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

On the day after Christmas, when many Americans trade in their unwanted merchandise, the Lions traded in their coach, Wayne Fontes.

There will be no refund.

The Lions get nothing back for this wasted year, a year in which a truly talented team finished dead last in its division. They get nothing back for any of the eight seasons in which they may have been good enough to contend for a title, but were outsmarted, out-prepared or simply too confused by the Fontes regime to win.

They get no refunds, but apparently they have no regrets, either — at least not the Ford family, who, if nothing else, injects etiquette into a business that sorely lacks it. Most coaches are shown the door after one or two less-than-perfect seasons. Not so with this team.

In fact, only two current coaches in all of major league sports had longer tenures than Fontes — Tom Kelly, who has won two World Series with the Minnesota Twins, and Marv Levy, who has taken the Buffalo Bills to four Super Bowls.

And then there’s Fontes, who won one playoff game.

Nice guy, finished.

“He took it very well,” said William Clay Ford, who hired and ultimately fired Fontes with one year left on his contract. “I don’t think it was totally unexpected.”

Unexpected? There are monks in Tibet who knew Fontes would get axed. After this season’s collapse, firing him was the only move the Lions could make. Had they announced Fontes was returning, they would have been giving away tickets at church raffles.

Which is not to say the farewell Thursday was what you would call, uh, routine. No sir. Fontes left the game the way he coached it, zigging and zagging.

At first, we were told he would not attend the news conference at the Silverdome.

Then, 20 minutes into it, Fontes burst through the door, wearing his Lions jacket, smiling broadly, bear-hugging the owner.

It was like watching Rodney Dangerfield interrupt a science lecture; you’re glad for the entertainment, but you’re not sure what he’s doing there.

“It’s been a great eight years for Wayne Fontes and my family,” he proclaimed, smiling all the way. “Don’t feel sorry for me. . . . I’ll always bleed Honolulu blue. I’ll be in the community, pumping the Lions.”

He thanked the owners, he thanked the fans, he thanked the media for making the Lions “the most talked-about team in football.” I’m not sure what that meant, but as they say, when a guy’s on a roll, you don’t want to interrupt him.

“I’m not going to take any questions. I just want to say God bless you all, go home and kiss your families, and . . . God bless you all.”

And off he went.

Nice guy, finished. All over the map

Now, it’s hard not to like Fontes. In fact, the problem never was liking him. The problem was seeing through that affection. Fontes’ attitude was upbeat, but his coaching was, in a word, substandard. He jerked this team in countless directions. He hired and fired so many staff members there was never a chance to keep a philosophy intact.

He oversaw some bad drafts — Andre Ware alone cost this team invaluable time and money — and he committed countless boo-boos, from clock management to jerking his quarterback in the middle of a game.

And while Fontes, with a 67-71 career record, often joked about being “the Big Buck” that everyone was hunting, well, let’s just say that when he finally walked the gangplank, there was no one left to throw overboard.

He tossed out more offensive and defensive coordinators than you could count. He changed the offense from run ‘n’ shoot to power run to Great Lakes, whatever that means. He changed the defensive scheme back and forth and forth and back. He never learned how to use the greatest runner in football, Barry Sanders.

When he won, it never felt as good as it should have, partially because of the playoff collapses. And when he lost, he lost painfully. Sometimes he lost the majority of a season; sometimes he lost the first half, then scrambled to save the second. Sometimes he lost playoff games. Eventually, he lost control.

In the end, Fontes became a sad clown, keeping a happy face on an otherwise solemn situation. Fans may have been bloodthirsty in the way they called for his head, but fans are not blind. They look around the NFL and see Mike Holmgren in Green Bay, hired after Fontes, building a winner, and Bill Cowher in Pittsburgh, hired after Fontes, building a winner, and Ray Rhodes in Philly, hired after Fontes, building a winner, and Bill Parcells in New England, hired after Fontes, building a winner, and Dom Capers in Carolina and Tom Coughlin in Jacksonville — expansion coaches, for goodness sakes! — building winners.

And they look at this Detroit roster — with Sanders, Herman Moore, Scott Mitchell, Brett Perriman, Kevin Glover, Henry Thomas — and they say, “What’s the matter with us?”

You know what?

It’s a fair question. Ford too patient?

Of course, firing Fontes, as hard as it was for Ford, is still the easy part of this equation. The really hard part is whom to hire next. If Fontes was a failure, then so, to a degree, was Ford. He chose the guy — even though Fontes had no head coaching experience and had never worked for a real winner.

“Do you feel you stuck with Wayne too long?” I asked the owner.

“No, I don’t,” Ford said. “I certainly had to give him a chance to make it a success. He did deliver. He got us to the playoffs. He won a playoff game for us.”

Maybe there’s the problem right there. Many owners would use the sentence
“He won a playoff game for us” as reason to fire him.

Ford says it as if he owes the guy something.

The Lions need to stop thinking like a weak sister. This is a plum job, a great football city with a new stadium coming. A coach who comes here and wins could have more job security than anywhere else in football. All the Fords need to do is make the salary competitive with other big-time jobs to lure a prime candidate.

That is easier said than done. I have great respect for Bill Ford Jr., whose involvement with this process may be the fans’ best hope for a proper coach. But Thursday, Bill Sr. said the final decision would still rest with him, and that draws a shiver. Not a single coach William Clay Ford has hired has been an NFL head coach again.

And, unless I’m way off here, Fontes will not be an exception.

Nice guy, finished. I’m not sure what we will remember most about Fontes. He deserves credit for making us expect a winner, just as he deserves blame for not delivering one.

I happened to open a side door just as he was exiting the Silverdome. He looked over, smiled and waved, as if leaving a party. I found myself waving back, and couldn’t shake the feeling that he had just pulled something over on all of us.


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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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