Greg Eno

Archive for October, 2015|Monthly archive page

Martha Ford Has Chance to Prove That She’s a Tough Old Bird, After All

In football on October 13, 2015 at 4:11 pm

Professional sports and the word “patience” have long been adversaries.

Coaches are considered deans of their leagues if they’ve been with their current team for three years. Roster churn rivals that of the colleges, where the players are booted out after a max of five years.

You don’t get the job done, they get rid of you and look for someone else.

Pro sports is a results-oriented business. You don’t produce, you’re out—even if it’s really not your fault.

Every Monday morning, fans in 16 NFL cities want the coach fired, the quarterback changed and the playbook revised. Then the following Monday, the other 16 cities’ fans want the same thing—excluding the good people of New England, of course.

Their team loses in Week 1 and when asked if they expected their guys to go 16-0, the fans will say, “Well, yeah!”

Fans are impatient.  Team owners are impatient. Everybody wants to win. Right now. And nobody thinks it isn’t doable.

Except in Allen Park, or Dearborn, or Detroit, or Grosse Pointe—or wherever the Ford family happens to be holed up at the time.

The Lions’ ownership has taken its share of slings and arrows over the years—some of it warranted, some of it simply mean-spirited and unreasonable.

The refrain from the fanbase is that the Ford family doesn’t want to win.

As long as the turnstiles turn and the tickets are sold and the beers are bought at $12 a pop, all is fine and dandy in the Ford household—right?

Wrong.

It’s not that the Fords don’t want to win. They just don’t know how to win.

For whatever reason, it’s taken the Fords over 50 years to realize that pro sports is a cutthroat business. I’m still not sure that this postulate has sunk in.

Nationally, by the outsiders, Bill Ford Sr., who died in March 2014, was lauded for his character and his being a gentleman and one of the bedrocks upon which the NFL grew when the league firmly took its toehold in the 1960s.

The NFL will forever be indebted to the Ford family for its unwavering financial support of the league, mainly in the form of television advertising.

Not that you can tell by the officiating, but that’s another column.

But you can’t win in pro sports simply by being a nice—and patient—guy. And both of those attributes have been tied to Ford over the years, ad nauseam.

I think we’re about to see if Ford’s widow, Martha—who’s running the show now—is equally nice and patient.

But more on Mrs. Ford in a moment, I promise.

It may be shocking to the young whippersnapper fans out there, but there really was a time when Bill Ford was an impatient man.

One year into his Lions ownership, Ford—then a young man of 39 years old—boldly gave then-coach George Wilson an ultimatum after the 1964 season.

Fire your assistants, Ford said, or I’ll do it for you.

Wilson was—and still is—the last coach to lead the Lions to a championship. Alex Karras once called Wilson the finest man he’d known in football.

The Lions were two years removed from an 11-3 season when Ford, who took control the day that President Kennedy was killed in 1963, sprung the ultimatum on Wilson.

The 1963 Lions had sunk to 5-8-1, quite a come down from 11-2. But they rebounded to 7-5-2 in 1964.

Not good enough.

Ford wanted accountability. He demanded it.

The way Ford went about it was clumsy, but it was bold nonetheless.

Wilson refused his young owner’s demand. He fought for his assistants. But Ford fired them anyway.

Less than 48 hours after the assistants’ bloodletting, George Wilson resigned as coach.

Ford hired Harry Gilmer, a bad hire indeed. Ford cut bait with Gilmer after two awful seasons.

After some stability and improvement with Joe Schmidt as coach, Ford made a key mistake.

It was after the 1972 season. Schmidt was coming off four years in which his teams’ records were, in order, 9-4-1, 10-4, 7-6-1 and 8-5-1. Not bad.

The 1970 squad might have gone to the Super Bowl—and won the damn thing—if it wasn’t for a bizarre and maddening 5-0 loss to Dallas in the playoffs.

But Ford had a love affair with general manager Russ Thomas that to this day is open to speculation as to its source.

After ’72, Schmidt had had enough of Thomas’ meddling. The coach—and Lions legend—was tired of the Monday morning sit downs with Ford and Thomas as the two of them dissected and nitpicked Schmidt about the prior day’s game.

Ford, who gave George Wilson an ultimatum in 1964, was given one of his own.

Either Russ Thomas goes, Schmidt told Ford, or I do.

