FOR THE FIRST TIME, MATT MILLEN FINDS HIMSELF ON A LOSING TEAM…”IT’S MIND-BOGGLING FOR ME”

It is just after 6 in the morning, still dark outside. A lonely light comes from the ground floor office of the Pontiac Silverdome. If you drive slowly enough, you can see him in there, through the huge glass window. Matt Millen, behind his desk, already hovered over a stack of papers.

If only sweat could win football games! If only hours served could put points on the board! If only strain, stress, thinking and rethinking could bring you victory! Then Matt Millen, the Lions president and CEO, could realize his dream. He would outwork everybody. Outthink everybody. If they read 100 charts, he’d read 200. If they put in 24 hours, he’d put in 25.

Isn’t he here now, while the rest of the world is still asleep? Isn’t he here all day, eating meals in this cavernous building, watching film, reading reports, studying that damn salary cap book until his eyes bulge from his head? Doesn’t he go home late, drop into bed, without as much as a movie or a sitcom, then rumble back into the office the next morning before dawn? Isn’t he living out of an apartment, a spartan existence, his family and children still back in Pennsylvania, where he sees them once every few weeks?

Ain’t that lovin’ you, football? Oh, if only dedication could translate to victory, then things would be so different, the standings would be reversed, and Millen’s team, the team that he took over in one stunning day last winter
— emerging from the broadcast world with sneakers and a sports coat, no management experience, yet promising change, oozing confidence — that team, his team, the Detroit Lions, would be undefeated now, instead of 0-8 and a doormat in the NFL.

“I get on an Avis rent-a-car bus a few weeks ago,” Millen says, “and the driver doesn’t recognize me. He starts talking football.

“He’s a friendly guy. He says something about Michigan. He says, ‘Michigan, they’re playing good football . . . not like them Lions!’

“I had my cap on, so I’m sliding down in the seat under it. And he goes,
‘Man, you can take that McMillen guy and that head coach — whatever his name is — you can have ’em! They’re playing terrible!’ “

He shrugs and laughs it off. This is life for Millen now. He can laugh, but he doesn’t find it funny. He has never been this familiar with losing. Losing was not in his world. From the time he was 6 years old and playing baseball, he didn’t lose. Not often, anyhow. And never regularly.

Now, here he is, halfway through his first season as an NFL executive, and there are eight black marks and not a single victory notch in his belt. His hand-selected coach, Marty Mornhinweg, has gone from “Who?” to “Why?” His quarterback, Charlie Batch, whom he tolerates like a mother-in-law, is not delivering the way Millen worried he might not deliver. His roster is littered with injuries. His stat sheet is littered with penalties.

And — besides shuffling a lesser player or two — there is almost nothing he can do about it.

Matt Millen would like to strangle something. But what? He puts a pen on his desk, pretends it’s a player. He says you teach it X. You preach it X. You harp on X. Then the player goes out and does Y.

“Arrrrgh!” he says.

He is a dedicated man, an intelligent man, a passionate man and a focused man. And he is finding that dedication, intelligence, passion and focus don’t gain a yard in the actual game.

As the sun begins to rise over Pontiac, Matt Millen and I engage in a long conversation. Here are some of the highlights:Albom: So how bad is it? Millen: Well, I haven’t been surprised by the learning curve — I knew that coming in. But I have been surprised by the quirky twists. I understand that the ball bounces funny ways. But not this many ways.

Albom: Is any of this the spiral effect of one loss spilling into another? Millen: I think so. We have an awful record — but we’re not a bad team. You have to play well to beat us, because inevitably it’s come down to the last series, us or you.

Albom: What do your friends say to you?

Millen: Well, first of all, I don’t have very many. I never did.

Albom: Fewer now than at the beginning?

Millen: No. I have a lot of acquaintances — I don’t have very many friends. But what do they say? I really don’t talk to my family about it. My brother’s a coach. This week he called and said, “NOW what happened?”

Albom: This may not be that talented a team, but the same core of players did better last year than they’re doing now.

Millen: They won. Yes. They won some games.

Albom: Isn’t that how you judge a football team? Millen: Absolutely.

Albom: If you were 8-0, would anyone care if you were lucky or not?

