Greg Eno

Caldwell a Pioneer of Sorts in Detroit, But Winning Is All That Will Matter

In football on July 27, 2014 at 5:54 am

The National Football League’s roots in the 1920s were planted in sleepy burgs across the Midwest. It was a small town league, offering the curious something to follow until the next baseball season.

The franchises were located in such dazzling metropolises as Canton, OH; Racine, WI; Akron, OH; and Rock Island, IL. The locations were fitting, when you consider that the league itself was founded in an automobile showroom in Canton, on August 20, 1920.

In 1921, the Akron franchise (the Pros) was one of several which had one of its players double up as the coach.

Fritz Pollard, who stood 5’9″ and who was listed as weighing all of 165 pounds, coached the Pros. Mainly a running back, Pollard’s tremendous speed and elusiveness as a player caused legendary sportswriter Walter Camp to remark that Pollard was “one of the greatest runners these eyes have ever seen.”

Pollard coached Akron in 1921—the league was known as the American Professional Football Association (APFA) back then—to an impressive 8-3-1 record, all while maintaining his roster spot as a running back, scoring seven touchdowns on the season.

But Fritz Pollard wasn’t just any coach in the APFA—he was the only African-American one in the league.

Pollard lasted just one season as a coach, and in 1926 he was dismissed as a player as well, when the NFL (name changed in 1922) booted Pollard and the other eight black players at the time out of the league, permanently.

Pollard wasn’t just a footnote in pro football history. After being kicked out of the NFL, Pollard organized all-black barnstorming teams, playing under names such as the Harlem Brown Bombers. This barnstorming continued into the 1930s.

The NFL didn’t go the black head coaching route again until 68 years after Pollard coached the Akron Pros, when Art Shell became coach of the Los Angeles Raiders in 1989.

While Fritz Pollard should be lauded for his stature as a league pioneer, it would be disingenuous to say that he paved the way for Shell to coach the Raiders. Nearly seven decades kind of dilutes Pollard’s participation toward Shell’s hiring.

But Shell, who played for the Raiders to the tune of a Hall of Fame career as an offensive tackle, is rightly recognized as the modern game’s first black head coach, and thus was indeed a trail blazer of sorts for those  of color who followed him on the sidelines over the past 25 years.

The Lions’ Jim Caldwell is one who should give a nod of appreciation to Shell—and, maybe more so, to late Raiders managing general partner Al Davis, who hired Shell after firing Mike Shanahan.

It took the Lions a little bit longer than some franchises—but quicker than others—in order to hire an African-American head coach. Caldwell became the first on January 15, 2014.

Many Lions fans, if they had their druthers in January, envisioned Ken Whisenhunt as the one who would open training camp on Monday in Allen Park. Whisenhunt, who is white, was seen as the Lions’ first choice after firing Jim Schwartz.

But Whisenhunt spurned the Lions and never got on the private plane that was famously waiting for him in San Diego, ready to jet the Chargers’ offensive coordinator across the country where he would, presumably, get a contract offer in Detroit.

I am not, for a moment, suggesting that the popularity of Whisenhunt over Caldwell, in the fans’ eyes, had anything to do with race. For whatever reason, Whisenhunt’s resume excited the Lions fan base more than did Caldwell’s.

Frankly, the fact that Caldwell is the Lions’ first black head coach kind of slipped my mind until it was brought to the fore on Saturday, when the coach was honored by the Detroit Historical Society’s Black Historic Sites Committee for the distinction.

The celebration of Caldwell’s status was nice, but it was low-key and it should have been. For despite the fact that Caldwell is the Lions’ first black head coach, thankfully those of Caldwell’s ilk aren’t a novelty anymore in the NFL.

Not that the league couldn’t do a little better in that regard, as Caldwell pointed out on Saturday, but in his usual classy way.

“It’s (black head coaches) come a long way because of the fact that I think now there might have been 47 (African-American coaches) that have gotten that opportunity (in NCAA Division I football), if I’m not mistaken,” Caldwell told the Detroit Free Press.

“And in the National Football League there’s 17, I think, that have gotten that opportunity, even some of those that have been interim. So there’s been quite a few guys.

“I think it’s changed quite a bit in my lifetime. You can see some progress in that area, but certainly a long way to go.”

