Head Coach of the Redskins, He May Be Facing His Toughest Adventure of All

By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 20, 2008

SEATTLE As the dying rays of the evening sun drop behind the Olympic Mountains, a light goes on in a studio of a little public radio station down on Dexter Avenue. The night belongs to DJ Riz. And the music he sends into the inky sky flows in curious ways: from funk to soul to jazz to Neil Diamond to Death Cab for Cutie to places he will not know because DJ Riz has no playlist, no boundaries. The howl of the wind and the splatter of the rain will take the beat where it needs to go.

And so they are together again in that late-night darkness: the new coach of the Washington Redskins and his favorite radio voice. Midnight looms, the office back at Redskins Park is still, just Jim Zorn, a computer and the vibe, flowing smooth through desktop speakers. There is something pure about the night beat, something without barriers or prejudice. It is free, just as the coach likes music to be.

"I'd say he is really an excellent, excellent DJ," Zorn says.

Once, the coach was a DJ himself. It was in his playing days when he was the quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks, leading the franchise to the brink of the playoffs in only its third season and every play seemed to be an improvisation with Zorn scrambling in desperation, a step from disaster, suddenly flinging a pass to a magically open Steve Largent. They were the faces of the Pacific Northwest then, with Zorn driving Largent to the games from the Holiday Inn in nearby Issaquah, Wash., over the floating bridge in the VW bug he bought in high school as Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" spilled from the cassette deck and the quarterback howled along to the words.

A jazz station of low wattage and even smaller ratings called KJZZ ("Kayyyy Jaaazzzzzzzzzz" Zorn intones) hired him to host a show in which he talked sports and played songs. The problem was Zorn wasn't much interested in talking sports or playing the music he was assigned, choosing instead to bring in records from his voluminous home collection that seem to cover just about every genre possible.

Soon, Zorn's career as a disc jockey was over, but not without the experience of another adventure attempted. Just like the competitive kayaking, or the mountain climbing, or the sky diving, or the television commentating, or the pottery making, or the BMX racing, or the competitive collegiate badminton, or any of the other dozens of experiments he has undertaken in his life that prompt his wife, Joy, to laugh and call him her "Renaissance man."

Then, this past winter, he was presented with the greatest experiment of all: the chance to be an NFL head coach. And Saturday, the Redskins reported to training camp with him at the helm. This despite the fact that the closest he had been to such a job was a decade of tutoring quarterbacks for the Detroit Lions and the Seahawks. Nonetheless, it was the position he secretly pined for, never campaigning, not even hiring an agent, somehow figuring that someday it would come simply because he was good at what he does.

Zorn is standing, at this moment, on the side of Tiger Mountain, a rise of considerable elevation about halfway between Seattle and the Cascade Mountains. In a few days, the movers will come to take his family's things to the new house in Great Falls. But for now, he is leaning on two walking poles, staring up a mud-splattered hiking path that disappears deep into the trees.

As a player, he used to ride mountain bikes up here with a friend who owned a bicycle shop. This was before the mountain-bike craze, and the bikes were bulky things with fat wheels. But he and his friend recklessly thundered over the mountain's paths, oblivious to the career-ending danger that loomed one blind jump over a log away. Once, they even chased the fresh blood of a wounded animal until they found a cougar nursing a cut paw near the peak.

Now, Zorn walks the mountain. Of course, his definition of "walk" is very different from most. At approximately 7 in the morning, he had pulled into the parking lot near the trail's entrance in a silver Audi with a bicycle rack on the roof, and Joy and two of his adult daughters, Sarah and Danielle, in the back. They jumped out, grabbed the walking poles from the back of the car and without even stretching, said a few pleasantries. They then began to walk in long, fast strides up the path until, within seconds, they were completely gone. Zorn himself plunged after them, the click, click, click of his poles growing fainter in the wilderness, until he realized his guests could not keep up. So he stopped and rested against his poles, marveling at how often he is recognized on the streets of Virginia as the new coach of the Redskins.

Perhaps it is because of his lack of head coaching experience or maybe that he is working for an owner who has had six coaches in the past eight years, but he notes an odd tone from these well-wishers. They say "good luuuuck?" like it is a question, almost -- he has decided -- as if they are really saying "no way."

