BOBBY Ross walked into the locker room and asked the players to listen up. They didn’t know it, but he already had resigned, already had told management he couldn’t do the job anymore, that his body, spirit and tolerance were spent.
Yet as the players looked up, Ross first took care of housekeeping. He reminded them of a banquet they had to attend Monday evening. He reminded them to lift weights, start thinking about the next game, Sunday against Atlanta.
Only then, with the small details attended to, did he clear his throat.
And told them he was quitting.
This is all you need to know about 63-year-old Bobby Ross, the latest casualty of the asylum we know as Detroit Lions football. Even on his darkest day as coach, Ross was first concerned about order, operation, discipline, things working correctly. Those were the instincts that got him the job. And the instincts that told him he was through.
“We have the wrong coach,” Ross had said of himself, when asked Sunday why the Lions collapsed so badly against the Miami Dolphins.
He was done right then. Coaches don’t say things like that if they expect to return. Why bring the “wrong” coach back for another Sunday?
And Ross had gone from Mr. Right to Mr. Can’t Make It Right. Like Sisyphus in Greek mythology, he had pushed the boulder up the hill, come to a struggling stalemate, and started to feel it roll back on top of him. So he walked out, leaving reporters scrambling for the last time an NFL coach jumped off a horse with a winning record (still looking) and leaving William Clay Ford, the owner who makes fans wince, stepping to the microphone to announce that a new head coach was already in place.
His name was Gary Moeller.
“I’ve given him a three-year contract,” Ford said. “He will have carte blanche to do whatever he sees fit, personnel-wise, coaching-wise, whatever he wants to do.”
A three-year …what?
Cart blanche to do …what?
Whatever he wants to …
A sudden collapse
The place is haunted. It must be. That Silverdome must have gremlins that slip into people’s ears and play rat-a-tat-tat in their brains. How else do you explain this franchise? How else do you explain Monday, Nutty Monday?
One minute you have a 5-2 team that is being picked by Sports Illustrated as a top NFC playoff contender — and the next minute the team is 5-4, the fans are booing their best quarterback, Moeller is banging a fist on the lectern as if he had been here 20 years, saying, “I’m not picking up a doormat here, we have a winning record!” and Ross is driving down I-75 on his way to being a full-time grandfather.
Bizarre? Here’s what it comes down to. The Lions — who for years have exasperated their fans — finally exasperated their coach.
Bobby Ross is one of us now.
He can’t take it anymore.
“I am sorry,” Ross said, in a statement addressed to Ford, “for not giving you the championship trophy you so richly deserved.”
Sorry, yes, but that is not the reason he said good-bye. The reason he said good-bye was this: When he spoke, the players didn’t listen. When he urged, they didn’t budge. When he preached, they continued to sin. When he pleaded, they did not deliver.
For a guy like Ross, who always believed — as many coaches from his generation do — that you can outwork the other guy, that you can inspire, that players will fear you, mind you, follow you through a wall if you show them how much you want victory — well, this was too much to deal with. His health was not great. His inner fires had left him scorched.
He looked at Sunday’s 23-8 debacle and saw a team that, for three hours, didn’t seem to care.
And a voice inside him said, “Why should you?”
A record below .500
“The way I look at it, he was emotionally spent,” said chief operating officer Chuck Schmidt. “When he didn’t get the results based on the effort he put in, he felt it was time to move on.”
Ross actually wanted out Sunday night, Schmidt said, but the front office urged him to sleep on it, make sure it wasn’t an emotional reaction. Ross returned Monday morning, his mind unchanged. He would leave, midseason, after losing a little more than half of the 57 regular-season games he coached and both of the playoff games the Lions made under his regime.
The funny thing is, last year and this year, the Lions burst out of the gate, with a 6-2 record and a 5-2 record, respectively.
But like Ross, they ultimately ran out of gas. They self-destructed. And while Ross is an old soldier type, and old soldiers don’t point fingers at their men, I am not an old soldier, so I will.
The Lions should be ashamed of themselves.
Ross may not be the greatest coach in the NFL, but no one can doubt his effort or his dedication. And these guys, at multimillion-dollar salaries, can’t do simple things like stay onside, hold onto the football or catch a pass.
I remember once, after a particularly humiliating loss, Ross screamed: “I DON’T COACH THAT STUFF!”
But the Lions do it just the same. They seem to bathe in the waters of mediocrity in Pontiac, as if they are pre-destined to finish badly. Their recent losses have been lapses of effort and concentration. Sunday was a loss of heart.
And that can’t be blamed on the coach.
That’s a bunch of guys who won’t reach the top, because they’re too in the middle.
The next man to try
And so now Gary Moeller gets a crack at them. And will he be any better? Who knows?
This is what we know about Moeller: He is football to his core. He was a rousing, garrulous, not-afraid-to-blow-up-in-your-face guy at the University of Michigan, who had enjoyed some success before a bad lapse of judgment cost him his job. A drunken tirade in a Southfield restaurant was something a university could not tolerate, and Moeller was banished in 1995. He has been trying to reclaim his life and position ever since.
Enough years have passed in his purgatory, including four seasons as linebackers coach for the Lions. He certainly is deserving to be given a chance somewhere. But he brings to the table just eight years of head coaching experience, all at college (as opposed to Ross, who joined the Lions with 15 years of college head coaching and five years and a Super Bowl appearance as head man in the NFL).
Let’s also remember: The last place Moeller was the head coach, he could stand before a group of apple-cheeked behemoths and say: “You are Michigan men! You are damn lucky to be wearing that uniform!”
You think that approach is gonna work in Pontiac?
You think anyone feels lucky in Honolulu Blue?
Think again. Moeller will need a crash course on the offense, and who knows what in the team direction department. I know many people think Ford is nuts to give Moeller a three-year deal and full authority, but that isn’t as wacky as it seems.
Look at it this way: If he put Moeller out there and said “this man is the interim coach only, with no real power and no personnel decisions” — why would the Lions need to respond to him? They didn’t respond to Ross, and he had all the authority the franchise could offer.
Moeller — like other coaches — could always be fired. But if imbuing him with authority makes players respect him enough to try, and trying gets this 5-4 team to the playoffs, it was a gambit that paid off.
No, the nutty thing is Ross’ departure at this juncture, and the quick move to Moeller by a team that usually moves as quickly as a crippled bison. Oh, yeah. And the sudden downward turn by a team that, a few weeks ago, was being patted on the back for exceeding expectations.
The place must be haunted, but Ross is no more. Back to civilian life. Back to some sense of normalcy. Bobby Ross is a good man, a good coach, the first truly credentialed guy the Lions have hired in decades. He deserved better.
But in this strange story, few people are getting what they deserve.
Most are just getting confused.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).