When Rich Rodriguez stood in front of the media in Ann Arbor on that November day in 2007, having just been introduced as the next football coach at the University of Michigan, one of the sage scribes asked him what it felt like to be worse than sloppy seconds.
OK, the question wasn’t posed with that degree of temerity, but Rodriguez, lured to Michigan from what appeared to be a cushy job at West Virginia, was thought to be U-M’s third choice, behind Rutgers’ Greg Schiano, who turned Michigan down, and in all likelihood Louisiana State’s Les Miles, who was courted clumsily by then-Athletic Director Bill Martin.
Rodriguez, looking a little stiff and slightly nervous, nonetheless cracked a joke about not being his wife’s first choice, either.
The comment broke the room up.
There wouldn’t be much laughter in the ensuing three seasons, after which Rodriguez was run out of town—a man whose biggest crime may have been that he was a perceived outsider.
Bo Schembechler started the “Michigan Man” nonsense.
My podcast co-host, Al Beaton, said on last week’s show that if Bo were alive today, the old coach would probably wish he’d never uttered the phrase.
It was Schembechler, then the AD at Michigan, who declared that assistant coach Steve Fisher would coach the Michigan basketball team throughout the 1989 NCAA tournament, in the wake of the news that head coach Bill Frieder had accepted the job at Arizona State—an announcement that occurred practically on the eve of the tourney.
Bo would have none of Frieder coaching the kids at Michigan during March Madness, as long as an agreement was in place for the basketball coach to flee as soon as the final buzzer of the final game sounded.
“A Michigan man will coach Michigan!” Bo roared.
Fisher never attended Michigan. He was born and reared in Illinois. He played college basketball in Illinois.
But why let those facts get in the way of a good quote, right?
Fisher, the promoted assistant, guided the Wolverines to the 1989 National Championship. Bo looked like a genius.
So the “Michigan Man” term was born!
There was nothing “Michigan” about Rich Rodriguez, from the Latino surname to his football coaching resume. He was, however, another Illinois guy (born in Chicago).
Rodriguez coached just three seasons at Michigan, and when he was forced out after the 2010 season—three seasons that showed little progress, you could point to the Rodriguez years and say that they were among the most tumultuous in the school’s football history.
Oh, how good those years look now, eh?
It can now be said that Brady Hoke, Rodriguez’s successor and “Michigan Man” extraordinaire, is presiding over the most turbulent years in Michigan football history. Hoke is making the Rodriguez Era look like the halcyon days in Ann Arbor.
Hoke, in his fourth season as Michigan’s football coach—one more than Rodriguez was granted—is doing two things at once.
One, he’s showing that a “Michigan Man” can fail just as easily as an outsider.
The second thing may come as a shock to your system.
Hoke is turning the football job at Michigan into quite the plum.
Yes, I’m as sober as a judge as I write this. My temperature is 98.6 and I know what day it is and I can recite the alphabet backward.
The feeling in 2007, when Rodriguez was the presumed third choice, was that coaching Michigan football had somehow lost a bit of its luster, despite some fine work done by Lloyd Carr from 1995-2007, including a co-National Championship in 1997.
That inferiority complex wasn’t helped when Schiano, coaching Rutgers (!) at the time, reportedly turned AD Martin down.
Who turns down Michigan to stay at Rutgers, when it comes to coaching football?
But it happened, if you believe multiple reports and chatter.
When current AD Dave Brandon hired Hoke, a former Michigan assistant under Carr, from San Diego State in January, 2011, again there were rumblings that Michigan got less than their first choice.
Brandon, it was reported, would have preferred LSU’s Miles (Brandon flew down to Louisiana to interview Miles, another former Michigan assistant, but under Schembechler). But Miles politely declined a job offer.
Brandon also might have pursued former U-M quarterback and then-Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, though that has never been confirmed. Harbaugh accepted the head coaching job with the San Francisco 49ers just days before Brandon introduced Hoke.
With the hirings of Rodriguez and Hoke, that’s two straight coaching searches where Michigan—the school that still holds the college football record for most wins, ever—seemingly had to settle.
Yet Hoke’s stunning failure that is being played out in front of us like a car wreck is actually helping Michigan, I believe.
You heard me.
Michigan got its “Michigan Man” and it isn’t working out, which may be the understatement of the year.
But at least the school got the “Michigan Man” thing out of its system.
In 2008, Rodriguez followed Carr, when the Michigan job was still thought to be one where Carr’s successor could keep U-M as a Top 20 program for years to come.
Hoke is showing that just because you were an assistant at Michigan some 15 years ago, it doesn’t guarantee success as a head coach.
The job at Michigan, though, is better than ever.
Hoke’s car wreck is setting the job up for a big name guy to come in and “save” Michigan football.
There is a lot of ego in coaching, as there should be. It’s actually a desired attribute, as long as it’s kept in check.
Michigan football now is talked about a lot in the past tense.
It’s never good when words like “was” and “used to be” and “back in the day” are used to describe your program.
But it also means that Michigan football, in the hands of the right man, is ripe for the picking, so to speak.
Somewhere out there is a high profile coach who would drool at the opportunity to bring Michigan back from the brink of irrelevance—which is where it is now.
Somewhere is a man whose eyes light up at the thought of being a near god in Ann Arbor.
Somewhere there is a coach who doesn’t look at the Michigan job as a career killer, in the slightest.
Now the Wolverines are getting clocked at home by Minnesota, just their third loss to the Golden Gophers since 1967.
That’s not a good sign.
The wild card, however, is Brandon.
The athletic director has come under fire, not only for the Hoke hire but for his presumed micro-managing of the department, especially when it comes to football. He is too involved, many critics say.
John Arbeznik was a captain on the 1979 Wolverines team. He was speaking on 105.1 FM the other day about Brandon and his frequent presence around the Michigan football facilities.
“I never saw (former athletic director) Don Canham during the season. Never,” Arbeznik told Drew Lane. “Certainly never in the locker room.”
