by | Dec 28, 1989 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — After a while in this business, you learn to see through press conferences and concentrate on the people behind them. So I heard what was said at the Lions’ offices Wednesday, about how Chuck Schmidt would be promoted and how Jerry Vainisi would not, but how both would get along fine.

And I heard what was said two weeks ago in Ann Arbor, about how Bo Schembechler was retiring as head football coach but would — for now — hang on to the athletic director’s job.

And after wiping away all that smoke, I’ve come to this conclusion: Neither Schembechler nor Vainisi will be around much longer.

Why? Common sense. Let’s begin with Bo. What possible enjoyment could he get as athletic director after being the football coach for 21 years? He was never a paper pusher. He hates arguing policy with university presidents. Heck. He didn’t even like splitting the AD’s job with Jack Weidenbach. And Bo had the easier half.

Also, he has said, “I don’t want to be the resident Legend.” Good for him. The last thing Gary Moeller, the new coach, needs is a shadow that reaches from the football field to the banquet circuit. If Bo were around, anytime anything went wrong, people would turn his way. “You would have gotten that recruit. . . . You would have won that game. . . . “

That’s not fair. Bo knows it. He won’t disrupt the Rose Bowl — which is good — but once it’s finished, I figure Bo will hang up the AD’s uniform just as fast as he can find the hook.

And what will he do instead? Vainisi must be disappointed Well. Fishing is out. Chances are he’d just yell at the damn fish to jump in the boat. And the poor fish would probably do it.

I would not be surprised if Bo succeeds Jim Campbell as president of the Tigers, as rumored. Why? Once again, common sense.

Bo wants to work, but at a slower pace. He loves sports. But what’s left in college football? Nothing. On the other hand, baseball. Now there’s a challenge. Baseball was Bo’s first love. And Tom Monaghan, the Tigers’ owner, might be the biggest Bo Booster in the free world.

Don’t forget, it was Monaghan who showed up, in the snow, at Bo’s house, back in 1982, the night Bo was deciding on the Texas A&M offer. Monaghan tried to entice Bo to stay by offering him a Domino’s pizza franchise. Free. Bo said, “Not necessary, Tom. I’m staying.” Monaghan gave it to him anyhow.

Now. If we’ve learned anything about rich people, it is that 1) they like hiring their favorite people and 2) they usually do. It was no accident that Monaghan put Schembechler on the Tigers’ board of directors.

“It’s possible,” Bo has said of the Tigers’ presidency. To his credit, he never has been a good liar.

And neither has Vainisi. Maybe that’s why he wasn’t present Wednesday when the new Lions’ executive lineup was announced. “He’s on his way to San Diego,” we were told. “Scouting.” Really now. Use common sense. If this was a big occasion for Vainisi, why wouldn’t he be there? I’ll tell you why. I don’t think he wanted to answer a painful question: Are you disappointed?

Of course he is. He should be. He arrived in 1987 from the Chicago Bears, where he was general manager, hoping for that position with the Lions. Instead he was stuck in a nasty web of office politics, mostly involving Russ Thomas, who wanted to handpick his replacement. Vainisi, who is a warm, sharp guy looking for a place to operate, was just waiting to see how the whole thing shook out. It didn’t go his way. So who’s really in charge? Schmidt will be the new executive vice president and chief operating officer, whatever that is. Vainisi remains vice president for player personnel. With all these vice presidents running around, does anyone know who’s in charge?

That’s the big question. There is no GM. Who makes the trades? Who decides to pursue a free agent? Who negotiates contracts? Who says enough is enough?

Personally, I wanted to see Vainisi put in charge of these areas. Completely. Traditionally successful teams such as the Giants, 49ers, Bengals and Raiders have had one guy who calls the shots. Vainisi showed such talent building the Bears. Which is more than we can say for Schmidt, who, besides being Thomas’ choice — and if that alone doesn’t turn you off, what will? — has a background in accounting and finance, not tackles and touchdowns.

Instead Schmidt tells us they will “work together” and Vainisi will
“report to Mr. Ford, although on the day-to-day I’ll be there to act as intermediary and handle any conflicts.”

Are you following that? I think Vainisi is. He’s being told that he can stick around, but he won’t have complete control. And for a guy who has been biting his tongue for several years, that can hardly be considered good news.

I look for him to split. Not immediately, maybe not for a year, because GM jobs are scarce. But once your heart is not in it, your body sooner or later follows suit. It’s that way for him. It’s that way for Bo. Talented people don’t like to sit around and play second fiddle.

Common sense will tell you that.

No matter what they say in the press conference.


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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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