The first African-American leader of the Detroit football franchise talks his past coaching jobs and future plans to break the team's losing streak
obby Ross. Gary Moeller. Marty Mornhinweg. Steve Mariucci. Dick Jauron. Rod Marinelli. Jim Schwartz. This is the roster of proud, courageous men who accepted the challenge of coaching the Detroit Lions since the team last came within a whiff of championship glory, getting creamed 41-10 by the Washington Redskins in the 1991 NFC Championship under charismatic head coach Wayne Fontes. (Were we to list all the Lions coaches since they won an NFL title game in 1957, there would be no room for the rest of this story.)
These men all had three things in common: They all arrived in Detroit with outstanding football credentials and experience. They all vowed confidently to reverse the Lions’ woeful circumstances and carry the franchise to the Super Bowl, then fell short of their promise.
And they were all White.
That last tradition was sacked like an opposing quarterback earlier this year when the Lions made the surprising, controversial decision to hire Jim Caldwell, the first African-American head coach in the team’s 85-year history. The move was controversial because Caldwell, former head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, was fired by that team after achieving a 2-14 record in 2011-the contentious Schwartz, the Lions’ previous coach, could have done that-and because National Football League “experts” deemed that more promising coaching candidates were available.
On the other hand, Caldwell, 59, has bullet points on his resume that Detroit football fans can only dream about: He has been to the Super Bowl not once but three times, as head coach of the 14-2 Colts in 2009 (eventually losing to the New Orleans Saints), as Colts assistant head coach under the esteemed Michigan native Tony Dungy and as offensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens (both victories). He’s got rings. And the ascension of an African-American Lion king in a sports-crazed city that’s 80 percent Black could represent a symbolic reversal of fortunes for this long-beleaguered NFL franchise.
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Surely Caldwell already has demonstrated he can talk the pep talk. “I think you’re going to enjoy seeing a very intense, smart, fast, physical football team,” he enthuses on a Lions website video. “We have young guys on defense that are doing a tremendous job that certainly are going to be able to stop the run … and create some havoc. We want those standards high, we want you to expect the best from us, and we certainly want you to give us all you’ve got.”
Sadly, we have heard those words, or ones very close to them, many, many times before. Maybe the difference here is in watching this man walk his talk. At the Lions training facility in Allen Park, Caldwell elaborates on the reasons for his optimism.
“I think sometimes, the stage is set,” Caldwell says. “By that I mean, oftentimes you have to come in and build a team from scratch, literally. You may have a couple of decent players here or there, but this team has a real strong nucleus on both sides of the ball. And it exhibited excellence from time to time, but not consistently. I believe the time is right for this team to go forward and reach the heights we all would love to see them reach. I think that time is now, because there are a lot of things in place.”
Coach Caldwell from the Midwest
Talking to him in person, it’s easy to see how he won this job. While he occasionally appears stiff and uneasy when surrounded by the Detroit media (and who wouldn’t?), in a one-on-one setting he is engaging, self-assured, forthcoming. His warm brown eyes captivate a listener with equal parts intensity and sincerity. What’s more, the Beloit, Wisconsin, native and his wife, Cheryl, both feel a deep affinity for the Midwest. He’s happy to be here.
“There’s a lot of people in (the Detroit) area from my hometown because there’s a Chrysler plant near there where many Beloit people worked and transferred,” Caldwell explains. “There’s also a GM plant in Janesville (Wisconsin) where my dad worked for 35 years, and a lot of people from Janesville transferred over here. So my wife and I both have family and friends here that are connected with the auto industry.
“I came in and out of here when I was coaching at Penn State, recruiting players. We used to come over here for church services, with the Church of God in Christ. We came here to play games when I was with Indianapolis and Baltimore. And I came here for both the Super Bowl and the Final Four. So I’ve had many chances to experience the city. I used to run six miles a day, and I’d run downtown here along the Riverfront. I like to explore the city early in the mornings.”
His Detroit experience is even richer now as Caldwell has had an opportunity to engage with the community, speaking to groups of young men and making appearances on behalf of the Detroit NAACP, UAW-Ford and other organizations. “The city’s been great,” he says. “That’s the thing about the Midwest, there are friendly, passionate people, tough people, and they are very rarely deterred. They just have a great mental attitude I love. And I’ve had the chance to meet Judge Damon Keith, who’s a legendary figure here, and (UAW Vice President) Jimmy Settles Jr. These guys have a great sense of the history of Detroit, so I’ve gotten a real good feel for the city through the eyes of others.”
Coach Caldwell overcomes odds
A four-year starter at defensive back for the University of Iowa, where he decided upon his career as a football coach, Caldwell honed his craft under some the sport’s greatest names. In his first job, at Southern Illinois University, Chicago Bears legend Gale Sayers was his athletic director. Then came Dennis Green at Northwestern. Bill McCartney at Colorado. Howard Schnellenberger at Louisville. Joe Paterno at Penn State. And at each stop, he observed, learned and took meticulous notes.
“I started a journal and worked on it for 16 years,” he says. “Putting together my recruiting analysis, offense, defense, the whole gamut. Because in 1978 there were no African-American head coaches in Division 1, I knew that whenever a coaching job opened up, if I had any deficiencies in any area, it could keep me from getting the job. If I had a defensive background they would say, ‘Hey, we need an offensive guy.’ If I had an offensive background, ‘Aw, we need a defensive guy.’ So I made certain I had both, and I think that set me apart from the rest of the pack.”
When the offer finally arrived, in 1993, it was from Wake Forest University, which would make Caldwell the first Black head football coach in the history of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). “Paterno didn’t want me to take the job,” Caldwell says. “He said, ‘I can find a better place for you. That’s a tough job and I’m not certain about the climate.’ But when I told him I wanted that job, he called the president of the university, he talked to people on their board of trustees and he grilled them. He asked, ‘Are you folks ready for a Black head football coach?’ It wasn’t until he was satisfied that he came to me and said, ‘Hey, I think things are going to be OK if you go down there.” Caldwell stayed eight years at Wake. “There is not a day that goes by that I don’t hear from one of the guys I coached there,” he says. “Not a day.”
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Before coming to the Lions, Caldwell worked as quarterbacks coach for two Super Bowl MVPs: Joe Flacco in Baltimore and, in Indianapolis, the great Peyton Manning, who made unsolicited calls to Lions general manager Martin Mayhew and quarterback Matthew Stafford endorsing Caldwell for the Detroit opening. Many observers see one of the new coach’s main challenges as “fixing” Stafford, the supremely talented but erratic signal caller. “He’s demonstrated the fact that he can be prolific,” Caldwell says of Stafford. “Look at his numbers. But what we’re trying to build is a championship quarterback, and I think he has that in his DNA.”
Then it’s on to the Super Bowl, he says.
“And we’re going to get it done, too,” Caldwell says with a wink.