Detroit — The Lions have won just three division championships since the NFL merger in 1970, and Jim Caldwell will be the 15th head coach, hired or interim, to try to lead the team to another one.
And one reason Lions vice chairman Bill Ford Jr. is confident Caldwell is “the right guy” for the job is because he’s different than the coaches who failed before him.
“I think you get a sense that he is a very different kind of person than we’ve had here before with a different kind of leadership capability,” Ford said Wednesday after Caldwell’s introductory news conference. “There are no guarantees in life. … but I’m very comfortable. I think (general manager Martin Mayhew) did a very, very thorough search. He knew exactly the kind of candidate he was looking for, and I think he chose, recommended to us, the right person.”
Ford thinks the 59-year-old Caldwell (as of Thursday) can “hit the ground running” with what many consider a talented roster and have the Lions in playoff contention again in 2014 after a disappointing 7-9 finish in 2013. Although Ford didn’t know much about Caldwell before meeting him at the team’s headquarters in Allen Park on Jan. 3, he came away impressed with Caldwell’s intensity.
“He’s very calm, very measured, but has a real fire burning inside of him,” Ford said. “And I think that you also heard today him talking about penalties, turnover, discipline, I think that’s all things that this team could use and Jim will bring.”
While singing Caldwell’s praises, Ford also had to quash some rumors, like the idea Caldwell was the team’s “Plan B.”
Before the Lions hired Caldwell on Tuesday, the perception existed that he was the second choice behind Ken Whisenhunt, who accepted an offer from the Tennessee Titans on Monday.
Although the Lions had a plane waiting to fly to San Diego for Whisenhunt on Monday morning, which never left the tarmac, Ford denied reports of an offer made to Whisenhunt and said he’s confident Caldwell was the right choice.
“We had two really good candidates, one of whom we didn’t get a chance to finish the process with,” Ford said. “We had two Plan A’s, and we were going down both roads simultaneously.”
Ultimately, one of those roads led to a dead end, but Ford thinks the Lions’ future is bright with Caldwell at the helm. He also expressed his frustration with the 2013 season in which the Lions started 6-3 but lost six of their last seven games and led in the fourth quarter of each game, a collapse that led to the firing of coach Jim Schwartz on Dec. 30.
“I think the second-half collapse and particularly the fourth quarter of so many games was incredibly disappointing, and that was something that we obviously couldn’t live with,” Ford said.
Including Caldwell, Ford said he talked to five coaches about the head coaching vacancy before agreeing to a four-year contract. He said he spoke with Whisenhunt on the phone, and according to a Detroit News source, he talked to former Buccaneers and Raiders head coach Jon Gruden, too.
Ford also spoke with Tony Dungy, a Super Bowl-winning coach in Indianapolis, multiple times, and although Dungy wasn’t interested in the job, he offered a glowing recommendation of Caldwell, a Dungy assistant for seven seasons with the Colts and his hand-picked predecessor as head coach in 2009.
“Tony Dungy is highly respected by me and many other people, but on the other hand you have to make your own judgments,” Ford said. “But there’s no question that Tony knows him extremely well and Tony’s own credibility is at stake. He wouldn’t come out so strongly for an individual if he truly didn’t believe it in his heart, and so therefore, it’s very important.”
While Ford didn’t talk to every Lions candidate, Lions president Tom Lewand said it was important he meet with Caldwell during the interview two weeks ago.
“He’s been involved in hiring a lot of people, not just head coaches, but at Ford Motor Co.,” Lewand said of Ford. “He’s got a unique perspective and skill set, and the insight he provided is obviously valuable.”
The search, led by Lewand and Mayhew, was kept largely under wraps with few details leaked during the interview process, and Ford compared it to his courting of Ford Motor Company's chief executive in 2006.
"When I hired Alan Mulally, no one had ever heard of him, and nobody knew that I was talking to him," he said. "I think searches like that are best done quietly."
Ford also said he doesn’t think the Lions’ coaching search was too narrow. The only publicly known interviews were with men who had head coaching experience and an offensive background.
Ford also defended Lewand and Mayhew, whose job status was reportedly in question by the end of the 2013 season.
“I think the one constant that we heard all through this year, not just during the coaching search but through the year, was how talented this team was,” Ford said. “And if you believe that, then Martin’s the guy that put that together.”