Greg Eno

Exchanging helmet for headset, Spielman’s passion for football hasn’t waned

In football on October 20, 2016 at 5:21 pm

Published October 20, 2016

There’s a lot of Ohio about Chris Spielman but there’s a lot of Honolulu Blue and Silver in him, too.

Spielman, two-time college All-American linebacker at Ohio State, was born in Canton—yes, where the Pro Football Hall of Fame is located—and played high school ball at Massillon Washington, which is legendary in prep circles for its football program.

Spielman was as scarlet and grey as they come while a Buckeye, but when the pro ranks called in 1988, it was the Detroit Lions who snatched him off the board in the second round.

The Lions in 1988 were among the dregs of the NFL. And if Chris Spielman was anything as a football player, it wasn’t a loser.

Yet the Lions lost almost as many games (12) in 1988 as Spielman lost in his four years in Columbus combined (13).

The Lions fired coach Darryl Rogers in November and the team was a mess.

But Spielman, the rambunctious middle linebacker, emerged from those ashes as a team leader.

Spielman was old school, smash mouth in his approach to the game. He once scored a touchdown and pounded the football into the turf in the end zone, like they did in the 1930s.

But after eight years with the Lions, even Spielman had had enough of the team’s inability to advance in the playoffs.

In 1995, the Lions won their final seven games to finish 10-6 and they were flying as they headed into a Wild Card matchup in Philadelphia.

But then offensive tackle Lomas Brown opened his mouth.

Brown boldly predicted a Lions victory in Philly. He said it wouldn’t be close.

The Lions, to that point, had won exactly one playoff game since 1957. Granted, Brown was on the team that pulled it off, but the 1995 Lions were coming off two straight playoff defeats to the Green Bay Packers—one at the Silverdome—and were in no position to be cocky whatsoever.

But Brown flapped his gums. He was right about one thing, though.

The game wasn’t close.

The Lions laid one of the biggest eggs in NFL playoff history, falling behind 51-7 before succumbing, 58-37.

That was when Chris Spielman couldn’t take it anymore.

“We’re spinning our wheels here,” Spielman said shortly after the playoff debacle against the Eagles. He signed with the Buffalo Bills as a free agent in March of 1996.

After his years in Detroit, which included four Pro Bowls and three times as an All-Pro, Spielman’s tragic loss of wife Stephanie to cancer was well-documented. He approached Stephanie’s illness like he approached the Bears and the Packers back in the day—all-out, taking no prisoners.

But cancer is the ultimate F-you disease, and Stephanie succumbed in November, 2009.

Today, Spielman is broadcasting NFL games for Fox. On the air, he sounds as if he’d like to strap on a helmet and do battle.

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Spielman was a three-time All-Pro and four-time Pro Bowler with the Lions (1988-95).

The passion Spielman has for football—and his depth of knowledge of the game—has always translated well in the broadcast booth. He did college games for several years, and only this year did Fox add him to their NFL team.

The Lions have had Spielman do their exhibition games in recent years.

Spielman has done the last two Lions games—both wins at Ford Field—for Fox. He’s been able to suppress his Lions bias while offering salient analysis. It can’t be easy for him.

Last Sunday, the Lions honored the 1991 team that advanced to the NFC Championship Game. Spielman was an All-Pro that year as well, in which the Lions destroyed the Dallas Cowboys in the playoffs before bowing to the eventual Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins.

Spielman left the booth a few minutes before halftime on Sunday in order to make the on-field festivities in time. On the final play of the half, the Lions stuffed the Los Angeles Rams on a fourth and goal from inside the one yard line.

Back in the booth to start the third quarter, Spielman said the goal line stand and its importance to the game made him want to jump into the fray. I doubt he was being facetious.

Spielman’s analysis isn’t candy coated. He isn’t afraid to call a player out for malfeasance. I always thought that he’d make a terrific coach.

Spielman did interview for the head coaching gig at his alma mater in 2000, but the Buckeyes hired some guy named Jim Tressel instead.

