Joe Vitt has just finished addressing the local media and, it’s fair to say, he’s ready to get as far away from the smorgasbord of what most coaches likely would consider boring and misguided questions.
But he’s not finished and you can tell by the constant tapping of his leg up and down and his inability to focus on one spot in an office to the side of the media work room that he’s getting more antsy by the minute.
With days remaining before his first regular season game as acting head coach of the New Orleans Saints, there’s plenty for Vitt to be doing. Answering queries from a reporter is not one of them.
Yet he does and in that moment, it’s easy to understand why his players believe in him.
He’s intense, yet accommodating. He’s humorous. And most importantly, he’s honest.
The past seven weeks have been some of the hardest of his life thanks to a suspension handed down by the NFL for what it said was a role in a bounty/pay to injure program the league believed the team ran for three years.
“One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do is sit back and not be able to help, not be a part of what we’re going through,” Vitt told WWLTV.com.
If you want to know who Joe Vitt is, linebacker Scott Shanle believes all you need to know is how much he was moved by visiting wounded veterans at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in 2010 after the Saints Super Bowl run. Vitt spent some of his suspension helping with the Wounded Warriors Project two years later.
“A lot of guys during the suspension would have went on vacation,” Shanle said. “I think the fact that Joe chose that group of people to go help – we visited that hospital when we went to the White House a couple of years ago – and Joe talked about it forever. It really hit him, touched him and he never forgot those people.
“He went back when he had an opportunity and I think that says a lot about him.”
Vitt, 58, isn’t moved just by the veterans. Tim Malloy, his best friend since eighth grade, moves him as much as anybody.
“He’s a good friend of mine who … has had 25 major surgeries and right now he lives his life having to breathe through a tracheotomy,” Vitt said. “Three weeks ago we ran up in New York for the Wounded Warriors the Tunnel to the Tower race. So we ran a 5K together. So he has certainly been a strong influence in my life.”
In 35 years of football, Vitt has been around Ted Marchibroda, Mike Martz, Dick Vermeil and Ray Rhodes.
He also coached with Chuck Knox for 14 years, winning 100 games with the accomplished former coach of the Seahawks and Rams.
A humbling experience
But Vitt isn’t moved just by those he has worked with and, in fact, was kicked into gear by Al Davis, a man who never employed him.
After three years with the Baltimore Colts, Vitt was out of a job when management cleaned house. A trip to the combine in Detroit didn’t necessarily change things. It did, however, give him a point of reference to know how much – or how little – he had accomplished as a 26-year-old.
Seeing Al Davis at the old Pontiac Silverdome, Vitt believed he had an opportunity in front of him. So he went up to the owner of the Oakland Raiders and told him his credentials, explaining how much he used to do with the Colts before being let go.
“And he looked me right in the eye and said, ‘Son, when I was 26 years old, I was the commissioner of the AFL,’ ” Vitt said. “So I was quickly humbled and had to walk away. That’s a true story.”
Vitt added, “That let me know very quickly I had underachieved by the time I was 26.”
While Davis wasn’t interested in Vitt, the linebackers he currently coaches are more than happy to have him.
“He brings a very family atmosphere to our room as far as he makes sure that we all trust one another and that we can talk about anything in our room,” Shanle said. “We’ve had guys talk about very personal things. I think that’s a credit to Joe and to the person he is and the type of trust he wants us to have as players.”
Being a coach
Vitt played high school football and was lucky enough to play in college, holding down a linebacker position on the Towson State University football team that went undefeated in 1974 and was NCAA Division III runners-up in 1976.
But once he was done, the NFL didn’t beckon. At least, it didn’t give him a chance on the field.
Off of it, though, it did.
“You know there’s nothing else that’s ever going to take that place in your life,” Vitt said. “So as best I could, I wanted to continue to stay in football, do whatever I could to be part of a team and to be part of a group of men that would the field on Sunday or Saturday if it was in college and try to win a football game. It’s all I’ve ever done. It’s the only check I’ve ever gotten.”
Certainly his 35 years of coaching experience help gain his players’ attention. It’s more than that, though.
Talk to players and you realize there’s love and respect for him.
Sunday he greeted the team on the airplane, surprising the players from the cockpit with his old standby phrase “listen to me hard because I’m gonna speak to you soft.” Wednesday, his first day back with the team on the field, there already was a difference, safety Roman Harper said.
“Overall as a team, hearing his voice out there yelling and getting after guys, restarting things if the looks aren’t right,” Harper said. “Actually just hearing his voice, hearing his confidence and going on, I think it really made a difference.”
“His experience level, his intensity, his fire, his passion – I think those are the things that you immediately notice whether you know Joe Vitt or not and you appreciate and you love,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “He is one of those guys that loves his players. He is hard on you, at times. He expects a lot out of you, but it’s because I think he sees the potential in everyone and the good in everybody.”
Vitt has a simple explanation for why is he is the way he is with the players.
“I live my life vicariously through these players,” Vitt said. “I have the ability to be around world-class athletes on a daily basis. You watch the way they practice, you watch the resolve they have and you take a lot of pride and a lot of joy in watching them get better.”
He added, “Obviously because of the great history we’ve had together, these players are more than just players to me. You owe them a responsibility - and I think you earn the right to coach them hard - but you feel a strong sense of responsibility to help them to prepare every week and be the best player they can be and you want them to win because you know the hard work they’ve put into it.”
Most difficult offseason
Back in the office, Vitt was growing more and more restless.
And still he delivered a two-word answer with the slight tinge of sarcasm that anyone around him immediately recognizes.
When he was asked about this being the most difficult offseason, he jumped in before the question was finished, saying only, “You think?”
Vitt was suspended for six games – seven weeks with the bye week included – for what the NFL said was a failure to put a stop or prevent the bounty program from happening. His close friends Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis were suspended for the entire season and eight games, respectively.
He has had to watch games from TV and only once in person after Brees petitioned the league to allow all three to attend the San Diego game when he broke Johnny Unitas’ record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass.
He hasn’t and won’t take time to reflect on everything that has happened in the past seven-plus months.
“I don’t know what good that would do,” Vitt said. “I really don’t so I haven’t done that. I think one of the earmarks of this organization is we put yesterday behind and we’re always looking forward. We’ve played the hand we’ve been dealt here. The hand is unprecedented.
“But at the end of the day, nobody really cares. So we’ve got to come together as a team – which we have – and an organization and we’ve got to make the most out of this season, make the most out of this situation and let’s see what the final chapter reads.”
It wasn’t just having to watch the games on TV that hurt. It was missing everything involved in the entire week from Monday through Sunday.
“Everybody thinks it’s the game we’re all in it for,” Vitt said. “The game is the culmination of a hard week of work and preparation. But saying the Lord’s Prayer in the locker room before the game, the halftime adjustments, the ups and downs, the ebbs and flows of the game, win or lose coming back on Monday knowing you’ve got to put it behind you and go onto the next opponent – those are the things that go into winning in this league that you miss the most.”
He takes over a 2-4 team that, after a rough start, has won two straight games. Sunday he’ll lead the Saints into Sports Authority Field at Mile High hoping to get that streak to three straight.
And ultimately, that’s where Vitt’s focus will be. Not on all the other stuff.
“Hey, I could have retired last August if it wasn’t fun,” Vitt said. “I could be off doing whatever retired people do. This is what we do. This is what you get up in the morning for. The competition on Sunday.”