He sounded a bit nervous. But then, if you were being handed, at the same time, the biggest paycheck of your career and the second-worst team in pro football, wouldn’t you be nervous, too?

“Just tell me one thing,” I asked Steve Mariucci, the Lions’ new head coach, Wednesday afternoon, “tell me you can win more than three games next year.”

“Ah, ah . . .” he said, stalling, “we’ll go one game at a time.”

“No,” I insisted. “Please. Just say you can win three games. Just say it. You can, right?”

“Ah, ah,” he laughed. “Don’t put words in my mouth.”

You see? Just what I was afraid of. They put on the Honolulu Blue and Silver, and things get jittery.

True, the world is moving fast for Steve Mariucci. A month ago, he was the San Francisco 49ers’ head coach, celebrating maybe the greatest comeback in playoff history. A week later, after a thumping loss to Tampa Bay, he was fired. And three weeks after that, here he was, at Ford Field, being introduced as the proud new head whistle man of a team that was losing even when he was a kid in Iron Mountain.

“I really had thought about taking the year off,” Mariucci said. “Work on my golf game, all that. It sounds good, doesn’t it, taking a year off?

“But I’m a football coach. I don’t sit around.”

So instead, he jumps feet first into the quicksand that is Detroit football, taking over a franchise fresh off a 3-13 season and a 2-14 season before that. He called it “a tremendous opportunity.”

Listening to him, I realized this was my sixth news conference for a new Lions coach. I have come to think of them as the Disney ride, Pirates of the Caribbean, in which a skull and crossbones speaks to your boat as you drop into the darkness, saying something like, “Aye, matey, beware, you are about to enter a place from which no one ever returns . . .”

Enter Mooch. At your own risk.

Will he ever return to the esteem he holds right now?

The great tug-of-war that began at Ford Field on Wednesday isn’t between the Lions and their 2003 opponents.

It’s between two histories — Mariucci’s, and the Lions’.

From Cal to San Fran

On the plus side, you have the smooth, charismatic, 47-year-old coach who had the savvy to remind people that he “was coming home to Michigan.” He has done that which they say about all great coaches, “Won wherever he has gone” — although in truth, he has only gone a few places as a head coach, a single season at Cal and six seasons with the 49ers. He is credited with helping to develop Brett Favre in Green Bay and Jeff Garcia in San Francisco, and that bodes well for Lions quarterback Joey Harrington, whom Mariucci says, “I know all about, and he has a tremendous future.”

On the negative side, tugging at the pant legs of Mariucci’s fine resume, is everything that has happened in Motown football history, the bungles, the fumbles, the flops, drops and kerplops. This is all you need to know: No Detroit head coach in recent memory has ever gone on to be a head coach anywhere else. NOT ONE! That’s astounding. Not Rick Forzano. Not Tommy Hudspeth. Not Monte Clark, Not Darryl Rogers. Not Wayne Fontes. Not Bobby Ross. Not Gary Moeller. And not likely anytime soon, Marty Mornhinweg.

Now THAT’s a tradition.

But not one that should excite Mariucci.

Will he lift this team, or will it sink him?

Big bucks, big pressure

“I came in last week and looked at the personnel board; I think there’s a good nucleus of players here,” Mariucci said. “We draft early; that’s good. And there’s a good coaching staff already here; I’ll interview them all very soon.

“But it starts with a commitment.”

Yes it does. The Ford family has made one — a whopper of a commitment — five years, $25 million for Mariucci, which puts them in the same money-tossing league as Daniel Snyder of the Washington Redskins and ahead of newly tightwad Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys. That’s heady company. The Lions have never played in those bank vaults before.

Which means they have the right to expect results. Moreover, they have the right to expect the previously impossible: that the coach will be bigger than the tradition.

Mariucci must do more than outdistance Mornhinweg; Marty is not the gold standard here. Mariucci must do more than outdo Ross, Rogers or Fontes, They are not the gold standard, either.

For the money the Lions are paying him, for the dominoes they knocked over to get him, Mariucci must take this team where it has never been, and that is, simply put, a Super Bowl. No ifs. No buts. And no hedging on a question like,
“Can you win three games next year?”

I think Mariucci is a great hire. But today is the first day of the rest of his coaching life. And Steve, the questions don’t get any easier from here.

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). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.

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