Spielman, in my mind, would be a wonderful assistant coach, whether in the NFL or in college. I could see him working with linebackers, and maybe rising to a coordinator role.

He’s a very intelligent, well-spoken guy and he’s probably forgotten more about football than even the most rabid fan knows.

But for now, Spielman prowls the booth instead of the sideline, which is good for us, the viewers.

He left the Lions in a huff in 1996, but the Honolulu Blue and Silver still courses through his veins.

“Football is a direct reflection of life,” Spielman once said. “There are wins, there are losses; you get knocked down, you get back up.”

He got knocked down when Stephanie got sick and passed. But he’s up now, and at age 51 he hasn’t lost an ounce of energy and passion for the game he loves.

It’s fun to listen to.

Bloodthirsty Lions fans ought to face it: Caldwell likely not going anywhere this season

In football on October 5, 2016 at 4:31 pm

Published October 5, 2016

Oh, to have the job security of Bob Quinn.

We should all be so lucky.

Say what you will about Lions owner Martha Ford, but no one is more entrenched in their job within the organization right now than Quinn, the boy GM who took the keys to the car last January.

Quinn wasn’t brought in with a “win now or else” mandate. It was understood that the task of bringing the Lions to championship status, if that’s even possible, would be long and drawn out.

Quinn, of course, was hit immediately by the local media with the “What about coach Jim Caldwell?” questions. Understandable, given that existing coaches are typically in tenuous positions when new regimes take over. Caldwell was hired by the deposed tandem of Marty Mayhew and Tom Lewand in January of 2014.

But the problems with the Lions, which are deep-rooted, extend way beyond the head coach. And Bob Quinn, who comes from the perennially successful New England Patriots, knew that from the get go.

Frankly, I think the head coaching situation was the least of Quinn’s concerns when he arrived nine months ago.

To build a winning organization in the NFL—one that is set up for long-term success—you look for long-term solutions.

There’s nothing long-term about a head coach. For every Chuck Noll, Tom Landry or Bill Belichik, I’ll show you dozens—if not hundreds—of examples of men who breeze through town and just as soon as you get on a first name basis with them, they’re kicked to the curb.

Quinn is doing this the right way—so far.

He started by purging the Lions’ scouting and personnel departments, which are long-term solutions. It’s likely that those changes, of which there were several last spring, will be added to after this season.

Quinn has exactly one draft under his belt as Lions GM. He’s only worked with his revamped staffs for four regular season games in 2016.

Fans don’t want to hear this, but a 3-13 or 4-12 type season in 2016 wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world—especially if you’re Bob Quinn.

Not that Quinn doesn’t want to win right now. Of course he does. But in this rebuild, another low finish in the standings, which correlates to a high place in the draft pecking order, would hardly be disastrous.

Quinn inherited Caldwell. That’s true. But the new GM had so many more fish to fry than to make a head coaching change right out of the gate.

Changing the head coach before Quinn got his scouts and personnel folks in place would be doing things, as they say, bass ackwards.

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Quinn inherited Caldwell, but after 2016 all bets are off.

Caldwell became a placeholder on the sidelines as soon as Quinn was hired. Unless the two men got off to a highly contentious start or varied dramatically in football philosophy, Quinn was highly unlikely to change coaches before the 2016 season.

And Caldwell, for his part, no doubt said all the things that his new boss wanted to hear. Who wouldn’t?

But after this season, all bets are off as to Jim Caldwell’s future with the Lions.

Going further, I’d be shocked if Caldwell returned in 2017. Unless the team somehow picked itself up after a gory 1-3 start and made the playoffs.

What are the odds of that?

On the flip, I doubt that Quinn would fire Caldwell mid-season, unless the 1-3 start spiraled totally out of control. Then a firing might be a mercy killing to put the coach out of his misery.

The new guy would be interim and would have zero chance of being retained beyond the end of this season.

For all we know, Quinn has someone in mind to take over as Lions coach in 2017 and beyond. Even if he doesn’t, Caldwell is probably gone. You never know who might be available after the season.

