Building a Champion

How Mickey Loomis ’79 built a Super Bowl-winning team a broken city could rally around

Before Mickey Loomis ’79 joined the New Orleans Saints in 2000, the franchise had never won a postseason game. Since his arrival they have won seven, including Super Bowl XLIV.

When the 2014 NFL season gets underway, one team stands out above the rest as a natural fit for Ducks fans to follow.

An innovative head coach. A high-flying offense known for lighting up the scoreboard. A perennial title contender. Ducks running the show on the sidelines and on the field.

Clearly, if you are a University of Oregon fan, then the New Orleans Saints are the team for you.

(Wait—who did you think we were talking about?)

The Saints—Super Bowl XLIV champions—will open the 2014 season among the favorites to lift the Lombardi Trophy, and with Drew Brees leading one of the game’s truly elite offenses, complemented by young defense rapidly emerging as one of the league’s best, it is plain to see why.

The team’s success is a far cry from the early part of the millennium though, when the “Who Dats” went five years without even winning their division, culminating in a disastrous 3-13 effort in 2005 during which the team played every single game away from the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina flooded the city.

Since that fateful campaign though, the Saints have averaged 9.5 wins per year, notched a pair of 13-3 regular seasons, won the NFC South three times, and won the Super Bowl once. And the turnaround is thanks, in large part, to the team’s general manager, a 1979 graduate of the University of Oregon’s Lundquist College of Business.

Mickey Loomis ’79 was raised in Eugene, attended Willamette High School, and simultaneously attended the UO and Northwest Christian University, where he played point guard for the Beacons’ basketball team. Loomis took a full load of classes at both the UO and NCU, and after earning his accounting degree from the Lundquist College, went to work for a CPA in Portland.

His accounting career did not last long though, as a connection he made at the University of Oregon soon helped him get into a graduate school program that changed his life.

“One of the most important things that happened to me at the UO was connecting with Paul Frishkoff,” Loomis said. “He was the guy who got me on the path to sports management.”

Accounting professor Frishkoff had connections at Wichita State University, and recommended Loomis apply for the university’s sports administration program, at the time one of only four in the country. With his eyes set on becoming an athletic director, Loomis returned to the UO after earning his master’s degree, and interned in the UO athletic department under AD Rick Bay. From there he moved north to take up an internship with the Seattle Seahawks, and began moving up through the ranks—and the dream of becoming an athletic director was soon forgotten.

In 2000, another NFL executive with ties to Oregon—former quarterback of Linfield College in McMinnville and then-vice president of football operations for the New Orleans Saints Randy Mueller—hired Loomis, with whom he had worked previously with the Seahawks. Loomis was named the team’s director of football administration, and two years later was promoted to general manager, tasked with putting his accounting degree and football knowledge to good use to build a winning roster on a team historically so bad that at one point its own fans wore paper bags over their heads at games.

The Saints’ first few years under Loomis were steady, as the team compiled a 25-23 record and won the first playoff game in franchise history. Then came 2005, and the devastating hurricane that flooded the Crescent City and turned the damaged Superdome into a shelter, forcing the team to play its “home” games at Giants Stadium in New York, the Alamodome in San Antonio, and Tiger Stadium in  Baton Rouge. With no true home stadium, and no homes to return to, the team went 3-13, finished last in the NFC South, and even flirted with permanent relocation to San Antonio.

During the offseason though, the franchise committed to staying in New Orleans and Loomis got bold. The first masterstroke was to sign Sean Payton, the 42-year-old assistant head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, to be the 14th head coach in the franchise’s history. Next on the list was a quarterback to replace the underperforming Aaron Brooks, and Loomis turned to San Diego Chargers signal caller Drew Brees, an undersized passer recovering from a torn labrum who had already been ruled unfit by the Miami Dolphins. Loomis then oversaw a successful draft that saw the Saints follow their selections of Reggie Bush and Roman Harper with three players who, eight years later, are still with the franchise, including seventh-round pick Marques Colston.

When the 2006 season started, the football-mad city of New Orleans was still piecing itself back together, with large sections still resembling post-apocalyptic wastelands more commonly associated with TV shows such as The Walking Dead. Dark brown waterlines on buildings still showed clearly how high the flood waters had risen, and symbols and messages spray-painted on doors and walls were a stark reminder of the search for bodies that had taken place. After being scattered nationwide, residents were still slowly returning home, trying to rebuild lives that had been destroyed when the levee system failed.

