Marty Mornhinweg may be smarter than you think. He may be tougher than you think. He is definitely more confident than you think. Portrayed in recent weeks as a man dangling by a thread over a pit of snapping alligators — and lucky to even have the thread — the second-year Lions coach shows no signs of panic. In fact, if he had his way, he’d show no signs of anything but determination.
In a rambling, hour-long conversation in his office, Mornhinweg, whose doughy face may not suggest Knute Rockne, nonetheless talked the rawhide coach talk, pointing to charts, citing statistics and admitting that a personal goal is
“to never let them see me sweat.”
Here are highlights from that interview:
ALBOM: Do you feel, given your record, that you deserve to keep this job?
MORNHINWEG: Well, that’s irrelevant. If I were to put any thought into that, it would take my focus off of what I’m hired to do, which is to win the next game.
A: When do you take time to think about things like that?
M: I don’t.
A: Not even at the end of the season?
M: Never have. Most of these coaches, including myself, shoot — we’ve worked on one- or two-year contracts our whole life. Hey, job security — that’s the last thing on our mind.
A: If you ended up winning four games this year after winning two last year, would you be satisfied that you were doing a good job here?
M: We’ll never be satisfied until we win a Super Bowl — not get to the Super Bowl — win the Super Bowl.
A: Do you think a coach who wins two games one year and four the next deserves to come back for another year?
M: Mitch — I don’t do this much — but you wanna do a study, then do a study on some Hall of Fame coaches. Look at Chuck Noll and Tom Landry and Jimmy Johnson and Bill Parcells.
A: They all had tough beginnings?
M: Some of the very best coaches did. Go back and look. (He opens a notebook from behind desk.) How about Tom Landry? 0-11-1, 4-9-1, 5-8-1, 4-10, 5-8-1. First five years. Bill Parcells — 3-12-1 in his first year — 5-11, 9-7.
A: Did you have that sheet made up?
M: For my own peace of mind.
A: At its worst, what has it been like trying to navigate this road?
M: You grind through it. You do. It’s kind of like driving a train in a tunnel and there is no light at the end. And you’ve got about 10 people behind you giving you suggestions: “Go right! Go left! Go up! Go down!” (Laughs.)
A: What has this losing experience been like for you and your family — particularly the harsh criticism part?
M: My wife is very tough. My four kids are pretty tough. We’ve lived in more than 10 different places. More than 10 different houses. I tell the kids,
“Hey, you’re gonna hear that your dad is the greatest or your dad is the worst. You’re not gonna hear much in between.” And I do believe they understand it as best as they can.
A: Do you feel that any of the criticism of you has been unfair?
M: There are a lot of things in life that aren’t fair. You get caught up in that, you’re in trouble.
A: How much of the media do you follow? Do you read the newspapers?
M: I don’t read ’em.
A: No radio?
A: No TV?
M: Nope. Look around. There’s no news clips here, right? I don’t read any of that stuff. Those things will affect your thought process. I can’t have that.
A: Talk about your news conferences. Matt Millen has said that may not be your strongest suit. Do you come across as well in those as you would like to?
M: Well, I’ve never seen myself in one. I enjoy doing them, to tell you the truth. I do think it’s important to have a voice. That’s why I do a radio show. In fact, I talked to Mike Holmgren once about the media, and I said,
“Hey, was there ever a time when you just did nothing?” And he said, “Yeah,” one year he did nothing — and he said, “I didn’t like it, because I couldn’t get my voice out there.”
A: You often hear that the team you inherited went 9-7 the year before. Why didn’t things just go up from there instead of down?
M: Well, here’s the situation. Sometimes you come in and just blow things up from the start. Matt decided to take that first year and find out about certain players, Bryant Westbrook, Terry Fair — those kind of guys. We didn’t know when we came in what certain players were about. In the end, we lost 16 players — starters from 2001 that we lost — and eight are no longer in the NFL. I mean, we had guys have career-ending injuries.
And another thing, with most new regimes, that new quarterback thing typically happens in the first year. When you don’t know who your quarterback is gonna be, it’s very difficult.
A: Do you think you’ve handled the quarterback position well here?
M: If I had to do it over again, I would have been more patient last year.
A: With whom?
M: With Charlie Batch. Very early on, I knew I wanted to go a different way with the quarterback. But if I had to do it over again, I would have been more patient.
A: Allowed Charlie more games?
M: Allowed the whole (changeover) to happen more naturally. Yeah — absolutely.
A: And how about at the start of this season with Joey Harrington replacing Mike McMahon?