Quinn had a ton of housekeeping to do when he took the Lions GM job. He knew it, his bosses knew it.

Caldwell, truth be told, likely knew it.

Caldwell is already fielding job security questions, and we’re barely into October. He said the usual “I don’t worry about my job” thing, which always amazes me.

How come coaches never worry about their job security?

At least Brad Ausmus with the Tigers has openly said that he’d like to return and that he has, at times, thought about his job security. But Ausmus is an anomaly in that regard.

Maybe football coaches don’t care because they can always find another job—whether as an assistant, a coordinator, or as head coach. And they could do it at the college or professional level.

It’s rather amusing to me to see all the rancor over Caldwell and the cries for his head.

Yes, the 1-3 start hasn’t been pretty. It’s not like the Lions have been playing NFL powers so far.

But no matter how bad it gets, Bob Quinn can bide his time. He’s not going anywhere anytime soon. He won’t have to make any moves out of panic or false urgency.

He won’t have to fire Jim Caldwell to save his own skin—like Maywand did with Jim Schwartz after the 2013 season.

Job security in the NFL is a precious commodity. Some would even say that it’s a myth.

But in Detroit, Bob Quinn has about as much of it as anyone who isn’t the owner could possibly have.

He’s right to use it wisely and to hoard it.

The next coach of the Detroit Lions will be Quinn’s man.

Then and only then will the GM officially be on the clock.

At EMU, football weekends no longer wince-inducing

In college football on October 3, 2016 at 5:34 pm

Published October 3, 2016

It was the humorist Mark Twain who once opined that the sport of golf was nothing more than a fine walk spoiled.

Football Homecomings at Ypsilanti have been too often a fine Saturday spoiled.

If only they didn’t have to play the football game, the festivities would have been just fine.

The students at Eastern Michigan University have had a work around, however.

The travesty taking place on the gridiron was relegated to background noise. In the foreground was “spirited” socializing, in order to dull the pain of another football loss.

Things are different this year, however.

The Eagles are coming back to their nest, er their Factory, this Saturday. And their record is a reverse image of EMU football teams of years past.

EMU is four up, one down.

You read that right.

The football program that hasn’t been able to get out of its own way for the better part of two decades is 4-1, with a Homecoming tilt this Saturday against the Toledo Rockets at Rynearson Stadium, aka The Factory—which features the football field with the gray turf.

Eastern is riding the waves of a three-game winning streak, which to most schools may seem modest, but for EMU, it’s Joe DiMaggio-like.

Earlier in the year, the football program’s ineptitude caused some leaders within the university to call for the jettisoning of football, period. They wanted the money spent elsewhere on campus.

To a 1985 alumnus like myself, it’s “Where have I seen this show before?”

I was in the middle of my academic career at EMU when the Mid-American Conference threatened to boot Eastern out of the MAC unless football attendance improved dramatically.

Eastern pulled out all the stops and did whatever it could to cram fannies into Rynearson. And it worked.

We wore t-shirts around campus that screamed “I Survived the Big MAC Attack!”

According to a report in August, EMU football recorded the lowest average football attendance in the U.S. among Division I FBS schools last season, when the team’s record was 1-11.

Eastern’s record has too often been 1-11, or 2-10, or the like. And Rynearson was a great place to catch up on your reading. Or to take a nap.

EMU’s Athletic Director Heather Lyke was steadfast, however, when some regents and others circled around the football program like financial vultures last spring.

“I’m undeterred,” said Lyke during an interview in early July. “We have a phenomenal coaching staff. We’re part of an amazing conference.

“I believe in what we’re doing.”

Another who believes is Coach Chris Creighton, to whom some may have wanted to suggest a psychiatric evaluation after accepting the Eastern job in December 2013.

Creighton came to Ypsilanti from Drake University, which sent a bunch of us to Google upon hearing that nugget.

First, we wanted to know where Drake was (it’s in Des Moines, Iowa).

With the geographical question out of the way, we found out that Creighton was a winner at Drake (42-22 in six seasons). So that was a start.

