MILLEN DECIDES: ARRIVEDERCI, MARIUCCI

Steve Mariucci had one look when he arrived nearly three years ago and another look by the time he was fired Monday. The first was the look of a pedigreed professional, striding with confidence. The second was the look of a man who’d just had an ax thrown at his head.

I call it the Lions Look. They all have it by the time they leave. Marty Mornhinweg had it. Bobby Ross had it. Wayne Fontes had it. The brow gets furrowed. The eyes get glazed. They swallow when they talk. They sigh too often. They appear to be not quite passed out but not quite conscious, either.

Mariucci, who won five games his first year, six his second and only four this season, seemed to be gasping after the last few losses – including that disaster on Thanksgiving. As it turns out, that was his last gasp. He’s out. Dick Jauron, the defensive coordinator, is in for now. Mariucci may have arrived in Detroit as a blueblood, but he leaves as just another poor soul unfortunate enough to have played in William Clay Ford’s sandbox. He drags his sullied reputation into a wilderness from which no man in the past 40 years – not a single one – has ever returned to skipper an NFL team again.

You want to know what this franchise has become?

It’s the elephant burial ground of coaching.

Heaven help the next guy.

“This is a brutal business and at times good people suffer a cruel fate,” Matt Millen, the Lions’ president, said in a televised news conference Monday.

I’m not sure if he was talking about Mooch or the fans who have to watch this team play.

Nor am I sure why this happened this week. You wonder if this isn’t about national embarrassment. The Lions, ever since Barry Sanders retired, are of no interest to anyone nationally. They almost never see a Monday night TV game. Their one showcase to the nation is Thanksgiving, and last Thursday they did the near impossible: They played like turkeys AND laid an egg.

“I was mad,” Millen admitted. But does that mean if Mariucci had produced a big victory he still would have the job? That he’d be the right coach all of a sudden, instead of the wrong one?

Remember back 11 weeks ago, when this season started with a nice victory over Green Bay? Wasn’t this the year Mariucci became Mariucci? Wasn’t this the year all those high draft picks bore fruit? Wasn’t this the year Joey Harrington became a star? Wasn’t this the playoff year?

Look how quickly it came apart. First it was Harrington’s fault. Then the receivers’ fault. Then the arrow seemed to stop on Mariucci.

And out he goes.

Are there real options?

Now, firing the coach is always the easiest thing to do. But Monday there were plenty of suggestions for other moves the Lions could have made, so let’s address them right here:

* Fire Matt Millen: Well, sure. Why not? Since he was put into the president’s job in 2001 with no previous experience whatsoever, the Lions have the worst record in the NFL. Let’s restate that, folks. The worst record in the NFL. You don’t need to go past that sentence to justify Millen’s dismissal, and he would be the first to tell you that. He even joked that the news conference Monday wasn’t long enough to list the mistakes he had made at his post.

He can joke like that, because he’s not worried about being fired himself. That is the fault of Ford, an owner who still thinks, after all these years, that he’s in the auto business, and that market conditions will eventually turn around and the stock will go back up, so why fire a guy who’s loyal to the firm?

Which leads us to the second suggestion heard around town:

* Fire the owner: Well, this doesn’t happen. It is true, that Ford, unlike some pro sports teams’ owners, doesn’t need the Lions to make money. It is true that the seats in Ford Field are largely sold no matter how badly the Lions play. It is true that Ford has never been a good judge of football personnel, that he hires people for the wrong football reasons, and that he sticks by them too long. It is true that he seems to lack the passion and involvement that other owners display.

It is true. It is all true. And you know what? There’s nothing you can do about it. That’s also true.

•Fire the players: Don’t worry. Some will be gone. But before they get fired, someone needs to tell them to shut up. When a team plays as badly as this one does, its players shouldn’t be mouthing off and pointing fingers – not at anyone but themselves.

For example, on Monday, Dre’ Bly, speaking on the NFL Network, said, “It is just one guy in particular who I felt like is the cause of this whole thing. … It is not hard to figure out. … The quarterback here has been bad. As far as his play, he has not really gotten the job done ever since I have been here. … I really believe Coach would not have been fired if Jeff (Garcia) would have been healthy.”