Arbeznik was guesting Lane’s show, discussing a letter that has been signed by 30-40 former players—basically a list of grievances. The letter, Arbeznik said, was given to the university’s Board of Regents and to new school president Mark Schlissel.
What, if anything, will come from Arbeznik and company’s list of grievances, no one really knows.
Brady Hoke cannot be brought back as Michigan coach next season. That much is certain.
But the job isn’t ruined for the next guy. The football program isn’t beyond saving.
In fact, it may be at its best place in years.
Michigan just has to find the right man. And the use of “Michigan” and “man” in that sentence was purely unintentional.
He had just set a new National Football League record for longest field goal made, and he did it to win the game.
Tom Dempsey of the Saints, with half a right foot due to a birth deformity, blasted a 63 yard field goal to beat the Lions—naturally—in New Orleans on November 8, 1970. He obliterated the old mark by seven yards.
Dempsey. of course, was swarmed by reporters after the game at old Tulane Stadium.
One of the scribes asked Dempsey what was going through his mind as he lined up for the kick at his own 37 yard line (the goalposts were at the goal line in those days).
“I was thinking that the goal posts looked kind of small,” Dempsey said.
The funny thing about Dempsey, who was nothing more than a journeyman kicker in the NFL, was that he was hardly known for his kicking accuracy. In fact, after the Lions game in which he set the record, players from Detroit recalled seeing Dempsey in pregame practice missing kicks from all over the field.
Yet Dempsey kicked four field goals in the Saints victory, capped by the 63-yarder as time expired.
The record-setting kick exploded from Dempsey’s half-a-foot and traveled through the Nawlins’ air almost parallel to the ground, with none of the typical end-over-end trajectory—as if it had been shot out of a cannon.
The football dropped over the crossbar with perhaps a foot to spare.
Lions coaches remarked that the sound of Dempsey’s foot meeting the ball was like someone thwacking a wet mattress with a baseball bat.
You’d think that setting a new NFL record for longest field goal made would buy a guy some job security. But a year later, Dempsey was kicking for the Philadelphia Eagles and so began his meandering through the league, playing with four teams after the Saints in a career that ended in 1979.
You know what Dempsey’s rate of success in field goal attempts was in 1970, they year he kicked the 63 yarder?
He made 18 of 34 tries for a very mediocre 52.9 percent. In 1969, Dempsey was 1-for-11 in attempts 50 yards and beyond.
But with one historic swing of his leg, Tom Dempsey lives forever in the NFL record books—and in the memory of every Lions fan 50 years of age or older.
For his career, Dempsey made good on just over 61 percent of his kicks.
Yet as pedestrian as Dempsey’s career field goal percentage of success is, it’s still some 18 percent better than Nate Freese, the Lions kicker (for the moment).
Freese, the embattled rookie kicker from Boston College, has tried seven field goals so far in his NFL career. He has made just three of them for a 43 percent rate of success. He hasn’t made any beyond 40 yards, from where is is 0-for-4.
Lions coach Jim Caldwell, who showed restraint after Freese’s disastrous Week 2, when the rookie missed two kicks beyond 40 yards early in the game, wasn’t able to corral his frustration on Sunday, after the first half of his team’s 19-7 victory over the Green Bay Packers.
Freese had pulled a 41 yard attempt left as time expired in the second quarter, moments after Matthew Stafford hooked up with Corey Fuller on a 52 yard bomb to put the Lions in (presumed) field goal range at the Packers’ 23 yard line.
Fox Sports’ Pam Oliver, at halftime, reported that she asked Caldwell during intermission about Freese and how to boost the youngster’s confidence.
Caldwell, who is not prone to hyperbole or emotion, didn’t mince words.
“I don’t have any sympathy,” Oliver said Caldwell told her. “This is the NFL. You have to make those kicks.”
Last week the Lions worked out three kickers with NFL experience in light of Freese’s early struggles. Yet, Caldwell decided to stay with the rookie, if only for another week.
Sadly, one of the kickers the Lions brought in was 36 year-old Rob Bironas, who died in a tragic car accident over the weekend.
After Caldwell showed confidence in Freese last week, albeit lukewarm in variety, it is hard to imagine that the Lions will stay with the kid from BC much longer, if at all.
The misses are piling up and no one’s confidence is being helped here.
Freese likely has little, and you think Caldwell would have had much, if he needed to send Freese into the game to kick a potential game-tying or game-winning three-pointer against the Packers on Sunday?
The fans lost confidence in Freese after Week 2.
It’s admirable to feel for Freese, who was a seventh round draft pick of the Lions last May. It certainly can’t be any fun being Nate Freese these days.
But coach Caldwell is right. This is the NFL. Fellow coach Jerry Glanville once said that NFL stands for Not For Long, if you don’t produce.
This is big boy football now. This isn’t college, and the only kicks that matter are the ones that you try during games—not the impressive 58 yarders you make in pregame warm-ups.
Nate Freese is probably a terrific young man. But his misses are killing the Lions and this isn’t about tiptoeing around the kicker’s feelings. It’s about winning football games.
Freese has no resume in the NFL. It’s not like he’s a 10-year veteran and the Lions can wait out what is likely a flukey slump.
The Packers waited out veteran kicker Mason Crosby last year when he was in a horrible funk. But Crosby wasn’t a rookie and he’d made several big kicks for the Packers in the past. Crosby eventually got his act together.
Kickers, as a lot, usually don’t have wide margins for error. The patience of coaches is known to wear thin for erratic performance.
It doesn’t help Freese that he’s playing in Detroit, which had two kickers—TWO—between 1980 and 2012 (Eddie Murray and Jason Hanson).
Lions fans aren’t used to thinking of their kickers the same way Tigers fans think of their closers.
The bottom line is this: does Jim Caldwell, a spiritual man, have faith that Nate Freese can make a big kick late in a close game?
If the coach doesn’t, then there’s no room for Freese on the Lions roster.
