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A conversation with Sean Payton

2012 Silver Anniversary Award recipient

Sean Payton, the coach of the Super Bowl XLIV Champion New Orleans Saints, is an Eastern Illinois Athletics Hall of Fame inductee who still holds four single-season records, four career records and three individual game records there. Prior to becoming head coach of the Saints, Payton served as an assistant coach for NFL and collegiate teams and played in the NFL, Arena Football League and Canadian Football League. Payton created the Play It Forward Foundation to raise funds for families in need. The 2006 NFL Coach of the Year was a key figure in helping to revitalize the Saints and the city of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

The Silver Anniversary Award recognizes former student-athletes and distinguished individuals on the 25th anniversary of the conclusion of their college athletics careers. Payton and fellow recipients Tim Brown, Doris Burke, Kevin Johnson, Amy Perko and David Robinson will be honored January 13, 2012 during the NCAA Convention in Indianapolis.

Question: Referring to your time at Eastern Illinois what would you say was your top academic achievement?

Sean Payton: Finding my niche in the Communications department…having a chance to really force yourself to speak more publicly in debate sessions, public speaking classes, TV/Radio. Those are some things that at the time you don’t realize it, but in what I do now, have been extremely helpful. I don’t know that you ever get completely comfortable and used to speaking in front of large audiences. I think there are always kind of those pre-game jitters, if you will. I think at that early age I began to learn to do that and prepare to do that and come up with maybe somewhat of a style or organization on how you want to get a point across. I think if you ask what is most applicable that I use today, what was most important, it would be those specific areas of public speaking, of communicating clearly in front of a team, in front of a convention, a business group. That’s helped me a lot.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about how much (former Eastern Illinois football coach Al Molde) influenced Coach Payton?

SP: I think the one aspect that influenced me from Al Molde – the one thing that I took from him outside of his offense or his defense or the way he coached the team – was he was a guy that was pretty steady and I think that he handled adversity just as well as he handled success. I think as a young student-athlete you saw that and you knew that he was very consistent and that you weren’t going to get the extremes. I find myself after big wins or after difficult losses being more in the middle and not overreacting, if you will, and it’s helped me a lot because really throughout life leaving college there are going to be those hurdles that clear and there are going to be some hurdles that you don’t clear. It’s just as important that you handle those with the same grace and the same manner and the same challenge and work ethic in getting better. I think that’s one area that I would say Al was very good at.

NCAA Silver Anniversary Award honoree Sean Payton shares how his college experiences shaped his views on community service.

Q: How would you say that your experience as a student-athlete taught you to be a leader?

SP: …Number one, the position that I played (quarterback) was one in which there was leadership required. Not all of it did I arrive with on campus. In fact, I believe strongly that we are constantly in a position to become better leaders and can learn that skill. Some of it is inborn; some of it was how you were raised by your parents. But when you’re the quarterback of a football team and eventually you step into the huddle or in front of your team, they have to see someone who put in the time, the work, the commitment and all those things to follow. Some are more vocal than others, some are less vocal, but that work ethic and that time commitment to be excellent is where I think it begins.

I think that discipline is something that I know helped me later in my career. I know it helped me in the job-seeking business in regards to interviews. I know it helped me in regards to dealing with adversity depending on what team I was with. Clearly, it’s helped me now as a head coach of the New Orleans Saints. The confidence that you gain when you are a student-athlete in college, especially when you have success, carries with you the rest of your life…

As a head coach now in the NFL, I understand some of the delicate matters that come up within the framework of a team and I’m not afraid to continue to ask for advice or seek advice or seek ways to become a better leader. I think the minute you feel like you’ve arrived and your skill set is done, I think you have a problem. I think that’s no different than the teacher who’s constantly looking at ways to improve their methods as a teacher. That’s what we do as coaches – we’re constantly teaching and inspiring. I think that is pretty exciting, at least for me. That goes back to the successes and the lessons learned as a leader at Eastern Illinois and that’s something I think you improve on each year.

Q: Talk about the Payton’s Play It Forward Foundation.

SP: …It’s grown each year. We’re north of 2.5 million dollars in monies raised given back in a short period of time and that’s something that we’re proud of. You can make a difference on the field and winning a Super Bowl, and helping give the fans something that hopefully that entertains them on Sunday, but when you can actually see a gymnasium floor put down, or you can actually see a field fixed, or a classroom fixed or money to pay for police vehicles, then you begin to realize that it certainly is past football, and we’re in a position to do that.
…I think Payton’s Play It Forward Foundation is a great way for us to say thank you to our fans.