Under Payton's leadership, the New Orleans Saints made the 2006 NFL playoffs after a 3–13 season in 2005, and Payton won the AP NFL Coach of the Year Award because of this effort. Following the 2009 season, the Saints won their first Super Bowl championship in franchise history. On March 21, 2012, Payton was suspended for the entire 2012 NFL season, originally set to take effect April 1, 2012, as a result of his alleged involvement in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal, under which "bounties" were allegedly paid for contact that would "knock out" targeted players on opposing teams. Payton has denied that any program encouraging Saints players to injure opposing players ever existed, even though the NFL claims their evidence proves otherwise. Assistant coach Joe Vitt stated "We had a pay to perform program, just like many NFL teams do, but there was never a bounty program, we didn't ever encourage a pay-to-injure program. That's just not true. We never crossed the line." Payton filed an appeal of his suspension with the league the Friday before it was set to take effect. On April 9, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (the same individual who handed down the suspension) denied his appeal; his suspension began on April 16. Goodell reinstated Payton on January 22, 2013.
Payton is under contract with the Saints at least until the end of the 2017 season. A previously agreed-upon extension of his contract through 2015 was voided by the NFL. This left his status after the 2012 season unclear until December of that year, when he agreed to a five-year contract which made him the highest paid coach in the history of the NFL.
Payton was born in San Mateo, California, and raised in Naperville, Illinois, by parents Thomas and Jeanne Payton. Payton's parents were originally from Scranton, Pennsylvania; Thomas worked in the insurance industry. Sean Payton lived in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, during his grade school and middle school years (1970 to 1978). Sean attended Naperville Central High School in Naperville, Illinois, starting as quarterback his senior year before graduating in 1982. Winning a football scholarship, Payton had a successful career playing quarterback at Eastern Illinois University, leading the Panthers to an 11–2 record and the quarter-finals of the Division I-AA Playoffs in 1986; while at EIU, he became a member of the Sigma Chi Fraternity with his close friend, Rick Henghold. Under coach Al Molde, Payton's Eastern Illinois teams were known as "Eastern Airlines" due to their prolific passing attack that frequently topped 300 yards per game (and had 509 passing yards in one game, still a school record).
Although he was not drafted in the 1987 NFL Draft, Payton tried out for the Kansas City Chiefs for one day. In 1987, he played quarterback for the Chicago Bruisers and Pittsburgh Gladiators during the inaugural season of the Arena Football League, before his rights were sold for $1,000.00 to the Ottawa Rough Riders of the CFL. He was also a member of the Chicago Bears squad of strikebreaking replacement players, known as the "Spare Bears", during the 1987 NFL players strike. In 3 games he completed 8 of 23 passes (34.8%), for 79 yards, 0 TDs, and 1 INT, a passer rating of 27.3. He was also sacked 7 times for 47 yards and had one rush attempt for 28 yards. Coincidentally, his one interception came against the New Orleans Saints, the team he would later go on to coach to a Super Bowl victory.
In 1988, he played for the Leicester Panthers of the semi-professional UK Budweiser National League. Payton landed the starting quarterback role for the Panthers. Payton led the Panthers to a touchdown on their first possession. That same season saw the Panthers go to the Quarterfinals of the British League, eventually losing to the London Olympians after Payton returned to the US to take up a coaching position.
Payton began his coaching career in 1988 as an offensive assistant at San Diego State University. He made a series of assistant coaching positions at Indiana State University, Miami University (offensive coordinator), Illinois, and again at San Diego State (running backs coach), before landing a job as the quarterbacks coach with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1997.
He coached Marshall Faulk from 1992 to 1993 while serving at San Diego State.
As OC at Miami University, he helped RB Deland McCullough run for over 1,100 yards. In 1995, the team scored the most points in a season (326) since 1986 and finished 8-2-1. RB Deland McCullough ran for over 1,600 yards with 14 TD and QB Sam Ricketts also threw 14 TD.
At the University of Illinois in 1996, he coached QB Scott Weaver, who completed 56% of his passes for over 1,700 yards and 7 TD.
From 1997 to 1998, Payton was quarterbacks coach for the Philadelphia Eagles and worked with offensive coordinator Jon Gruden and offensive line coach Bill Callahan. In 1998, Gruden and Callahan left for the Oakland Raiders, and Eagles head coach Ray Rhodes and Payton were fired. The Eagles' quarterbacks passed for 4,009 yards in 1997.
In 1999 Sean Payton was hired as the quarterbacks coach for the New York Giants and was promoted to the role of offensive coordinator in 2000. Under his guidance, the Giants would go on to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XXXV. During this time, he was known to lock himself in the stadium and sleep on the couches while studying plays during off-days.
