REALITY PUNCHES LIONS BOSS, BUT HE KEEPS ON HITTING BACKDOGGED BY LOSING, HE SAYS HE PLANS TO ‘SWING UNTIL THE END’

He still gets to work before sunrise. He still growls when he makes a point. He still believes — in himself and his coach.

But in his second year, Matt Millen, the Lions’ team president, is wiser than he was. He gets the whole Lions thing now. He’s learned the sad history. He hears the fans wailing.

He knows Marty Mornhinweg doesn’t give great press conference. He knows Joey Harrington is working without a net. He knows his owner won’t tolerate one laughingstock year after another.

He also knows it’s only two weeks into the season.

Perspective. Millen and I sat down, in the pre-dawn dark of Thursday morning, at his office in Allen Park. And even with a 2-16 record clouding his legacy, the morning sun still rose in the sky — perhaps a good omen for Millen, who this weekend has a new stadium opening, a new quarterback debuting, and the same old same ugly questions echoing in the streets.

He doesn’t duck.

Here are highlights from our talk:

ALBOM: Are you in over your head?

MILLEN: That’s a great question. And the answer is I don’t know. What makes you in over your head?

A: A sense of confusion?

M: I’m not confused. It’s pretty clear what you have to do. The hard part is how to get there. We’ve drafted pretty well. The free agent side is harder. It’s like, your dike has one hole, our dike has eight holes. Do we clog the biggest hole? Or do we clog three smaller ones?

A: At what point do you say I have to change the coach for the sake of the team? Are you willing to go through another 2-14 season with Marty?

M: No, I’m not. I’m not. I don’t want to. But to change just to change is wrong. It’s not just changing a coach. Now you’re changing philosophies. You’re changing staffs. So it’s not as simple as “Ah, he’s a bum — get rid of him.”

A: Do you still think you picked the right coach?

M: Oh, yeah. The same reasons I chose Marty — they still exist. Maybe when he’s talking to you guys it’s one thing, but when you sit and talk to him in a room like this, he’s very bright, extremely organized, very focused, and he manages his staff very well. Maybe he’s a bad salesman — except in the locker room. You go down there on a Monday when he has to speak to the team — he gets right to the point. The message is delivered. That’s why the guys still play hard. He can sell it to the team. So, yeah, from that point . . . I think Marty is gonna do fantastic.

But you’re only as good as your players. Bill Walsh was just in last week — and it’s an old line, and you’ve heard it before, but he said it: “I was not very bright until I got Joe Montana.”

A: What’s your take on Joey Harrington?

M: What’s your take on him?

A: I think he’s smart.

M: I think so, too.

A: I think he has a cockiness necessary for his position.

M: No question.

A: On the other hand, I think you’re taking a big chance by throwing him to the wolves, because he’s not used to a lot of negativity in his life.

M: You sound like you’re on our staff. We say the exact same things. Look. There are a couple of ways you cannot lose a rookie quarterback. You cannot lose him to injury — the kind of injuries where you start getting chronic head trauma or a shoulder that has to be operated on. We cannot lose him that way. And mentally, you cannot lose him, either. But I think he’s a pretty strong kid. I said to him the other day, are you ready to roll? And he goes,
“Not yet, but I will be in three days” — and he kind of laughed. The point is he’s one of those guys who gets it.

A: Are you taking a chance by starting him this soon?

M: Yeah. We’re taking one.

A: How much of him starting had to do with the home opener, the new stadium, the national TV?

M: For me, very little.

A: Did you make the call or did Marty?

M: Well, we both talked about this for a while.

A: Some fans think you’re grasping for anything.

M: Sure. We know. It’s a concern. But we said this from the start: The reasons to play the kid have to be the right reasons. They cannot be to save someone’s job, or just out of a reaction to something. And I can tell you those are not the reasons we’re doing it.

A: How concerned are you about ruining this kid’s confidence?

M: That’s a concern with any young quarterback. But he sees things fast. He has a good, quick release. He’s a smart kid. My gut tells me he’ll be a little conservative — because he’s not gonna want to make a mistake. On the other hand, he has enough of that confidence that he’s gonna take a shot now and then.

A: Is he the starter for the rest of the year?

M: Well, I think . . . you have to play him. Once you make the switch, you make the switch. Now, there’s gonna be times when he’s gonna fall — he’s gonna crash and burn sometimes. Michael Vick a year ago, they tried and it didn’t work, and they sat him back down. But in a perfect world you say this is it, move on. Just like when you’re a kid: “Ready or not, here I come.”

