Greg Eno

Babcock’s Unprecedented ‘Winning’ Tour Comes Down to Money, After All

In Hockey on May 21, 2015 at 2:52 pm

Twenty-five years ago, Mike Ilitch sent a car to pick up his hockey coach.

Jacques Demers was about to go for a ride.

Inside Ilitch’s home, the Red Wings owner sat down with Demers and the two men had a good cry.

Ilitch gave Demers the ziggy, after four years in which Jacques won back-to-back Jack Adams Trophies and led the Red Wings to two Final Four appearances. All this, after Ilitch hired Demers away from St. Louis on the heels of a season in which the Red Wings won 17 games and allowed over 400 goals.

But after three straight playoff appearances under Demers, the Red Wings slid, and missed the post-season in the 1989-90 season.

Jacques wasn’t shocked by the ziggy, but ever emotional, Demers began weeping and so did Ilitch.

Bryan Murray, the Red Wings coach-in-waiting, was brought over from Washington for the 1990-91 season and beyond.

The Red Wings made the playoffs again in Murray’s first season and they haven’t missed spring hockey since.

The coach for the past 10 years of that post-season streak called his boss, GM Ken Holland, on Wednesday morning.

There was a message to be relayed to Ilitch, the ziggy-renderer of Jacques Demers 25 years ago.

Mike Babcock, Holland told the octogenarian owner, was leaving the Red Wings. This time, the coach was giving the team the ziggy.

Such is the change in the landscape these days.

Babcock was the tail wagging the dog with the Red Wings. He had all the leverage. It was quite a role reversal from the status of most coaches in professional sports.

It was the old Pistons and NBA legend Earl Lloyd, who we lost earlier this year, who put it best.

In 1971, Earl was just hired as the coach of the Pistons and he made an astute observation.

“When you’re hired as a coach,” Lloyd said, “you’re signing your own termination papers.”

But Mike Babcock wasn’t in the boat of so many of his brethren. He was the rare pro coach who could call his own shots. His question wasn’t whether he’d have a job—it was where that job would be.

Ilitch, who values loyalty as much as winning, and probably more so, couldn’t possibly have enjoyed seeing his coach, who was still under contract, flitting around North America, playing the field.

It’s been suggested that Max Scherzer’s refusal to take the Tigers’ contract offer made before the 2014 season turned Ilitch sour on the Tigers star pitcher. From that point on, those folks suggest, Ilitch wasn’t going to sign Scherzer. No way, no how.

Yet Ilitch let the Mike Babcock Road Show go on, with the apparent provision that the Red Wings and their contract offer (reportedly five years at $4 million per) would be waiting for Babcock should he determine that the ice wasn’t smoother elsewhere.

Then again, Scherzer was only a Tiger for five years; Babcock coached the Red Wings for ten.

The Babcock spectacle was unlike anything we’ve ever seen in Detroit, involving player or coach.

Players certainly can’t shop their services before their current contract expires, so why should coaches?

It’s a question that nobody seemed bothered enough to ask while Babcock jetted from city to city, entertaining offers.

As usual, the so-called insiders on social media made their sure-fire declarations of what was going to happen before it actually happened.

Bob McKenzie of TSN boldly stated on Monday that Babcock was definitely NOT going to Toronto. McKenzie didn’t know where Babcock would end up, except that it wouldn’t be in Toronto.

A day later, rumors heated up, led by more “insiders,” that Buffalo had become the front runner for Babcock’s services. A contract with the Sabres was being negotiated, the insiders said.

The San Jose Sharks were longshots.

The Red Wings were still in the mix as late as Tuesday, other insiders maintained.

In the end, on Wednesday morning, the Sharks had been eliminated. The Sabres had dropped out of contention on their own volition.

And Babcock made his phone call to Holland, informing the GM that Detroit was out, as well.

That left the Toronto Maple Leafs, widely dismissed as a poor destination for a coach of Babcock’s stature and desire to win, as the last team standing.

Go figure.

Holland told the media on May 1 that money wouldn’t be an issue for the Red Wings when it came to retaining Babcock as coach.

But money was even less of an issue for the Maple Leafs, who ponied up $50 million, spread over eight years.

That offer dwarfed that of Detroit’s, which was five years at $4 million per.