At around 6:45 a.m. on September 11, 2001, the New York Giants' flight from Denver, where the Giants played the Denver Broncos for the first Monday Night Football game of 2001, landed at the gate of Newark Liberty International Airport next to United Airlines Flight 93, the flight that was hijacked and eventually crashed in rural Pennsylvania. Payton recalls this moment in his autobiography Home Team: Coaching the Saints and New Orleans Back to Life. During the 2002 season, after several poor showings by the Giants' offense, Payton's role in play-calling was taken over by then head coach Jim Fassel. Under Fassel the offense improved and propelled the team to a wild-card playoff berth. While Payton was still ostensibly in charge of the offense, his role in the team was clearly diminished and had he not been hired away by the Dallas Cowboys, he likely would have been fired.
Payton joined Bill Parcells and the Cowboys as an assistant head coach and a quarterbacks coach in 2003, where he helped coach Quincy Carter, Vinny Testaverde, and Drew Bledsoe to 3,000-yard seasons.
In 2005, he was promoted by Parcells to assistant head coach/passing game coordinator.
Payton received his first head coaching job in 2006 with the New Orleans Saints. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, in the 2005 season the Saints had finished with a 3–13 record, ranking as the second worst team in the league. However, Payton turned the struggling team around, and, with newly acquired free agent quarterback Drew Brees, led them to their first playoff appearance in 6 years. The team had one of the league’s most productive offenses, ranking first in passing, and fifth in points scored. The Saints won the NFC South with a 10–6 record, had a first round playoff bye and notched only the second playoff win in franchise history, giving them a berth in the NFC Championship Game against the top-seeded Chicago Bears. The Saints out-gained the Bears in total yards of offense, but lost the game by the lopsided score of 39–14. Receiving 44 out of 50 votes from a panel of sports journalists and broadcasters, Payton won the AP NFL Coach of the Year Award in January 2007.
In the 2007 season, the Saints tried to improve upon their 10–6 record from the previous season. They and the Pittsburgh Steelers opened the NFL preseason, playing the Hall of Fame Game on August 5, 2007. The Saints were 3–2 in the pre-season. The Saints also had the honor of opening the season against the defending champion Indianapolis Colts. The Saints finished the 2007 season 7–9.
In 2009, Payton aggressively coached the Saints to their most successful season, with a 13–3 regular season, and a 31–17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV.
In June 2010, Payton published a book (written with journalist Ellis Henican) entitled Home Team: Coaching the Saints and New Orleans Back to Life. The book opened at number 8 on the non-fiction bestseller list of The New York Times. Payton described the concept of Home Team: "I didn't want to write another winning-on-the-field book or about modern-day leadership...I wanted to write a book about the stories, ones that you sit around and tell your friends."
On October 16, 2011, while coaching against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Payton broke his tibia and tore his MCL in a collision with tight end Jimmy Graham's helmet after Graham was tackled on the sideline.
Payton has agreed to a new multi-year contract extension as head coach of the Saints beginning in 2013. On January 6, 2016, he announced that he would stay with the Saints despite interest from other teams that had led to speculation that he would be traded.
Payton agreed to a new 5-year contract extension as head coach of the Saints on March 23, 2016.
On March 2, 2012, the NFL concluded after a thorough investigation that from 2009 to 2011, the Saints implemented a bounty program which rewarded players for deliberately attempting to knock opposing players out of games. The slush fund was determined to be administered by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who joined the team in 2009. An extensive league investigation found that Payton was implicated in the Bounty Scandal. The league determined Payton went as far as to orchestrate a cover-up when the league first investigated it in the 2009-10 offseason. When informed that the league was investigating reports of a bounty program, Payton met with Williams and assistant head coach Joe Vitt and told them, "Let's make sure our ducks are in a row."
According to a league memo, the NFL reopened its investigation late in the 2011 season. Just before the Saints' playoff game against the Detroit Lions, league officials alerted Saints owner Tom Benson that they had found irrefutable evidence of the Saints' bounty program. When general manager Mickey Loomis informed Payton that the league had reopened its investigation, Payton failed to shut the alleged program down.
On March 22, 2012, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Payton for the entire 2012 season, effective April 1. Payton became the first head coach in modern NFL history to be suspended for any reason. Goodell was particularly upset that Payton and other Saints officials had lied to him about the scheme. For instance, during its investigation, the league uncovered an email that Michael Ornstein, the agent for former Saints running back Reggie Bush, had sent to Payton. In reality, the Ornstein email wasn’t directly sent to Payton, instead it came to team spokesman Greg Bensel, who then forwarded it to the coaching staff with this message: “email from Orny (he asked that I send it) the dude is in prison so I told him I would.” The email stated "put me down for $5000 on "Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers". "It's a running joke going for three years," Ornstein said. "Ornstein's email is just another example of the speciousness of the quote-unquote evidence that Commissioner (Roger) Goodell claims to have to support his erroneous accusations against Jonathan and the other players," lawyer Peter Ginsberg said. "As more of the evidence is revealed in the media, it is becoming more and more apparent how irresponsible the NFL's actions have been." When confronted with the email, Payton initially claimed he never read it, but subsequently admitted that he had. In an interview with ESPN's Adam Schefter, Goodell implied that Payton would have faced significant punishment even if he'd been more forthcoming. In Goodell's view, Payton's contractual obligation to supervise his assistants meant that, at the very least, he should have known about the scheme and shut it down immediately. In the league's announcement of sanctions against the Saints, Payton was faulted for violating a provision of the league constitution that requires coaches to inform their owners about team operations, as well as to "avoid actions that undermine or damage the club's reputation or operating success."