The Lions are the only team in the NFL with a black head coach and a black general manager, something that has happened just once prior in league history. That, too, should be celebrated, but not without some concern.

The NFL has always been a little slow on the uptake when it comes to minorities holding positions of power and influence, though progress is indeed being made.

But I don’t believe the fans in Detroit care if the football coach is white, black, blue or purple. The Lions haven’t won a league championship in 57 years. To give that perspective, remember when the Red Wings finally ended their Stanley Cup drought in 1997? That was a mere 42 years between Cups at the time.

Caldwell was not quite three years old when the Lions beat the Cleveland Browns to capture the 1957 NFL championship.

Now he is set to open his first training camp as the first black head coach in Lions history—and the team still hasn’t won it all since ’57.

Jim Caldwell was properly honored on Saturday night, but that distinction should lose its luster pronto. The Lions were hardly on the cusp in this regard, as Caldwell followed Shell in Oakland by a quarter century.

Since Shell in 1989, the Lions have gone through eight coaches before hiring Caldwell. Three of those guys were assistants who’d never been a head coach in the NFL prior to Detroit—hired when there were eminently more qualified black men available at the time.

But that’s all ancient history now, right?

Caldwell’s being black won’t shield him from criticism when the Lions falter, and it won’t help give him accolades when times are good.

He will be judged solely on his win/loss record.

I think even Fritz Pollard would agree with that notion.

Babcock’s Hard-Charging Ways Not Why Free Agents Spurned Detroit

In Hockey on July 19, 2014 at 5:56 pm

Red Wings coach Mike Babcock has won a Stanley Cup, lost two others in the Finals in seven games, has won two Olympic Gold Medals and a World Juniors Championship. His Red Wings teams have never missed the playoffs in the nine years he’s coached in Hockeytown.

So who can blame him for puffing out his chest a little bit?

After the Red Wings struck out in free agency when all the high profile guys got signed by other teams on or around July 1, hockey fans in Detroit demanded to know why.

What free agent worth his salt rejects the Red Wings?

How can you say no to the winged wheel? How can you look at the tradition, the Cups won, the refusal to miss the playoffs since 1990 and say, “Naah, that’s OK. I’m good.”

According to the Wings fans in Detroit, Hockeytown—as they like to call their city—is the NHL’s Valhalla.

You’d think that once a new signee’s plane lands on the tarmac at Metro Airport, the first thing he does when his feet hit the ground is kneel and kiss Mike Ilitch’s pinky ring.

Clearly, that’s not the case anymore, in this day of salary caps and that thorny word, parity.

So the Red Wings whiffed on the big names that hit the market at the top of the month—guys like Dan Boyle, Radim Vrbata, Mike Cammalleri, Mark Fayne et al—and Hockeytown was all aflutter.

The cross-eyes focused on Babcock.

He’s too tough. No one wants to play for him who is coming from elsewhere. It is Babcock and Babcock alone who is causing the major free agents to say “Thanks but no thanks.”

It’s all hogwash but finally the coach himself had enough.

“They way I look at it here, if you don’t want to be coached, don’t come here.”

The words are Babcock’s, and they were spoken on the radio earlier in the week.

Those words, and others Babcock said while talking to “Ryan and Rico” onDetroit Sports 105.1, paint an image of a man who’s heard the bluster and decided to tell his side of the story.

“If you want to be pushed to be the best that you can be, that’s what we do here. You know what? The proof is in the pudding,” Babcock said.

Then this.

“If (the Wings) are concerned about (free agents not liking him), then I should coach somewhere else.”

Give ‘em hell, Mike.

Babcock is not the reason free agents nixed Detroit when the market opened on July 1.

Why wouldn’t a guy want to play for a proven winner?

It recalls a line about the legendary Scotty Bowman, spoken by one of his players on the great Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1970s.

“For 364 days of the year you can’t stand him, and on the 365th, you hoist the Stanley Cup.”

I’ll go one step further than Babcock.

If a player is saying no to the Red Wings because he doesn’t want to be pushed, then that’s not the player for the Red Wings.

There were many underlying factors affecting the decisions of this summer’s free agent class. Some had ties to the organizations with which they signed. Some were attracted to the bright lights and big city.

It’s a new game these days, anyway.

In the halcyon days, before salary caps, successful NHL teams more readily used free agency to build their core. Homegrown kids and trades were used to complement.

