Jimmy Williams lost his temper in a bad place Sunday, the football field, during the game. He didn’t like what was going on. He didn’t like being taken out. So he yelled at a coach. Some nasty words. By Monday, Williams was out of a job. He had been here eight years, a first-round draft pick, and he could still play football. Some thought he could play pretty well.
Didn’t matter. Take a hike, Jimmy. He was cut from the roster for questioning authority. Sometimes, when this happens, it means the head coach has total control of the ship.
And sometimes it means just the opposite.
Now everyone is asking: Which one is Wayne Fontes? Because Williams, who likes to quote Jesus Christ, decided not to turn the other cheek. Instead he lashed out. He said Fontes had lost control of the team “the minute he put that cigar in his mouth.” He accused Fontes of being caught up in his own personal glory, of handing the reigns of the defense to his brother, Len Fontes — undermining defensive coordinator Woody Widenhofer. Williams also accused Fontes of drinking on the team plane and flirting with the stewardesses.
These last charges were downright mean and, true or false, didn’t deserve to be uttered in public. You wonder how thick the newspapers would be if every time a player was cut, the coach announced how many bars he’d been in and how many groupies he’d befriended. Still this is life in the spotlight. Once the mud is thrown, it sticks to the wall.
“I stand behind what I said,” Williams told me, when I spoke to him Tuesday morning. “Wayne has changed. He’s lost touch with his players. He’s lost touch with reality. His ego is so big, he’s become an ineffective coach. It’s pretty well known amongst the team. All you have to do is be around.” It’s not a wonderful life Now let me say right here that I tried to reach Fontes for this column and he did not return my call. Let me also say that — phone calls aside — I think Fontes is a friendly guy and a good football man. I do think, however, that he’s having problems with this head coaching gig. This is his biggest problem: He wants to be the Chief and one of the Indians
— at the same time.
He wants the media to like him. He wants the owner to like him. He wants the players to think of him as one of the guys. He also wants to win. That’s like throwing fish, sugar, liver and cheese into the blender and expecting it to taste good.
So we get these press conferences after defeats and they like something out of “It’s A Wonderful Life.” We’re getting better, Fontes says. I’m proud of the effort, he says. And the fans at home say, “What game was he watching?”
We get Fontes beaming about his quarterbacks, Rodney Peete, Bob Gagliano, Andre Ware, scooping out praise to one, then the other, then the other. And meanwhile each of them is saying, “If he likes me so much, why doesn’t he let me play more?”
We get Fontes talking about “his guys” on defense, where he once was the assistant coach and as popular as Kennedy. But now the defense is shoddy, and some of his old guys are quietly resenting how “big” their one-time coach/buddy has become. They see him light cigars. They see him ride in a golf cart during practices (ostensibly because he has a bad back). “He’s changed,” Williams says. What do players expect? They want him to be the old Wayne, and this is impossible. Fontes should explain this.
Instead, he tries to talk around it.
You can’t please everybody As a result, you get all these little fires in the Lions locker room. Already this season we have Eric Williams, who played defensive end — the Lions thinnest position — shipped off for running back James Wilder, who gets in about two plays a game. When Williams leaves, he claims Fontes deceived him. “Wayne didn’t keep his promise,” he says.
Then we have Peete, Gagliano and Ware playing musical quarterbacks. You talk to them in private, they all feel like they’ve been misled by the head coach. Once they used to enjoy when Fontes threw his arm over their shoulders. Now they wonder what’s in the other hand.
We have Jerry Ball complaining that he is being misused on defense. We have quiet Barry Sanders — who was once hailed as the future of this team by Fontes — suggesting he needs to “talk to the coaches” about the way he is being used.
Little fires. And now we have Jimmy Williams kicking up all this dirt and being punished by losing his job. Only within 24 hours he is picked up by the Minnesota Vikings and now he could wind up in the playoffs. Some punishment.
What all this does, after a while, is confuse people: They don’t know what to make of Fontes, is he the solution or part of the problem? Yes, a lot of this comes from losing. You don’t hear the 49ers moaning, no matter who plays and who doesn’t. And if the Lions were winning, week after week, Fontes would be hailed as a genius.
But they aren’t winning. And the fact is, if Fontes wants to stay here through his suggested rebuilding process, he’ll have to decide who he is: chief or indian. You can’t talk out of all sides of your mouth. You can’t have players mumbling how you don’t keep your word. Losing games is obviously Fontes’ big concern right now, but he’s got another one. With each little fire, he is losing his believability. In the end, that may cost him a lot more than Jimmy Williams.