You know the decision.

That, I believe, is where Bill Ford went off the rails with the Lions.

He kept Thomas, who wasn’t much, and let his coach walk away.

Ford’s loyalty to Russ Thomas was perplexing at best and derelict at worst.

Yet Ford kept being impatient with his coaches.

Rick Forzano was threatened with a “win or else” week in 1976 and Rick did win, but he lost the next week so he was canned—just four games into his third season.

Tommy Hudspeth, another strange hire, was given less than two seasons.

Then Ford settled into a state of inertia. Age no doubt played a part.

The owner mellowed and the leash grew longer.

Monte Clark was given seven years, with not much to show for it.

Darryl Rogers, perhaps the worst hire of them all, was given almost four years.

The drafts were mostly bad. The trades weren’t much better. Contract negotiations with players—even the team’s best—were almost always contentious.

The constant during all this, beside Ford, was GM Thomas.

Ford’s unwillingness to fire Thomas, despite years of bad drafting and questionable acquisitions of personnel and miserly ways, doomed the Lions.

But then it got worse.

After Thomas retired following the 1989 season, Ford didn’t have a true football man run his franchise.

The GM was Chuck Schmidt, an accountant by trade. It was a Mickey Mouse way to run an NFL franchise.

Yet inertia remained firmly in place.

Wayne Fontes, whose era is now fondly looked on as the salad days of Lions football (four playoff appearances in eight years!), rode Ford’s loyalty from 1988-96. Fontes did OK, but to get eight years as a head coach in the NFL with one playoff win to show for it, was yet another example of the Ford ownership’s Job-like patience.

Nowhere else in the NFL besides Detroit could you coach for eight years with a .500 record and go 1-4 in the playoffs.

Ford’s show of patience and loyalty in his golden years reached another nadir with his stubborn refusal to fire President and GM Matt Millen. Not only was Millen not canned until almost eight years on the job, Ford actually gave Matt a contract extension after five years of ineptitude.

Bill Ford is gone now and his widow is in charge. And again the Lions are at a crossroads.

I believe that Bill Ford’s decision to keep Russ Thomas and let Joe Schmidt resign in 1973 set the franchise back years—maybe decades.

Now Martha Ford has a chance to do something bold. She has a chance to show that loyalty and patience shouldn’t trump the lack of on-field success.

There’s little doubt in my mind that if her husband was alive now, coach Jim Caldwell, GM Marty Mayhew and President Tom Lewand would have absolutely nothing to worry about.

Despite the 0-5 start. Despite the realization that draft picks are, once again, not playing to the value of their selections. Despite the utter disorganized product on the field. Despite a so-called franchise quaMartha Fordrterback melting down before our very eyes. Despite players loafing it on the field. Despite the feckless response of the coach to a robbery in Seattle. Despite the Lions again being looked at as a joke nationally.

None of that would matter, thanks to the loyalty and patience of one Bill Ford.

Ironically, the only sign of disloyalty and impatience has come from Golden Tate, toward the fans.

But Martha Ford can change all that.

According to Caldwell, Mrs. Ford “gave the league a piece of her mind” following the debacle a week ago Monday in Seattle, when a non-call stripped the Lions of almost certain victory.

Fine. But she must do more than that.

Lewand and Mayhew have had almost eight years running the team from a football perspective. The duo has been able to fire and hire two coaches. Dozens of draft picks have been made.

Yet the Lions are no closer now to putting a championship product on the field than they were when Lewand and Mayhew were named to replace Millen in 2008.

Yes, the Lions’ schedule to start this season has been brutal. Yes, few believed that the team could win 11 games, as it did in 2014. Many thought .500 might be the ceiling.

Tough.

Professional sports is supposedly about winning, no matter what. Nobody wants to hear excuses or see anything used as a crutch.

Lewand and Mayhew haven’t gotten the job done. In eight years, the Lions have played in two playoff games. Naturally, they are 0-2.

Caldwell isn’t the real problem here, though he’s certainly culpable. The players’ body language and effort in Sunday’s blowout loss to the Cardinals were disturbing—especially from some of the so-called stalwarts, such as, ironically, Golden Tate.

Martha Ford needs to do more than give the NFL a piece of her mind.

She has a chance to run for governor of Michigan and win.

All she has to do is fire Lewand and Mayhew, for starters.

