TALKING TOUGH … AND LIONS NEED IT

He put his hands on his hips, military style, and began his address. He spoke firmly and directly, his feet planted, his spine straight, a little bit of the King of Siam in his posture. He called us “men.” He looked us in the eye. He said there would be “one voice” for discipline under his regime -“mine.”

Personally, I was ready to shave my head and yell, “SIR, YES, SIR!”

Rod Marinelli, the new Lions coach, may have never skippered an NFL game, but he sure commandeered his news conference like a man who popped from the womb as a staff sergeant. He took the moment, shook it out, made it stand up straight and salute him. Before he had spoken five minutes Thursday, he already had suggested talk was cheap, only performance mattered, and players and coaches – himself included – should be judged “by the tape.”

At one point, he even stepped from the podium and demonstrated a blocking technique. I saw Jim Brandstatter, a Lions broadcaster who was once a darn good offensive lineman, and I thought old Brandy was gonna drop into his stance and knock over a few cameramen.

“I’m not interested in Pro Bowl players; I’m interested in championship players,” Marinelli declared.

And this: “It’s a ‘show me’ game.”

At one point he said the most important thing is “the untalented issues.”

And I thought, wow, he IS a perfect fit for the Lions.

But what he meant were things like fundamentals, finishing plays, small details. You know, the stuff of crew cuts and muddy helmets.

“I understand football character,” Marinelli said. “Guys who love football and want to be a champion. I’ve been around that, so I know what to look for.”

Wow. If even half of that is true, the franchise has to improve. Heck, Marinelli could scare the Lions into at least three victories.

Coaching the right way

In my time covering this team, I have seen Darryl Rogers, Wayne Fontes, Bobby Ross, Gary Moeller, Marty Mornhinweg and Steve Mariucci all address the media to start their tenures. None of them did it as unflinchingly as Marinelli. None.

Rogers was flimflammy. Fontes was a clown. Ross barked. Moeller never knew his status. Mornhinweg – well, he was a lost cause from his opening statements. And Mariucci was easygoing and cerebral.

Marinelli, in his crisp black suit, white shirt and blue tie, reminded me of Ed Harris playing John Glenn in “The Right Stuff.” There was a glint in his eye, and his mouth curled often into a sly smile. He’s 56. He has waited a long time. He’s a Vietnam vet. And I know this much. I would not want to take on his troops in any war games.

But can he coach?

Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? Giving a good news conference won’t get you to the Super Bowl. Marinelli certainly can create great defensive linemen. (He was the man behind Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice in Tampa Bay.) And if you know defensive linemen, you know offensive linemen, so those elements should be in good hands. There are some people – Bo Schembechler comes to mind – who figure if you have great linemen, you’re already gonna win.

But how will the new guy handle quarterbacks, running backs, defensive backs and the increasingly diva-like wide receivers? There are just as many Randy Mosses in football as there are Brian Urlachers, maybe more, and in general, skill players require different motivation than defensive linemen. You can’t just throw raw hamburger out there and expect them to pounce.

“I just believe you coach each man independently,” Marinelli said. “You’ve got to spend time showing him how good he can be. … We just have standards. I’ve got to get each man to understand the standard I have for him.”

Marinelli’s most important standard might be the one he sets for the offensive coordinator he hires, since he is likely to rely on that person for most of the points. If there is any doubt about Marinelli, it is how he’ll make the transition from molding a small element of the team (linemen) to overseeing the entire operation.

After all, some men make great presidents, others make great cabinet secretaries.

You never know until they try.

A love for the gridiron

But here’s what I say: Give the guy a shot. I can’t get with people who so desperately want Matt Millen fired they want to dump manure on anything he does. What does that get you? Nothing but stink. The fact is, you can’t fire Millen. None of us can. So we might as well hope he’s getting smarter.

“What did you look for this time that maybe you didn’t last time?” I asked the Lions’ fifth-year president.

“I think I know the team better this time,” Millen said. “I think I know what we need more. … Just (Marinelli’s) whole approach. … It’s the way I believe football to be.”

You can understand why Millen made this hire. His first guy, Mornhinweg, was supposedly a quarterback molder. His second guy, Mariucci, was supposedly an offensive magic maker. Both went kaput. Now Millen, possibly down to his last hire, has turned to defense and discipline. It is the familiar pattern of struggling franchises – your next coach is the opposite of your last one.

And so Marinelli seems to be much different from Mariucci, even if they have the same syllables and many of the same vowels.

And that’s probably a good thing. So is the following:

1) Marinelli is a specialist every team wanted, so much so that Tampa Bay had to throw a net over him several times to keep him from leaving. That says something.

2) He has been around awhile and has learned under everyone from John Robinson to Jon Gruden. That says something.

3) He speaks footballese, which might not be a language you know or care about, but it matters to players. They can tell a poseur from the real thing. That says something.

Beyond that, all we have are impressions. He talks the talk. He puts his hands on his hips. He never looks down or away. He does not mumble.

“I’ve waited for” a head coaching job “my whole life,” he said. “This is what I’m supposed to be. … Ever since high school, I was the guy who would be two hours early to practice. I always wanted to be in the locker room. I just like the smell of it. I can’t explain it.”

Sure you can, Rod. To paraphrase Robert Duvall in “Apocalypse Now,” you love the smell of Ben-Gay in the morning.

And the Lions had better start loving it, too.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

(SIDEBAR) From the mouth of Marinelli …

The Lions introduced Rod Marinelli as their new coach Thursday. Among his comments:

•”Who am I? I have a background of building.”

•”I understand how to build.”

•”I’m a very good communicator.”

•”I understand men.”

•”We have talent. Talent is not going to be the issue in this league all the time. It’s the talent that plays good.”

•”I’ve got confidence. I don’t need anyone to instill that confidence in me.”

•”I believe in morale. It may be the No. 1 issue in this league.”

•”I believe in the development of skill.”

•”You have to be hard, but you have to be smart.”

•”I want a team that’s going to be in great physical condition.”

•”I know how to teach. The team will play one snap at a time all the way through a game and compete.”

(SIDEBAR) Meet the new guy

Who: Rod Marinelli, 56, born in Rosemead, Calif.

Resume: Served in Vietnam. NAIA All-America offensive tackle. College coach for 20 years. Pro coach for 10 years.

Fans said it

Rod Clouse, Hartland: “I wonder if Marinelli knows what he’s gotten himself into.”

Jim Johnson, Sault Ste. Marie: “He is a good choice on paper. But as long as Matt Millen is in charge, I have my doubts if anyone can succeed here.”

G. Curtis, Warren: “Why not? It’s not like he’s taking over a dynasty or anything.”

COMPLETE COVERAGE, 1D

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