On March 30, 2012, Payton lodged a formal appeal of his suspension. Goodell held an expedited hearing on the matter and was expected to render a decision in "days, not weeks," according to ESPN's Schefter. Payton also used the hearing as a chance to get clarification on the terms of his ban. Goodell turned the appeal down on April 9, meaning that Payton's suspension was set to begin on April 16. He was to remain suspended until the end of Super Bowl XLVII, which was held in New Orleans. According to ESPN's Chris Mortensen, Payton was to forfeit $5.8 million of his $7.1 million salary. He was barred from even casual contact with anyone in the NFL; any such contact would have to be reported to NFL executive Ray Anderson.
Soon after the suspension was announced, Payton began discussions with his mentor, Parcells, about serving as interim coach for the 2012 season.
In September 2011, the Saints and Payton agreed to extend Payton's contract through 2015. However, on November 4, 2012, the NFL revealed that it had disallowed the extension because it contained a clause the NFL deemed to violate its rules, which would have allowed Payton to leave if Saints general manager Mickey Loomis were not with the team. The NFL's action left Payton's contract status in doubt beyond the 2012 season, although Payton said that he intended to return to the Saints.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell reinstated Payton on January 22, 2013.
On Christmas Eve 2016, Payton notched his 94th victory as Saints head coach, passing Jim E. Mora as the winningest coach in franchise history.
During his 2012 suspension from the NFL, Payton served as the offensive coordinator for his son Connor's sixth-grade team in Argyle, Texas. Payton used a simplified version of the Saints playbook, and the team went unbeaten until losing near the end of the regular season to a team that ran the single-wing, which his team was unable to stop. Since he believed he would face that team again in the league's playoffs, he obtained video that the father of one of his players recorded, and then contacted his mentor Parcells to help him break down the opponent's offense. The teams indeed faced one another in the league finals; Payton's team lost a considerably closer game in which they were able to slow down the opposing offense to a Springtown Pee Wee team.
NFL head coaches under whom Sean Payton has served:Ray Rhodes: Philadelphia Eagles (1997–1998)
Jim Fassel: New York Giants (1999–2002)
Bill Parcells: Dallas Cowboys (2003–2005)
Assistant coaches under Sean Payton who became NFL or college head coaches:Dennis Allen: Oakland Raiders (2012–2014)
Curtis Johnson: Tulane (2012–2015)
Doug Marrone: Syracuse (2009–2012), Buffalo Bills (2013–2014), Jacksonville Jaguars (2016–present)
Mike Neu: Ball State (2016–present)
Sean Payton married Beth Shuey and had two children, daughter Meghan (born 1997) and son Connor (born 2000). While coaching at Indiana State, Payton met Shuey, a graduate of the university. Payton is of Irish Catholic extraction. Payton and his family moved to a home in Mandeville, Louisiana when he became the Saints' head coach; however, the home, like many built on the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, later turned out to be constructed with defective Chinese drywall, and Payton eventually became a named plaintiff in a widely reported class action lawsuit against the manufacturer, Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin Co. Ltd.
In the wake of the issues with their home in Mandeville, the Paytons decided to move the family back to the Dallas area in 2011, when they purchased a home in the Vacquero Club, an upscale golf community in Westlake that is home to several PGA Tour professionals, as well as the Jonas Brothers and Josh Hamilton. Rumors swirled over the 2011 Super Bowl weekend that the move would coincide with Payton returning to the Cowboys as the General Manager or in some other executive capacity, but these turned out to be groundless. At the time, he maintained a residence in the New Orleans area during the season, while his family resided full-time in Westlake, a 90-minute trip via a privately chartered flight.
In June 2012, Payton and his wife of nearly 20 years, Beth Payton, filed for divorce.
In 2014, after his suspension and the finalization of his divorce, he moved from the New Orleans suburbs where he had kept his in-season home to Uptown New Orleans, buying a condo in that neighborhood, and now lives there year-round. Shortly before the 2015 season, which coincided with the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, he hosted a dinner for the four coaches and four players who had continuously been with the Saints since he became head coach, and presented each of them with a Rolex watch.National Football League Coach of the Year Award — AP, SN, PFW, Maxwell (2006)
Kansas City Committee of 101 NFC Coach of the Year (2006, 2009)
ESPY Awards Outstanding Team — New Orleans Saints (2010)
NCAA Silver Anniversary Awards (2012)
Payton, Sean (2010), Home Team: Coaching the Saints and New Orleans Back to Life, New York, New York, U.S.: New American Library, ISBN 978-0-451-23261-8