Allen Park — There were plenty of signs the Lions had more than just casual or exploratory interest in Jim Caldwell as their next head coach.
He was the first person they interviewed for their head-coaching vacancy. Attending that interview, along with president Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew, were vice chairman Bill Ford and quarterback Matthew Stafford.
It was the only one of the four head-coaching interviews Ford and Stafford sat in on.
Also telling was Ford reached out to former NFL coach Tony Dungy on Monday morning to hear his full endorsement of Caldwell, even as Ford had a private jet waiting to fly to San Diego to pick up Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, who ended up filling the Titans’ head coach vacancy.
So while the debate will continue whether he was their Plan A or Plan B, Caldwell on Tuesday was hired as the 26th head coach and first African-American head coach in Lions’ history. He will replace Jim Schwartz, who was fired Dec. 30 following a season in which the Lions lost six of their last seven games.
“I would see Bill at league meetings and things over the years, but we didn’t really have a great, deep relationship,” Dungy, who is from Jackson, told The Detroit News on Tuesday. “But I think he knows I’m a Lions fan and I wouldn’t steer him wrong. He knew I would be honest with him.
“And I just told him, I had spoken to Martin Mayhew before and hearing what they were looking for, I felt Jim Caldwell fit the bill. I think he’s going to be great and this is going to turn out real well for the Lions.”
Caldwell, who turns 59 on Thursday, won a Super Bowl ring as a member of Dungy’s Indianapolis staff, then took the team to the Super Bowl in his first season as head coach of the Colts. He was the offensive coordinator and called the plays during Baltimore’s Super Bowl run last year.
“On behalf on my entire family, I want to express how thrilled we are with the appointment of Jim Caldwell as our new head coach,” Lions owner and chairman William Clay Ford said in a statement. “We believe Jim is the right man to lead our team and deliver a championship to our fans.
“I also want to commend Tom and Martin on the thoroughness of the coaching search. We had a very specific plan and profile for our next head coach, and I am convinced that we found that man in Jim Caldwell.”
Caldwell, Whisenhunt, former Titans coach Mike Munchak and former Texans coach Gary Kubiak interviewed for the job. By Sunday night, it was clear Whisenhunt and Caldwell were the top two choices.
“For what they need, Jim is perfect,” Dungy said. “Jim has had success developing quarterbacks and passing offenses. He is very, very good with quarterbacks, and I think he’s going to be very good for Matthew Stafford. He has leadership qualities and he knows how to bring a team together.
“You are going to see a difference on the scoreboard.”
Caldwell worked with Kerry Collins at Penn State. He worked with Brad Johnson in Tampa. And most recently, and most famously, he worked with Peyton Manning with the Colts and Joe Flacco with the Ravens.
Undoubtedly, his work with those quarterbacks resonated with the Lions’ brain trust, as did the comprehensive plan he proposed for Stafford, which Caldwell presented at the interview.
Caldwell reportedly charted every pass Stafford threw last season. Then, he watched film with Stafford while he was at the practice facility. He not only offered a diagnosis of what he thought Stafford’s faults were, he showed him how he could improve.
John Wooten, chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which promotes minority hiring in the NFL, has known Caldwell since the late 1970s. He has also known Mayhew for decades and was in his ear telling him about Stafford before the 2009 draft.
“I was very much talking to Martin and those guys when Stafford was coming out of Georgia, that this was the guy for them — no question,” Wooten told The News last week. “Now what he needs is Jim Caldwell. He needs the calmness of the head guy being able to whisper in his ear during the games what he wants to accomplish. He has a tendency to be a gunslinger, and the only gunslinger I can remember excelling was Brett Favre.”
Stafford’s play has been in decline the last two seasons, which is why the Lions narrowed their head-coaching search to offensive-oriented candidates.
Caldwell was 26-22 as a head coach in Indianapolis. He was fired after a 2-14 season in 2011, the year Manning missed with a neck injury.
“Jim is going to come in and very quickly tell the guys what he expects,” Dungy said. “And he expects a high level of play and a high level of carrying yourself on and off the field and doing your job. That’s what he’s been all about.”
Mayhew made it clear on the day he fired Schwartz he was not only looking for somebody to take Stafford to the next level but also to take the team to the next level.
“You go back to the last two seasons, for example,” Mayhew said. “We got off to a below-average start, I believe, in 2012. We fought our way back to 4-4, and we lost the last eight games. We weren’t able to make that play, to get over that hump, to find a way to win some of those games down the stretch.
“Then we get into this season and we’re 6-3 and we win one of our last seven games. It’s the same situation: We were a play away. We have to find somebody that can bring that belief that we’re going to get over the hump.”
Whisenhunt, who took the Cardinals to the Super Bowl in 2008, appeared to be the guy the Lions initially targeted. But Whisenhunt took the Titans job instead. During his introductory news conference Tuesday, Whisenhunt said the Nashville area “was very special to me and that had a pull” on his decision. He also said he felt a strong sense of chemistry with the general manager and ownership.
Neither the Lions nor Caldwell are going to worry about what might have been.
A similar fate befell the Baltimore Ravens in 2008. Looking to replace Brian Billick, they first offered the job to Jason Garrett. When Garrett turned it down, they “settled” for the relatively inexperienced John Harbaugh, who led the team to a Super Bowl title last year.
“This team (the Lions) is loaded with talent both offensively and defensively,” former Colts center Jeff Saturday said on “SportsCenter” Tuesday. “Like you said, they do lack discipline. A number of games they cost themselves with silly penalties or silly mistakes. Jim Caldwell will bring discipline, he’ll bring consistency and a stability to this organization.
“He’ll sit down with guys. He’ll put a plan in place that he knows can be effective and knows it will win games. Those things, with the accountability and the discipline, are what he brings to the table. This is a perfect fit for the Lions and a good hire by those guys.”
Saturday also said Caldwell won’t be afraid to criticize and get after even the star players. He saw him do it with Manning.
“Listen, every player has to be coached and Peyton Manning wants to be coached and always wanted to be coached,” Saturday said. “He wants a guy who’s committed to the organization and the team as he is, that was Jim Caldwell for him. He’s not afraid to correct or to talk about here’s a mistake you made. That’s what Caldwell brought to us.
“He has a great offensive mind, he knows how to work with quarterbacks to get the most out of them. He did it with (Joe) Flacco, he did it with Manning and he’ll do it with (Matthew) Stafford in Detroit.’’
The Lions will formally introduce Caldwell as their new head coach at 4 p.m. on Wednesday.
As for his staff, Caldwell is expected to name Teryl Austin as his defensive coordinator. Austin, a former Michigan assistant, has been with Caldwell at Penn State, Wake Forest and Baltimore.
As for the offensive coordinator, several names have been bandied about, most prominently Eagles quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor, Indianapolis quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen and Kansas City assistant head coach David Culley.
Also, there were reports Tuesday (Ravens Insider and others) that former Rutgers offensive coordinator Ron Prince would join Caldwell’s staff, either as offensive coordinator or assistant head coach.