She has a chance to prove that despite her last name, it’s a new day with the Lions—a day when losing and being a league laughingstock are no longer acceptable.

She has a chance to shed the albatross that is her husband’s ownership and create a red letter day for the Detroit Lions as an organization.

For 31 teams in the NFL, the mantra is produce or we’ll get someone who will.

Martha Ford needs to, finally, add the Lions to that list.

Unwanted by the NBA, Laimbeer Is Now a Real Ladies Man

In Basketball on October 6, 2015 at 7:54 pm

When Bill Laimbeer played professional basketball, he could have been named any number of “of the Year” things.

Many of these aren’t suitable for a family blog.

Poll his fellow NBA players and Laimbeer could have been named anything from Flopper of the Year to PITA of the Year—and I don’t mean the bread.

Poll the referees and you’d have Laimbeer slotted in a whole other category of “of the Year” thing—such as Crybaby of the Year or Rule Bender of the Year.

Poll fans in NBA cities other than Detroit and you’d get a much more flowery response.

But Laimbeer, the pugnacious, arrogant, token white player on two Pistons championship teams, has found his milieu in the WNBA—the League of Women Players.

You probably missed it, but on September 17, the WNBA named Laimbeer, coach of the New York Liberty, as its Coach of the Year—for the second time in his career.

The announcement came on the eve of the WNBA playoffs, in which Laimbeer’s Liberty eventually bowed out in the Eastern Conference Finals last week, falling to Indiana, 2 games to 1.

Laimbeer first became WNBA COY in 2003, coaching the now-defunct Detroit Shock to the league championship.

For as much success as Laimbeer has had coaching the ladies in the WNBA, it wasn’t exactly how he would have charted his post-playing basketball career.

He’s 58 now, and he admitted in an interview last June that his dream of being a head coach in the NBA has likely been extinguished forever.

“My time has passed,” Laimbeer said.

Laimbeer did have a taste of NBA coaching, however—when he assisted Kurt Rambis, an old foe on the court, in Minnesota from 2009-11.

Laimbeer is more than a quarter century removed from his “Bad Boys” days, when he paired with Ricky Mahorn in terrorizing NBA opponents in the paint. Laimbeer’s slugfests with the likes of Boston’s Robert Parish and Kevin McHale put the black hats on the Pistons, who banged and elbowed their way to two straight league titles (1989-90).

Isiah Thomas—Laimbeer’s current boss with the Liberty—might have been the ringleader of the Bad Boys, but Laimbeer was the chief henchman. He was hung in effigy in Chicago. Celtics radio announcer Johnny Most screamed bloody murder into his microphone about Laimbeer and Mahorn’s “aggressive” style of play. Laimbeer would respond to the vitriol in opposing arenas by encouraging the boos by raising his arms and taking sarcastic bows.

He was the NBA’s unofficial Most Hated Player of the Year—several years running.

But now Laimbeer is a coaching lifer, though that life is in the league with the W in front of its name.

Laimbeer, in many ways, is the Kirk Gibson of basketball in Detroit.

Both players were hardly darlings of the press in their active days. Neither was warm and fuzzy with the fans, either.

But both identified with the blue collar fans of Detroit—from their no-holds-barred playing style to embracing the “Detroit vs. the World” mentality that has been pervasive in this town for decades.

And both have been mentioned ad nauseam as potential coaches/managers in the Motor City.

When Joe Dumars was burning through Pistons coaches like a teenager with his allowance money, Laimbeer was always being clamored for by the fans.

And when Jim Leyland retired after the 2013 season, it was Gibson—manager of Arizona at the time—who the fans wanted the Tigers to hire.

Even this season, some fans wanted the Tigers to replace the beleaguered Brad Ausmus with now-broadcaster Gibby in the dugout for next season, despite Gibson’s diagnosis with Parkinson’s Disease earlier in the year.

Laimbeer, truth be told, will likely go down as one of the best coaches in WNBA history—if not the best.

Who knew?

He has all the decorations.

Three-time LaimbeerWNBA champion as coach (all with Detroit). Two-time Coach of the Year.

This year with the Liberty might be the most improbable success of Laimbeer’s coaching career, because the team gave Laimbeer the ziggy last year after two sub-.500 seasons (11-23 and 15-19), only to bring him back some three months later.

