METAIRIE, La. — Jabari Greer remembers the first time he sat down with Wesley McGriff and he remembers that even in the coach’s office, he had to be on top of his game.
“When I sat down and talked to him in his office, I could see the passion for the game. I could see the compassion for his players,” said Greer, one of New Orleans’ starting cornerbacks since 2009. “But also I could see the competitive nature he had. I knew even when we sat down we were competing in the conversation. That’s just him. It hasn’t’ wavered one bit.”
It stands to reason then that McGriff, hired this offseason to coach New Orleans’ secondary, won’t let the players relax on the field.
For a unit that finished 31st in passing yards given up per game and 32nd in passing yards per play in 2012, that’s not a bad thing.
And to think, McGriff nearly didn’t end up with the Saints.
One of the first moves coach Sean Payton made upon being reinstated into the NFL was letting go of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. He hired Rob Ryan, who was fired from Dallas, and went looking for a secondary coach.
McGriff wasn’t on Payton’s initial list but a call from Micheal Barrow, a coach at the University of Miami, changed that. The Saints flew him up to the NFL combine for an interview and the rest, as is the saying, is history.
“His passion for the game came through during the process,” Payton said. “I think when he finished, anybody that sat in which was the defensive coaches, myself, that anyone who sat in the series of six or seven interviews we had, unanimously had felt that he had done an excellent job.”
That passion and confidence comes from experience for McGriff.
In one season as co-defensive coordinator/cornerbacks coach at Ole Miss, McGriff helped guide a unit that finished second in the Southeastern Conference and top 15 in the NCAA in tackles for a loss per game at 7.7.
A year earlier in his time with Vanderbilt, McGriff’s secondary came through with 12 interceptions, three of which were returned for touchdowns. Additionally, he coached defensive back Casey Hayward, who became Vanderbilt’s first All-American in four years by intercepting seven passes.
And in his final year of a four-season run at Miami, the secondary he coached ranked second in the country in pass defense, allowing just 164.3 yards per game through the air.
But while McGriff, whom the players call Crime Dog, has spent his entire career as a college coach, a move to the NFL was natural.
“I think it’s every coach’s dream and desire and goal to coach at the highest level so to have an opportunity to coach at the highest level is one that was definitely in my career path,” McGriff said.
When the call came, McGriff initially wondered if it was real.
“You look at the area code of where the call is coming from and then he said it’s Sean Payton and I’ve heard him interviewed several times so I kind of matched the voice up with the phone call,” McGriff said. “But again, human element says, ‘Wow, is this really Sean Payton?’ ”
Now six months after being hired, McGriff has the secondary attacking the football and around the football. Free-agent acquisition Keenan Lewis has appeared to be a near shut-down corner. Veteran Chris Carr intercepted one pass in the Black and Gold scrimmage and nearly had another one. And rookie Kenny Vaccaro has proved to be a menacing presence in the defensive backfield.
All the while, Ryan has remained in the background, allowing McGriff to coach and do his job.
“He’s outstanding,” Ryan said. “He brings a confident swagger to them. He’s tough and he gets tougher on them. He makes them better. He demands that he coaches the All-Pros just like he does the last guy.”
Ryan only hopes he gets more than one year with McGriff.
“This guy will probably have his pick at head coaching jobs in college next year,” Ryan said. “Hell, we’ve got to keep him while we’ve got him because I love him. He’s outstanding. He’s the best I’ve been around.”
And that should be music to the ears of Saints fans everywhere.