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

The paper. I kept looking for the piece of paper. The crib sheet. The notes. Something written down that Bobby Ross was no doubt checking as he stood at the microphone, neatly coiffed, rattling off his coaching blueprint. Methodically, he outlined why he came here, how he operated, and the steps he would take to build a winner in Detroit. Surely he was working from a script, no? It was too logical. Too orderly. The Lions haven’t witnessed this kind of organization since the Silverdome crowd sang an on-key verse of “Another One Bites the Dust.”

Straighten up, fly right. You know what Monday really was? The day Wayne Fontes was fired as Lions coach. Oh, his smiling mug was shown the door last month. But his way of doing things was only officially broomed out Monday at 11 a.m., an efficient hour, when Bobby Ross, proven winner, man with a plan, stepped to the podium to start a new era.

Straighten up, fly right.

“If you’ve ever been a player or coach in the NFL,” announced Ross, 60, in front of his new bosses and a room packed with reporters, “then you know this: If you’re not playing at this time of year, it eats away at you. There’s an empty feeling inside.”

How do you like that? He’s here five minutes and he’s lamenting the fact that the Lions aren’t in a Super Bowl.

Straighten up, fly right.

There was no crib sheet in front of Ross. This is simply who he is: organized, meticulous and thorough, without being a robot. He did not talk of frivolous things, of cigars, food, hugging. He talked of winning. That is his calling card.

This is a man who is hailed by everyone he works with as a winner and an admirable guy, a man bold enough to lead the greatest comeback in the history of college football — when his Maryland team beat Jimmy Johnson’s Miami Hurricanes on the road, 42-40 — yet modest enough to pay a parking fee at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego because he forgot his pass and didn’t want to drop his own name.

Here is a guy who lived five years in San Diego and “never saw the ocean, except for a few walks with my wife.” The rest of the time he was working.

Here is a guy who believes in using referees in practice, so his teams don’t develop penalty habits.

Here is a guy who is not yakking about his childhood, his food habits, being “the Big Buck” or any of the other comedy material that has defined recent conversations with the Lions’ head football coach.

Instead, on his first day, Bobby Ross determined: 1) They will use a blocking back for Barry Sanders. 2) They will want Scott Mitchell as their quarterback. 3) They will play a 4-3 defense. 4) Former coaches will be given a chance to interview for jobs “with no promises.” 5) He will move here with his wife into a house “close to the stadium, so I can have quick access to my office.”

He then flew to Mobile, Ala., to begin scouting college seniors.

All that in his first hour. That’s more definitive action that we got in six months’ worth of Fontes.

Straighten up, fly right.

The man with a plan

“How would you characterize your coaching style?” someone asked Ross, who brings a Super Bowl appearance and a college national championship to the job.

“I believe in communication,” he said. “My door in my office and my house is always open. But I also believe in discipline. And there will be no doubt who’s in charge.”

Fine with me. I liked this move when it was announced. I liked it more after hearing Ross. I do not think he is perfect, but I do think he is a perfect fit. This team has become slipshod. Too much talent wasted. Too much time zigging and zagging, no plan, no focus, no clue.

Ross will go forward, with a definite attack. Remember, he did not need to jump on the first vine that swung past him. He was wanted by several pro franchises. He could have gotten rich anywhere. He chose this team. And seeing as Ross is a guy who arrived for his interview with four pages of his own notes and questions, and who gives his players written summations of opponents before each game, well, you can bet he chose the Lions for a reason.

He thinks they can win.

An organizational man

When Ross left the news conference to go to the airport, owner William Clay Ford hung around. He was in an unusually conversational mood. I asked whether he understood why fans had been skeptical of whom he would hire this time. To his credit, he said he did.

“You can’t argue with the record over the years,” he said. “Maybe I haven’t always hired the right person to lead this team.”

I believe he did this time. For comparison, I went back and checked the news accounts from the days the previous two coaches were hired.

On Dec. 22, 1988, the Lions officially hired Fontes. At his news conference he talked about not being able to find his way out of the parking lot. He also promised to remain the “same guy I always was.” He talked about hugging the owner, and he promised “Wayne Fontes will be visible in the community. I’ll be at baseball games and basketball games.”

As for concrete football plans? He didn’t say much, except that with his upcoming first draft pick, the Lions “need a guy who will block out the sun, a defensive end.”

He drafted Barry Sanders.

So much for a man with a plan.

Darryl Rogers, on Feb. 6, 1985, was even worse. When news broke of his hiring, his most memorable quote was, “I’m honest: I don’t know a thing about the Detroit Lions.”

He came here and coached like it.

You needn’t worry about that with Ross. He was organized at Maryland, where he boosted a program; organized at Georgia Tech, where he rebuilt a program; organized at San Diego, where he built a Super Bowl team, and he will be organized here. Practices will be sharper, plans will be clearer, and no matter what the results, people will not feel that the head man is asleep at the wheel.

As for fans’ and critics’ traditional impatience?

“No one’s going to be more impatient than me,” Ross said. “And I’m going to be the one putting in all the hours, more than you, more than anyone in this room. I want to win.”

Straighten up, fly right.

I feel so much better about this team right now, I could bust a seam.


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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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