EFFINGHAM -- New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton thinks the last time he was in Effingham was at a college dance, probably a formal.
So Payton went formal on his return Wednesday night, wearing a tuxedo to the Eastern Illinois University athletic director's gala.
This time, he was helping raise money and formally kick off the athletic facilities plan put together by EIU Athletic Director Barbara Burke and her staff. About 300 guests were on hand at the Hilton Garden Inn as Payton made his first return to the area since 2001.
The Super Bowl-winning coach said he remembers a lot about his days at Eastern, the many friends he developed and his football playing days for coach Al Molde.
Payton says the work ethic and dedication he learned at EIU has carried over into his coaching career. A former star quarterback for the Panthers in the 1980s, Payton achieved any coach's goal when his New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl earlier this month, and he said he built the foundation for that success at Eastern.
"When you participate in a sport, you want to reach your goal somehow," he said. "When you are able to do that on the college level, your success will carry over into the rest of your life."
Payton told reporters at the Thelma Keller Convention Center before the gala that he was glad to be back in central Illinois.
"It's awesome to be back here," Payton said. "I'm from Naperville, my wife's from Indiana, and every time the plane lands (in the Midwest) it always feels like home."
"It's the people who made my four and a half or five years here so special."
Payton isn't the only Eastern grad to succeed as an NFL head coach. Mike Shanahan won two Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos, while Brad Childress' Minnesota Vikings are a perennial championship contender.
Both Shanahan and Childress attended Eastern in the 1970s.
Payton said he keeps in touch with a number of former Eastern players, including Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, yet another former Eastern standout who has made his mark in the NFL.
Payton said his life since the Saints' Super Bowl win over the Indianapolis Colts has been a blur.
"Time passed quickly since we returned to New Orleans," he said. "First, we had the (victory) parade and Mardi Gras was right after that. But things have settled down and we're getting ready for the upcoming season."
Payton also talked about what may become one of the most famous Super Bowl plays -- the onside kick to begin the second half against the Colts. The coach said it wasn't a snap decision.
"It's something we'd talked about," he said. "We were looking for a way to gain a possession.
"When our special teams met the night before the game, I told the group that we're going to run it, but I didn't know when.
"It all came down to the players making me look good."