When the New Orleans Saints begin the preseason in the Hall of Fame game Sunday night in Canton, Ohio, Joe Vitt will begin his second tenure as an interim head coach in the NFL.
He’s an unlikely candidate for such a position, primarily because he’s one of the few assistants that never had aspirations of being a head coach in the pros or in college.
At the same time, though, he’s well-suited for the position. Vitt is a football “lifer” who, from the moment he got his first NFL job in 1979, knew he didn’t want to do anything else.
Vitt, who turns 58 on Aug. 23, stepped in when Sean Payton got a season-long suspension for misleading investigators looking into a bounty program that Commissioner Roger Goodell said Saints defenders participated in from 2009-11.
Like Payton, Vitt was found to be complicit in the bounty scheme run by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and was suspended for the first six games of the regular season.
Vitt, who in 2010 was widely reported to have been one of the Saints employees that was the subject of an investigation into the theft of Vicodin from the team’s training room though he was never named by law enforcement officials, will be in charge for the preseason and final 10 regular-season games.
Although it’s a position he accepted reluctantly, Vitt, the Saints assistant head coach/linebackers coach, said he knows he has a huge responsibility to carry on in his close friend’s absence and do his best to guide a team that has won 41 games in the past three seasons.
Beneath a gruff exterior, which he often displays on the practice field and to reporters, Vitt has shown a softer side — especially when it comes to talking about the task he faces in leading the team in Payton’s place.
“I will tell you this: there is a huge hole in my chest, personally and professionally, because I’m not around him,” Vitt said when asked about Payton before training camp. “I’m not going to lie to you. … I miss him.
“But because of the respect we have for Sean, and the only thing he asked us to do was to do our jobs, that is what we are going to do. The next time we see him, I hope he’s going to be proud of us for the job we have done and we haven’t let him down.”
That’s the side of Vitt the players often see in their meeting room, veteran linebacker Scott Shanle said.
Shanle has been around Vitt for six years after being acquired in a trade with the Dallas Cowboys. He describes Vitt as a true leader and motivator, fiery and demanding when he has to be, but funny and compassionate as well.
“We definitely see the business side of Joe out here (at practice),” Shanle said. “Still, our linebackers room is one of the best I’ve been around.”
Vitt is one of the reasons, right up there with not wanting to leave a team that had Drew Brees as its quarterback, Shanle decided against signing with the Kansas City Chiefs when he was an unrestricted free agent in 2011.
“I thought about it, and figured it would be tough to leave,” Shanle said. “I enjoy having Joe as our coach, and I enjoy the family atmosphere he brings to the locker room. He gets the guys to buy into the accountability, the family atmosphere, the trust in one another.”
While it’s likely you’re going to incur the wrath of Vitt at some point in any given day, Shanle also pointed out his playful side — like when former teammate Scott Fujita kept a list of obscure words Vitt used during daily meetings in an apparent attempt to impress the players.
“We would be in a meeting, and he would throw out a word you wouldn’t hear in everyday language,” Shanle said. “It would be like the word of the day. He would say it and then pause for effect, like he was saying, ‘Did you hear that word?’
“Everybody got a chuckle out of it and Scott would write the word down in a notebook. He tallied them all up at the end of the season and we messed around with Joe. He got a good laugh out of it.”
His vast knowledge of the game, combined with the fact that he’s known as a player’s coach, are the things that have kept Vitt around all these years.
He’s also a survivor off the field, beating cancer in 1978 and 1986.
After a four-year career as an undersized linebacker at Towson State in Maryland, Vitt dreamed of playing in the NFL.
But his first bout with cancer scuttled his plans for a tryout and he was hired by Ted Marchibroda in 1979 to be the Baltimore Colts strength and conditioning coach.
To Vitt, coaching was just as good as playing.
“In those four years at Towson, I didn’t know what else I was going to do with my life that was going to take the place of football,” he said. “So when reality sets in and you know you can’t play pro football, coaching is the next best thing.”
The three seasons in Baltimore would be the first of eight NFL coaching stops for Vitt, a native of Syracuse, N.Y., who grew up in New Jersey.
He went on to work for Chuck Knox, Dick Vermeil, Mike Martz, Ray Rhodes and Mike McCormack before becoming a member of the first staff Payton assembled when he was hired by the Saints in 2006.
“The only reason I’ve lasted 34 years in the National Football League is the great head coaches I’ve worked for and wonderful players I have coached,” Vitt said. “I have been so blessed to have worked for such great people and coached these wonderful players.
“That’s really been my secret. There’s no unique quality that I’ve brought to the table. It’s just working with good people and coaching good people. What a great career choice I made. … I love it.”
Vitt’s other stint as an interim coach came in 2005, when he was with the St. Louis Rams. Martz was diagnosed with a viral infection in his heart that forced him to step aside five games into the season.
Vitt took over and went 4-7 the rest of the way, but said he didn’t really want to be considered for the job when Martz was dismissed at the end of the season.
“At the end of the day, being a head coach wasn’t something I thought was going to bring me happiness,” Vitt said. “I always loved the teaching part of the (linebacker) position — taking a unit into the meeting room and making them better. I love the one-on-one part of it.”
At the same time, Vitt didn’t hesitate when owner Tom Benson, General Manager Mickey Loomis and Payton approached him about taking over.
“In the period we were going through at the time,” Vitt said, “anything that was going to help this football team I was firmly ready to do and prepared to do.
“I hope I’m a team guy. I’ve said this before, but I’m just a spoke on the wheel we have here. That’s all I am, and I’m grateful to be a part of that.”
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