by | Jan 25, 2001 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

SOONER OR LATER, we all go through the door. Sometimes we burst through it, sometimes we slink through it, and sometimes, we are shown it by our employers.

There is nothing new about that. So there should be no surprise that Gary Moeller wakes up this morning and is no longer head coach of the Detroit Lions. I hear people saying, “He didn’t get a chance” and “How could they do this to him?”

Hey. That’s the way the business world works. The doors open, and you either come in or you go out. Moeller, a good guy, has been on both ends of the hinges.

Remember that he first came to our attention as an assistant under Michigan’s legendary Bo Schembechler. No one ever would have considered replacing Bo with Mo. Would have been sacrilegious.

But when Bo decided to retire, Moeller had the door opened for him. Not some outsider. Bo’s guy, Mo. He got to wear the big whistle.

A few years into his regime, he had that unfortunate drunken incident at a Southfield restaurant. It was caught on tape and replayed over and over. Michigan’s bosses said they couldn’t live with that. This time, the door was shown to Moeller, and — unfairly, if you ask me — he had to walk out.

When he returned to the Detroit area a few years later, as an assistant coach with the Lions, it was never with the promise of becoming the head guy. That job belonged to Bobby Ross. The door was opened only to a staff position. Moeller walked through.

But when Ross quit in the middle of this season, shook his head and said, “I’m done” — once again an unexpected door was flung open.

And Moeller, who had never been a head coach in the NFL before, had no problem walking through it again. He won four, lost three.

Which brings us to today….

The new guy in town

Today, the door is opened once more, and Moeller is told, “Thanks, but we’re going in another direction.” It is nothing people haven’t been enduring since the day they invented the office.

Truth be told, Moeller probably heard the squeak of the hinges the moment Matt Millen was hired.

Let’s face it. When a new general comes in, he tends to pick his soldiers. You can inherit a few. But in business combat — or whatever warlike reference you want to make for pro football — men tend to like familiar and loyal comrades around them.

And what better way to inspire loyalty than to hire a guy?

Millen is handpicking his new coach, Marty Mornhinweg, 38, the offensive coordinator for San Francisco. Giving him a five-year deal, and thus making an unspoken pact between employee and employer: I’m giving you a chance.

It is true, the new Coach Mo — and we better shorten that last name — has even less NFL head coaching experience than Moeller. Mornhinweg has never been in charge on any level. He doesn’t even have as much assistant experience as Moeller.

But he has worked with winning pro teams, San Francisco and Green Bay, and he is a quarterbacks guy, and this team needs guidance in that area. And besides
— and folks, don’t underplay this — he didn’t suffer the ugliest and most unforgivable loss in recent Lions memory, the season finale to Chicago that kept Detroit out of the playoffs.

Besides, this is Millen’s first big decision. He’s setting the course. He’s showing who’s in charge. And anyone who thought Moeller’s contract — given when the Lions needed to show that somebody was in charge around here — would somehow protect him, or that the Lions’ owners might object to firing Moeller out of a sense of loyalty, should think again.

No one knows this better than the Fords: When you put someone in charge of a division, you let him run it his way.

The curse of ex-coaches

So Millen has his man. Is it a good choice? Come on. We’re still trying to figure out how to spell his name.

But there is an obvious parallel here. Millen, in hiring Mornhinweg, is mimicking what the Fords did by hiring him. Millen, a young guy, had no experience, but came highly recommended and gave great interview. Result: a
$15-million, five-year deal.

Mornhinweg, a younger guy, has never been a head coach. But he comes highly recommended, and he lasted through marathon interview sessions with Millen on Tuesday night. Result: $5 million reportedly over five years.

What’s funny here is that the Lions, previously one of the starchiest teams in the NFL, suddenly look like the floor of Madonna’s closet. Anything goes.

And anybody goes. So Moeller is shown the door, and it remains to be seen, at age 59, if he can break the curse the Lions have laid on their ex-coaches. None of them, going back decades — not Ross, Wayne Fontes, Darryl Rogers, Rick Forzano, Tommy Hudspeth, Monte Clark — has ever been a head coach in the NFL again.

Then again, some of them got their chance only because Detroit is the kind of team it is. You can feel sorry for Moeller — I do — but don’t feel like he was sucker-punched. This wasn’t his first doorway, and let’s hope it won’t be his last.

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


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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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