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

Week after week during this past football season, I would walk into ESPN and see the grinning faces of analysts Joe Theisman and Sterling Sharpe.

“How ’bout those Lions?” they would yell, and then break up laughing.

They would shake their heads, ask me about the latest embarrassment, then ask me to explain again how Wayne Fontes kept his job. And then they’d laugh some more.

They are not laughing this morning. They are nodding in admiration. That is the first thing Bobby Ross brings the Lions. He’s legit. Everyone stops laughing.

So, if you ask me, this is the day’s first breaking news. Before they even open the door for Ross and take his coat and give him a hug and welcome him to the family, the men who run this franchise have already done one crucial thing: they have acted like a serious, intelligent, looking-to-win NFL team. They needed a proven coach. They needed a guy with Super Bowl experience. They went after one. They got him.

Just like the good teams.

“We had to have someone credible,” admitted Bill Ford Jr. Sunday afternoon,
“and we needed someone who was seen as a winner. We checked into (Ross’) background, heard the good things you usually hear, then we checked even deeper and heard even more good things.

“From that point, money wasn’t even a question. We just wanted to get him here, and make sure it was a comfortable fit.”

This may sound childishly logical to you; if so, you have not been a Lions fan for long. Die-hards have been waiting decades for such an attitude. They didn’t get it last time, or the time before that, or the time before that. They got Fontes, no history of NFL winning, Darryl Rogers, no history of NFL winning, Monte Clark, Tommy Hudspeth, Rick Forzano.

The reaction around the league when the Lions hired these guys was, at best, “Hmm.” At worst it was “AHAHAHAHAHA!”

Not anymore. Other teams wanted Ross. Other teams chased Ross. The Lions won.

Just like the good teams.

Serious approach wins in NFL

Now, I cannot tell you Ross will win a Super Bowl in Detroit. No one can tell you that. Nor can I tell you that the men hired by the other teams in this supermarket season for coaches might not win faster. No one can tell you that.

But given the information available, Ross was the smart move, and quite likely the winning move. He is a man who has never had a losing season in the NFL, and he brings a serious approach to preparation and practice, which was lacking under Fontes and wasn’t even thinkable under Rogers, a guy who once counted the pigeons on the Silverdome roof.

“One of the best things about Ross is that he doesn’t need much of a learning curve,” said Ford. Jr. “He’s not a college head coach, or a guy who was an assistant. That’s important, because the nucleus of this team doesn’t have that many more years together.”

Again, smart thinking. The only other candidate who better fit this bill was Bill Parcells, and no one even knows if he’s leaving New England. If he is, all indications are he’s going to the Jets. If the Lions waited to pitch him, it would have been February — since he’s still active — and by that point, Ross would be gone.

Nuh-uh. This is the move you make. Never mind that some critics think the Lions acted too quickly. Those same people would later say the Lions acted too slowly. The fact is, in addition to Northwestern’s Gary Barnett — a waste of time — Ford. Jr says the Lions talked to “four other candidates.” None brought what Ross does.

So the Fords made him an offer — a fat offer, almost twice as much per season what they were paying Fontes — and admit it. As a Lions fan, you are happy to see them fork over the money. It breaks a pattern. It means they really want to play with the big boys.

Just like the good teams.

There are some hesitations

Now, with any hire there are hesitations. Here are mine with Ross. He is 60, and it is hard enough for 40-year-old coaches to relate to today’s young-and-younger players. That concerns me — especially since Ross spent most of his career in college ball.

He is also loyal to his assistants, especially offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen, who has been with him 20 years. That loyalty is part of what led to his resignation from the Chargers a few weeks ago. I admire loyalty. And Lord knows Fontes was willing to throw anyone overboard who didn’t share his blood line. But 20 years is a long time to be thinking the same way about offense. That concerns me.

Then again, if some college hotshot were coming in, my list of concerns would be longer. Same for any promising NFL assistant. Ross is the best move, and, no matter what happens, it shows that the Lions are — largely if you ask me, because of Ford Jr.’s involvement with his father — thinking like a winning team, paying like a winning team, and making decisions like a winning team.

When I suggest this to Ford Jr., he shies away. But he does say, “If we want to be an elite team in the NFL, it’s time we acted that way.”

That sentence alone — before Ross even steps to the microphone — gives fans a pretty warm feeling in the dead of winter.


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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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