Jim Caldwell speaks during Wednesday's press conference at Ford Field. He said the Lions are 'on the threshold of great things.' (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)
Detroit — Before he introduced Jim Caldwell as the franchise’s 26th head coach Wednesday at Ford Field, Lions president Tom Lewand addressed the public perception they had selected their second choice.
“Anyone who thinks we settled for Jim Caldwell doesn’t know Jim Caldwell,” Lewand said.
Yes, Lewand said, Caldwell and Ken Whisenhunt, the former Chargers’ offensive coordinator who was hired by the Titans on Tuesday, were the finalists. Yes, they had a plane ready to fly Whisenhunt to Detroit for another interview.
But Whisenhunt never came, and no offer by the Lions was ever made.
“We had two really good candidates, one of whom we didn’t get a chance to finish the process with,” vice chairman Bill Ford said. “We had two Plan As and we were going down both roads simultaneously.”
After hearing all the testimonials gathered by general manager Martin Mayhew from respected NFL leaders like Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome, former Colts GM Bill Polian, former Colts coach Tony Dungy, quarterback Peyton Manning and others, and after hearing Caldwell lay out his platform and goals for the Lions, you’d be hard-pressed view him as a Plan B.
“He fits our profile to a T,” Lewand said. “When I talk about things like leadership, experience, a sound football philosophy, intelligence, communication skills, integrity, accountability, discipline — those are the kinds of things that, time in and time out, we heard when people were describing Jim Caldwell.
“Wherever he’s been, he’s left a positive mark. Every person who has come in contact with Jim Caldwell speaks extremely highly of not only his character, but his football intelligence and his ability to lead the football team.”
Caldwell, who signed a four-year deal, turns 59 Thursday. He has coached in three Super Bowls and won two of them, one as an assistant under Dungy in Indianapolis, one as Colts head coach, and the other last season as the offensive coordinator in Baltimore.
“Do you believe in providence?” Caldwell said. “I certainly do, and there is a reason I am here, and without question it is to win a championship.”
He said he spent part of the morning talking to and texting with Lions players. Quarterback Matthew Stafford, receiver Calvin Johnson, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch were among those he had contact with.
“Everyone was excited and willing to do whatever it takes to win,” Caldwell said. “They believe and I believe the time is now. It’s not two years or three years from now, but right here, right now. When this job opened up, I saw it as the best job in the league and the best fit for me.”
Caldwell’s coaching style and methods have been forged from working with some of the most respected coaches in both college and professional football — Ray Dempsey at Southern Illinois, Dennis Green at Northwestern, Bill McCartney at Colorado, Howard Schnellenberger at Louisville, Joe Paterno at Penn State, Dungy at both Tampa Bay and Indianapolis and John Harbaugh at Baltimore.
During his introduction speech Caldwell quoted the bible, Chinese proverbs and even Fielding H. Yost. But his intelligence, his passion and his belief this is a team on the cusp of winning were undeniable.
“Let’s talk about just a couple things — image and identity,” Caldwell said. “Either you create it, or somebody’s going to create it for you. So, let me tell you what we’re going to look like. We’re going to be smart. We’re going to be a football team that’s not going to shoot itself in the foot. We’re going to be a team that is disciplined, that’s focused, that understands situational football.
“It’s going to be drilled and drilled and drilled and not just given lip service. What you should see on the field is obviously a product of our coaching, our instruction and our demands.”
He emphasized team speed will be a part of the Lions’ identity and that the roster was already built to play fast on both sides of the ball.
“Speed’s going to certainly be a definite factor — we have to be fast and we’re also going to be physical,” Caldwell said. “Now, physical doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to be out of bounds in terms of what we’re doing from a legal standpoint. We’re going to do things the right way.
“But we’re going to be a physical, hard-nosed, rough football team. We’re going to flat get after you from the word go every single snap of the ball on offense, defense and in the kicking game.”
He also addressed his expectations for the players’ conduct off the field. For this he quoted Yost — “To live clean, to come clean, to think clean. To stop doing all the things that hurt you mentally, physically and morally and start doing things the things that make you keener, finer and more competent.”
“We want a team that’s humble,” he said. “Certainly hungry, but also humble. I think humility is the glue that brings a team together, that you play unselfishly, that you do the things you’re required to do. You play your role.”
He said he wanted his players to be velvet and steel.
“An individual, particularly guys that play this game, should be like a piece of steel wrapped in velvet,” he said. “So, on the field you’ll find a hard-nosed, tough, fast, physical individual. But then out in our community, you’ll see them as caring, as kind, as cordial as you’ll ever see a human being. That’s the combination we’re looking for, civility and toughness.”
As for all the talk about being the team’s second choice, Caldwell waved that off.
“I don’t pay any attention to any of that,” he said. “I’ve been in this business for too long. My job is to focus on what I can control and what I know to be a factor. I know only one thing — I was meant to have this job. That’s why I am standing here today.”
There have been a long list of coaches who have come to Detroit with the same hopes and aspirations and the same optimism the last couple of decades and all have fallen short of their goal. Why does Caldwell think he’s different?
“I can’t tell you about the others, but I can tell you why I have the opportunity to do so,” he said. “I’ve been there before. I’ve done it before. I believe in the young men we have at the important positions, that they need some guidance and direction and that we’re going to get it done.”