Today the league’s model is more like the one that’s been used by the NFL since that grand old football league started in the 1920s; i.e. use the draft to build a core and free agency to complement.

The most recent Stanley Cup winners—Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston—all have rosters liberally sprinkled with homegrown players. They are teams that have been largely built through the draft. Free agents have been signed, but not as the main focus.

The Red Wings are moving along with the times.

Partly out of necessity due to injuries and underperformance from veterans, the kids from Grand Rapids stepped up last season and are threatening to form a new core of Red Wings hockey.

Signing big name free agents should no longer be the preferable way of staying in Cup contention. The Red Wings are doing it the right way—the way that’s been proven to work by the Blackhawks, Kings and Bruins.

Sometimes the best free agent signings are the ones you don’t make.

Two summers ago, Hockeytown was in a depression over the Red Wings’ failure to secure the services of free agent center Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter, who were considered the best catches of the Class of 2012.

Both signed with the Minnesota Wild, and their addition was supposed to vault the Wild into the conversation as a serious Cup contender.

In the two seasons since adding Parise and Suter, the Wild have not advanced past the second round of the playoffs. Just like the Red Wings.

The draft is the way to go in the NHL. Frankly, the Red Wings have known that all along. They have been experts at finding superstars buried in the lower rounds.

But those draft choices weren’t the focal points. The big splash was made in free agency back in the day. Anything the Red Wings got from drafted players was a bonus. That, or the youngsters were used as bargaining chips at the trade deadline.

Another thing: are the Red Wings one high profile free agent away from winning the Stanley Cup? Unless that guy is a proven, sniper-like scorer—and there weren’t any of those on the market this summer—then the answer is a resounding no.

The Dan Cleary signing aside, the team seems to be transitioning smoothly from a veteran-laden group to a younger, faster, more energized squad.

Mike Babcock is the least of the Red Wings’ worries.

The coach is signed only through next season, but he keeps telling us not to read anything into that. And he has another message for those who suggest that he runs too tight of a ship for free agents’ liking.

“We just have the hard meetings. We get it out front. Does it piss people off once in a while? Absolutely. But it also leads to behavioral changes and getting things better. So you know what, I’m not apologizing for that stuff at all. I like to be treated honest.”

The Red Wings’ chances to win the Stanley Cup are no better and no worse after Free Agent Frenzy, 2014. And Mike Babcock is not the reason free agents signed elsewhere.

Honest.

 

Lions’ Suh Is Not a Leader, and That Should Be OK

In football on July 13, 2014 at 6:36 pm

It’s an old line, written by an ink-stained wretch sometime in the early-1960s, when the Yankees were continuing to dominate Major League Baseball.

“When the New York Yankees go out to dinner together, they sit at 25 different tables,” the line went.

The implication was clear. Togetherness and camaraderie, those feel-good words, were overblown.

The Oakland A’s of the early-1970s were a mustache-wearing, raucous group that disliked their owner slightly more than they disliked each other. Yet they managed to win three straight World Series.

During the “Bronx Zoo” Yankees years, circa 1977-78, one of the zoo’s animals said that losing streaks weren’t necessarily a bad thing, because “the more we lose, the more (owner George) Steinbrenner flies around the country to watch us play. And the more he flies, the greater chance that his plane will crash.”

The Yankees won the World Series in both ’77 and ’78—with a group that battled the owner and the manager, Billy Martin, with the same ferocity with which they battled the Orioles and the Red Sox and the Royals.

There are two C-words that are mightily overblown in the world of sports: camaraderie and chemistry.

The former is at least somewhat easy to define. The latter, not so much.

But neither word has as much to do with winning as the users of the words like to think.

Chemistry is the worst word in sports.

It is undefinable, overused and is trumped by the king of all words, which is TALENT.

Give me talent over goodwill any day of the week.

Long ago, we should have added the L-word to the list of offensive utterances in pro sports.

Leadership.

It’s another word that is hard to define, overused and is most certainly trumped by talent, which is the Godfather of words in the sports lexicon.

Nice guys don’t necessarily finish last, but their niceness alone won’t win any brass rings, either.

This isn’t to say that talented groups don’t need leaders, because they do. But not every talented guy can be a “leader,” however you choose to define that.

The Lions’ Ndamukong Suh seems to find himself swimming in the 24-hour news cycle, often not by his own choosing.