In fact, Freese may be an ex-Lion by the time you read this.
Right now, to steal from Tom Dempsey, the goalposts are looking kind of small for Freese.
And we’re not talking 63 yarders here.
It was yet another funereal post-game press conference for a Lions coach. The scene took place in Anaheim, with another sound defeat in the books.
The Lions had been manhandled by the Los Angeles Rams in 1983, dropping their record to 1-4.
The coach, Monte Clark, stepped up to the podium, ready to answer the usual “What happened?” questions.
Clark gave his version of what happened, trying to explain away the bloodletting on the gridiron. But just before stepping down and heading back to the locker room, Clark added one more comment.
“See you at the cemetery,” Clark told the media.
The inference was clear. Clark wouldn’t have been surprised if his firing was impending.
Clark wasn’t alone in that feeling.
The Lions were 9-7 in 1980 but missed the playoffs, despite a 4-0 start, which prompted some players to record a bastardized version of Queen’s hit song, “Another One Bites the Dust.”
The Lions went 8-8 in 1981, missing the playoffs on the final Sunday when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers handed Detroit its only home loss of the season to swipe the Central Division crown.
The Lions made the playoffs in 1982′s strike-shortened year, despite a 4-5 record. The Washington Redskins, eventual Super Bowl champs, demolished Clark’s team, showing what they thought of a team with a losing record making the postseason.
Then came 1983′s 1-4 start, which prompted Clark, in his sixth season as Lions coach, to make his ominous remark.
Clark survived the season, and in fact, the Lions won the division with a 9-7 record. They went 8-3 after the coach’s words of resignation.
Monte Clark’s “See you at the cemetery” line is just one of many defining moments of Lions coaches that have become iconic for all the wrong reasons.
Darryl Rogers, Clark’s successor, had his moment when he gazed up at the pigeons that had landed on the Silverdome’s roof during practice, circa 1988, with the Lions foundering as usual. Some writers were nearby, within earshot.
“What does a guy have to do to get fired around here?” was Rogers’ iconic moment.
Wayne Fontes said “I’m the big buck” as he talked about the criticism levied his way in the early-1990s.
Bobby Ross, Fontes’ successor, in a fit of frustration and anger after a loss on the road, railed “I don’t coach that stuff!” as he agonized over yet another mistake-filled loss.
Marty Mornhinweg, the overmatched coach tabbed by rookie GM Matt Millen in 2001, said at his introductory press conference, “The bar is high.”
Twenty-seven losses in 32 games followed. Maybe Marty meant that the bar of embarrassment was high.
Steve Mariucci followed, and his introduction was over the top at Ford Field. There was a long walk to the stage and the whole thing was awash in pomp and circumstance.
“Wow,” Mooch said as he gazed at the press in 2003 as Millen and the Lions presented him as the savior.
A little more than two years later, Mariucci was fired after a cringe-inducing loss on Thanksgiving Day to the Atlanta Falcons.
Rod Marinelli, Mariucci’s successor, talked of “pounding the rock.” The Lions pounded it to the tune of a winless season in 2008.
Jim Schwartz came after Marinelli, and Schwartz was a hothead that couldn’t execute a post-game handshake without drama. His players got into trouble off the field a lot. Schwartz also gave it to the fans last year with a less-than-respectful gesture. The players, under Schwartz, took on his personality, which wasn’t necessarily a good thing.
Before all of the above, Harry Gilmer was pelted with snowballs as he jogged off the Tiger Stadium field after what would turn out to be his final game as Lions coach, in 1966.
All iconic moments and quotes from Lions coaches, and none of them good.
Jim Caldwell, the new head coach for 2014 and beyond, doesn’t seem to have that gene.
It’s hard to imagine Caldwell, a fine, experienced, intelligent man, sinking to the level of the aforementioned coaches by saying something untoward or doing something weird.
The Lions coach seems to have his act together.
There certainly won’t be any words or actions from the new coach that will induce eye-rolling and sighs. My opinion.
Caldwell, on the surface and beyond, seems to be the Lions’ most refined coach since George Wilson. And Wilson coached in Detroit some 50 years ago.
Joe Schmidt (1967-72) remains the last Lions coach to leave the franchise with a winning record in Detroit. But Schmidt had his moments of frustration, which culminated in him resigning in January 1973, the loser in a power struggle with GM Russ Thomas.
Jim Caldwell is a grounded, spiritual, experienced coach who doesn’t have the “embarrassing” gene in him. His foot doesn’t seem destined for his mouth.
That’s not to say that Caldwell won’t eventually be fired by the Lions without achieving his goal of winning a Super Bowl in Detroit. But if that happens, it won’t be because of multiple losses of composure.
There doesn’t appear to be drama in the Lions’ future with Caldwell as coach. Even in this day of the NFL’s players on a string of bad behavior off the field, Caldwell exudes calm and control. You get the feeling that the ship is under a firm, experienced hand.
Again, whether that translates into wins and success remains to be seen.
The Lions are 1-0 at this writing, having summarily dismissed the considerably inferior New York Giants last Monday night.
But the Lions’ lack of discipline, a thorn in the team’s side for years, appeared to have reared its head against the Giants, with eight penalties for 85 yards in the first half.
It’s not clear what Caldwell said or did at halftime, but his team played a clean second half—zero penalties.
He even had a clean handshake after the game with Giants coach Tom Coughlin.
The coach can’t make his players write, “I will not commit a holding penalty” 100 times on the chalkboard. He can’t make them stand in the corner, facing the wall. It’s not even as simple as benching a guy in favor of his backup.
But I do know that football players often take on the personality and behavior of their coach, for good or for bad.
I won’t make any predictions about the Lions’ won/loss record this year.
I will, though, say that it doesn’t seem like Jim Caldwell is destined to say or do anything goofy that will become his defining moment as Lions coach.
That, in of itself, would seem to be an upgrade over coaches of the past.
