The short, dumpy, bespectacled man with the un-combed hair and ill-fitting suit stood before the throng of reporters at his introductory press conference and if you thought he was funny-looking, you were in for a treat once he began speaking.
In a squeaky, nerdy voice singed with Canada, he said, “As long as Jimmy Devellano is the general manager of the Detroy-et Red Wings, we will NOT trade a draft choice.”
It was the summer of 1982, and this little pipsqueak of a man was the one entrusted with the future of a hockey franchise teetering on the brink of self-destruction.
Jimmy Devellano. Jimmy D. The first man hired by new Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch, taking over after the Norris family era had fizzled out with one playoff appearance in 12 years. Years damaged by “Darkness With Harkness” and curious coaching hires and absurd draft choices. Grotesque re-naming of the team the “Dead Things” by an increasingly fed up media and fan base. A new hockey palace, Joe Louis Arena, that was hemorrhaging ticket-buying peasants.
Devellano’s addition, for my money, was the best bang-for-your-buck executive hire in Detroit sports history. He still works for the Red Wings as an Executive Vice President, and has been a key cog for six Stanley Cup winners: three in Detroit, to go along with the three he helped win with the New York Islanders, when he was a scouting genius. Twenty-six years of faithful service in Detroit ensued when Mike Ilitch, in one fell swoop, put an end to the front office nonsense that had been going on with the Red Wings for over a decade.
After he bought the Tigers in 1992, Ilitch monkeyed around with different GMs and scouting directors and player development people before he finally found his gem in David Dombrowski, hired in 2001. This time, Ilitch righted his own wrongs, instead of cleaning up someone else’s mess.
Bill Davidson, who would work out of offices in Detroit, then Pontiac, then Auburn Hills with the Pistons, was trying like mad to get his arms around a highly-dysfunctional front office after he bought out a syndicate of owners in 1974. He made some bad decisions before a league insider tipped him off to a little-known man sitting on the bench of the Indiana Pacers as an assistant coach.
When Davidson hired Jack McCloskey in December 1979, the Pistons had been reduced to expansion team status. McCloskey’s words. Once, Trader Jack offered his entire roster to the Lakers for Earvin “Magic” Johnson. When I reminded him of this youthful indiscretion a couple summers ago, McCloskey laughed, recalling it fondly and with total recollection.
McCloskey, though, was no fool. He built a championship team from the dregs he was handed when he signed on with the Pistons. And he did it rather rapidly, all things considered. Hiring a coach named Chuck Daly accelerated things a bit.
Davidson would learn more lessons after McCloskey departed, all of them the hard way. Until he handed the Palace keys over to Joe Dumars in 2000.
The Red Wings, Tigers, and Pistons have all graduated from the school of hard knocks. The Lions are still in detention hall.
Matt Millen was no coward on the football field. There really aren’t any of those in the NFL, if you want to know. One does not play professional football if one has any propensity toward fear. Millen was a middle linebacker, the kamikaze of the defense. He learned linebacking from the LB factory of college, otherwise known as Penn State University. Some schools make good doctors, or lawyers, or scientists. Penn State made linebackers. And Millen was one of the best – college and pro. He won pro championships – almost being able to fill all of his fingers on one hand with rings.
Millen does not run the Lions, anymore, with the zeal or reckless abandon that he once used to crush enemy ball carriers. There may not be any cowards on the football field, but there sure are some of them walking around in the management offices of professional sports teams across the country.
Millen is now one such coward.
He held an absurd, brief Q&A session with some Detroit sportswriters at the NFL combines in Indianapolis the other day. The newspapers printed portions of it, and the websites ran it in its entirety. But it had all the substance of a rice cake.
The questioners wanted to know why Millen is increasingly less visible and quiet the deeper he gets into his reign, which is now 112 games old – 81 of those losses.
“I can’t do anything about the perception,” he said. “You can perceive it any way you want. The facts are these: I have 100% confidence in Rod Marinelli. I trust him. I think he’s doing it the right way. I trust his words. So I don’t have to say anything. I think he does a great job with it, and I think it’s good. There’s one voice. Go ahead and speak. I’m very comfortable with him. …”
In other words, I’m going to prop my coach out there to take all the heat, even though he’s working with the chicken feathers I’ve given him, his charge being to make chicken salad out of it.
Millen says we can perceive it any way we want. That’s a fastball down the middle.
Millen is in seclusion most days because he has nothing good to talk about. Simple as that. And losing breeds cowardice among executive types.
When the Tigers were losing 119 games in 2003, Dombrowski didn’t vanish. Dumars of the Pistons and Kenny Holland of the Red Wings have put themselves in the line of fire, answering all the “what happened?” questions in the wake of playoff disappointments. No cowards, they. Winning has made them visible, and by extension, brave. And I can assure you that none of them would go into hiding if things were to ever go south again. They’re not those types of dudes.
Because they’re hard-knock school graduates, you see. They have diplomas, where Matt Millen has been too yellow to earn his.