by | Jan 6, 1995 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Wayne Fontes entered his office and sifted through the congratulatory messages on his desk. Chris Spielman. Barry Sanders. The phone suddenly rang and Fontes picked it up.

“Hey, Mike! . . . Oh, thank you.”

Mike Holmgren, coach of Green Bay.

“I appreciate it, Mike. . . . Hey, go on down to Dallas and kick their butts, OK?”

Fontes hung up, held out his arms. “See? The other coaches call. Respect. They’re happy for me.”

Perhaps. Then again, any Packers coach would be happy to see Fontes get his contract extended — because the longer Fontes sticks around, the more success Green Bay seems to have.

What I’m saying is, like life itself, it really depends on where you sit, this decision to give Fontes the job as head honcho until 1997 — despite a 1994 finish that was no better than 1993, and a record that was a little worse.

Maybe you like it, maybe you don’t. But before you jump off a building, remember this:

If a player fumbles, blame the player. If the scheme is bad, blame the coach. If the talent is weak, blame the personnel director.

And if you don’t like the man hired to run the team, don’t blame that man
— blame the owner.

William Clay Ford.

Who was golfing somewhere when all this fuss was going on. Expect more mediocrity

Honestly, now. What did you think Ford was going to do? Fire Fontes and hire Jimmy Johnson — a guy he’d have to pay $4 million a year plus perks? Fire Fontes and hire Bill Walsh, a guy he’d have to give $3 million a year plus full personnel control? Fire Fontes and hire Joe Gibbs, Dick Vermeil or any of the other high-priced, Super Bowl-experienced coaches out there?

Forget it. Ford has never paid big money for a coach and he wouldn’t start now. He has never handed over the front office reins — let alone a percentage of the team — to a coach, and he wouldn’t start now.

So his options were these: some assistant coach, some college coach, some castoff — or Fontes, a guy who has taken his team to the playoffs three of the six years he has been here.

For an owner like Ford, the choice was obvious.

Take a look around the league, folks. In Dallas you had a coach hired the same time as Fontes, by the Cowboys’ aggressive owner, Jerry Jones. And while Wayne was building a 4-12 team to an eventual division champion, Jimmy Johnson turned the 1-15 Cowboys into back-to-back Super Bowl kings.

Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers continued to wallow in the NFL basement.

So what happens? Johnson’s ego clashes with Jones’ ego, and all that Super Bowl success can’t keep them together. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay, happy to win even a few games in a row, plans to keep its coach, Sam Wyche, even though the Bucs haven’t sniffed the playoffs since Ronald Reagan took office.

My point? Some franchises are happy with mediocrity, and others can’t even be satisfied with greatness. It is the reason Tampa Bay and Dallas are where they are today.

And it is likely the reason we will see a few more 9-7, 10-6 and 8-8 seasons around here in Detroit.

Fontes never had a doubt

At his press conference Thursday, Fontes said: “I have to evaluate our team with teams like the 49ers or the Cowboys . . . what are they doing that we’re not doing?”

Well, for one thing, they don’t practice in their parking lot. They don’t use first-round draft picks on quarterbacks who can’t pass the potatoes. They don’t hire, then fire, two offensive coordinators and one defensive coordinator, they don’t trade for a malcontent like Pat Swilling, about whom anyone in New Orleans could have warned them.

Those organizations — the 49ers and Cowboys — are first- rate, run like tight ships, their owners are involved, and they create an atmosphere where excellence is expected, and they don’t tolerate mistakes.

On Thursday, Fontes talked about the shortcomings of the Lions’ season. “If Dave Krieg hits Herman Moore with that slant pass . . . if we get a guy called inbounds instead of out of bounds.”

And if pigs had wings. . . .

I remember asking Jimmy Johnson once how he built the Cowboys so quickly.
“I only want players who make plays,” he said. “I don’t care about size or speed. I want proof that they make plays when it counts.”

That’s called performance. When you judge a team that way, you either have success or you rip it up. When you judge a team by its past, you fall in the great big in-between.

Is Wayne Fontes a bad coach? No. Is he great? No. Is he fickle, does he dance around, change his mind, show a great sense of humor, have enormous patience, misuse Barry Sanders, overestimate draft picks, change his offense, motivate in some big games, not motivate in others?

Yes, yes, and so what? You weren’t hiring him, and I wasn’t hiring him. He makes William Clay Ford happy, that’s all the counts. If the owner were really interested in what you thought, would he have been golfing when this was announced?

“Were you ever worried about being rehired?”

“I never had any doubts,” Fontes said.

What else do you need to know?


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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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