Zorn laughs. Then, looking around, he suddenly appears struck by how this must look -- the unknown, untested new coach of the Redskins standing on a mountain with poles in his hands discussing the intricacies of DJ Riz's musical selections, deciding he likes the amplified electronics and not so much the dance grooves -- when his face begins to cloud.

"This could come out cheesy," he says.

Because no matter how much Zorn must seem like most to be an iconoclast in the regimented world of pro football, an old left-handed quarterback who never lost his zaniness, he is devoted to this job. And because he never campaigned for such a role or begged for the opportunity, it doesn't mean he never stopped secretly preparing to one day do it.

Which is why he was so ready that afternoon when he was with the Lions and the offensive coordinator, Sylvester Croom, turned up sick just before game time and Detroit's coach, Bobby Ross, gave Zorn a look of panic. Zorn simply sat down right there in the locker room and, for 30 minutes, patiently finalized the team's offense for that game and then guided it with such ease that other coaches on the staff gazed in wonder.

"I don't think I am a goofball, but because I have different interests I might come across as somebody who is not serious," he later says, off the mountain and sitting with Joy outside a coffee shop down the road from his Mercer Island, Wash., home. "I think what I do has meaning, real meaning. We all want to make a mark and I'm serious about making my mark, but I know that I have to do it in a unique way because I've got to be true to who I am."

Not long after quarterback Trent Dilfer came to the Seahawks in 2001, somewhat cynical about a then-seven-year career in which he had received more than his share of blame for seasons gone wrong, Seattle Coach Mike Holmgren came into a quarterbacks meeting and berated Dilfer for a play that didn't work. As Dilfer absorbed Holmgren's wrath, Zorn, new to the Seahawks and to Holmgren, cut his fuming boss off in mid-sentence and said, "I called that play."

"You never see that in a coach," Dilfer later told a friend who asked not to be identified, fearful of incurring Holmgren's rage for revealing the anecdote.

Zorn's words are so true, so honest that any attempt to search for the positive in a player's shoddy performance often draws guffaws from the player himself. "He is the worst liar I have ever met in my life," Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck says.

Zorn, a born-again Christian, also does not swear. Never. Anywhere. Not even in the coaches' booth when the quarterback makes the wrong read and throws an interception that is returned for a touchdown.

At home, he never raises his voice around his four kids. If he does, he has to pay that child $1 and give Joy $20. On the field, he has always played games with his players, throwing passes in practices or organizing competitions in which quarterbacks must throw a ball into a trash can 30 yards away in the corner of the end zone. Currently, he has a running contest with Redskins cornerback Fred Smoot as to how many touchdown passes he can throw to a receiver that Smoot is covering on those days Zorn decides to step in at quarterback.

Too Nice?

There exists in football a notion that such coaches cannot survive. It is, after all, a sport of rules, and most schools of thought demand that head coaches keep a healthy distance from their players. No coach wants to be known as being too close to his team. Those deemed too nice tend not to last.

"How do you know I'm all that nice?" Zorn asks.

Joy insists her husband can be difficult. For instance, she points out that he is an impatient driver who gets frustrated when people don't drive fast enough in front of him.

"I think people form an impression of Jim because he's friendly," she says. "But they won't really get to know him because he'll only get to let you know him a certain degree until he trusts you."

And because Zorn is so honest, so sincere, so decent, it seems to trouble him when people are not the same in return.

He can still recall, vividly, the day at training camp more than 20 years ago when, as a player in Seattle, a local writer spent much of a lunch hour interviewing him about Christianity, wondering how his faith molded him as both a person and a player. When they were done, Zorn was met at the bottom of a staircase by a group of kids asking for his autograph. As Zorn signed, the writer suddenly appeared from under the stairs, looking at Zorn in such a way that to this day the quarterback is certain the man was hiding in the stairwell to see if Zorn was truly the man he said he was and would stop to talk to the children.

