Area high school coaches see the Lions hiring Jim Caldwell -- the team's first black coach -- as a positive for the community. (Stephen Cohen / Getty Images)
Madison Heights Madison coach Drake Wilkins said Detroit — the city as a whole — could be the big winner with the Lions’ hiring of Jim Caldwell, their first African-American head coach.
Wilkins just completed his 26th season as a head coach at high schools in the Detroit area. Wilkins is black and he coached at Detroit Southeastern and Detroit Denby before going to Madison.
“To us older guys,” Wilkins, who is 57, said. “We see the significance. If the city turns itself around, and Caldwell can turn the Lions around, it would be great for the city, the two coming together. I’m intrigued by it. I’m happy for it. But people under 35 don’t see it that way. They don’t know history. I’m a history teacher so I look at it that way.”
Wilkins grew up in Arkansas and played college football for one year, at Langston University in Oklahoma, an NAIA school that’s predominantly back. He said because he grew up in the south, he’s pleasantly surprised to see schools like Texas and Penn State hire black head coaches.
Now with the hiring of Caldwell, Wilkins sees that as another step in the right direction.
“I know he’s a knowledgeable guy,” Wilkins said. “Hopefully he can instill some discipline.”
Tony Blankenship was a Blue Chip player when he played at Detroit Murray-Wright in the late 1980s and then went on to play for Bo Schembechler at Michigan. Blankenship said when he played he doesn’t remember a black coach at any level in college, save for one: Eddie Robinson at Grambling.
Blankenship has coached a number of schools, including his alma mater, and he’s currently the head coach at Denby.
“It’s historical,” Blankenship said of Caldwell’s hiring. “It gives hope to the young guys, the players, that this is reality. It can be done. I do think it’s inspirational. Here’s a black guy who’s the head coach of the Lions, in the most popular sport in the world.”
Detroit Cass Tech coach Thomas Wilcher doesn’t see it as a black and white issue. He said the color barrier was broken years ago. Wilcher said today it’s all about winning and losing at the NFL level.
“The skin color of a coach is not important,” he said. “A coach is what Detroit needed, that understands Xs and Os and (has) a proven track record of winning, who has experienced success at the NFL level. He has championship rings from coaching. He knows how to win.”
Detroit East English Village Prep coach Rod Oden said the hiring of Caldwell “is a good thing” but he hopes Caldwell is not perceived as the Lions’ second or third choice.
“I’m glad they gave him a shot,” Oden said. “I think it’s about time. I think he’s the best available. His credentials speak for themselves. He’s shown he’s been able to work with guys, like Peyton Manning.”
Whether Detroit hired a black or white coach Oden said all Detroit fans want is a winner.
“It may be something of great importance for the kids in the city,” Oden said. “The Lions’ GM is also a black guy. If he’s able to make them a consistent playoff team he’ll be worshipped.”