by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

The New Guy was already on the phone Monday morning when the old guy came in to tell him he was leaving.

“You can have the office now,” said Darryl Rogers.

“Oh, no, that’s not necessary,” said Wayne Fontes.

“It’s OK. I got all my stuff out.”

“Thanks . . . I’ll just stay here for a while.”

Darryl Rogers, fired the previous evening, shrugged and said fine, which was always his way, and packed up the antique gumball machines and cash registers his wife had collected, and the pictures of his family, and the personal mementos, including the photo of him, Russ Thomas and William Clay Ford in happier times — when Rogers was The New Guy. And then he went home.

And within two hours, Fontes, the former defensive co- ordinator — who would conduct his first staff meeting in his old, cramped office, simply because he was more comfortable there — was greeting the news media as the new Interim Head Coach of the Detroit Lions. He was talking about “forgetting the past” and “returning pride to the team.”

And if there was a soul who missed Darryl Rogers, no one could find him.

“I feel very sorry for what happened to Darryl,” said Fontes, 48, who will guide the Lions the remainder of this season. “He was a good man. He did his best.

“But he played the hand he was dealt. That’s it. Now we have a new deck of cards. . . . I am ready for it. And I will do it.”

Reporters jotted it down. Cameras reeled it in. How badly did this team need a change? The day before it had played a game that barely registered a pulse, a 23-20 loss in the final seconds to Tampa Bay. Tampa Bay? Good Lord. Morale was a doormat. Respect was an orphan. The team was tied for the worst record in the NFL, and Rogers had so thoroughly lost any influence over his men that you could picture him blowing a whistle, turning blue, while the Lions carried on their conversations, carefree and oblivious.

So Ford made the change. He fired Rogers on Sunday night and moved up Fontes, a popular guy with a gritty style. Rogers still had another year and five games left on his contract. The Lions will be paying him through 1989.

They just won’t have to listen to him anymore. Christmas in November

Downstairs in the players’ locker room, it was Christmas. The news was more than welcome. Rogers had been liked by a few, tolerated by others and resented by the rest.

“Is there anybody in this room that’s really going to miss him?” someone asked offensive tackle Lomas Brown.

He studied the crowd.

“Naw, I don’t think there is,” he said.

This is the picture the Lions painted of their departed coach: a strangely mild man who showed little emotion, had minimal offensive strategy, and distanced himself from any outside effort to influence the team — even when it was clearly positive.

“At the beginning of this year, we were so fired up, some guys handed out T-shirts saying we had a new attitude,” recalled one player, who preferred to remain anonymous. “And after the T-shirts were given out, Darryl, who was standing there the whole time, just looked at his watch and said, ‘OK. Meeting at 7:30.’ And left. Nothing like ‘Yeah, that’s the spirit,’ or anything.

“That was such a kick in the teeth. . . . For me, that was the beginning of the end.”

And so too, apparently, for Rogers, who lost nine of the next 11 games. The only victories were over Atlanta and Kansas City, two of the worst teams in the game (the latter by 7-6). Players grumbled. Then they barked. The offense was a joke, they said. And privately, they all knew what was coming.

“Is the firing a good move?” someone asked quarterback Eric Hipple, who, even injured, has always had the pulse of this team.

“Yeah,” he said, “it is. The only surprise is that it happened at this point in the season, instead of waiting until the end.”

But why not? The New Guy gets to strut his stuff now, for five games.

The season does not hang in the balance.

But the future of Wayne Fontes, head coach with thick neck, does. A chance to prove himself

“I know this team better than anyone,” said Fontes, in the banquet room of the Silverdome, wriggling in the unfamiliar grip of a suit and tie. “I know it better than Chuck Knox or Jerry Glanville or other coaches people may be talking about. And I’m here to prove it.

“I realize the arrangement right now is as an interim coach for the next five games only. . . . But I’m going to make it very hard for them to fire me.”

He smiled, and those around him smiled, too. He had been watching another football game Sunday night, eating ice cream, when the phone rang. It was Rogers, telling him he had been fired, and the job had been passed on. “He said he thought I might be getting a bad deal because the personnel wasn’t really good,” Fontes said, “but I think we have good people here. I really do.”

He looks you in the eye when he says it. And whether he’ll be here five weeks or five years, the first difference you notice between The New Guy and the old guy is that when Fontes says something, you believe him. Rogers always had a little problem with the truth. He tended to ignore it.

Not Fontes. The son of a Portuguese steel mill worker who laughs like a foreman, looks a bit like Fred Flintstone and says things like “my way or the highway,” he seems almost too down- to-earth for his new role. Far from being “presidential,” Fontes actually began to choke up during his press conference Monday, moisture filling his eyes when he talked about this new opportunity.

And it was hard not to feel something — or to at least give the guy a shot. For the next five weeks, he said, he has every intention of running this team the way he ran the defense. With discipline, laughter and familiarity. And unlike Rogers, Fontes has played pro football, which counts more than you think with players.

Offense? That will be a problem — although Sunday’s firing of Bob Baker, Rogers’ offensive co-ordinator, should clear some muck from the pipes.

Morale? That will not be a problem. At least not at first. Besides, it couldn’t get any lower.

Success? Victory? Can the Lions win? Well. They have long been saying their talent is better than their record. Here is a chance to prove it. Five games. Green Bay twice, Minnesota, Tampa Bay and Chicago. Go to it.

“Can you tell us someone you really admire?” asked one reporter, eager to get a grip on the new personality.

“God,” said Fontes.

So at least he’s shooting high.

And we’ll see what happens. It may well be that the Lions should pursue a more experienced coach in the off-season. Revamp the whole program. Pay big money for big expertise. But that lies five weeks away. And in the interim, Fontes, who sooner or later will move into that vacated office, seems convinced that five weeks is all he needs.

What have we got to lose? On the way up to his first press conference, Fontes rode in a cramped elevator, surrounded by people who, not knowing what to say, stood there with solemn expressions.

“Hey, no need for all these long faces,” he said, gently poking one of them. “Smile a little!”

The doors swung open and the New Guy stepped out, headed down the hallway, ready to save the day. CUTLINE: The Detroit Lions’ new coach, Wayne Fontes, 48, brightens a newsconference Monday.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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