A: What’s your single biggest disappointment so far?

M: The Miami game. Oh, that’s the biggest disappointment since I’ve been here. That was brutal. That one hurt. That was a whole off-season of work — scheme-changing, personnel, everything. And then — it wasn’t just the loss — it’s the how we lost. Some of the mistakes our defensive guys made — you just say, how does that happen?

A: Still, when Marty says, “You take away six big plays and everything’s different,” isn’t that a pretty weak explanation? You take away six plays from any two football games and everything’s different.

M: Yeah. But you know what? He’s reeling a bit, too.

A: How much of the Lions’ problems have you inherited, and how much have you created?

M: Well, the inherited part . . . I don’t want to look back. I’m more concerned with what we created. Probably some things, if we’re honest.

A: But you did inherit a big Charlie Batch contract, several ex-top draft picks who didn’t pan out, few benefits from the rebuilding process before you
. . .

M: But, Mitch, what you’re saying — and it’s true — the thing is, if the people before us had been successful, we wouldn’t be here. So that’s part of it how you get here.

A: What happened with Johnnie Morton?

M: I wanted Johnnie Morton on this team. But I couldn’t afford to pay him five million dollars for a year. That’s a reality. That was a hard decision to make
— and an unpopular decision — unpopular even in this building.

A: And Charlie Batch?

M: Charlie, to me, I wouldn’t have minded having Charlie Batch on this team. But there’s a psychological part — in the locker room — there’s a financial part of it — which is a big one, because he’d have to take a pay cut — and then there’s also the physical side of it. I’m not sure he would have handled all that.

A: How long do you give yourself on this job?

M: For me, personally, I’m gonna swing until the end. I’m gonna keep on fighting. I will not say OK, I’ve had enough — let’s go do something else. I think that’s wrong.

A: So you won’t stop short of the commitment you made — five years?

M: That’s right.

A: You’ll be here five years no matter what happens?

M: Absolutely.

A: You always feel you can turn it around?

M: And if you don’t think that way, you’ve made a huge mistake.

A: How much do you think there’s a malaise that hangs over this organization?

M: There’s no question it exists. But why does it exist? Because this town is a football town. Bo Schembechler told me that two years ago. This is a football town — a football state. The people love this sport. And it’s like they say — “Here we go again.” And they say “It’s the same old stuff.” And then they show up — 70,000 strong. It’s frustration born out of passion.

A: Why have you not moved your family here from Pennsylvania? You’ve taken some heat for that — people think you’re not fully committed to the job.

M: Oh, that’s a joke. First of all, I said that from the beginning, my family is my family. I have one kid in college and two in high school. When I told my son Marcus, “We’re gonna move to Michigan, I think it is the best thing for us,” Marcus, who’s a piece of work, looked at me and said, “Dad, I love you. But I’m gonna miss you.” And my daughter, too. They’re both in high school, in those years, you know, and they’re just not moving.

Besides, I know how I am, how I work, and so even if they were here, I’m not gonna see them much. Let them have their peace. I bought a place here in Dearborn. I sleep in it is really what I do. But it’s also a place for when they’re up here.

A: What was your reaction when the Terry Bradshaw and the Fox broadcasters joked that you’d be back in the booth with them pretty soon?

M: You just hit the operative word. Terry. I said to myself, “Terry, you knucklehead. You just gave a flip comment to get a laugh, and you dropped a bomb. You just dropped a bomb.” I know Terry, so I can laugh at it — but it’s not a laughing matter in some circles.

A: Did you call him on it?

M: No, I haven’t talked to those guys for a while. I’ll see them this weekend. I’m sure he’ll dog me again.

A: With the talent you have on this team, what’s a realistic expectation for the season?

M: You know, Mitch, I would like to say, well, I think eight wins is that or nine wins is this — but for me, I cannot lower what I believe success is — and success is a Super Bowl win. Everybody else is a loser. Are we capable of a Super Bowl this year? Probably not. So we’re talking about improvement. We must have improvement.

A: Improvement could be three wins.

M: That’s not improvement.

A: What have you had your eyes opened to the most?

M: That one of my strengths is also a weakness. One of my strengths — and one of Marty’s strengths — is an optimistic point of view.

A: Has the job knocked some of that optimism out of you?

M: Ironically, no. If I lose that, then I start to lose belief in a lot of things. And I’m not gonna do that. No way.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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