Chief of Quarterbacks
If any football team wants to contend for championships, it starts in training camp. The Chiefs completed theirs in mid-August at Missouri Western State College in St. Joseph, Mo., and in those three weeks of perspiration-laced camp, Jim Zorn tutors his quarterbacks in technique and all the situational offense: two-minute, goal line, third down, red zone, short yardage, every conceivable scenario.
The lexicon and the preseason rigors are ingrained. Here’s an Exhibit A for somebody who’s been around the football block: When Zorn played quarterback and coached for the Seattle Seahawks, he calculates that he’s spent more than a year of his life in the same dorm building at Eastern Washington University — just for training camps. He’s also the only other coach on the Chiefs’ staff with NFL head coaching experience.
But football was only a neighborhood street activity for Zorn until high school, where his interest first piqued. He then set 44 school records in college at Cal Poly in Pomona, Calif., where “Mr. Outside” Glenn Davis played before winning a Heisman Trophy with Army. At a program that was discontinued 30 years ago, Zorn’s talent as a signal caller grew.
“I just felt like at the end of my senior year, I was going to have the opportunity to at least try out for an NFL team,” Zorn says.
Undrafted but never undeterred
When he went undrafted in 1975, a storied franchise brought Zorn in as a free agent. He presumably had third-string all sewn up for the Dallas Cowboys with Roger Staubach and Clint Longley in front of him, but he donned the Lone Star gear for only two months before getting cut.
Yet even in that brief period, a major influence for Zorn has been the leadership of Hall of Fame coach Tom Landry, who guided the Cowboys for 29 seasons and two Super Bowl wins. He had learned that Landry was a fellow Christian, and he wanted to see how a Christian coach ran things.
“The very first meeting we had together with all the football free agents and draft choices was him introducing the coaches and then talking about a person in history that he loved, and it was the Apostle Paul,” Zorn says. “And he talked about a passage and what it meant to us. What he influenced me with was just an openness with his relationship with Christ that I thought was something that was important for me to see, that you did not have to shy away from your faith just because you were an athlete or in the NFL or in any other situation.”
The next season, Zorn earned the starting job for the expansion Seahawks, which he kept until 1983. There’s a crystal-clear pride he takes in being integral to the Seahawks from when it was a fledgling NFL team in its inception. While on vacation this summer in Seattle he met with an original owner, John Nordstrom (yes, that Nordstrom), and the two reminisced.
“It was a real thrill to be a part of something that hadn’t been developed yet,” Zorn says. “We were developing our own traditions. We didn’t win much our first year, but we had a new stadium to play in, we had a new team. We didn’t have all that great of a team, but because everything was new and enthusiastic, we didn’t worry about how bad we really were. We just started to develop a sense of team that had never been. That’s kind of a cool situation.”
By year three the Seahawks had a 9-7 record and along with the Steelers’ Terry Bradshaw, Zorn was an All-Pro quarterback in 1978, primarily throwing his southpaw touchdowns to Hall-of-Famer Steve Largent. These guys were bigger in Seattle than Frasier Crane. The duo connected for 43 touchdowns in their careers, and they are two of the 10 people in the Seahawks’ Ring of Honor. Zorn still calls Largent his best friend; their wives are equally close. In fact, Joy Zorn visited Terry Largent in Washington, D.C., during camp and while Steve Largent was attending the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio.
Transitions on and off the field
Zorn retired from pro football in 1987, but for the men who play it, football’s a tough thing to retire from. The intensity of the game, the desire to teach in the Tom Landry mold he saw years before, had strong magnetic pull. And in 1988, Boise State hired Zorn for his first coaching job.
“I think after being an NFL player and then being a coach, it can be humbling, because you’re not the focal point any longer,” he says. “And so, the idea is when you’re done playing, regardless if you’re a coach or you just go into a private business, at some point nobody’s cheering for you anymore. For some players, it’s very difficult. It’s hard to come to grips with, because if our identities are in who we are as a player, then it’s really tough when you’re not a player anymore.”
But since 1997, Zorn has fleshed out his identity and reputation as a coach in the National Football League. In his return to Seattle as quarterbacks coach for seven seasons, he trained Matt Hasselbeck to be a more disciplined player in the offensive system devised by head coach Mike Holmgren. That discipline produced prolific passing stats, three Pro Bowl selections for Hasselbeck and a Super Bowl appearance.
And Zorn is in his second year working with another Matt: Matt Cassel.
“I would describe it as an excellent relationship, both on and off the field,” Zorn says. “I think the communication that we have is very good. I think that he’s learning a lot, and I’m probably a lot more influential this year thus far because we’ve had our offseason with some OTAs and mini-camps and things like that, so we’ve gotten to work together more than last year.”
Coaching at its most merciless, as with all professions, is a succession of hirings and firings. There are some pretty peripatetic folks in the coaching ranks, and Zorn has had nine separate tenures in college and the NFL, most notably his two seasons as the head coach of the Washington Redskins before being fired perhaps too hastily in 2009.
As Zorn explains, this is not for everybody. There’s a lot to give up. But it’s worked for Joy; their three daughters who live in Seattle, Rachael, Sarah and Dani; and their son, Isaac, a senior and lacrosse player at Rockhurst.
“Even if you have the talent to coach and it didn’t work for your family, I still think you have to do something else,” he says. “But it just seems like our family, especially for my wife, it complements us and it’s not so much of a strain or so much of a stress that I’ve had to quit.”
Since moving here, the family has enjoyed exploring the city through First Fridays in the Crossroads District or, something that Zorn thinks is really cool, listening to live music of up-and-coming bands in smaller venues.
On One Arrowhead Drive, Zorn has long respected the Chiefs organization since he played them twice a year as an AFC West foe in Seattle. And this is a winnable division. But it’s like the advice golfer Paul Azinger was given well before he won a PGA Championship: “Son, you can win all the Phoenix Opens you want, but you can’t make history unless you win a major.” For Zorn, it’s not just about winning the AFC West. It’s about that major title.
“I have high expectations for my position, and I have high expectations for what we do as a team and how we grow as a team,” Zorn says. “That’s partly what we’re hired for, is excellence. I think about that every day. When I step out of a meeting or I’m on the field with my players at any time or with our coaching staff at any time, we’re all thinking about excellence.”