Babcock told us that he was all about winning. His hesitation at re-signing with the Red Wings was supposedly tied to his concerns about the future of hockey in Detroit, i.e. would the Red Wings be Cup contenders again soon?

The Maple Leafs haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1967. They have made the playoffs once in the ten consecutive years that Babcock has guided the Red Wings to the post-season.

Their locker room has been dysfunctional. One of their best players, Phil Kessel, has a reputation for being difficult to coach and he’s sparred with reporters along the way.

The team isn’t close to winning and their farm system doesn’t have very many people talking.

Yet Babcock, who is all about winning and who had grave concerns about the hockey future in Detroit, signed with Toronto.

It would be easy to call this a money grab and nothing else, but who among us wouldn’t have taken an offer that was, essentially, $30 million more than what you were being offered by your current team?

All things being equal, yes, it’s about winning. If the Leafs offered roughly what the Red Wings were offering or slightly more, then Babcock probably stays.

But $30 million is a lot to leave on the table.

So Babcock is gone, and another Detroit sports team has to pick up the pieces.

First it was the Tigers, with the departure of Scherzer to the Washington Nationals.

Then it was the Lions, who lost Ndamukong Suh to Miami.

Now it’s the Red Wings, who’ve lost their coach to another Original Six franchise.

But at least the Red Wings appear to have a capable replacement for their loss, unlike the Tigers and Lions with Scherzer and Suh, respectively.

Jeff Blashill is the coach-in-waiting, just like Bryan Murray was 25 years ago, when Jacques Demers got the ziggy.

Blashill is 41 years old and all he’s done is win at the college level and in the high minors. His Grand Rapids Griffins are still in the AHL playoffs.

Blashill has coached many of the current Red Wings and he has one year as a Babcock assistant on his resume as well.

It says here that Blashill will be named the next coach of the Red Wings as soon as it can possibly happen.

The Red Wings are ripe for a coach like Blashill. The NHL has been moving more toward younger head coaches for several years now, and with some success.

Blashill will also come much cheaper than Babcock.

Not that money is an issue.

Harbaugh’s Arrival Puts Juice Back Into Michigan’s Rivalries

In college football on May 6, 2015 at 2:57 am

Ever since Jim Harbaugh was named Michigan’s football coach in December, he’s been on tour.

You can hardly pick up the Internet these days and not read Harbaugh’s name in a headline on some website somewhere.

First he’s helping distressed motorists. Then he’s being passive/aggressive with fellow coaches. Then he’s posing for a selfie with the First Lady of the land. And pretty much everything in between.

Harbaugh will talk about anything, to anyone.

You wanna talk khakis? Harbaugh will bend your ear.

It’s as if Harbaugh has been charged with selling Michigan football—barnstorming the land, espousing the Michigan Way. You keep looking for the back of a truck and the bottle of Love Potion no. 10.

Harbaugh, after just four months on the job, has already gotten more positive press as Michigan’s football coach than Brady Hoke got in four years.

Looking back, it’s hard to believe that there was ever a time when Harbaugh was even remotely undecided about his future beyond the San Francisco 49ers.

There hasn’t been this much buzz about Michigan football since the man who coached Harbaugh roamed the sidelines on Ann Arbor Saturdays.

With all apologies to Lloyd Carr, a fine man and coach, Harbaugh has the state and the nation on pins and needles about the block M in a way that reminds the old-timers (like yours truly) of when Bo Schembechler donned the headset, sunglasses and ball cap.

College football was never boring in these parts when Bo coached Michigan.

Whether he was turning red with anger at yet another question about his kicking game, or working the officials on the sidelines, or getting into the face of one of his players, Schembechler WAS Michigan football.

Bo never would have conceded that fact, but it was 100 percent true.

Now, with Harbaugh, the Wolverines finally have a coach that is the face of the program, and right from the jump.

There is deliciousness in the connection between Harbaugh and Schembechler—a direct link that can never be broken.

Camaraderie among the brotherhood of coaches is nice and all, but it doesn’t come close to the relationship between player and coach—especially when that player is a quarterback.

It’s one thing to say that you are returning to be the head coach at a place where you were once an assistant. That’s a nice little story.