There’s some sad irony in the Ray Rice conundrum as far as the National Football League is concerned.
The NFL is a league that has a legacy of toughness and images of “real men” doing battle on mud-strewn gridirons, snow and other unfavorable elements.
It’s a league whose players like to throw around the word “respect,” whether it’s not getting enough or giving too much.
“Real men” and “respect” don’t fit Rice, the ex-Baltimore Ravens running back who was caught red-fisted via security camera, cold-cocking his fiancee in an elevator last February.
This blog is expressly for my non-sports rantings, but just because the first several paragraphs have been littered with NFL references, the Rice situation has nothing to do with pro football, per se.
Real men don’t hit women. And that’s not how you gain respect. It is, however, all about not having any of the R-word for your fellow human beings, let alone the woman to who you are now married.
Rice’s wife, Janay, has publicly asked to call off the dogs when it comes to the playing of the video that shows Rice punching her so hard that she was knocked out cold from slamming her head against a metal railing inside the elevator.
She could have been killed, had she hit her head on the rail in a different way.
Janay Rice, understandably, wants us to know that her life with Ray is theirs and this horrible incident is theirs to deal with, privately.
She’s right, of course, but good luck with that.
It’s not for any of us to judge Janay Rice on her decision to stand by her husband despite the disgusting act of violence he perpetrated against her for all the world (it turned out) to see.
She has her reasons and they ought to be respected. There’s that R-word again.
The most troublesome part of the Rice saga is not that Janay chose to stay with her fiance and marry him.
The focus right now, as it should be, is on the NFL and its handling of the Rice situation.
There have been several missteps along the way.
First was the ridiculously meager two-game suspension that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell levied on Rice, based (supposedly) on the original video, which showed Rice dragging an unconscious Janay out of the elevator.
Even without the much more damning second video, sitting Rice for two games based on the original video was even too lenient. A slap on the wrist for a direct punch to the face.
Then the second video emerged, courtesy of those busy beavers over at TMZ.
The second video shows the harrowing images of Rice as his fiancee approaches him in anger. He slugs her and she hits her head on the rail before collapsing, unconscious.
No one knows what goes on behind closed doors? Thanks to our “cameras are everywhere” society, not always.
The second league miscue, an unforced fumble, was Goodell’s office claiming that the league never saw the second video until last week, although a law enforcement person has proof (via a voicemail) that someone within the NFL received the video five months ago—a DVD copy that the law enforcement person sent, acting on his/her own sense of obligation.
This is where the NFL is going off the rails, potentially.
If it is indeed proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the league viewed the second video before metering out the feeble suspension, then this moves directly to the “cover up” category without passing GO and without collecting $200.
The NFL seems to be riding a technicality already; in other words, it seems like their defense is going to be that, yes, we may have received a video a long time ago, but that doesn’t mean that anyone viewed it.
This is malarkey, of course, and it’s on its way to be proven false because the voicemail in question includes this comment from a female voice whoconfirmed the video’s receipt: “You’re right/ (The video)’s terrible.”
Why would you call a video terrible if you’d never viewed it?
Goodell switched Rice’s suspension from two games to indefinite after the second video came to light. A cynic would tell you that Goodell switched gears only after proof of the second video’s existence was revealed to everyone.
Big difference between the two sentences above this one.
In Watergate lexicon, “What did the commissioner know and when did he know it?”
That question—the one of what did a power-to-be know and when was it known—is the question that frequently is the first domino that leads to resignations or firings.
When will people of authority realize that it’s not the first act of misdeed that will bring your organization to its knees; it’s the attemped covering up of said act of misdeed that will do it.
Maybe the NFL is filled with real men of respect, after all. Quite a few of the league’s players have taken to social media to express their anger and disgust over Rice’s actions.
But let’s see how the players respond if it turns out that the league was derelict in its handling of this matter.
The game was played the day after Christmas, a Saturday in 1970. The match still haunts the Lions franchise.
The National Football League, expanded in one season from 16 to 26 teams thanks to the merger with the American Football League, changed its playoff format for the 1970 campaign.
The league had split, like an amoeba, into two conferences with three divisions in each of the NFC and AFC. So Commissioner Pete Rozelle added a Wild Card in each conference. The Wild Cards would combine with the three divisional winners to form a Final Four in each conference.
The Lions, for all their ignominy, nonetheless have the distinction of being the NFC’s first-ever Wild Card team.
The Lions won the last five games of their 1970 schedule and finished the season 10-4, which was the best record of all the second place teams in the NFC. Hence the Wild Card berth.
A trip to Dallas awaited the Lions to play the franchise’s first post-season game in 13 years. The playoff game against the Cowboys would be contested in the old Cotton Bowl. It was December 26, 1970.
It turned out to be a bizarre, frustrating, horribly iconic afternoon in Texas. One that the franchise still hasn’t truly gotten over.
It would be the only playoff game for a host of great Lions players: Alex Karras (his final game played); Wayne Walker; Lem Barney; Charlie Sanders; and Dick LeBeau to name a few.
The Lions lost in Dallas in that playoff game of 1970 by the maddening score of 5-0, despite the Lions possessing one of the NFL’s most potent offenses that year.
Barney and Sanders are Hall of Fame Lions, and only Barry Sanders has joined them in Canton as representing Detroit since the aforementioned Lions careers’ ended in the late-1970s.
Barry Sanders, for his part, played in the Lions’ only playoff win since 1957—a busting up of Dallas in 1991-92. But Barry never saw any real team success as a Lion, despite a few other playoff appearances.
Lem Barney, Charlie Sanders and Barry Sanders—three Hall of Famers whose Lions careers all lacked any semblance of team success.
It would be a total shame if Calvin Johnson followed in that trio’s misfortune.
Johnson is the next Lions Hall of Fame player. With seven seasons under his belt and his eighth about to begin on Monday against the New York Football Giants, Johnson practically already possesses the individual stats needed to be inducted into the Hall.