"I don't think he set the kids up, but he said, 'Okay, I'm going to see, ah ha,' " Zorn says, his voice still tinged with surprise three decades later. "And he came out looking at me like, 'Uh huh, so you passed thaaaat test.' And I'll always remember that it was kind of interesting, as if how I was going to respond in that moment was going to solidify who I was for him. Now I was on the fortunate side of it. But it also wouldn't have reflected who I was . . . if I had just walked away [from the kids] and said, 'I can't do anything now.' "

Zorn believes if he treats his players with respect, they will reciprocate with their best efforts. This has always worked with the quarterbacks he coached and who ultimately gave him some of the finest performances of their careers, players such as Charlie Batch in Detroit, where Zorn coached in the late 1990s, and Hasselbeck and Dilfer years later with the Seahawks. "He treats you like a man," says Sherman Smith, a friend and former Seattle teammate who is now Zorn's offensive coordinator with the Redskins.

It is a concept that has backfired on many NFL head coaches, but in many of those cases, the coaches who treated their players like men didn't back it up with truthfulness.

And perhaps because Zorn is so curious about so many things, this makes him a good teacher. He has so much enthusiasm for what he has learned built up inside that he wants to spill it all out on his players.

"There's a biblical principle that talks about being clay in the potter's hands," Zorn says. "But to be clay in the potter's hands, you have to be formed. So you have to have pliability, you have to be formed. Clay has to have moisture in it so it can be manipulated. That's a great analogy for a future NFL star and all these guys playing the game. We're trying to bring out the best in them, and the ones who aren't so rigid will understand.

"Players will trust each other. So the idea is the veteran players will have a lot of respect over the younger players that come in. And they'll listen to the veteran players. The veteran players can smell a rat quicker because they've been around it for a while. They can whiff the air and sense what's being thrown out there to them. So I guess my point is you can earn the trust of a veteran player."

Only Zorn's closest friends knew how much he wanted to be a head coach. He was never comfortable with the maneuvering normally required to attain the position, and he hoped his body of work in Detroit and Seattle, as well as previous stops at the University of Minnesota, Boise State and Utah State, would stand out so much that hiring him was a must.

Largent would chide him by saying, "That's not how it works," and urged him to hire an agent. Zorn always resisted.

"I knew what the formula was: be a coordinator in the NFL, and I was heading towards that, but the thing that was always frustrating was, What was the formula for becoming a head football coach?" Zorn says.

Then, in an instant, the answer came unexpectedly when the Redskins were asking him to interview for their offensive coordinator job even though they still hadn't hired a head coach. And when Zorn dazzled owner Daniel Snyder and executive vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato, they wondered if perhaps he was the one they were looking for to be their head coach. So on his second day of work, they pulled Zorn out of a meeting, took him to Snyder's Potomac home and asked him to interview again, with no time to prepare, for the job of a lifetime.

Cerrato sat behind a giant book that contained 150 questions in chronological order, beginning with who Zorn would hire as assistant coaches and continuing through situations that might arise during the year. Zorn's answers were sharp and well thought out. He had a plan even if he hadn't been given time to devise one.

"I think the answer that impressed me the most was when we asked him how he was going to use the extra minicamp this year," Cerrato says, referring to the additional minicamp granted to teams with new head coaches. "He said, 'I'm not going to use it because we have the early preseason [Hall of Fame] game and a longer training camp. I'm not going to have as many [organized team activities] either.'

"It just kind of shocked me that he had thought that far ahead," Cerrato said. "Especially because he had just found out about the interview earlier in the day. It said he had been thinking about this for a long time."

The next afternoon, they offered him the job.

Negotiations did not take long. Without an agent, Zorn cut the deal himself in about an hour, just as he negotiated his offensive coordinator's contract several days before in less than 30 minutes.

"I wasn't trying to be rough and tough, and it wasn't about [Snyder] being rough and tough," Zorn said. "I always tell players not to worry about your first contract, you have to establish yourself. If you are a good enough player, you will be rewarded. And I think Dan Snyder has a reputation for being fair. It wasn't really a matter of seeing how low he could go."

The Conversion

He found God because of a girl. This was in high school in the Los Angeles suburb of Artesia, where Zorn was a surfer and a skateboarder who stumbled into football because it seemed like something fun to try to became the quarterback when the team had no one else to play the position.

