First of all, Wayne Fontes is still the coach of the Lions. I don’t fire him. You don’t fire him. All the pundits on radio and TV don’t fire him. That task is for someone named Ford, and if you go by the history of that name and this team, well, there’s no telling what might happen.

But just as we do our Christmas shopping early for a holiday that is still weeks off, perhaps the Fords already are thinking about a new man for the job, even though the current coach has three games left to endure, er, play.

And if they are thinking about it — and it seems that everyone else in this city is — then I would like to offer some advice. My advice is short and sweet. In fact, I can sum it up in three words:

Super Bowl Experience.

If the next guy doesn’t have that, they are wasting their money. They might as well keep Wayne, and that’s a pretty sad statement. The fact is, this team has the personnel right now — assuming it can shore up the defense in the off-season — to contend for a championship. And if the Lions hire some guy who needs two seasons just to get his ducks in a row, well, they are being dumber than Wayne ever was.

Now, let us give this to Fontes: He turned the Lions into a team that expects to win. It was not so long ago, remember, that the men who wore the silver-and-blue felt privileged to finish 8-8. Today it’s a bitter disappointment. That’s good.

But Fontes has never known how to do more than that. His playoff performances have been mostly abysmal. And you know what? Every time he has been sent home for the season, it was by a coach who had — here go those words again — Super Bowl Experience. Joe Gibbs with the Redskins. Mike Holmgren, Green Bay. Ray Rhodes, Philadelphia.

Some of these men had not been head coaches as long as Fontes; but they had better pedigrees.

It’s time the Lions hired a pedigree, too.

Look at Denver, Washington

Don’t take my word for it. Look around. The teams that are coming on now in the NFL are led by men who have been to Super Bowls, or have coached under men who won Super Bowls. Mike Shanahan — who once ran the offense with the 49ers — is now steering the mighty ship in Denver. Norv Turner — who once told Troy Aikman what to do in Dallas — is now running the success story in Washington. Rhodes and Holmgren — who used to be with San Francisco? Super Bowl. Bill Parcells in New England? Super Bowl.

It’s the little things these guys know that Fontes does not — including how to judge championship talent, and how to find playmakers. How could Fontes know these things? Wayne cut his teeth with Tampa Bay, a perennial loser, and he assisted here under Darryl Rogers, another perennial loser. When he took over this team, he had been to four NFL playoff games in his career — and three of them were losses.

Is there any wonder he has hired and fired more assistants than Roseanne? Or that the most common complaint from the Lions players this year is that the team is “confused”?

Here is the most important fact staring down the Ford family: The Lions roster contains major talent, which is committed here for a brief time. Barry Sanders has one more year on his contract. Henry Thomas has one more year. Herman Moore has three. Scott Mitchell and Brett Perriman are up this month. Maybe they sign back — but not for more than a few years.

All of which means a new coach here must produce immediately. No five-year plans. No complete overhauls. No “give us time to adjust to a new system.” The Lions do that, they might as well climb to the top of the Silverdome and throw themselves off.

So please, let’s not hear about some college coach who wants to make his mark in the pros. It’s OK to be impressed with the Gary Barnetts of the world; but be impressed with what they did in college. When it comes to the NFL, I say show me what you’ve done.

The Lions need to approach a new coach they way they would approach a star free agent. Big money. Short deal. They should not be looking to hire a leader for the next two decades. That’s not how sports work today. The Lions need a coach for the current situation, and the current situation requires someone who can take out a map and give you directions to a championship.

Super Bowl Experience.

I did say that already, didn’t I?

Look to the past

Yes, there are exceptions to this rule, such as Bill Cowher in Pittsburgh. And if I trusted the Lions brass to find the next Bill Cowher, I would revise my suggestion. But this is a team that hired Fontes, Rogers, Monte Clark, Rick Forzano and Tommy Hudspeth. Sorry. But we’ve earned the right to doubt their scouting.

And please, please, Mr. Ford, let’s not promote someone simply because he’s here or will work cheap. You did that with Fontes. Need we say more?

Right now the league is being led by guys who came out of the Bill Walsh or Jimmy Johnson school; many of these men were hired after Fontes, yet have passed him in accomplishments. It’s no secret. They have a better clue.

The Lions need to get one as well.

Super Bowl Experience.

I’m not being too subtle here, am I?

Got a comment on Mitch’s column? Share it on our Lions and Mitch Albom forums on the Web at www.freep.com.

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