In seven seasons, Johnson has played in one playoff game. In that respect, his career seems to be trending just like those of Barney and the two Sanders—heavy on personal greatness and light on the team’s.
But if you ask Johnson, that trend is about to turn the other way.
“I believe this is our best chance to win a championship.”
The speaker was Johnson earlier in the week and presumably he said it to the media with a straight face.
“I honestly believe that,” Johnson added about his heady prediction regarding the 2014 Lions.
There’s nothing wrong with optimism on the eve of a new football season. After all, if you can’t look at things through rose-colored glasses when your record is 0-0, then when can you?
It’s difficult to tell, when simply reading Johnson’s remarks, whether he was trying to convince the press or himself of the Lions’ championship chances. But he did expound, apparently with conviction. And the man reverently called Megatron was heaping praise on his new head coach, Jim Caldwell.
“You’ve got to buy in. You’ve got to buy into the coaches’ philosophy, and we have. I believe that everybody is doing exactly what the coaches want us to do, and if we’re not, if something is not like he wants it, he’s going to tell us and we’re going to get better at it and he only has to tell us one time.”
That doesn’t necessarily explain the lack of success of everyone from Rick Forzano to Jim Schwartz, but there you have it.
Johnson is, literally and figuratively, head and shoulders above his league brethren at wide receiver. He is bound for Canton, wearing the mustard yellow blazer and giving an acceptance speech. Someday.
But it would be awfully nice if, in addition to all the personal accolades, Calvin Johnson turns out to be a Hall of Fame Detroit Lion who has more than just an impressive set of individual numbers on his resume.
Or, to put it more bluntly, it would be criminal if the Lions wasted yet another superstar career with zero team success.
It took Barney and Charlie Sanders several appearances on the ballot before they were finally elected to the Hall of Fame. I have no doubt that the Lions’ mostly losing ways contributed greatly to Lem and Charlie’s delayed inductions, given that they were each among the best of their respective positions for most of their careers.
Barry Sanders was a first-ballot inductee, but that was a no-brainer, no matter what team he played for. Think Gale Sayers and those awful Bears teams.
Now here we have Johnson, who is the Lions’ best player since Barry Sanders, and Calvin is eight years into a professional career that has seen as many winless seasons as playoff games.
But the rub is that Johnson, I believe, today plays on as good of a Lions team as Barry Sanders ever did, and there ought to be some multiple playoff appearances in the near future.
Johnson’s remarks certainly agree with my very non-expert opinion.
It all has to be proven on the field, of course. And the Lions traditionally don’t do that.
The Lions wasted the genius of Lem Barney, Charlie Sanders and Barry Sanders. They’d better not do so with Calvin Johnson, their next Hall of Famer.
In a perfect world, Derek Flemming would have been able to march up to the driver of a car that cut him off, express some anger, and get back into his own vehicle—without fear of losing his life.
The 43 year-old husband and father of two young children would have vented his anger and frustration and still lived to re-tell the story to friends, co-workers and family at every opportunity.
We do that a lot, you know—turn storyteller when we are wronged, whether it’s from poor service at a restaurant to being incredulous at a retailer’s return policy, among other things.
But then we get it out of our system and we move on, until someone else relates a story that fires your mental file cabinet into gear and your story gets retold yet again.
But Flemming paid the ultimate price in an act that unfortunately will have people—like yours truly—getting into “blame the victim” mode.
Flemming was gunned down at a traffic light near Howell after he allegedly complained to a driver who cut him off in traffic and who was—again, allegedly—driving recklessly. The 69 year-old man had stopped in front of Flemming’s vehicle at the light. Flemming exited his vehicle and said something like, according to his wife, who was in the car with her husband, “What’s your problem?”
Then Flemming was shot dead by the older driver.
I know we don’t live in a perfect world. If we did, my knee jerk reaction wouldn’t have been (as it was when I read of the tragic story), “Ooh…you shouldn’t have gotten out of your car.”
We have all been cut off in traffic. We have all been frustrated by rudeness in public. And we have all fantasized about what we would like to have done or said, if only we had thought about those reactions at the time.
You have no idea how many fictional, imagined conversations or actions I have wistfully thought of in my head in response to surliness, idiocy and the like. Usually I think of those responses when it’s way too late.
Maybe that’s a good thing.
Certainly Flemming, who was on his way to pick up his kids after their first day of school, would have made it to his children and would have had dinner with them that night, if he had only checked himself before exiting his vehicle.
You can call that blaming the victim all you like. You can say that a man should be able to stand up for himself. You can say that rude, reckless drivers deserve to be confronted.
You can say that Derek Flemming shouldn’t have been expecting the confronted driver to have a gun so readily available and with the demented mindset to use it at a drop of a hat.
But would you rather be right, confrontational and dead, or grumble to yourself—and your wife—and live?
People gather near the area where Derek Flemming was gunned down on Tuesday
It’s sad that this is the subconscious choice that we are now forced to make in this dangerous, violent world. Maybe it’s not so subconscious.
So the rude and the reckless and the surly get a free pass? Not necessarily. There are other ways to throw the karma back into their court.
In Flemming’s case, there is a device called a cell phone. And it accepts emergency numbers.
I walk our dog every evening and in the 10 years that I have been doing so, I have called the police some six or seven times. The reasons range from chickens appearing at a strip mall (true story) to a drunk man passed out on a sidewalk to high suspicions of domestic violence taking place at a private residence.
I call the authorities, calmly describe the situation and let the cops do their thing.
And I live to tell about it, which I have, several times.
Should Derek Flemming have gotten out of his vehicle and confronted a dangerous, reckless, rude driver? Or should he have dialed 911 and reported the reckless driver? Flemming was situated behind the older man, so a license plate number could have easily been reported as well.
This isn’t second-guessing. It’s not a case of hindsight being 20/20.
We live in a world where people simply aren’t to be trifled with on many occasions. No one knows who’s packing heat these days. Worse, no one knows the mental stability of those who are armed.