Then, in his junior year, his girlfriend dumped him, telling him that she wanted to date a Christian boy. Zorn was perplexed. What was she talking about? He was a Christian. He went to church on Easter. Determined to win her back, he started attending the meetings of the campus Christian group then trying "to act out what Christians are supposed to be like."

"And then it hit me across the side of the head like a big 2-by-4: 'You are not really Christian,' " he said. " 'You have been saying this all your life that you believed in God and that was one thing, but the Bible talks about following Christianity in a different light. It talks about following Christ -- those principles, those teaching and believing that to be true and to be gospel.' "

From then on, religion became the foundation of Zorn's life. He went to church, he prayed, he did Bible study, he formed friendships with Christian players through college at Cal Poly Pomona and in the NFL. When he went undrafted in 1975, he signed with the Dallas Cowboys because he knew Coach Tom Landry was a Christian, and he wanted to know what it was like to play for one.

But as he sits here at the coffee shop on Mercer Island, explaining his beliefs, his brow furrows a bit.

"The battle is, how far do we go with this in interviews?" Zorn says. "How far do we go with this as who I am as a person, and how far do we go with this as far as who I am as a head coach? That's where things can get risky in the story."

He is asked what he means.

"Because people don't want to be excluded from their beliefs," he replies. "What's so wrong with their beliefs? And I say nothing."

There's an incident that bothers him. He remembers a kicker missing an important field goal and later justifying the mistake by saying, "It was God's will."

Zorn shakes his head. "Whoa!" he says. "Earth to player. Don't ever say that. Why would you say that? I don't think that's a statement that has any logic. A lot of people would say in tragedies, 'Oh, that's God's will,' and maybe it is. But that doesn't mean we have to resign ourselves to the fact. It takes the motivation out of everything. 'Well, that's the way it's supposed to be. Why don't we just sit around?' "

His faith is why some felt he would be a good fit for Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell. Like Hasselbeck, Dilfer and Brock Huard -- quarterbacks who Zorn had success with in Seattle -- Campbell is a Christian. The thought has been that if there was anyone who can get the most out of Campbell, it is Zorn, who has done the same with every other gifted passer he has worked with.

Holmgren, who is something of a mentor to Zorn, has encouraged Zorn to spend the bulk of his time with the quarterbacks. It is what he knows best. Holmgren said the same thing to Snyder when the owner, after hiring Zorn as head coach, gushed into the phone, "What did you think?"

"They have a very good football team, with a young quarterback," Holmgren says. "And I told Dan, 'You make sure he's doing that and not worrying so much about something else.' "

There are some inside the Seahawks organization who see Zorn as naive -- a wonderful man, a great quarterbacks coach, but also too decent for what he is about to undertake. They worry about all the Redskins' coaching changes and that he does not have the political instincts to survive with Snyder and Cerrato.

"Jim's a great guy, but he's swimming with sharks," one Seahawks official says.

Still, there are close friends, people who know him well, who shake their heads. No, they say, he is much more aware of everything than some might think.

"He is not naive," says Redskins special teams coach Danny Smith, who worked with Zorn in Detroit and is a friend. "He sees the whole picture. I think the reason people say that about him is that Jim thinks outside the box. Jim thinks things through and mulls decisions and stays on an even keel. You know, everyone gets so narrow-minded."

Zorn has only affection for Snyder. Joy agrees. Both of them rave about how kind and helpful the owner has been. Zorn has been told by many friends to be careful with Snyder, but Zorn's style has always been to judge people by how they are with him. Snyder has been good, more than good. It is all Zorn has to go by. He says, like many have said, that Snyder wants desperately to win. Zorn wants this, too.

He remembers how the coaches he worked for -- Ross in Detroit and Holmgren in Seattle -- both came to crossroads a few years into their tenures. Ross was fired, Holmgren was kept, and three years later went to the Super Bowl. He said he wants to believe that if the same issue were to arise in Washington, Snyder will do what Paul Allen, the Microsoft co-founder who owns the Seahawks did, and choose to be patient.

And make this the greatest adventure of all.

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