But why leave such success to come to Eastern, which has been not only a football wasteland, but also a burial ground for coaches?

The tombstones are strewn around campus.

Ron English, whose pedigree seemed terrific (University of Michigan and Louisville), but to whom the job at EMU destroyed his character and basically forced Lyke to fire him after a leaked audio recording that was less than flattering.

Jeff Genyk, a Michigan-born kid who played quarterback at MAC school Bowling Green. Genyk came to EMU after a nine-year run as an assistant at Northwestern University and today he’s a special teams coach at Vanderbilt.

Jeff Woodruff, who had four years at the helm before getting the ziggy toward the end of the 2003 season.

“Jeff Woodruff has helped develop our program with quality young men, but the team is not on the competitive level that we felt should be after four years,” said then-AD Dave Diles in announcing Woodruff’s canning. The part after the comma in that statement could be the epitaph for practically every EMU football coach not  named Dan Boisture or Jim Harkema.

Before Woodruff there was Rick Rasnick (1995-99), who was minding his own business as the offensive coordinator at Utah when Eastern came calling.

“After undergoing a very thorough and comprehensive assessment of our football program I’m convinced that Rick Rasnick is not the person to take our football team to a Mid-American Conference championship level,” Diles said in yet another sobering press conference.

That was 17 years ago.

Image result for chris creighton

Coach Creighton is making a difference on the field where so many of his predecessors have failed.

So the question was obvious for Chris Creighton, who by taking the Eastern job turned into the poster boy for every self-help guru who ever espoused “getting out of your comfort zone.”

The question for Creighton basically went like this: “WTF?”

“These kids want to be great,” Creighton told me about his players on The Knee Jerks sports podcast in the summer of 2014.

But what about you, coach?

Creighton said that he believed in the program’s potential, which he compared to a sleeping giant. He believed in his new boss, AD Lyke. He loved the campus. He liked what he saw Lyke doing in improving Rynearson’s facilities, including apparently the gimmicky gray turf.

I wished him well, not only as a podcast host but also as a concerned alumnus. We still share text messages from time to time.

This year, all that belief that Lyke and Creighton have seems to finally be rubbing off on the players in the form of on-field performance.

EMU is 4-1. That bears repeating.

This is the best start for the football program in some 21 years. It has gotten some national observers’ attention, too; over the weekend, EMU received a vote in the Amway coaches poll.

Eastern hadn’t gotten national poll consideration, before now, since the 1987 season where under Harkema, the then-Hurons beat San Jose State in the California Bowl.

Since Harkema left in 1992, however, the coaching carousel has been spinning freely and the football program returned to national laughingstock status, as it was in the early-to-mid 1980s.

In those days, the slings and arrows came from the MAC. Earlier this year, even EMU’s own Board of Regents wanted to scrap football.

Lyke would have none of it. She issued a statement that fully supported Creighton and his staff, and the program as a whole.

Some say that Coach Creighton was crazy to take the head football coaching position at Eastern Michigan University. One of those “some” is banging away on his keyboard at this very moment.

The Eagles were 3-21 in Creighton’s first two seasons. Des Moines must never have looked so attractive.

But this year’s squad can score points, and even the defense, which for years has been like a sieve, is holding its own for the most part. Creighton changed d-coordinators after last season. Neal Neathery is in charge now after coming over from the University of Texas at San Antonio, which at least doesn’t beg the question of where the school is located.

Eastern likes to call its stadium The Factory, which is another Creighton-inspired thought.

“We’ll play anyone, anywhere,” Creighton crowed when EMU announced the “Factory” name and its gray turf in 2014.

“We’ll even play on a parking lot,” the coach said in trying to explain the symbolism of the gray.


Yet here we are, after two years of very typical EMU football records (2-10, 1-11); Eastern is raising eyebrows instead of causing eyes to roll.

The 2016 season is far from over. A 4-1 start could be torpedoed and by the end of the schedule the goodwill may be evaporated.

But that would be negative, pessimistic thinking.

And certainly no one who supports EMU football could possibly think that way, could they?