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Zorn brings zany style, faith in God to Redskins
Friday, Nov 14, 2008
By Joshua Cooley

WASHINGTON (BP)--Jim Zorn has always been a little … different.

He once skinned a coyote. Not just any coyote, mind you – a roadkill coyote he picked off the road near his old Lake Washington home in Seattle. How, you ask, did he know how to skin it? Because, he’ll tell you, he used to work on cadavers in his college human anatomy class.


Other fun facts about Zorn: Previous hobbies include skydiving, kayaking, mountain-climbing, BMX-racing, Zamboni-driving, ice-dancing, DJ’ing, ukulele-playing, pottery-making, model shipbuilding and competitive badminton. He can perform parlor tricks with a football and has gone mountain-bike riding several times with President Bush.

These eclectic interests might not be surprising if Zorn were that odd next-door neighbor of yours – you know, the guy who gets the paper each morning in fuzzy slippers and boxers. But Zorn is not your peculiar neighbor. He’s a rookie head coach in the staid and starched NFL who has led the surprising Washington Redskins to a 6-3 record entering this Sunday’s big NFC East showdown with rival Dallas (5-4).

“When he was here, he had this weird hairdo where his hair went straight up four inches,” said former Boise State University football coach Skip Hall, who gave Zorn his first coaching job in 1989. “He used to call it ‘high and tight.’ I used to kid him about it. For his first national coaches convention, before we went, I called him and said, ‘Jim, there will be about 4,000 coaches there, and they don’t wear their hair like that.’ We went and later he told me, ‘You’re right, Coach. They looked at me like I was a weirdo.’”

Ladies and gentlemen, Joe Gibbs has officially left the building.

Gibbs, the Washington icon who stunned the D.C. area when he announced his second Redskins retirement last January, and Zorn seem to be polar opposites. The old-school Gibbs, 67, fashioned a Hall of Fame career out of the Hogs, John Riggins, counter-treys and well-worn clichés like: “They fought their guts out.”

Zorn, meanwhile, is a quirky former-player-turned-coach who came out of nowhere to replace Gibbs in one of the NFL’s crown-jewel franchises. Among other changes, the 55-year-old brought a West Coast offense, a sharp-witted candor and a goofiness heretofore not seen in the stuffy nation’s capital. You can bet your last dollar that Gibbs never led his team in chants of “Hip, hip, hooray!” like Zorn has done.

Zorn and Gibbs do have this in common: They both love Jesus Christ.

“He is a biblicist,” said Seattle Seahawks chaplain Karl Payne, who has known Zorn for years. “In other words, if the book says it, you need to deal with it. He is far more concerned about being biblically correct than politically correct. He’s not ashamed of Christ.”

Zorn grew up in a family that thought Christianity consisted of doing good and attending church on Easter. As a high school junior, his perceptions were rattled when his girlfriend dumped him, citing the desire to date a Christian boy. Before long, Zorn started attending a Youth for Christ club.

“I realized I had no idea what Christianity was all about,” Zorn said. “I had a decision to make about the info I had. It wasn’t about saying it; it was about believing the info I had about Jesus and if he is the Messiah. I decided for Christ early in my senior year.”

Undrafted out of Cal Poly Pomona, he signed with the expansion Seahawks before the 1976 season. While the fledgling franchise only made the playoffs twice during Zorn’s nine years there, the shaggy haired Southern Californian left an indelible mark. With future Hall of Famer Steve Largent as his main target, Zorn won the 1976 NFC offensive rookie of the year award and threw for 20,122 yards and 107 touchdowns in his Seattle career. He is one of only eight players inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor.

“I played with some great men and had a pretty significant time of life,” Zorn said.

After bouncing around the NFL and the Canadian Football League for his last three years, he retired after the 1987 season and began coaching two years later. For 19 years, he worked as an assistant coach – never even reaching offensive coordinator status – for Boise State, Utah State, the University of Minnesota, the Detroit Lions and the Seahawks.

His big break finally came on Jan. 25, 2008, when Redskins owner Daniel Snyder hired him as offensive coordinator. Then, in a shocking move, Snyder promoted him to succeed Gibbs on Feb. 10. The long wait to be a head coach was over.

“I didn’t try to be disgruntled or complacent about it,” Zorn said. “I was aggressive in my coaching and I still am.”

The national media generally dismissed the Redskins as an NFC East afterthought in the preseason, but with a 6-3 record, they are smack dab in the middle of the playoff hunt. Zorn is now the toast of the town, having won over even the cynical Washington press corps – no small task.

This doesn’t faze Zorn, according to his friends.

“I don’t think he’s up in the morning reading the newspapers thinking, ‘What are they saying about me?’” Payne said.

Zorn coaches the way he played quarterback years ago – with brashness, creativity and a twinkle in his eye. He seems to have channeled all those delightfully improvisational scrambles of yesteryear (marvel at them online) into his new job. His players have described his play-calling as “aggressive,” “exciting” and “relentless.” He attacks more than the conservative Gibbs ever did.

Could this hot rookie coach lead Washington to its first NFC East title since 1999 and its third playoff appearance in the last four years? Or could he even (whisper now, for fear of Redskins sacrilege) usher in a new dynastic era to rival that of Gibbs and his three Super Bowl championships from the 1980s and early ’90s?

Zorn doesn’t allow himself such comparisons.

“[Gibbs] has been a tremendous influence, not only with the Washington Redskins, but in the National Football League,” Zorn said. “I’ve already decided not to try to fit into his shoes. They’re a few sizes too big.”

Zorn’s faith has been an anchor throughout his career. He has been outspoken about his faith for decades, from the way he and Largent shared Christ’s love with the greater Seattle community in the early years to his current involvement with Pro Athletes Outreach.

“He knows the book – that’s the key,” Payne said. “You could say he’s a teacher, he’s an exhorter – there are a lot of things you can say like that – but he knows the book and he applies the book. He’s obedient.”

Despite his Sunday morning limitations as an NFL coach, Zorn actively pursues personal spiritual growth. He takes part in a Redskins coaches Bible study and a fellowship group of other NFL coaches on the phone. He is happily married to Joy, his wife of 29 years, and has four children ages 13 to 28.

“I’m encouraged by my own personal time I take to do things necessary to grow as a believer,” Zorn said. “A tremendous encouragement has been my wife. We are continually challenging each other.”

Zorn and the Redskins have already exceeded many expectations, and it won’t be long – with a playoff berth on the line – before the NFL finds out how good a shot-caller he truly is. But for now, the adventurous, eccentric former quarterback is making this coaching thing look as easy as … well, skinning a coyote.

“He’s a tremendous character guy with leadership capabilities who cares about people and relates well to people,” Hall said. “And obviously, he understands football.”

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