The city needed something to rally around.

Enter Mickey Loomis’ new-look New Orleans Saints.

The 2006 home opener was an ESPN Monday Night Football broadcast against the hated archrival Atlanta Falcons and their star quarterback Michael Vick. The atmosphere inside the Superdome was electric. U2 and Green Day performed on the field before the game, joining New Orleans musicians Rebirth Brass Band and Trombone Shorty for a raucous cover of Scottish punk song “The Saints are Coming.” The game sold out—with no paper bags in sight—and aired to ESPN’s then-largest-ever audience. On the fourth play of the game, Steve Gleason—a safety from Washington State University who was signed by the Saints in 2000, the year Loomis arrived—blocked a punt that was recovered in the end zone for a touchdown, and the rout was on. One year after going 3-13 as representatives of a shattered city, New Orleans beat Atlanta 23-3 and never looked back. New Orleans was far from back to normal, but its residents finally had something to smile about again.

The Saints went 10-6 that season and won the NFC South, and three years later Loomis’ squad defeated the Indianapolis Colts 31-17 to win Super Bowl XLIV. Mickey Loomis had turned the “’Aints” into a force to be reckoned with. Since lifting the Lombardi Trophy the team has gone 44-25, and the quarterback that Loomis backed when others preferred to turn their backs has been named to the Pro Bowl each year while breaking NFL records for most 5,000-yard passing seasons and most consecutive games with a passing touchdown. In 2012, a statue of Gleason blocking the punt in the game against the Falcons was erected outside the Superdome, immortalizing a play the Associated Press called, “symbolic of New Orleans’ resilience in the face of disaster.”

Since that 10-6 season, that resilience has seen New Orleans return to 72 percent of its pre-Hurricane Katrina population, the music and festivals have returned in full force, and Saints fans routinely sell out the Superdome to watch a team that has not lost a home game since 2012.

Three-time Pro Bowler Jairus Byrd, shown here
speaking to students at Harahan Elementary in
Harahan, LA, has quickly endeared himself to the
New Orleans community.

Loomis, whose parents and siblings still live in Eugene, added a little more green and yellow to the New Orleans Saints roster this offseason, signing former Ducks defensive back Jairus Byrd. Byrd was lightly recruited out of high school in Missouri, but attended the University of Oregon to major in political science in the College of Arts and Sciences while playing football for the Ducks. During his three years in Eugene, the Ducks went 25-12 with two bowl wins, including the 2008 Holiday Bowl—of which Byrd was named the defensive MVP—and the once barely recruited defensive back earned first-team all-Pac 10 honors.

“I enjoyed [my time at the UO] a lot,” Byrd said. “It was a great opportunity to play football for a great university. In Oregon there’s no pro team, so college is what they live for.”

Byrd entered the NFL Draft following his junior year, and was selected in the second round by the Buffalo Bills. During his five years in upstate New York, Byrd was named to three Pro Bowls and led the AFC in interceptions twice, prompting Loomis to lure his fellow Duck away with a six-year contract. The UO alumni are now gearing up for the upcoming season, where the Saints are primed to put points on the board at a rate maybe only the Ducks can match.

“We’re looking good, there’s a lot of talent here,” said Byrd.

“We’re excited,” echoed Loomis. “We have a good team. With Brees and Payton you expect to be in the hunt all year. There are a lot of variables, but we like our chances.”

Byrd and Loomis have discussed their UO ties since joining forces in New Orleans, comparing stories about their respective eras at a university currently mirroring the Saints’ rise to prominence. On the field, the Ducks were 11-33 while Loomis was a student and 28-14 while Byrd was a defensive back; and while the team didn’t go to a single bowl game during Loomis’ era, they went 2-1 in bowl games during Byrd’s, part of a stretch of nine consecutive bowl games that includes four BCS bowls, including the 2011 national championship game. Off the field, the UO is now firmly among the top tier of universities nationwide, and during the past year alone incoming freshmen set school records for SAT and ACT scores, the School of Journalism and Communication named an Emmy Award-winning journalist to the Chair of Journalism Innovation and Civic Engagement, and alumni earned the Pulitzer Prize, Peabody Award, and the National Humanities Medal.

“I love the University of Oregon,” said Loomis. “I’m proud of my time there, and I’m proud of what they’ve done academically and athletically.”