Jim Zorn returns to Seattle on Sunday, leading 6-4 Washington against the Seahawks.
Jim Zorn stuck out when he arrived for his first coaching job.
Well, at least his hair did, a flat top that went high and tight.
“It must have been 4 inches straight up,” said Skip Hall, who hired Zorn to his Boise State staff in 1988.
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Hall warned Zorn he was going to look out of place at the annual coaches convention.
“Jim, coaches don’t wear their hair that way,” Hall told him.
That’s OK. Zorn is an original. He has been since he arrived in Seattle in 1976 as an undrafted rookie who ended up the starting quarterback in the Seahawks’ first season. He’s a coach who uses a Slip ‘N Slide to teach his quarterbacks the proper way to avoid contact, and a mountain-bike enthusiast who once joined President George W. Bush for a ride.
Zorn was hired to be Washington’s offensive coordinator this offseason and made such an impression that he was promoted to head coach less than a month into the job.
He returns to Seattle on Sunday. He’ll be inducted into the state’s Sports Hall of Fame, then face the franchise he spent 17 seasons with — nine as a player, eight more as an assistant coach. He worked his way back to the Seahawks during his coaching career that began with college stops at Boise State (1988-91), Utah State (1992-94) and Minnesota (1995-96).
He joined Dennis Erickson’s Seahawks staff in 1997, then served as quarterbacks coach for the Detroit Lions (1998-2000) before returning to the Seahawks to coach the quarterbacks under Holmgren the past seven years.
“What impresses me about Jim is he still thinks he’s 18 years old,” Holmgren said. “That’s kind of how he operates.”
Zorn approaches every change like an adventure, looking ahead in wild-eyed anticipation and wondering what’s next. After Zorn finished his NFL playing career in 1987 he went to a career counselor in Portland to find out what job he was suited for.
Museum curator was one possibility, occupational therapist another. Turned out Zorn’s next career called him. Hall heard Zorn might be considering coaching, so he called to offer an opportunity in Boise.
“He called me kind out of the blue asking me to be part of his staff,” Zorn said.
Hall was a former assistant of Don James, first at Kent State and then at Washington. Hall gave Nick Saban his first coaching job at Kent State and later coached Jim Mora at Washington. Hall had come to know Zorn during his time in Seattle.
“I saw his demeanor and the way he carried himself,” Hall said. “I really liked what I saw.”
It’s hard not to be impressed by Zorn, who is honest and earnest even as he works in a profession that usually entails a good dose of secrecy and guile. One of his former players was actually concerned Zorn’s transparency could work against him at times.
“When he got the job in Washington, that was the only thing I worried about,” said Trent Dilfer, who played for Zorn in Seattle from 2001 to 2004.
Dilfer was already a veteran when he came to play for Zorn. He had seven seasons of NFL experience and a Super Bowl title on his résumé, but he got more than just a tuneup once he began working with Zorn.
“He’s just a great technician,” Dilfer said. “He opened my mind to a lot of things that helped me play the position.”
Some coaches believe pocket presence is innate, an instinct that can’t be taught. Zorn believes it’s an awareness that can be coached into a player. He used vinyl tackling dummies to get his quarterbacks accustomed to avoiding pressure in the pocket. Another drill called for the quarterback to dodge large exercise balls being thrown at him by the other quarterbacks to teach the passer how to avoid contact, then reset and get in position to deliver the ball.
In Detroit, Zorn brought former major-league pitcher Frank Tanana in to teach his quarterbacks proper technique for feet-first sliding. In Seattle, he recruited John Olerud and also used a Slip ‘N Slide. He abandoned that drill in Washington when Jason Campbell turned a cleat while attempting a slide in training camp.
“I turned the water off and walked away,” Zorn said. “I started another drill.”
The practice drills have a purpose, which is why he’s stuck with them even now, when he’s the head coach of one of the league’s most prominent franchises.
“I would hate to give those up because I was embarrassed about being a head coach using crazy drills,” Zorn said.
He’s an original. That was clear from the very first day of his coaching career when he showed up with big ideas and a haircut that stood up high off his forehead.
“Jim is his own man,” Hall said. “He sometimes plays out of the box.”
Danny O’Neil: 206-464-2364 or firstname.lastname@example.org