Millen: No. . . . I agree with you.

Albom: So how do you have the same group come in and go 0-8? Millen: I don’t know the answer. I do know offensively . . . I’m convinced this (West Coast) offense works and will work better.

Albom: Was it the right move to pick this offense at this time, given the personnel? Millen: The answer is no and yes. The yes part is that this is an adaptable offense: If you want a power running game, you can have it, for example. And it’s a passing offense, and this is a passing league.

Albom: Is the “no part” that the offense doesn’t match your personnel?

Millen: In some cases, yeah. Like the running game. James Stewart was running the ball well. But then he got hurt and we lost that.

I had hoped that Germane Crowell would turn into a playmaker. Then he blew out his knee. That was our speed guy, somebody who another team would come in here and say, “We have to stop this guy.”

We don’t have any of that now.

Albom: You don’t scare anybody.

Millen: No, we don’t. Crowell was our guy to scare people.

Albom: What about Charlie Batch? You never seemed too high on him from the start. Millen: OK . . . so let’s go back to that time. I said we need patience. And I said we were “married” to him. And we were. The money makes it so.

The truth is, Charlie’s not unlike a lot of guys. Charlie’s not unlike the kid in New York (Kerry Collins), and he went to a Super Bowl. He has limitations, but if you play solid defense and you can run the football, you can live with him.

Albom: Do you have to change quarterbacks by next year in order to have any shot? Millen: No. Not if we can get stronger defensively and have a solid running game.

Albom: In retrospect, do you regret the whole Ty Detmer experiment?

Millen: Oh, no. No. Not at all.

Albom: Do you regret the way it was handled? Millen: Yeah. That wasn’t the plan.

Albom: What was?

Millen: The plan was to bring Detmer in and bring him slow and have him help Charlie and then let Charlie play and make the change if we had to make a change. We probably jumped the gun on that.

Albom: Is Mike McMahon really your future here? Millen: I don’t know yet. Talent-wise, Mitch, you’re not gonna find many who have more raw talent.

But right now, Charlie’s the quarterback. And Charlie can do some good things. But if you’re not gonna get it all done by your quarterback, you gotta do it elsewhere. Like on defense.

And that one really has me puzzled. That’s probably the worst one for me.

Albom: Defense?

Millen: Yes . . . because we don’t have speed down the middle of our defense. We haven’t developed a pass rush at all. . . . If Robert Porcher doesn’t get there, it doesn’t seem to happen. We’re not good on third downs. And our corners don’t challenge people enough.

Albom: But you can’t just say it’s the wrong personnel, because every team has personnel limitations. Millen: Sure.

Albom: But atmosphere and discipline. Those things seem to be the difference between winning and losing.

Millen: I agree completely.

Albom: So why are you on the losing end of that? Millen: I don’t have the answer, and I can’t grasp it. I’ve never been around that. That is just . . . it’s mind-boggling for me. If nothing else, be right, you know? Control what you can control. That goes for players and coaches.

Albom: Does Marty set the right tone? Millen: Marty may not enter a room the way a Bo Schembechler does. But I’ll tell you what he does have. He has toughness. He pays attention to detail. He’s a real smart X’s and O’s guy.

Albom: But doesn’t a coach need a certain presence, like a Bill Parcells?

Millen: Well, for every Parcells who will grab you by your facemask and just abuse you, there’s a Tom Flores who doesn’t. Tom Flores won as many Super Bowls as Bill Parcells. And so to me it comes down to intrinsic motivation — and maybe this one is on me — because I have never been big on what the coach has to say or how he says it. Give me what it is we have to do, and then get out of my way. I don’t really care how you’re trying to motivate me. Do you think what you’re gonna say is gonna motivate me? If that’s the case, then I have a problem, and I shouldn’t be here.

Albom: OK, that’s an interesting observation. You may have picked a coach who would be good for Matt Millen. Do you think you should have thought of the player who ISN’T Matt Millen? Millen: Yeah, there’s a ring of truth to that. But I have to tell you, in 1989, I was with San Francisco, maybe the greatest team ever, and we had just as many lazy guys — guys who wouldn’t do anything, guys who were just along for the ride — as any team.

