J.D. Roberts, Saints head coach and College Football Hall of Fame player, dies at 88

New Orleans Saints v Jacksonville Jaguars
USA Today

J.D. Roberts, who had a College Football Hall of Fame career as a lineman at Oklahoma and later became head coach of the New Orleans Saints, has died at the age of 88.

Roberts became the second head coach in Saints history when he was named the team’s interim head coach during the 1970 season, and in his very first game he made his most memorable coaching decision: With the Saints trailing the Lions 17-16 in the final seconds, Roberts eschewed a Hail Mary attempt and instead sent in kicker Tom Dempsey for a 63-yard field goal. Players on the Lions later admitted they were laughing at the very idea that Dempsey could kick it 63 yards (the NFL record up to that point was 56 yards), but Dempsey made it and the Saints won 19-17.

The next spring, Roberts and the Saints drafted Archie Manning, the greatest player in the early history of the Saints franchise, with the second overall pick in the 1971 NFL draft.

“J.D. drafted me and was my first coach,” Manning recalled. “He believed in me and always had my back. He was my good friend for 50 years.”

But the Saints struggled to a 4-8-2 record in 1971 and a 2-11-1 record in 1972, and after an ugly preseason loss in 1973, Saints owner John Mecom decided Roberts was not the man for the job and fired him before the start of the regular season.

Roberts played his college football at Oklahoma and was a stellar player on both the offensive line and the defensive line, winning the Outland Trophy as the best lineman in the country in 1953. (He was later voted to the College Football Hall of Fame.) The Packers drafted Roberts, but he never played in the NFL and instead went into the Marine Corps before taking jobs as an assistant coach for several colleges, and then for the Saints.

His experience in the Marines inspired Roberts’ hard-charging approach to coaching, and it was an approach that was ultimately unsuccessful in the NFL. But Roberts was also remembered by his players for his belief in them, and for famously believing, in his first game, that his kicker could do something that had never been done before.