In 2015, Laimbeer resuscitated his coaching career and the Liberty, leading New York to a 23-11 record. But a 66-51 loss at Madison Square Garden in the decisive Game 3 on September 29 ended the hopes for another Laimbeer-coached WNBA championship.

Laimbeer long ago found a home in the WNBA after realizing that the league he played in wasn’t all that jazzed about bringing him back as a coach. There were never any serious interviews. We can only speculate as to why that was the case.

For sure, Laimbeer would have listened if an NBA team had come calling for a head coach.

“There was a time when I would have — really, I was foaming at the mouth to get an (NBA head coaching) opportunity,” Laimbeer said. “It didn’t happen. OK, I’m getting old, just turned 58. My time’s probably passed. I’m enjoying doing what I’m doing. It works for me and my wife and our lifestyle. … It pays a lot better, I’ll tell you that, they pay a lot in the NBA.”

Old school Pistons fans might snicker at the line about pay, because when Laimbeer was a player, he once noted that he was probably the only one in the league wearing sneakers whose father made more money than he did. Laimbeer’s dad was a successful businessman.

Has Laimbeer mellowed? Well, he’s a teacher these days, not a whiner. And he’s finally found people who’ll listen to him, instead of rolling their eyes.

“The players want to be taught,” he said in June of the WNBA. “There’s a very distinct difference in the mind-set of players. In the woman’s league, they want to learn, they want to be coached. … Women listen much better than the guys — it’s dramatic. The guys, they think they know it all and they only listen when threatened with playing time or extinction of their job. But, hey, it is what it is, and the money is so great in the NBA, they think they can do whatever they want to and still get paid, which, in many cases, is correct.”

On the sidelines in the WNBA, Laimbeer still flashes that signature petulant behavior of his from time to time. He still has the derisive, dismissive smirk. He can still whine on occasion. After the games, he still has fun with the media in his own sardonic way. Just like when he played.

The NBA coaching dream is over but Laimbeer just finished another winning season with the women, coaching players who want to be coached.

Not bad, boy.

Larkin Has Chance to Follow in Yzerman’s Footsteps, Some 32 Years Later

In Hockey on October 2, 2015 at 6:43 pm

It was early in the rookie teenager’s first NHL season.

He was all of 18 years old, the age where high school graduation is either on the agenda or still a fresh memory.

Veteran Red Wings players dressed around him inside the Joe Louis Arena locker room, talking to reporters following a win, which was a lot more rare in those days than it is today.

Left wing sniper John Ogrodnick leaned back in front of his stall, his hands clasped around a knee, engaging the microphones and cameras after helping lead the team to victory on that October evening in 1983.

Thirty-five year-old defenseman Brad Park ambled up to a table and drew some water from a large cooler, a towel wrapped around his waist.

Other players milled about, laughing and teasing each other. Goalie Ed Mio, who got the win that night, rubbed mousse into his hair as he bantered with reporters and some joking teammates.

The mood was light. Players were tired, as they are after very game, but it was a good kind of tired. Victories will do that.

Covering the game as a cub reporter for the Michigan Daily,  I wedged myself between the cameramen and scribes. There was a moment when I tried to get out of someone’s way and took a couple of steps backward.

I stepped on someone’s foot.

I immediately turned around to apologize.

“It’s OK,” the voice of my victim said, barely above a whisper.

I recognized the youthful face, free of the stubble, scars and lines that pocked the mugs of his more veteran teammates.

It was that kid rookie with the funny last name.

WHY-zerman? EE-zer-man? Something like that.

I was done listening to Ogrodnick so I flipped the page of my notepad and decided to talk to the kid, mainly because nobody else was.

I asked a couple of questions, long since forgotten from the banks of my 52 year-old memory.

What I do remember, however, is that I had to strain to hear his answers. I also recall that he seemed almost embarrassed that I wanted to talk to him to begin with.

He was 18 and in his second week in the NHL.

Three years later I was directing Steve Yzerman in a TV commercial. I told him about our first encounter in 1983.

He smiled sheepishly.

“My dad always told me that the less you talk, the less people will realize that you have nothing to say,” he said, chuckling. Yzerman’s father had been a respected politician in Ottawa.

Yzerman, at that time, was the 21 year-old boy captain of the Red Wings, the youngest player to wear the “C” in franchise history. Coach Jacques Demers named Yzerman his captain not long after agreeing to coach the Red Wings in the summer of 1986.

