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

Put on the coffee. Pull open the shades. The Detroit Lions, awakening from a decades-long slumber, are today, officially, entering the 21st Century.

They are, for the first time, hiring a coach that other teams actually covet. They are, for the first time, paying the kind of money the top teams pay and the top coaches get. They are, for the first time, jumping feet first into the sandbox with the other top NFL teams, looking to a proven, young winner to guide them — instead of some who-dat face they got on the cheap.

This isn’t Wayne. This isn’t Darryl. This isn’t Marty, Monte or Rick. This isn’t your Daddy’s Lions coach.

“They signed Mariucci,” went the buzz across Detroit on Tuesday afternoon.
“Did you hear? They signed Mariucci. For five million a year!”

The first statement is undeniable. The second will be verified later today, at a news conference at Ford Field, a big place for, appropriately, a big new idea. Steve Mariucci, 47, after a successful tenure with the high-class San Francisco 49ers, is taking over perhaps the most bedraggled franchise in the NFL. He’s doing it with a five-year deal. He’s doing it for a boatload of money.

And they’ll still be lucky to win six games next season.

Sorry. I had to throw that bucket of reality. He’s a good coach, and this is a great move, but coaches don’t pass or tackle, and the talent on this team is not up to the reputation of the new skipper.

Still, after five victories in the last two seasons, Lions fans are happy to live in a submarine, as long as it’s pointed up.

“They signed Mariucci!” It rang around town and jingled in the corners of Detroit football desperation. It knocked on basement doors, it lifted ladders to the attic, it invited the depressed and downtrodden masses with their silver-and-blue crying towels to come out, come out, a new day was dawning.

They signed Mariucci.

Get out the mariachis.

He’s a proven winner

So, can he make that big a difference? Hard to say. “Mooch,” as they call him, inherited a wonderful team in his first year as head coach of the Niners. With players such as Steve Young, Garrison Hearst, Jerry Rice and Dana Stubblefield, it took him only six games in 1997 to get as many victories as Marty Mornhinweg got here in two years.

But those players aren’t on this roster. Mariucci did go through a couple of lean seasons in San Francisco — a four-win season and a six-win season — and what’s most impressive is that he turned it around and got the team back to 12 and 10 victories. It may be that, more than his early success, that bodes most promising for the Lions.

Still, in Detroit, Mariucci won’t have the benefit of the San Francisco brain trust, namely guru Bill Walsh. Say what you will about Walsh’s alleged interference with coaches, the guy has been pretty consistent in producing winners. Matt Millen isn’t Bill Walsh. So he’s on the line as well.

Ignore Cochran’s criticism

By the way, speaking of Millen, a word here about the sudden wave of criticism being showered on him by civil rights attorneys Johnnie Cochran and Cyrus Mehri, suggesting Millen and the Lions are old-boy bigots who violated NFL policy by not interviewing minority candidates seriously. I’ll use language here that Cochran, the man who told us O.J. was innocent, will understand:

You’re out of order.

If you wanted to complain, you should have been here two years ago, when Mornhinweg was hired. Now that was a move to object to. After all, he had no experience.

But Mariucci? Sorry. Given all the alternatives out there — black AND white
— I think 25 out of 32 teams would have made the same hire. And given Mariucci’s ties to Michigan, his childhood here, his tight friendship with another area icon, Tom Izzo, the Lions had every reason to want to grab him once he was available.

And by the way, where was the uproar when Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, was meeting with first-choice Bill Parcells before his current coach was even fired?

Which doesn’t mean the Lions couldn’t interview a Dennis Green or a Tim Lewis. But those men chose not to be interviewed. They didn’t think they were being taken seriously enough.

“By essentially crowning Mariucci as the next head coach before doing a single interview, the Lions discouraged African-American coaches from putting their hat in the ring in Detroit,” Mehri said. “Millen, in public and private statements, could not look African-American candidates in the eye and tell them they had a fair shot.”

How would they know? They never BOTHERED to look him in the eye. I listened to Millen in his news conference when he fired Mornhinweg last week and opened the search process. He did everything he could to say he was interested in talking to “lots of candidates.” Are you going to prosecute him because privately he had a favorite? That’s pretty slippery terrain.

Besides, the league policy, as I understand it, is not to promise someone a job, just a serious interview. How many of us have gone to interviews knowing we weren’t the first choice, maybe knowing we didn’t have a chance? But we go. We prepare. We take a chance. You never know. Maybe you wow them, and they can’t help but hire you.

But by not even taking the interview — and complaining that, “Ah, well, they were never gonna hire me” — you forfeit any right to complain about lack of opportunity. Cochran and Mehri would have better cases saying the Lions violated policy if the coaches they represented had tried to follow it themselves.

Anyhow, that’s over now. There’s a new man in town — along with a new set of Lions rules. Fair is fair. Take out your old lists, sharpen your pencils, then put a line through the axioms that have always defined this franchise but, as of today, are no more:

1. Can’t get a name coach.

2. Won’t pay for a name coach.

3. Won’t get rid of a lousy coach.

4. Won’t take chances.

They have done all four. They have broken their own mold. They have awakened into the present tense of football. Which, of course, prompts the very important question:

What are we going to complain about now?

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also hear “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.


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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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