But we went out and won. And what was the difference?

Was it because of the words of George Seifert, our coach? No way. Not if you ever heard him talk. It was just something intangible, that when we got on the field we believed we were going to win. We don’t have that here.

So I guess the question is: Is the coach’s personality standing in the way of winning? I’m not convinced that it is.

Albom: So did you make the right choice in Marty? Millen: Yeah, I think so.

Albom: You still think so?

Millen: Yeah, I know I did. He’s good. He’s tough.

Albom: Do you understand why people may doubt that? Millen: Oh, of course. Guys have dogged him a little bit, and that’s normal. But I would rather they say management screwed this up. . . . I’d rather it be on me than on him.

Albom: Difficult question. Do you feel that your personality is actually in the way of your coach? Millen: I’ve thought about that . . . and it’s a great question. I have been very, very cognizant to not cross the line because my inclination is to take the hill, you know? But I’m real open with all those guys. I always say, “Tell me if I’m getting too close or if I’m going too far. You tell me.”

Albom: Do you feel it’s your place to tell players what’s wrong? Millen: Well, what I have learned is you don’t just drop a bomb. What you have to do is put it in question form. “Why did you do this? Why were we in this?”

Albom: But do YOU do that with the players? Millen: No, I try to stay away from that.

Albom: What is your contact with the players? Millen: Encouragement mode. Or correction mode — but with a pat on the back.

Albom: When you’re in the locker room, is there an internal clock going — and you say if I’m in here too long, it looks like I’m running things? Millen: I’m not in there very often.

Albom: Do you go to every practice?

Millen: Oh, yeah.

Albom: On the sidelines? Millen: In the middle of it usually.

Albom: Does this undermine Marty? Millen: I don’t believe so. I think the guys are comfortable with it. I know the coaches are comfortable with it. I don’t jump into a drill and say, “Stop, run it again.” Al Davis used to do that. I don’t want it that way. I don’t think that’s good.

But, Mitch, to me, I feel emasculated because I don’t do anything. I said this to my wife the other night — I feel like I’m fighting a non-fight. It’s like I’m in a fight with a . . .

Albom: A shadow?

Millen: A shadow. Yeah.

Albom: Is there an embarrassment factor with all this losing? Millen: Oh, sure.

Albom: You know they show you in the box every week on TV. Millen: Yeah . . . that’s embarrassing in itself. I used to have a rule when I was in television. I don’t wanna see any of them. Presidents, owners, they have nothing to do with it. Focus on the field.

Albom: But the cameras are on you every single game. Millen: I know. Get a freakin’ life.

Albom: What do you say to Mr. Ford when he comes in and says, “My record is worse than it ever was”?

Millen: Right. I don’t say anything. What I do instead is — instead of me explaining — I say, “Let’s go on and watch the film, and then you tell me. I’ll show you exactly what’s going on.”

Albom: How do you fix that?

Millen: You hammer it again and again — and then if it’s not done, then you make a change. That’s what you have to do — at both the player level and the coach level. There’s no question about it.

Albom: How long do you give that before you make those changes?

Millen: Well, from a player’s side, you’re limited, obviously, ’cause you can’t just go and get somebody any time you want. And it’s kind of almost the same thing with coaches — I mean, it’s not like you just go fire the coach and get another coach.

Let’s have some perspective here. You gave the coach the job. Let him do the job. You’re early into it — it’s ugly — I understand that — but stay with it.

Do you believe what you’re doing? Yes, I do.

The sun is up. Coaches have arrived. The phones begin to ring. Millen rises from his desk and shows me a notepad. On it are words he wrote the other night when he was struggling with the losing streak. “Be resilient,

“Be positive,

“Most important: get over the loss, because you have to move on.” He reads these aloud, half to me, half to himself. You wonder if a guy like Millen, whose sense of balance has been so thrown off by this season, will ultimately be all right.

He looks at the answering machine. He remembers something.

“I got a message the other day,” he says, suddenly smiling. “I played it. It was this familiar voice, screaming, ‘HEY, MILLEN, THE LIONS SUCK!’

“Then, in a smaller voice, I heard my son say, ‘See you when you get home, Dad.’ “

He’ll be all right.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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