LIONS COACH FORCED OUT; IS MARIUCCI NEXT IN LINE?MILLEN WON’T SAY IT, BUT HE EXPECTS FORMER 49ERS COACH TO LEAD LIONS

“We will make no changes. I will be here and Marty Mornhinweg will be here.” Matt Millen, four weeks ago

So he called an audible. So what? You’re telling me you were happy with the way things were?

Lions president Matt Millen fired coach Marty Mornhinweg on Monday afternoon, a move many were hoping for a month ago, but a surprising number were critical of now. It’s not that they suddenly became Marty fans. They just see Millen throwing a chewed-up sail over the bow of the boat, without another sail to replace it.

“Do you have a new coach hired?” I asked Millen.

“No.”

“Have you interviewed one?”

“No.”

“What if you get caught without a coach?”

“It’s a possibility. We’ll deal with that if it happens.”

Don’t believe it. Millen is a lot of things. Dumb isn’t one of them. If he didn’t feel that he had something in place, or close to in place, he wouldn’t have done what he did.

And this is what he did. He called Mornhinweg into his office and told him it was over. Their two-year partnership was kaput. You don’t just do that because you’re having a bad day.

Ask yourself this: What changed between four weeks ago and today? Did Marty lose another game? Did he blow another coin toss?

No. The only thing that changed is that a certain coach named Steve Mariucci suddenly became available. And if Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl victory taught us anything, it’s that when a coach is there, and you think he’s the man, you do what you gotta do.

“I have to make this thing work,” Millen said. “Whatever it takes to get us to win, I’ll do. You don’t sit idly by and worry about how it looks or whose feelings get hurt. I want to win and I want to win now.”

So he fired a coach who lost 27 of his 32 games. And in doing so, he broke a long Lions tradition that includes Darryl Rogers and Wayne Fontes — namely, keeping coaches around who were going nowhere.

You know what? I think Matt Millen just did what a team president is supposed to do.

Maybe we’re not used to it.

A nickname basis

“How do you reconcile what you said last month with what you did today?” I asked Millen.

“I can’t. You make the decisions based on the information you have.”

“Why not wait until you have a new coach in place before firing Marty?”

“I could have done that. But I didn’t think it was fair to keep Marty twisting while I interviewed people.”

“How much is the marketplace a factor in this?”

“It’s a factor.”

Translation: It’s THE factor. And Mariucci’s availability is the swing factor. Sure, you hear talk about Dennis Green or Nick Saban. But folks, this isn’t rocket science. If Dennis Green were really the man, the Lions could have talked to him in December. If Saban, now at LSU, were really their heart’s desire, he could have been here by now.

Mariucci seems to be the clear choice, and in between his choppy words, you can hear Millen admit it.

“Four years ago, when we first tried this, I talked to Mooch but it didn’t work out,” Millen said, referring to when the Lions first approached him about the president’s job. “And two years ago, I tried talking to him but it didn’t work out. So yeah, he’s a candidate.”

Uh, correct me if I’m wrong here, but if you’re on a “Mooch” basis, isn’t it more like a first choice than a candidate?

And make no mistake: Mariucci is a first-choice kind of guy. He took over a 49ers team and got it to the NFC championship game in his first season, 1997. He went to the playoffs again in 1998 before suffering two down seasons, then rebounding to 12-4. This year, the 49ers went to the playoffs and beat the Giants in an amazing comeback, before being crushed by the Bucs, 31-6.

So why was he let go? In San Francisco, they see missing the Super Bowl as a down year.

Detroit’s standards are a tad less extreme.

A good man exits

Now. A moment here for Mornhinweg. He was truly a good fellow, and his players liked playing for him. He did what he could. But he was often, let’s face it, over his head. He’ll find a new job on someone’s staff and he’ll be good at it, and maybe, in time, he’ll get another head spot in a less precarious position. We wish him well.

Is it fair that he goes and Millen stays? Of course it is. They’re not on an equal basis. One works for the other. If the Fords find a better team president and want to dump Millen, they can do to him what Millen is doing to Mornhinweg.

But this isn’t about who’s to blame for the Lions’ losing ways. This is about upgrading your coach. On one hand, you have Mariucci with a 60-43 record. On the other hand, there’s Marty with his 5-27. You tell me: Whom do you pick?

“How soon do you figure to have this done?” I asked Millen.

“Within two weeks.”

“Is Marty’s failure a reflection on you?”

“Yeah,” he said. “It is.”

He is trying to correct that. He gets the chance to try. Right now, people see an empty coach’s office and they panic, thinking the ship is moving without a sail.

But if Mariucci is at the helm two weeks from now, people will feel a lot better. And if he isn’t? Well. This time, there will be only one “M” to blame.

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

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