It’s quite another to have once been the BMOC and then return to campus to take the head coaching job—a job once held so grandly by your mentor and practically second father.

We’ve all seen the photos and the videos of quarterback Jim Harbaugh, no. 4, being given a talking to by Schembechler on a fall Saturday in the mid-1980s. Their relationship was not atypical when it comes to that of QB and coach. Tough love comes to mind.

Now Harbaugh is the coach, and unlike when Bo arrived in Ann Arbor as a virtual unknown in 1969, Harbaugh bounces into town with a nifty resume and a cult following.

You’d never catch Bo making the rounds as publicly as Harbaugh has this year, but that’s more of a sign of the times than anything else.

Schembechler was larger than life and he didn’t have social media to help him—not that he needed it.

Harbaugh has all the trappings of being the next great Michigan football coach (again with apologies to Carr, who did a very good but not great job), but no matter his win/loss record, one thing is for certain: there’s a lot more juice in the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry now.

Remember Michigan-Ohio State?

The rivalry hasn’t been the same since Woody Hayes was forced out of Columbus after the 1978 season.

Bo coached Michigan for 11 more years, but nine years of Earle Bruce and two of John Cooper at OSU didn’t move the meter nearly the way Bo and Woody did between 1969 and 1978.

In fairness to their successors, Bo and Woody coached their teams partly during an era where you didn’t go to a bowl game unless you went to the Rose Bowl for winning the Big Ten—otherwise known as the Big Two and Little Eight in the 1970s. So there was a lot riding on that final game of the year in Columbus or Ann Arbor.

But the fact remains that Michigan-Ohio State hasn’t had the star power at the head coaching position—on both teams—since Bo and Woody cast their large shadows.

Until now.

Jim Harbaugh at Michigan and Urban Meyer at Ohio State form arguably the most intriguing coaching matchup in college football today.

Finally, both schools have star power under the headsets.

This Michigan-Ohio State thing has some juice again. Meyer’s program has the leg up on Michigan’s, but for how long?

The recruiting battle will be fierce. The gamesmanship will be fascinating to watch.

More importantly, the football played on the field will be exquisite, once Harbaugh fully sinks his meat hooks into the job.

The coaches don’t have catchy names like Bo and Woody. “Jim and Urban” lacks in that department.

But the coaches could be named Frick and Frack for all anyone cares. What will matter, and what is finally back in this rivalry, is the intensity. For too many years since Woody left OSU, either Michigan or Ohio State have gone on streaks of dominance that have relegated the rivalry to second class status.

It’s not a true rivalry if one team is constantly beating the brains out of the other.

As long as Harbaugh and Meyer are at U-M and OSU, respectively, there shouldn’t be dominance by one school over the other.

Bo’s record vs. Woody was 5-4-1, to show you.

Remember Michigan-Michigan State?

That just got a lot better, too.

Harbaugh-Mark Dantonio won’t be chopped liver, either.

Jim Harbaugh is the rock star college coach. He tours and he has a following and he hangs with celebrities.

He brings a je ne sais quoi to the table.

He also wins.

Life has been breathed back into Michigan football.

Finally.

Dysfunctional Lions Need Front Office Help

In Detroit Lions, football on March 31, 2015 at 1:33 pm

Ask any Tigers fan about GM Dave Dombrowski, and while they may not always agree with what he does or how he does it, the fans will likely know, at the very least, what Dombrowski’s blueprint is for success.

Power pitching. Power hitting. Big names. Three-run homers and 95 mile-an-hour fastballs.

Sidle up to a Red Wings “Wing Nut” and ask about GM Kenny Holland. The fan will be able to deliver a soliloquy about how there’s a “Red Wings way” and how the team relies on savvy drafting and player development in Grand Rapids.

Catch a Pistons zealot coming out of The Palace and even though Stan Van Gundy has only been on the job for less than a year, the fan will at least know that Stan has a plan—and a long resume of winning in the NBA.

Stop a Lions fan and ask if there’s a Lions Way. Ask if the GM seems to have a plan.

The response is likely to be unfit to print here.

Martin Mayhew has been at this GM thing with the Lions since 2008. He’s not a newbie. Before succeeding Matt Millen, Mayhew served in the Lions front office for some seven years. So this is Mayhew’s 14th year roaming the halls in Allen Park and at Ford Field.

