Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett's "crazy" NFL odyssey

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 25, 2010; 11:40 PM

There is an easy way to describe Jim Haslett - "Crazy," defensive end Phillip Daniels said - and he is hardly one to debate the matter. "You're going to think I'm weird, but . . ." Haslett said one day, shortly before his first season as the Redskins' defensive coordinator began.

Weird? He was a skinny quarterback in high school, went to college to play basketball, and somehow bulked up enough to become an all-American defensive end. He entered the NFL as a second-round pick from little Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where, as former teammate Fred Smerlas said, "He must have horrified people."

He got in fights his first three days of training camp with the Buffalo Bills, and immediately started hazing the veterans, stealing their cars, messing with their heads. He ended up as the NFL's defensive rookie of the year.

What's weird about that?

"We had fun," Haslett said.

"You'd probably get arrested for a lot of the stuff we did now," said Smerlas, his frequent accomplice.

Haslett once bought a 65-acre farm - not for the horses and cows that resided there, but so his beloved dog, a blue Queensland heeler, could chase those horses and cows around. He once stepped on the head of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw - after Bradshaw's helmet had been jarred off. There were times when he would do or say anything.

"He says what he says," said former Pittsburgh linebacker Levon Kirkland, who played under Haslett from 1997-99. "He's going to tell you the truth - really, a lot of times, even in spite of himself."

Haslett returns Sunday to St. Louis, where the Redskins face the Rams. In 2006, Haslett served as the Rams' defensive coordinator, a job he says now he "probably shouldn't have ever took, because it was a baaaaaad football team." Four games into the 2008 season, Scott Linehan was fired, and Haslett became the Rams' head coach. His thoughts on that position: "I should've never took the head coaching job because it was a baaaaaad football team."

In so many ways, Haslett - 54-year-old father of three, dog lover, sports fan - is an ordinary football coach. His stint in Washington is the ninth of a typically itinerant coaching career. But he is far from typical, both by his nature and now by his experience. Of all his stops, from Sacramento to St. Louis, none touched Haslett's life like his time in New Orleans. The Saints have received credit for helping stitch together a city torn apart by Hurricane Katrina. But Sean Payton was not the coach then, and Drew Brees was not the quarterback.

From 2000, when he was the NFL's coach of the year - and the Saints won the first playoff game in franchise history - through 2005, Haslett was the head coach of the Saints. And thus, when disaster struck, he was the one who tried to hold his team together.

So you want a typical response on the Saints and New Orleans and inspiration and Katrina? Look to someone other than Jim Haslett.

"I was happy for a lot of people there," Haslett said of the Saints' Super Bowl win. "I was happy for Mr. [Tom] Benson [the team's owner], for the guys that were there when I was coaching there, for those people in the organization. They went through a lot, and they deserved it.

"The thing I don't like about it is when I hear [people] like Drew Brees talk about Katrina. He had no idea what those people went through. Those guys have no clue, because he was on the outside looking in. So don't talk about what it meant to the city. You have no clue."

Long before he became a coach, Haslett knew a bit about what football can mean to a city.

'A bastion of manhood'

Haslett grew up in Avalon, Pa., five miles up the Ohio River from Three Rivers Stadium, then the home of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was the oldest of six kids who shared a three-bedroom, one-bath house with their parents - a school custodian and a homemaker - two grandparents and three dogs. The Haslett household wasn't one of sit-down dinners and white linen. Jim and his brothers slept in the attic in the winter, outside in the summer.

"You didn't know what you didn't know," Haslett said. "It's not like we never had anything. We got everything we wanted."

Haslett headed to college not to pursue a career in pro football but to play basketball. Yet he bulked up too quickly, and so he became a safety for the football team, then a defensive end and linebacker. He thought he'd wind up as an elementary school teacher. He ended up as a four-time Little All-America selection, and then in the NFL.

In 1979, the Bills, where new coach Chuck Knox was trying to instill a nastiness, turned out to be the perfect fit for Haslett.

"It was just a bastion of manhood," Smerlas said. "We wanted to win. We wanted to take people out. We wanted to kill people."

Buffalo's training camp became the "Animal House" of the NFL. Haslett and Smerlas would lean 50-gallon jugs of water against a player's dorm-room door, knock, and die laughing when the door swung open and the flood began. They copped a master key that worked for every dorm room, and would stay up late, lurking in the hallways, waiting for a teammate to head to the bathroom. Then they'd sneak into the room, hide in the closet, wait for the teammate to tuck himself back in - and pounce, using knives as menacing props.

Somehow, they developed as football players, too. Every Tuesday, the players' day off in the NFL, Smerlas would wander through the team's facility. There he would find Haslett, watching game tape.

"He was a film rat," Smerlas said. "He'd be involved in game-planning. He'd call out adjustments. For a guy with such a small head, he was very, very smart."

