If you looked at Sean Payton’s search history, last night would show a Google query for “how not to cry during a speech.”
After 15 seasons as head coach of the New Orleans Saints, Payton announced at a press conference today that he is stepping down, effective immediately.
In a farewell speech that was filled with thank yous to Saints ownership, gratuitous trips down memory lane, and sentiments of appreciation for the fans and the city, Payton expressed that he’s taking a step back from football for the foreseeable future. But he doesn’t want to use the word “retirement.”
“I don’t know what’s next, and that kind of feels good,” he said. “We’re not writing an obituary today. It’s a step, just in a new direction.”
This decision certainly didn’t come lightly to him, but he’s giving himself time to figure out what comes next. He said that he “still has a vision” for doing things in football, whether that may be as a radio or television personality (“I think I’d be pretty good at that”) or even as a coach again.
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“I felt the time was right,” he said when asked why he chose this year to leave. “There’s a lot of sacrifices you make. Not many get to choose their terms.”
When it comes to his future in coaching, though, he’s not giving fuel to any particular rumors — Payton told the gathered reporters that coaching “isn’t where my heart is at right now,” and that he does not plan to coach in 2022. He expressed a good deal of interest in taking on a TV role, but said that he hasn’t talked to any networks or anything of the like.
He expressed gratitude to players, coaches, janitorial staff, members of the media, and everyone else that he could think of on that podium. He gifted Saints owner Gayle Benson a king cake in the spirit of Ted Lasso, and told the crowd that he had “about a hundred of them for everyone here to celebrate the Mardi Gras season.”
Payton first came to New Orleans in 2006, shortly after Hurricane Katrina had decimated the city. By his own admission, he didn’t know how to eat a crawfish and was “eh” on the beignets. But after signing free agent quarterback Drew Brees, the new coach turned the Saints around completely, leading the franchise to their first ever NFC championship in his first season. Brees retired just last year, and Payton said that he called to consult him on his decision to step down.
“No one was tougher than that ‘06 team,” he said. “That was when I thought, holy cow, this is more than football.”
He led the Saints to the team’s first and only Super Bowl victory in history in 2009. The team appeared in three NFC championship games during his tenure. Ten of his 15 seasons saw the Saints finish with a winning record, and nine ended in a playoff berth. He is the most successful coach in Saints football history.
“My mom talked about leaving a place better than it was when you got there, and I think we’ve done that,” he said. “It’s easy to say you’re proud of a Super Bowl team, but I’m most proud of the culture.”
Kevin James is starring in a film about Payton’s 2012 suspension that will be released later this week, titled Home Team. Payton and the Saints organization were accused of offering bonuses to players who injured members of the opposing team, known as “Bountygate.”
One gets the impression that he’s come to comfortable terms with his decision — despite the nostalgic and emotional nature of the press conference, the 58-year-old coach is ready to part ways with the Saints and look for his next opportunity. Before his announcement today, Payton had the second-longest single-team tenure of active coaches in the NFL, behind only Bill Belicheck.
His biggest regret? A 2007 double-reverse play against Tampa Bay that cost them the game.