LIONS’ NEW COACH IS UP AGAINST GHOSTS

And he seems like such a nice guy.

Does he know what he’s getting into? Does he know the pirate’s plank he is walking – sharks below, a sword blade behind, a bunch of laughing, drunken men pointing from above?

Before we kick a single ball in this 2009 Lions season, we should salute the greatest act of courage we are likely to see all year – unless Kwame Kilpatrick comes back with an open wallet.

Jim Schwartz is about to coach his first official game for Detroit.

This, we point out, is not due to his Georgetown education, but despite it. This is not because nobody else wanted the job, but because he actually did.

That’s brave. Do you know how “Lions head coach” is defined? As a species, it’s “endangered.” As an occupation, it’s “hazardous.” As a fluid, it’s “keep away from eyes and mouth.”

I am not overdoing it. With one asterisk exception, not a single Lions head coach in the last four decades has ever head-coached in the NFL again.

They used to say Willie Mays’ glove was where triples went to die? They now say that about coaching careers and the Lions’ practice facility. Others had credentials, too

“I haven’t heard it referred to as an elephant graveyard,” Schwartz laughs Thursday, when I refer to the job as, well, an elephant graveyard. “But, yeah, I know what’s happened in the past, what happened last year.

“On the other hand, to be honest, what happened last year is probably one of the reasons I got the job here.

“I know the history. My job is not to react to that history.”

This is a bit like saying “Cannons? – BOOM! – I don’t hear – BOOM! – any can- – BOOM!”

Now, it’s true. Schwartz, only 43, comes highly recommended. Bill Belichick, the master, loves the guy and mentored him. Tennessee went to a Super Bowl with Schwartz as a defensive brain.

So he has stripes. But so did the guys before him. Believe it or not, people actually thought Darryl Rogers was a good coach before he donned the Lions whistle and started counting pigeons on the Silverdome roof. Wayne Fontes was once a serious defensive force – before he became a clown-like figure in Motown. Bobby Ross had been to a Super Bowl before joining the Lions – then quitting in disgust.

Stripes? They all had stripes. The stripes wiped off, like a painted zebra rubbed with turpentine. And suddenly they were left all alone on the sidelines, head down, shoulders slumped …

Aw, but why ruin the man’s buzz? The road from 0-16

So I ask Schwartz about dangerous jobs. He used Shakespeare the other day in a news conference. He must love a challenge. And let’s face it, the Lions haven’t won a game in two calendar years and he’s still here. You half expected him to sneak out the first night of training camp in slippers, his suitcase falling open, going, “What was I thinking?”

You skydive? I ask.

“Never did.”

Downhill ski?

“No.”

Scuba in dangerous waters?

“Nuh-uh.”

Drag race?

“I went a few laps at MIS once.”

Great! How fast?

“Oh, I wasn’t driving.”

Hmm.

“Actually, I drive pretty slow. … Maybe I’m not really a danger lover.”

Well, he’s in the soup now. I like Schwartz. He’s smart, funny and seems to have perspective. But he is about to boldly go where many have gone before. Going isn’t the problem. The problem, as Amelia Earhart once learned, is the coming back.

Are you nervous? I ask.

“I’ve never really been a nervous guy. Sometimes people take that the wrong way. But I’m pretty good at figuring stuff out.”

Good. He can start with the sharks, move on to the sword, then handle the laughing drunken men. Once he takes care of all that – and the defense, the offense and the special teams – he’ll prove he can steer the ship.

If not, he’ll learn how to swim. Fast.

Contact MITCH ALBOM: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. For tickets to his charity book launch for “Have a Little Faith” on Sept. 30 at the Fox Theatre, call 800-745-3000 or go to ticketmaster.com.

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