Coaching, it would seem, was a natural.

"I didn't know if I wanted to coach," Haslett said.

"I can't believe he'd say that," Smerlas said. "I knew he'd be a coach."

Season of Katrina

Haslett married his wife, Beth, during his days in Buffalo, and he tried to prepare her for the path that lay ahead - the moves to Sacramento for a job in the old World League, to Los Angeles for his first job in the NFL, back to Pittsburgh, where he coordinated the Steelers' defense. Beth got good at it, packing up and fully relocating in six weeks or less, keeping the family together.

Nothing, though, could have prepared them for that fall of 2005. When Katrina struck, Beth gathered the three kids and the family dog and headed east to Pensacola, Fla., where the Hasletts have a beach place. Jim gathered the Saints and headed west to San Antonio, where the team would play most of its home games. Beth and the family were evacuated from Pensacola, and they ended up sharing a single hotel room with a family friend, her daughter and their two dogs.

"From a football perspective, it was obviously the worst possible thing that could happen to a football team," Haslett said, "because you had no way you could win any games."

The Saints started out 2-2, then lost 11 of their final 12. Each week, a new crisis emerged. Players came to Haslett saying they wanted to quit. Secretaries did quit. On Thanksgiving, the coaches' wives made it to San Antonio, and they tried to hold a proper holiday dinner for dozens in a two-bedroom apartment. The kids ate on one bed, the coaches on the floor, paper plates for all.

The strife in a football organization hardly compares to that suffered by a city. Still, Haslett had to address each team predicament as his own.

"Other coaches in that situation, I think they would've been more selfish than Haz was," said Redskins tackle Jammal Brown, a rookie offensive lineman for the Saints then. "But Haz kept it all in perspective for us. He had our comfort level in mind first. I think it's human nature when something like that happens to automatically look out for yourself. He didn't do that."

That doesn't mean he could endure it all.

"He was very sick at the end of that season," Beth Haslett said. "It was killing him. It was emotionally draining on the kids. I don't know if anyone will ever know how hard it was."

After the season, Haslett met with Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis, and they decided to part ways. "I was never fired," he said. Through a Saints spokesman, Loomis and Benson declined comment on that period in franchise history.

Both parties moved on - as much as they could. The Saints have recovered. The Hasletts, in some ways, are still working at it. Both Jim and Beth praised Benson as an owner, and both said they love the city of New Orleans. But on their one trip back, they scarcely left the hotel room.

"I think it's still raw for me," Beth Haslett said. "I think it's really unfair that there are people down there that, yes, they were there after the fact, and they've done a beautiful job. But they weren't there when it hurt the most. They didn't see that side of it. To act that way, like they saw it, is a little bit disrespectful to those other coaches that endured it all, that really, really wanted to succeed and were put in an impossible position."

Back for more in the 3-4

Done with New Orleans, and passed over for other head coaching jobs, Haslett thought he would take 2006 off. That didn't work. "I'm kind of hyper," he said. He tried a few TV appearances, but he sweat too much, hated the makeup and the sitting around. He needed to coach.

"He loves the game, the camaraderie part of it," Beth Haslett said.

So when Linehan offered a job, he took it. When he was dismissed by the Rams following a 2-14 2008 season, he thought, again, he might sit out a year. But the UFL's Florida Tuskers called, offered Haslett the head coaching job, and, "I had a blast. Everything they did was first-class."

He also formed a friendship with Mike Shanahan, the former Denver coach who himself was sitting out a year. The pair studied the 3-4 defense together, and when Shanahan was hired in Washington in January, he almost immediately hired Haslett.

Now, Haslett is instituting that 3-4 defense he knows so well. His players, who gave up 526 yards in last Sunday's overtime loss to Houston, are still adjusting to his scheme and his aggressive style. But there is, they say, universal respect - not in small measure because they know Haslett played.

"When you're out there and you're lining up, he's not unrealistic," veteran defensive lineman Vonnie Holliday said. "Some coaches that have never played the game, they have this idea of perfection. You strive for perfection, but it's not always going to be perfect. So he's not going to rip you for that stuff. He's like, 'I know what this is like. Try to get it done.' As a player, you can respect that."

Haslett is comfortable with the respect level he has engendered, both in the locker room and in the NFL. He has been a successful coordinator, become the NFL's coach of the year, and may one day be a head coach again. One thing gnaws at him, though.

"From the ultimate team goal, I've fallen short," Haslett said.

That, he said, is why he's in Washington, to win a Super Bowl. First, though, he was to gather this weekend with his family in their Missouri home, the one weekend Dad will be back. Beth planned a special dinner for Saturday night.

"I told the kids, when Dad's in the house, they will be in the house," Beth said.

Striving, at least for 24 hours, to be a typical family despite their atypical experiences, their atypical life, their atypical dad.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company