The new head coach, who is an excitable fellow, was driving down Southfield Road, barely able to contain himself. He had just been given the job of his dreams — a three-year contract to coach the Lions — and, filled with joy and gratitude, he wanted to thank God. So he saw a house of worship. Thought it was a church. He slammed on the brakes and raced into the building.

He looked for the holy water. No holy water. He looked for the pews. No pews. “What the heck?” he figured. He knelt down and began to cross himself, as he had always done in the Catholic church.

And the rabbi walked over.

Oops.

“I’m in the wrong place, huh?” Wayne Fontes whispered. The rabbi smiled. Fontes smiled. And he finished his prayer, right in the synagogue.

Because, as he said, “It’s all the same God in the end, right?”

Well. Who knows? Detroit football fans this morning seem more concerned with whether it’s all the same coach in the end. Fontes, 48, the former defensive co-ordinator — lovable, emotional (if not the best with directions) — was named The New Man In Charge of the Lions, officially now, after five games as interim skipper. He spoke to the news media Thursday about

“returning the Lions to the top of the league,” and how he “won’t let this team down.”

Given its finish this season (4-12), that shouldn’t be too hard, because up is about the only direction left. “But is he the right man?” people want to know. Will he finally be the one to lift the Lions above the dreary waters of failure, in which they have been splashing for so long?

The answer is . . .

Who knows?

Maybe we should ask the rabbi. A winning personality

Here is the dangerous thing about Wayne Fontes. You meet him in person, he immediately begins to rub off on you. The warmth. The sense of humor. He is as cleansing as rainwater, as infectious as the flu. None of which tells us whether he can coach. But you watch him in a press conference, hear him talk of how he is “humbled by this great honor” and how he celebrated with his family by eating a whole pizza, and, well, you can’t help but pull for him.

So maybe it is better to judge Fontes, whose entire NFL coaching career has been with weak teams, when he is out of the room, when you can’t see those puppy dog eyes and Fred Flintstone whiskers. Here, in cold, hard fact, is what he has demonstrated in his five weeks as interim coach: 1) That he can motivate the Lions for one big game against a star opponent like the Chicago Bears; 2) That he can devise a way to twice beat Green Bay, perhaps the worst team in the league; 3) That the players, almost to a man, love him.

And here is also what he has demonstrated: 1) That against a serious opponent like Minnesota, his team gets slaughtered; 2) That he can fail to motivate in a meaningless game, such as Sunday’s season-ending loss at Tampa Bay; 3) That nice words and an emotional sideline act are no substitute for talented players.

Now. You make the call. Do you see enough there for a hire? If you are Lions owner William Clay Ford, you do. But it is interesting to note that what counts against Fontes in the minds of some fans was what counted for him in the mind of Ford.

For example, familiarity. Fans shouted, “Clean house! Give us something new! Anyone from the Darryl Rogers regime can’t be any good!”

Ford disagreed. “It would take a new coach two years just to learn what Wayne already knows about this team,”‘ he said Thursday. “I thought about interviewing other people. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I already had what I wanted. . . . I never interviewed anyone else, and neither did any of my staff.”

How about a track record? Fans wanted a fancy resume. “For once,” they pleaded, “give us a coach who wears a Super Bowl ring. A guy who’s already shown he can win, instead of just promising.”

Again Ford disagreed: “I was down in Miami recently, and I was reading the newspapers. Don Shula used to be God there. Now they’re lambasting him. .
. . That’s what happens. Hiring (a big-name coach) would only be good for the next day’s newspapers. It would be quickly forgotten. The people don’t care who’s coaching the team. They just want entertaining, successful football.” Actually, it’s no surprise

Of course, critics argue, Tom Flores, Jerry Glanville or Chuck Knox (all rumored candidates for the job) could have provided all that — and they at least come with a pedigree. But Ford has never hired those kinds of people, and so it’s no surprise that he passed on them this time. Perhaps he prefers a coach who, if successful, will owe him his career. Perhaps he feels uncomfortable with a big-name coach who will want to do things his way, and doesn’t need to say “thank you, boss” after every week. If you look at the line of coaches Ford has hired (Fontes, Rogers, Monte Clark, Tommy Hudspeth), he seems bent on giving the job to a little guy and hoping he rises to the top.

Of course, the little guys demand less money, too.

But it is Ford’s team; he makes the hires. And Thursday he hired an undeniably delightful man who has, in recent weeks, cried at press conferences, cried after his first victory, hugged his players, hugged reporters, and hugged the owner after he gave him the job.

“I certainly did hug him,” Fontes said Thursday, beaming. “And when he came in the building this morning, I did it again . . . and I went for his wallet this time.”

“Did you get it?” he was asked.

“No,” he said, laughing. He tapped his chest, then his thigh. “He keeps it up here, not down here.”

And perhaps that is where the Lions’ fate now lies, too. In the heart, not the bottom line. The bottom line says that Fontes is 2-3 as a head coach, with no previous experience, a dearth of talent and the worst offense in football. And he wants to draft a defensive end in the first round next April.

The heart says that little guys deserve a chance, that Glanville and Marty Schottenheimer were assistants who rose quickly to the top, that, unlike Rogers, Fontes has played the game, he is involved, he is liked by the players, and he wants to be a part of Detroit, going to Pistons games, Red Wings games, living in a house, not a rented apartment.

Who’s right? Blame it on Christmas. Fontes has been given a chance, smack under his tree, and Lions fans will have to be patient once again, or start rooting for the next-closest team — say, the Cleveland Browns.

Of course, if Fontes keeps pulling into unknown synagogues and churches, it might have a positive effect. No one knows how many games he’ll win.

But he’ll sure have some powerful forces on his side. CUTLINE Lions coach Wayne Fontes speaks at a news conference Thursday.

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