Sean Payton’s news conference declaring his everlasting fidelity to the Saints had ended a few minutes earlier, and on the other side of Airline Highway, at the Winn-Dixie, Mario Hernandez’s smile as he emerged from the Winn-Dixie with his first king cake purchases of the season said all you needed to know about how he felt.
“I’m tickled pink,” Hernandez said. “We’ve got a great coach who’s the best thing that’s ever happened to this city.
“What he said came from the heart. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a coach speak the way he did today.”
You often hear coaches in such situations talk about their feelings for their players as their reason for staying. And despite the transient nature of the NFL, Payton has repeatedly expressed how much he admires the attitude and character of the ones he had this season.
Or maybe it’s the people they work for and with. Payton certainly has every reason for loyalty to Tom Benson for sticking with him through Bountygate. The relationship with Mickey Loomis has withstood the trials and tribulations of a decade together as well, and with the exception of a defensive coordinator or two, he and his coaching staff are tight.
But seldom do you hear a coach talk about his affection for his adopted community and its people as Payton did.
“I never take for granted our fan base and how supportive they’ve been,” he said at one point during his nearly hour- long appearance. “Someone said this to me when I moved here in ’06: There’s something about this city, and you hear that initially, and look, there was a lot back then that was uniquely different because of post-Katrina. But there is something unique and different.
“I can’t put my finger on it. I mean, I drive through a pothole every day like you guys do, and get upset. When the water is down in a certain parish, I have to come here to shower, just like everyone else might have to go somewhere else. And yet it grows on you, and it is home.”
Now it may have been that after all was said and done, Payton determined that his best option — and we don’t how many, if any, others, he had — was to stay put and that the best way to dispel the notion that he was eying another opportunity before his standing as one of the game’s elite coaches was further tarnished was to say that all he wants is to be in Black & Gold for life.
If so, the performance he gave Wednesday while if not Oscar-worthy was at least worth a Golden Globe nomination.
Especially to a city and its surrounding environs who can always use an attaboy other than praise for its food and music.
And it really has impact when it’s coming from someone who is from elsewhere and who has been the subject of rumors that he was headed elsewhere — mostly Dallas — since after that first season when the Saints made an unexpected trip to the NFC Championship Game and helped lift us out of our post-Katrina funk.
But even though Payton made a passing reference to the fact that Loomis’ asking price would have been too much for any suitor, let’s take him at his word for what he said Wednesday. Or at least with the tiniest grain of salt.
Most fans did.
“He’s a good person, nice and approachable and not too standoffish,” said Terrance Brown of Geismar, who was attending Wednesday’s Pelicans game. “He really does appreciate the fan support.”
And as for what Payton said about New Orleans: “He didn’t have to invest himself in the city like he has, but that makes us love him even more. Even Jerry Jones doesn’t have enough money to get him away from us.”
But the Cowboys owner’s appearance in New Orleans Tuesday night — apparently for an evening of enjoying the cultural attractions of the French Quarter — was enough to make anxious Who Dat hearts palpitate with the idea he was here to attempt a last-minute poaching of our coach.
That’s another part of the equation.
We seem obsessed with the idea that our teams are going to be taken away from us at a moment’s notice.
It’s existed ever since Tom Benson supposedly prevented a move to Jacksonville when he purchased the Saints in 1985.
It grew to near-paranoia during Benson’s flirtation with San Antonio after Katrina (maybe with good reason), and the recent suggestion that Benson sell both the Saints and Pelicans fired the notion for some that the teams would be put on eBay or something, and Rita LeBlanc would be there with the moving vans the next day.
Transfer that fear to the team’s Super Bowl-winning coach was departing — and don’t forget the likelihood that Drew Brees wouldn’t be far behind – and you can understand the relief that went around the area Wednesday.
No matter that the Saints have had two straight losing seasons after being picked to win their division in both years.
In most cities that gets you run out of town.
Here, hope always spring eternal. It certainly beats having to start over.
“It wasn’t his fault the defense wasn’t any good,” another Winn-Dixie customer, Olivia Dutrey of Metairie, said in defense of Payton. “I just don’t think he had any control over that.
“We’re going be OK.”
Perhaps it’s that notion — beyond Payton’s professed love for all things New Orleans that had so many people happy Wednesday.
Things are going to be OK.
“There will be more moments. There will be more wins. There will be more playoffs,” he promised.
Throw in another Super Bowl or two and Payton will have the most-cynical among us won over.