New Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton diagrams a play.
Ray Horton, then a Steelers defensive backs coach, was at a league function when he ran into a man who would soon become his boss.
Horton didn’t know that at the moment he was introduced to Cardinals president Michael Bidwill, but he did notice Bidwill look at him from toe-to-head and take in Horton’s long, braided hair – not exactly the look expected from a 50-year-old assistant NFL coach. Horton remembered thinking, “He doesn’t like that.”
Less than a week later, Horton had agreed to become the Cardinals’ defensive coordinator. Looking sharp in his suit, he met Bidwill again. “I am getting ready to cut my hair,” Horton told him. Bidwill replied, “Don’t cut your hair. I like it.”
Horton isn’t all about his hair. But in many ways it’s a symbol of what he is, often looking to zig when people expect him to zag and trying to prey on the predictability of his opponents while trying not to be that way himself.
He describes himself as “the quirky, odd guy.” Maybe that can help him as coordinator. What will help him is decades of preparing for this time, because whatever Horton’s makeup, at his core he has always been a coach.
“He knows everything you write on the board might not turn out like that on the field,” said assistant defensive backs coach Deshea Townsend, who played for Horton for six seasons. “But once you step on the field, mentally you will be prepared.”
Horton has coached for 17 years, but it might has well have been longer. After prep stardom in the Seattle area, Horton was one of the first – he smiles and says he thinks he was the first – high school players to graduate early and then enroll in college for the spring and get a head start on learning the next level.
For spring football, however, Horton was the lone player not to know what was going on. Everyone else had just played a full season. One day, after getting lost during a practice rep, an assistant coach bellowed for him to get off the field. Horton responded: “If I don’t practice and learn, how am I going to get better?”
That was the point, Horton said, when he knew he needed to know what everyone was doing on at all times – in some ways, the definition of a coach. In 10 years as a defensive back, he was the guy coaches turned to, the ones players heeded. “He was one of those players who you recognize almost instantly was going to make a great coach,” said Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who coached Horton in Cincinnati.
“There are certain guys on the field guys gravitate toward, or trust and believe in,” Horton said. “And there are players that they don’t.
“I embraced that guys looked at me and trusted me and kind of knew what I was talking about.”
The greatest compliment Horton said he ever received came from Norv Turner, who was the offensive coordinator for the Cowboys during Horton’s playing days in Dallas. As Horton’s NFL career came to a close, Turner – who figured to get a head coaching opportunity soon – asked Horton to be on his staff, whenever that might be.
Horton was perplexed. He talked to a lot of coaches in Dallas, but they were defensive coaches, given Horton’s position. He hadn’t interacted with Turner nearly enough to produce an invitation to work for him. Turner told him he wanted Horton because all the Dallas defensive coaches spoke so highly of him – and that willingness from Turner sticks with Horton to this day.
A year after he stopped playing football, Horton’s second career started as coach.
“The way he understands the game and the way he can not only talk about the secondary but the linebackers and d-line and the way he understands offenses, I knew it was a matter of time before he became a coordinator,” Townsend said. “He will allow you to do your job, but he will expect you to do it right. He’s not going to waste your time.”
Horton has always been aggressive, a coaching trait developed under LeBeau. Horton has made it clear a few times he plans to follow the LeBeau mentality in Arizona, and there won’t be a wait-to-react mindset.
Horton plays on the theme that people are “creatures of habit,” which many times means he doesn’t have to wait to react anyway. Players, he knows. Coaches watch hours of video to know their tendencies. The offensive coordinator on the other team, however, is the one Horton plays chess against. “If his go-to call in crunch time is a deep ball, he’s probably going to call it,” Horton said. “Every once in a while, he will throw a curveball, but if you see enough of it, you’ll know what the curveball is.”
In Horton’s world, he doesn’t want to be that predictable. He’ll drive to work various routes. If he’s playing golf, he may use a 6-iron on a particular shot and then, if a similar shot comes up again, try to 8-iron, just to see the difference.
He’s also got the hair, which he started growing in Pittsburgh and – when no one said anything – just kept growing it, in part egged on by his players. “Most coaches don’t have the good hair,” Townsend said. “That’s how I see it. This is his Samson moment.”
The Cardinals hope Horton doesn’t meet a Delilah anytime soon. The other day, Horton said, he was asked if ended up with an interview to be a head coach if he would then cut his hair.
Horton admitted he didn’t know.
“It’s just part of me right now,” Horton said. “To tell the truth, it’s hard to keep up. Every time I have to get it braided, I think, ‘I have to get this cut.’ But I have had more comments and compliments in Phoenix about my hair. ‘You’re the coach with the hair.’
“I can’t cut it now.”