Fourteen years and we’re still waiting for Mayhew’s plan. We’re still waiting for the Lions Way.

Mayhew’s clumsy handling, along with partner in crime Tom Lewand, of the Ndamukong Suh situation, was made worse when Mayhew spoke to the media last week.

Mayhew, as has become his way, talked out of both sides of his mouth. He tried to play both sides to the middle in explaining why Suh leaving may not be bad, after all.

“I think anytime you lose a quality player like (Suh), especially in the short term, that is to your detriment,”Mayhew said over lunch with beat reporters last week at the NFL owners meetings. “I think in the long term, I think we’re going to be glad we don’t have that contract on our books. But in the short term, that’s an issue.”

The best defensive player in franchise history walked away, and Mayhew is trying to sell the fan base that, in the long term, everyone should be “glad” that Suh’s contract isn’t on the books.

The fans don’t want financial prudence; they want a freaking championship.

Those old enough to remember the Lions’ last championship in 1957 are pushing 70 years of age.

Can you imagine if the Lions had let Barry Sanders walk away, only to comfort us with the knowledge that Barry’s fat contract will be off the books?

Certain players come down the pike in a franchise’s history and they should never be allowed to leave, no matter the cost.

Ndamukong Suh was one of those players.

But he’s gone now so it’s time to move on. I get it.

The trouble is, the Lions are once again a store in need of minding, and it’s unclear who is doing that now.

For those of you who thought the problem with the team was the owner, think again.

Bill Ford is passed away and his widow, Martha, ostensibly is in charge.

Yet I haven’t heard vitriol directed at Mrs. Ford. Nor should there be.

The trouble with the Lions isn’t with their owner, it’s with the reporting structure.

The team needs another football man with keys to the executive washroom.

Mayhew and Lewand have had their chance, as direct reports to the owner. They’ve had six full seasons to craft a plan. And all they have to show for it are two playoff appearances—and two playoff losses.

It seems that the Lions are always reacting; they’re not proactive. Everything is done under duress. They can’t draft right.

The scrambling that’s done at Ford Field isn’t limited to the quarterback.

Mayhew and Lewand report directly to Martha Ford. Neither of them can fire the other.

Bill Ford Jr. is too wrapped up in the car company to be hands-on with the Lions on a daily basis.

It says here that the Lions need another football man—someone steeped in experience and wise in the ways of an NFL front office—to act as another layer of reporting between Mayhew/Lewand and Mrs. Ford.

There isn’t a Lions Way. There isn’t a plan. If there is, no one is talking about it.

The only “plan” since Mayhew took over from Millen has been to stock the shelves with skill players in hopes of making Matthew Stafford better.

When Dombrowski realized that the Tigers were highly unlikely to be able to sign Max Scherzer to a long-term extension, he executed Plan B: trading for David Price last July.

It was an example of forward thinking that simply doesn’t go on with the Lions.

Suh should have been signed, sealed and delivered a year ago this time, so the team could put that to bed and move on to other things.

It should never have come to free agency.

Suh is spilled milk, but his situation is also symptomatic of what’s wrong with the Lions—a team with no plan and no vision.

There’s too much desperation with the Lions. There isn’t the feeling that the hand at the wheel is steady amid the rough waters of the NFL.

The Lions need such a steady hand. They need a veteran NFL guy to oversee things.

They need someone like Ernie Accorsi.

Accorsi is steeped in NFL knowledge. He’s held a variety of jobs, including general manager, assistant GM, PR flak and consultant. He helped the Bears in their GM search in December.

He’s 73 years old and he’s available for a full-time position.

Running the Lions might be intriguing enough for someone like Accorsi, who laid the groundwork for a Super Bowl win with the 2007 Giants.

The Lions haven’t had a heavy hitter upstairs. They haven’t had heavy hitters on the sidelines either, really.

But Jim Caldwell seems fine as head coach. The problems don’t start with the coach.

The dysfunction is with the guys in the suits.

Mayhew and Lewand have had their chance. They’ve had six years. Now they need a football man to report to.

The Lions should give Ernie Accorsi a ring, but that phone call would have to come from Bill Ford Jr., who just might do something progressive, even by accident.

I will forgive you for not holding your breath, however.

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