by | Feb 25, 2009 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Beware the assistant coach.

He can be as seductive as ice cream, or as bitter as vinegar.

He can startle you with quick success, or break your heart with constant defeat.

He can sprout like a giant before your eyes, or shrink in stature and skulk off in the sunset.

But one thing you always can say about an assistant coach – when elevated to the position of head coach:

Nobody knows nothing.

So don’t tell me Jim Schwartz is a great bet for success to lead the Lions, or I will tell you the same was said of Rod Marinelli, who just finished an 0-16 year.

And don’t tell me Schwartz is destined to flop, or I’ll point to John Harbaugh, a first-year former assistant who has the Ravens one victory from the Super Bowl.

Nobody knows nothing. Not with assistant coaches. Schwartz’s resume in Tennessee is no different than a barrelful of former assistants who took the big leap. He coached the defense on a successful team. The Titans got attention. He got attention. People started whispering, “He’s got the right stuff.”

But he’s never been in charge of an NFL team. He’s never directed the offense. He’s never been the guy on the front lines when the team fumbled on the last play or got stomped by 40 points.


And he’s never coached the Lions. Where coaches come to die

Perhaps we should start there, because nobody kills the reputation of assistants better than the Lions. Wayne Fontes was an assistant. He became, in order, the Lions’ head coach, a laughingstock, and a man who never coached again.

Marty Mornhinweg was an assistant. He became, in order, the Lions’ head coach, a laughingstock, and outta here. He is back to the assistant ranks where he likely will remain.

Schwartz, 42, with an economics degree from Georgetown and 10 years in the Titans organization, is, by all accounts, a very smart guy. He inherits the worst team of all time. So you might ask how smart can he be? He said recently he never shrinks from a challenge. But he might want to tiptoe back a few steps and put Detroit in perspective.

Because here is what he walked into: This team is very thin in talent. It has no discernible leaders. It has a leftover defeatist attitude that found a home in many a locker. There are players here who will be going on their third or fourth Detroit coach with no success.

That doesn’t inspire confidence.

More importantly, Schwartz has agreed to work for an owner who has shown no gift for football wisdom, and for a two-headed front office that has been here through season after season of failure.

And he has to listen to them? Front office must step up

Beware the assistant coach, because he arrives with a mantra of hard work, but can sometimes work so hard, he misses the forest for the trees.

Schwartz is a stats guy, a man who breaks down film so thoroughly, you wonder if his fingers are sticky with emulsion.

But we have seen that before. Marinelli watched film. Marinelli cited film. Marinelli said the film never lied.

And in the end, it didn’t. The film of his team was a horror movie.

So breaking down film isn’t the answer. And hard work isn’t the answer. And discipline isn’t the answer. And having worked under impressive bosses isn’t the answer.

Because if it were, Eric Mangini still would have a job with the Jets, Romeo Crennel still would have a job with the Browns, Mike Nolan still would have a job with the 49ers. They were all hailed for their qualities going in and derided for their failures going out.

And in the end, all you can usually say is, if you’re going to be a good head coach, you better have good players. As a defensive coordinator, Jim Schwartz had a monster in Tennessee named Albert Haynesworth, a defensive tackle headed for the Pro Bowl. He had two great defensive backs, Cortland Finnegan and Chris Hope, also Pro Bowlers.

He inherits a team with very few good players, and he better pray the men who hired him – Tom Lewand and Martin Mayhew – quickly develop a touch for good drafting – something the Lions rarely shown – or he’s not going to have many more.

Beware the assistant coach, because a blank slate is appealing, until it fills with black marks. And a “Let’s get ’em!” attitude is contagious, until the scoreboard reads “They got us.”

And a news conference – like the one Schwartz has scheduled for today at Ford Field – can sound promising and smart and winning, but we forget that football is not determined by men in suits behind microphones, but men in helmets in the mud and snow.

I would like to say the Lions have much to be cautious about with Jim Schwartz, but considering this team and its recent history, they both should be a little scared of each other.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to


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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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