Did the 69 year-old driver feel threatened by the unarmed Flemming, who approached the older man’s vehicle clearly in anger, according to witnesses?
Playing Devil’s Advocate, you can say that the older man didn’t know if Flemming was armed or not. Just because Flemming didn’t approach with a gun drawn doesn’t mean he wasn’t carrying concealed.
Maybe the older driver panicked.
Regardless, Derek Flemming is dead. And he doesn’t have to be.
His epitaph, of course, ought not to read “He shouldn’t have gotten out of his car.” Flemming was a husband and a dad, and the owner of his own landscaping business. He was much more than a man who made a split-second decision that ultimately cost him his life.
As if we need yet another reminder that things are rough out there.
With the pro football fan base ushering in new and younger members every autumn, it’s time to write this column, because we’re getting dangerously close to the point where the newest and the youngest may not know of what I am about to impart.
Gather ’round the keyboard and let me tell you of a time when the NFL was terrorized by the Silver and Black.
For those who remember it, the dominance of the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders occurred in a time that only exists in grainy NFL Films footage. It’s something you recall only with John Facenda’s voice narrating.
And any recollection surely must involve images of managing general partner Al Davis prowling the field before a game, donning sunglasses, wearing lots of jewelry and with his hands shoved into his polyester pants pockets. He looked like a disco owner.
The Raiders—or, more accurately, Da Raiduhs—were a collection of misfits and rough customers whose slogan was “Just Win, Baby” and whose theme was A Commitment to Excellence.
The Raiders didn’t just win football games, they beat the opponents into submission. Teams went into the Coliseum in Oakland and the first things they were offered were a blindfold and a cigarette. Before playing, the opposition asked that the game be commuted.
The Raiders glory days began in February, 1969 in the American Football League, when Davis—who once coached the team himself earlier in the decade—hired a little-known assistant named John Madden to take over the team from predecessor John Rauch. Madden, at age 32, became pro football’s youngest head coach.
In Madden’s ten years coaching the Raiders before switching headsets from the coaching ones to the broadcasting variety (1969-78), the team’s winning percentage was .763. The Raiders beat the Minnesota Vikings in January, 1977 to win Super Bowl XI.
The recipe for success was odd but effective.
Davis, an old AFL guy from the league’s gunslinging days, never met a forward pass he didn’t like. So in 1967 he traded for Daryle Lamonica, a quarterback from Notre Dame who’d been Jack Kemp’s backup in Buffalo, and Davis told Lamonica to let it fly.
The Raiders treated 3rd-and-four like it was 3rd-and-40. They stretched the field like a rubber band.
Eventually Lamonica would be tagged with the nickname “The Mad Bomber” for his propensity to try to move down the field in two or three plays, max.
The other oddly successful part of Davis’ recipe was his fascination with the ne’er-do-well.
Starting in earnest in the 1970s, the Raiders became a home for players who had been cast-offs by other teams in the NFL.
Some of the players were released or traded because their former teams didn’t think they were good enough to play in the league. Others rubbed their former bosses the wrong way. In both instances, the Raiders welcomed those ostracized players into the Silver and Black fold with open arms.
The eclectic blend of homegrown Raiders and guys plucked off the waiver wire, under Madden, ran roughshod over the NFL in the ’70s. Except in the playoffs.
To be a member of the Raiders was to have an annual sour taste in your mouth when the final gun sounded in the postseason.
Finally, in 1976, Madden’s guys went all the way, blasting the Minnesota Vikings out of the Rose Bowl in Super Bowl XI, 32-14.
Two more Super Bowl wins followed after the 1980 and 1983 seasons, both under coach Tom Flores (a former AFL quarterback) and quarterback Jim Plunkett, who was the epitome of the Rescued Raider.
Plunkett was a two-time loser with the New England Patriots and the San Francisco 49ers, the no. 1 overall draft pick out of Stanford in 1971. The words “draft bust” began to follow him around when Davis came calling in 1979.
Plunkett wasn’t even in the league when the Raiders signed him, having missed the 1978 season. And he was 33 years old when he led the Raiders over the Philadelphia Eagles in SB XV. Three years later, at 36, Plunkett did it again—beating the heavily favored Washington Redskins.
By this time the franchise had begun its 13-year stay (1982-94) in Los Angeles.
Those days of Silver and Black dominance are long gone. Today’s Raiders are dressed just like their brethren did in the salad days—the uniforms haven’t changed in almost 50 years—but they play like a bad Double-A affiliate. The colors are the same, but today they are silver and black, sans the capitalization.
Since playing (and losing) in Super Bowl XXXVII after the 2002 season, the Raiders are 53-123. A typical season is 4-12 or 5-11. The closest they came to a winning record was a pair of 8-8 seasons in 2010 and 2011.
Just Win One, Baby.
Al Davis is dead and so is the Raiders mystique.
Never have the Raiders, in their 54 year history (dating back to their AFL debut in 1960), gone through a dry spell anywhere near as long as this current 11-year sojourn in the desert.
Since the Super Bowl appearance in 2003, the Raiders have burned through six coaches. Their current, and seventh one is someone named Dennis Allen, who’s also the first of the bunch to start so much as a third season.
The Raiders used to intimidate. Their black jerseys with the silver numerals and their silver helmets with the dude with the eye patch used to define winning in an iconic way.
The Raiders, with their nine seasons of double-digit losses in the past 11, are a laughing stock.
ESPN, to which I loathe to give too much credit, nonetheless released their Week 1 power rankings today.
The Worldwide Leader lists the Raiders 32nd—dead last—in the NFL.
Part of the reason why ESPN doesn’t like the Raiders all that much is that they don’t have a quarterback, among other things.
Coach Allen named Derek Carr as the starter last week. You’re excused if you don’t know who he is. Carr is the Raiders’ second round pick this past May, out of Fresno State. He beat out veteran Matt Schaub for the starting job.