First of all, if Dre’ Bly thinks Jeff Garcia is the answer, he needs his credentials revoked. Second, what happened to behaving like a team? Since when is it suddenly OK to call out a teammate on television? Isn’t that pretty much what Terrell Owens did when he said the Eagles would win more if Brett Favre was the quarterback? And we see how that ended.

There have been too many players pointing too many fingers on this team. If Jauron is smart, the first thing he’ll do is put a muzzle on any player who thinks he’s just another caller on sports talk radio.

Nothing like the 49ers

But back to the issue of the day: What went wrong with Mariucci? We know his offense lacked a cohesive approach, and that his teams played hard in stretches but not for entire games. But why was he so good with the 49ers? If you talk to the players and people around the league, most will say that he inherited a good, veteran team in San Francisco and that’s how he built his reputation. And that in Detroit, he needed to develop a young team, and that was not his particular skill set.

And that he was too nice.

And that things got away from him.

“There needed to be more discipline on this team,” Harrington admitted Monday, when pressed.

This from one of the few guys who felt the wrath of Mooch’s decisions.

I spoke Monday with Phil Simms, a former Super Bowl champion and now a CBS analyst. He agreed that toughness is the quality you cannot do without on the sidelines. “Bill Parcells told me recently, ‘Simms, I never throw them a fish, because I’ve never seen them throw one back.’ “

Simms thinks you have to ride players hard. Maybe the Lions don’t want to hear that. But Millen should. Heck, of all guys, he should know it.

But there’s one other thing: While Mariucci never delivered on his promise, the sucking spiral that seems to pull every Lions coach down the same drain is partly a result of low expectations in this town, and endless talk about “same old Lions.”

“If you take a kid, and you over and over tell him you’re not good enough, you can’t do it, you’re gonna end up just like everybody else did, there is going to be a point where that starts to sink into your head,” Harrington said, as a way of explaining how Mariucci went from a successful 49ers coach to just another notch on the Detroit guillotine.

“When I first got here, one of the first things anyone told me was, ‘We haven’t had a quarterback since Bobby Layne.’ Or ‘We haven’t done this since, we haven’t done that since,’ or ‘I’m tired of the same old Lions.’…

“Whether you’re answering questions from the media or you’re running into someone at the grocery store, every time someone tells you you’re not good enough, or tells you you’re gonna end up the same way as everybody else did, there’s going to be a point where you start to believe it.”

Maybe that’s what got under Mariucci’s skin. Maybe that’s what gave him that haggard, gasping look. We’ve seen it before. Too many times. Coach after coach. And you wonder, when it’s time to hire the next one, if the really good candidates take a glance at those portraits and say, “Do I really want to end up like that?”

(SIDEBARS)

MILLEN’S BOTTOM LINE: THE LIONS’ BAR IS LOW

Matt Millen, a former player and Fox TV analyst, was hired as the Lions’ president with no front office experience. Lowlights of his tenure, now in its fifth year:

* The Lions are 20-55 in his four-plus seasons – a .267 winning percentage – worst in the NFL.

* They’re 1-4 in their showcase Thanksgiving game, including losing the last two by a combined score of 68-16.

* They didn’t win a road game during his first three seasons, an NFL-record 24 straight road losses. They’re still just 4-33 on the road.

* He interviewed only one candidate for each of his two coaching hires, Marty Mornhinweg and Steve Mariucci. The latter hire cost him a $200,000 fine for failing to follow NFL diversity guidelines.

* He fired Mornhinweg after two seasons – a month after Millen said he would return – when Mariucci became available.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. He will sign “The Five People You Meet In Heaven” at 2 p.m. Friday at Borders Books at Arborland in Ann Arbor and at 7 p.m. next Tuesday at Barnes & Noble in Royal Oak. Readers who purchase two copies of the best-selling book receive a third copy free. (No limit on quantities.)

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