M: Well, quite honestly, Mitch, I think highly of Mike — and I think in the near future, I think he’s gonna be a fine, fine quarterback. Mike earned that spot. He earned that opportunity. And quite honestly I wanted to get to the bye week and then evaluate. But we were 0-2. We were very sporadic. And at that point, Joey had progressed to where he could function, I believe.
A: Do you think Joey is going backward?
M: Oh — absolutely not. Every play is experience that you can’t get back. I went through it with Jeff Garcia. Heck — he blew up. There was a game where, I believe, he started a game 0-for-11 throwing the football. He couldn’t complete a ball to a wide-open guy. We put him on the bench for four weeks, And then he came back and played very well. He lit it up. But he went through a process. Joey didn’t do that. Now, Joey has hit the wall a little bit. But we’re over the hump there with Joey.
A: How do you know?
M: I’ve been through it.
A: Let’s talk about the overtime coin-flip call against Chicago. Has that been
— of any single move you’ve ever made in football — the most dissected?
M: (Laughing) On this one — trust me — I knew all the ramifications of making that decision.
A: When you made it?
M: Before I made it! Oh, absolutely. I had time to think. I had time to talk to our coaches about it. I had time to ask how many points have been scored against the wind? How many points have been scored with the wind? And I’ll stand behind that decision — with the information I had at that time — in my mind, in my opinion, that was the best thing to do for our football team.
A: What about people who say it showed you don’t have any confidence in your offense?
M: That makes no sense. At the end of regulation, they kicked off with the wind and it went out of the end zone. Shoot — they stopped us — and we had a 29-yard punt into the wind. They scored. All of those indicators — 24 points at that end, none at that end — that’s not a coincidence, that’s a trend!
M: So you figured the same thing would happen again in overtime?
M: The odds were very low that either offense would drive the length of the field and score at the other end.
A: But that’s what happened.
M: Yeah. And so it ended up being a mistake. Period. But I’m not gonna be afraid to make those decisions. You can’t be.
A: Have you been amazed at how long that has lingered?
M: Any decision like that is gonna be scrutinized — in many cases, for a long, long time.
A: Scrutinized by your owners?
A: What did they say to you?
M: I explained it. They understood.
A: You’d do it again?
M: Yeah, yeah. The only reason not to do it was because our defense had been on the field. But I went with the information I had.
A: Your players seem very loyal to you, despite the criticism. Why is that?
M: You’d have to ask them that. But there’s a couple things I know. One is I don’t bull them. I don’t do that.
A: How jolting was last year when you look back on it — to win only two games?
M: It was a great experience.
A: A great experience?
M: I choose to look at the glass half full. I say, “Well, we won our last two home games.”
A: What areas of this team do you need to improve the most?
M: The secondary — and then get playmakers.
A: What do you look for in a playmaker?
M: Typically, I want those guys who are superstars in grade school, in junior high, in high school, in college — those are the players. They’ve done it, they’re experienced, they’ve been there, they want to be in those positions and make plays.
A: How do losses affect you? Do you ever cry?
M: Oh, no! Oh, hell, no!
A: Do you lose sleep?
M: Rarely. Here’s my thought process: I will coach this team like we’re 9-3, not 3-9. I will get this team to play at the highest level possible — and then I’ll sleep well.
A: And you never entertain thoughts about, “Am I on shaky ground here?”
M: Can’t do it.
A: Why? Do you think it’s a weakness?
M: No, no. But, see, you’re a journalism guy, you’re a musician, you write books and all that — you can get into that emotional stuff — there ain’t much of that in here. I told the quarterbacks this: “You will not allow your teammates or your opponents to ever see you sweat.”
A: Do you live by that philosophy?
M: Yeah. Don’t let ’em see you sweat.
A: If you could convey one message to the fans who may not understand you, what would it be?
M: Well, first of all, maybe I should be a little more concerned — but I don’t care. Because to me, it doesn’t matter. It’s a process. I’ve been through it before. It’s a process. It’s a learning process.
A: Do you take any time during the season to do anything other than football?
M: I’ll watch a movie. Typically when we’re on the road.
A: That’s it?
M: Yeah, well, Thanksgiving weekend was the first day that, really, this staff has had off since, what, the bye week. During the season, it’s really hard. Shoot, my wedding anniversary was the Sunday of the Chicago game.
A: That was your anniversary?
M: That was my anniversary.
A: You didn’t have a party that night, I guess.
M: No. My wife goes, “Hey, in the middle of the fourth quarter, I thought we were gonna have a nice little celebration there.” But that’s just the way our life is, and we all understand that.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).