Truth is, the Raiders haven’t had a quarterback for years. Or a running game. Or much of a defense.
That’s why they go 4-12 every year.
So the Derek Carr Era begins.
Just try not to embarrass yourself, baby.
Labor Day was always my least favorite holiday. I’m sure I was hardly alone.
Of course, I’m talking about when I was a kid, and so just about every other kid likely joined me in that sentiment.
Labor Day meant the unofficial end to summer, though the calendar says that the season runs until September 21. No matter. The calendar didn’t give us kids that long; classes in Livonia, where I grew up, always commenced the day after Labor Day.
It was a final three-day weekend before the baseball mitts and swimming suits were to go back into mothballs, in favor of notebooks, pencils and rulers.
There was one day of excitement, however, in the weeks leading up to the first day of school, and that was the day the class lists would be posted in the school window by the front door. This was for grade school, not beyond.
I’m not sure how we found out that the lists were posted. Probably some sort of loosely designated sentry or Paul Revere type would spread the word. This was some 20-plus years before the Internet became all the rage.
The way it worked was simple. Printed 8-1/2 x 11 inch sheets of paper were taped to the window, face out. The sheets were generally situated by grade. On the top of each sheet was the teacher’s name and the grade he/she taught. The students’ names were listed below. And all the kids—didn’t matter where they lived, they all managed to gather—would frantically search for their names, not knowing until that very moment which teacher they had and which of their friends were in the same class.
It was some pretty intense stuff.
After you located your name, the next step was to search for your friends’ and also your enemies’. Soon there would be a cacophony of sighs of relief mixed with howls of disappointment.
Maybe you got the teacher you wanted, but your best friends were in another classroom. Or, vice-versa.
Regardless, when you got the word that the class lists were ready for consumption, you couldn’t hop onto your bicycle fast enough.
I recently had a drink with an old grade school and middle school pal. We compared teachers that we had in grades 1-6 and not once were we in the same class. I thought that was pretty amazing.
That “what class are you in?” excitement ended when we all shuffled off to middle school, where you didn’t have just one teacher.
It was fun while it lasted, though.
As for Labor Day, I enjoy it now. It means a three-day weekend, which as an adult you treasure.
No matter what kind of class you have.
He was a moon-faced behemoth of a defensive tackle out of Clemson, with a grin as wide as his generously-sized rear end. And he soon became a pawn between his head coach and his defensive coordinator.
They called William Perry “The Refrigerator” and not long after the Chicago Bears picked him in the first round (22nd overall) of the 1985 NFL Draft, the wisdom of his selection was bandied about between head coach Mike Ditka and defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan.
The coach and the DC didn’t get along, and since Perry was Ditka’s pick, naturally Ryan was against it.
Ryan reacted by refusing to play Perry on the Bears’ talented defensive line. Ditka responded by using Perry as an oversized fullback in short yardage situations.
All this drama played out during the Bears’ 15-1 season, which culminated in a blowout of the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX.
About mid-season, Ryan relented once he realized how talented Perry was, despite his extreme girth (Fridge weighed over 375 pounds).
Perry still carried the football on occasion and even caught a pass, but he was a defensive tackle by trade—and he proved to be a pretty good one.
Perry might have been great, but continuous battles with the scale torpedoed him and limited his career to good status.
Perry played 10 years in the NFL but he could have been so much more.
Fast forward to 2014. Another talented defensive tackle is finding that fast food and doughnuts are proving to be more challenging than offensive guards.
But it could be that it’s not just calories that are bedeviling Nick Fairley.
Fairley, the Lions’ DT who was the team’s first round pick in 2011, was supposed to be, by now, forming a ridiculous tandem with Ndamukong Suh on the defensive interior front for Detroit.
The two slabs of beef were supposed to make it damn near impossible for opponents to run against the Lions between the tackles. And as a bonus, the pass rush from the inside was to be terrifying.
After Fairley’s first three years in the league, the expectations have far exceeded reality.
Suh, for the most part, has (ahem) carried his weight.
Fairley has turned out to be one of the Lions’ most enigmatic players in memory, and considering the perplexing sorts who have worn the Honolulu Blue and Silver, that’s saying a lot.
It’s easy to look at Fairley’s spotty production and blame it on his weight. After all, the next time the Lions are flagged for too many men on the field on defense, two of them might be Fairley.
But as William Perry proved, you can play at a high level even when the scales are begging you to get off.
The trouble with Nick Fairley isn’t just what goes on between his hips. It’s what happens between his ears.
The Lions have tried to challenge Fairley to get better. So far the results have been sketchy at best.
They declined the option on the fifth year of his rookie contract, making this season a make-or-break year of sorts for Fairley.
The Lions demoted Fairley this training camp to second string.
Things have gotten so desperate that even Suh, not exactly known as a player who exhibits model behavior himself off the field, tried to motivate Fairley recently by declaring the Auburn grad more talented than Suh, a three-time Pro Bowler.
Nothing has really worked.
Fairley sank on the depth chart because he deserved it—not just as a way to light a fire under his big butt.
MLive.com reported that Fairley has isolated himself from teammates and his practice efforts leave a lot to be desired.
“I don’t know where his head’s at. I wish I knew,” d-line cohort C.J. Mosley was quoted by NFL.com last week.
“If I knew, man, I’d grab his head and bring it back to where it’s supposed to be. I just don’t know.”
I once wrote that Shaun Rogers, aka “Big Baby,” another supremely talented defensive tackle who played for the Lions in the mid-to-late 2000s, could have owned Detroit.
Rogers was big but he played big. He was an unmovable force at times and when he rambled some 50-plus yards for a touchdown after a fumble recovery against Denver in 2007, the Ford Field crowd roared. The score was a punctuation mark to a 44-7 Lions victory—and a 6-2 record.
But after that game, Rogers didn’t want to talk to the media. He didn’t seize his moment, which I found odd and disturbing.
Maybe Rogers knew something that we didn’t, because after that win, the Lions lost 24 of their next 25 games.