For Demers, the move was a no-brainer, even though the roster was dotted with players much more steeped in NHL experience.

Cynics wondered when Demers would come to his senses and name a more veteran captain.

Yzerman remained captain until he hung up his skates in 2006.

No teenager has made the Red Wings roster out of training camp since Yzerman did it in 1983 as the fourth overall pick in that summer’s NHL draft.

That streak might come to an end.

dylan-larkin-9-24-15-229032becff65fff

Dylan Larkin is 19 years old, can skate like the wind, has immense hockey sense and to hear observers tell it, the kid has ice vision so impressive that he must have eyes in the back of his head.

New Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill is giving Larkin, the team’s first round pick (15th overall) in 2014, every chance to show off his mad hockey skills.

Blashill has been putting Larkin, a center, on a line with wingers Gustav Nyquist and Justin Abdelkader in recent exhibition games.

That’s not what you do if you’re thinking of sending Larkin to the minors to start the season.

And with fellow centers Pavel Datsyk and Darren Helm on the mend and not ready to be in the lineup for Opening Night next Friday, this just may be Larkin’s time. Already.

The thing about the NHL is that pretty much every front line forward in the league was, at some point in his hockey life, a dominating player, somewhere.

But not every player dominated his competition like Larkin has.

In 2013, the Waterford-born Larkin played 26 games for the United States National U-18 team. In those 26 games, he registered 17 goals and 9 assists. In 2014, his freshman year at the University of Michigan, he tallied 15 goals and 32 assists in 35 games. He also got his first taste of professional hockey, being sent to play with the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins during their playoff last spring. In his six game sample, he scored three goals and two assists.

This exhibition season with the Red Wings, Larkin scored three goals in his first four games. One of them, in Pittsburgh, was a beauty.

Larkin used his blazing speed to beat the Penguins defenseman around the outside, then he swooped in on the goaltender and scored on the blocker side.

There’s also some great irony when it comes to Dylan Larkin—a direct connection to Yzerman, no less.

Larkin hails from Waterford, and when the Red Wings traipsed to the NHL draft in Montreal in 1983, they had their eye on another Waterford kid, Pat LaFontaine.

The fans wanted the local hero LaFontaine, also a center. Red Wings GM Jimmy Devellano wanted LaFontaine. Badly.

But three teams picked ahead of Detroit.

The first, the Minnesota North Stars, selected Brian Lawton. The second, the Hartford Whalers, picked Sylvain Turgeon. The New York Islanders, despite being the four-time defending Stanley Cup champions, held the third overall pick thanks to a trade.

The Islanders, Devellano’s old team, slugged their former executive in the gut by picking Pat LaFontaine.

So Jimmy D “settled” for Steve Yzerman, center for the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League.

So here’s Dylan Larkin, from Waterford, threatening to make the Red Wings roster out of training camp as a teenager, the first player to do so since Steve Yzerman, who the Red Wings settled for after the Waterford kid, Pat LaFontaine, was taken ahead of them in the 1983 draft.

Funny how things work out sometimes, eh?

Larkin, not as shy as Yzerman was (and still is), has made no bones about it. His intention is to make the Red Wings. Right now. He’s trying to avoid a bus ticket to Grand Rapids at all costs.

“It is what I have been waiting for and I’m ready for it,” Larkin said about playing in the NHL, sooner rather than later.

“I think I’ll be a dominant player all over the ice,” Larkin continued. “I’ll be a player than can play against the other team’s top line and can still produce offense. It might take a while, but it does for everyone to become a dominant player.”

You never heard Steve Yzerman talk about himself in that manner at age 19—and Yzerman never really did, not even after he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame, for goodness sakes.

Coach Blashill is helping by letting the teenager show off his wares against other top-line NHL players in the pre-season matches, and Larkin has been responding.

GM Kenny Holland has said that there’s no rush in getting Larkin to the NHL.

But that was before training camp and the exhibition schedule began.

Sometimes if a kid has it, he has it. Sometimes there really is no need for him to play in the minors, where even at age 19 he would be a man among boys.

They talk a lot around Hockeytown about the Red Wings’ streak of 24 straight playoff appearances.

Here’s one streak that might come to an end: the 32 years between teenagers making the Red Wings out of training camp.