Suh, the fifth-year defensive tackle, is immeasurably talented, gifted and strong. He can be a game changer at a position that can change games.

So why can’t we just let him play football?

There seems to be an obsession in Detroit with making Suh a “leader”—that obtuse, undefinable noun that nonetheless makes sports fans and analysts salivate.

Why do a team’s best players all have to exhibit model behavior and all be chiefs?

You need to have some pretty damn good Indians to win, as well.

Let’s talk about some of the so-called “leaders” in Detroit sports history.

There was the Red Wings’ Steve Yzerman, who was the strong, silent type. I maintain that one of the most brilliant moves ever made by any coach/manager in Detroit was when Jacques Demers bestowed the team’s captaincy on Yzerman, who was a 21-year-old entering just his fourth NHL season.

Demers was crazy like a fox when he put the “C” on Yzerman’s jersey.

At the time (1986), Yzerman was the captain of a fledgling team coming off a 57-loss season. Nearly 20 years later, the Red Wings had won three Stanley Cups and were constantly in the mix for more titles when Yzerman hung up his skates as one of the most-respected captains in league history.

Yzerman played hurt, he played hard and his teammates followed suit, yet Stevie did so without raising his voice much above a whisper.

Yzerman was perhaps the quintessential captain of anyone who pulled on a uniform in the Motor City.

Isiah Thomas, pound-for-pound the toughest player in NBA history, led the Pistons by example while also functioning as a de facto coach on the floor.

Thomas’ performance in the 1988 NBA Finals, when he played the last 72 minutes of that series on one leg, will never be forgotten in Detroit, nor should it.

The Pistons lost that series, but rebounded to capture the next two NBA championships with Thomas’ on-court presence leading the way.

I will give you Yzerman and Thomas as the two greatest, measurable leaders in Detroit sports history.

I will even give you Bobby Layne of the Lions, who was the unquestioned Chief of the Lions in the championship days of the 1950s. Bobby led on the field and he led in the saloons. His teammates followed him in both environs.

Now, back to Suh.

The Lions, and their fans, should toss away this misrepresentation of Suh as a so-called leader, forthwith.

They should leave him alone and let him play football, for crying out loud.

So Suh doesn’t show up to voluntary camps. He is absent at teammates’ charity events. He prefers to be left alone and work out on his own.

He is the Garbo of the Lions. He is enigmatic, like DiMaggio of the old Yankees and Jeter of today’s.

He can also be one of the most dominant players in the NFL. He has the potential to be the best football lineman in Detroit. Ever.

But it says here that we may never see how close Suh can come to reaching his ridiculously high ceiling if the yoke of leadership and being an extrovert continues to be placed on him.

Suh didn’t enter the NFL with a reputation of being a leader in college, if you recall.

He was known for tossing blockers around like rag dolls and for busting heads. That, presumably, is why the Lions drafted him second overall in the 2010 NFL Draft.

This is the perfect time to leave Suh alone and let him play football.

The Lions have a new coach, Jim Caldwell. This, naturally, ushers in new systems on both sides of the ball. There are new assistants and new philosophies and new playbooks.

There ought to be a new approach when it comes to engaging Ndamukong Suh, as well.

He doesn’t have to be well-liked by teammates, contrary to popular belief. He doesn’t have to show up at voluntary camps. He doesn’t have to walk around with a smile on his big face.

Suh isn’t Steve Yzerman, and he sure as hell isn’t Isiah Thomas.

But that’s OK.

One of the greatest of all the Lions, running back Barry Sanders, was an Indian. He didn’t have a Chief’s bone in his elusive body. You didn’t hear what Barry said on Wednesday—you heard what he did on Sunday.

Yet I don’t recall anyone in the Lions organization, or within his adoring fan base, trying to make Barry Sanders a leader. He was accepted for what he was—the best runner in the NFL who made our jaws drop every week.

Why can’t we accept Ndamukong Suh for what he is—which is a beast of a defensive lineman who can change games in the blink of an eye?

Why does he need to be a leader, if it’s not in his DNA?

If you want to dog Suh because he doesn’t attend voluntary camps and he prefers to be introverted, fine.

I happen to believe that you win football games with talented, dominating players—whether they get along with each other or not.

The Lions should strip Suh of his captaincy, but not to be punitive—to be realistic.

Square pegs never did do very well with round holes.

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