Regardless, Shaun Rogers played big but only when the spirit moved him, which wasn’t nearly often enough to achieve greatness.
Refrigerator Perry survived 10 NFL seasons and while he probably didn’t realize his potential, his effort was never questioned—especially at the buffet.
Nick Fairley is four years into a pro football career that has been pocked with head scratching, eye rolling and frustrated sighs—from fans, teammates and coaches alike.
So far, no one has been able to push the right buttons.
This may be it for Fairley—his last stab at the NFL in anything more than benchwarming capacity. There’s a new coach, who seems to be more than willing to give Fairley the benefit of the doubt and who has almost gone out of his way to toss no. 98 a bone of praise that is quite possibly undeserving. Fairley, it seems, has a clean slate with Jim Caldwell.
But will it be enough?
Fairley showed up to camp weighing in at 305 pounds, but last week it was reported that the scales actually were tipping past 315.
“My eating habits have got in the way in the past two weeks,” Fairley told reporters as he tried to explain his pedestrian performances in practice and in the first two preseason games.
I don’t think the Lions should be worried about Fairley’s eating habits.
They should be worried about his thinking habits.
The scales that measure those are on the football field—if Fairley can ever get on it.
It was April 2007 and the Red Wings were approaching an anniversary of sorts. And the occasion was even lost on the owner.
A bunch of us media types were summoned to Joe Louis Arena on the eve of that year’s playoff run. The reason for the herding was to unveil the new Gordie Howe statue in one of the concourses.
As the tarp was pulled off the bronze replica of Howe in action, I spotted owner Mike Ilitch, standing off to the side, all by his lonesome.
Some brief remarks were made about the new Howe piece, and when the ceremony was over I sidled up to the man his employees affectionately call Mr. I.
“You know you’re coming up on an anniversary,” I said.
Ilitch seemed unaware.
“It’s been 25 years with the same management group just about,” I said.
His mouth curled into a grin and he chuckled.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. I hadn’t thought about that.”
I said a quarter century was a long time, and Ilitch agreed.
In the summer of 1982, shortly after purchasing the Red Wings from the Norris family, Ilitch made his first-ever hockey hire.
The announcement made little fanfare.
Ilitch introduced a pudgy, squeaky-voiced hockey man named Jimmy Devellano as his new general manager. All we knew about Devellano was that he had been a hockey rink rat who had something to do with the New York Islanders’ three consecutive (at the time) Stanley Cups.
Devellano made a promise at his first press conference.
“As long as Jimmy Devellano is the general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, we will NOT trade a draft choice.”
Devellano made good on his promise.
So it was in April 2007 that Devellano, 25 years after being poached from the Islanders, was still employed as a Red Wings executive—a fact lost on the man who hired him until I brought it up.
Devellano is still with the Red Wings, and the lineage from Jimmy D isn’t exactly chopped liver.
It was Devellano—who’d risen to the rank of Vice President—who brought in Scotty Bowman as coach in 1993, and it was Devellano who encouraged Ilitch to add GM to Scotty’s title one year later.
Bowman, of course, is a Hockey Hall of Famer and was one already, essentially, when the Red Wings came calling.
In 1997, when Bowman abdicated GM duties after winning the Stanley Cup, Devellano pressed for the promotion of scouting director Ken Holland to general manager.
Seventeen years later, Holland is still GM and will be for the next four years, at least.
Last week, the Red Wings announced that Ilitch had given Holland a contract extension that goes through the 2017-18 season. That would push Holland past the 20-year mark as Red Wings GM.
But it’s not like Holland hasn’t lost any luster.
The Red Wings haven’t been past the second round of the playoffs since 2009, when they lost in the Cup Finals to Pittsburgh. The natives are getting a little restless. And a lot of their vitriol has been directed at the man who is in charge of putting the roster together—Ken Holland.
The recent high round draft choices have been sporadic in their success. Holland has whiffed on the higher profile free agents for the past three years—not that free agency is a sure ticket to the brass ring, but there you are. There haven’t really been any major trades of any import for several years. And the playoff runs have been ending in late-April or early-May, which isn’t very Red Wings-like.
Yet the Red Wings keep making the playoffs, which in of itself is impressive considering the rash of injuries and underachievement of veterans, both of which have forced Grand Rapids Griffins to become Detroit Red Wings ahead of schedule.
Like it or not, Holland has the full support of the Ilitch family as he tries to return the Red Wings to elite status.
Sometimes change for change’s sake is a good thing in professional sports, which is the ultimate “What have you done for me lately?” business. Though it’s often done in panic or from overreaction, change by itself can reverse a franchise’s fortunes.
It says here that it has yet to be proven that a changing of the guard at Joe Louis Arena—whether at GM or at coach, where Mike Babcock has still yet to sign a contract extension—would put the Red Wings in a better stead than where they are now.
Holland took over on the heels of a Stanley Cup in 1997, which very few GMs get a chance to do. His critics will tell you that because of the team’s already elite status and the deep wallet of Ilitch, lots of hockey men could have been successful under those circumstances.
But the Red Wings haven’t bottomed out, a fate which has befallen innumerable professional sports franchises, including iconic ones like the Celtics and Lakers in basketball and the Cowboys and Raiders in football.
The Red Wings keep making the playoffs and lo and behold, the Griffins-turned-Red Wings were a huge part of making the post-season last spring.
Those were mostly players that Holland and his crack staff of scouts found, beating the frozen bushes for talent.
It’s not time for an interruption to the long executive lineage that Jimmy Devellano started in 1982. Holland has earned the chance to get the Red Wings back into the Stanley Cup conversation in something more than a passing way.
Change can be a good thing, but there is also something to be said for stability, familiarity and loyalty, which have been cornerstones of the Red Wings’ success since 1991, when they started their playoff streak that continues today.
Holland has work to do, however. The contract extension is nice, but that’s done. It’s sleeve rolling up time now.