Green: Patricia is next savant in line to fix Lions

By Jerry Green
Special to The Detroit News


Minneapolis — He is the guy who worked in Gillette Stadium, but never shaved. He is the photogenic character with the black beard in the red jacket and the black cap turned backward and the pencil stub behind his ear in the TV focus of the sidelines.

He never smiles in these images, a working, busy bee.

This is the guy chosen to be head coach of the Detroit Lions.

And this week, with the Patriots’ mission to Super Bowl LII completed, he will be introduced as the newest savant for a position that has been a pitfall for ambitious young coaches.

His name is Matt Patricia.

He comes with a pedigree of high education and a background of winning pro football championships. He was trained to become an engineer, but he elected to become a football coach.

He worked his way upward from the bottom — a graduate assistant at Rensselaer, an underling coach at Amherst and then Syracuse. And finally in 2004, the Patriots in the pro league, still an underling. Another rope to shinny up — offensive assistant, assistant offensive line coach, linebackers coach.

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And then defensive coordinator, 2012, a premier job, the bearded guy, a fashion plate with his distinctive style — perfect for the roaming TV cameras.

He goes to the Lions with the challenge 15 men before him carried since the Lions last won a championship. None succeeded, not satisfactorily for Detroit.

Patricia’s challenge is higher — because of the pedigree.

He goes to the Lions a disciple of Bill Belichick, one of the top genius coaches in the history of the NFL. He goes to the Lions groomed and qualified.

But he goes still with doubts about him. He has never been a head coach at any level of football. He goes from a winning football atmosphere to an environment in which fans have been soured by depression, near misses, failed playoff opportunities.

Patricia must reverse, really, 60 years of barren football, and win over a faithful yet deprived fan base.

He must motivate his Lions players. He has to learn to do that.

Does he try to be Belichick, quiet and calculating? Or Vince Lombardi, a shrieker, sarcastic, cutting and openly emotional?

He follows in a trail of 16 other men hired to coach the Lions with the same optimism. All would be thwarted — not their fault mostly but due the Lions’ perennial failures to provide their coaches with a squad of winning players.

GM Bob Quinn, also with roots with the Patriots, is the true key to the Lions’ future. Champions aren’t built in a year or two.

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There is one positive omen.

The Lions’ most recent championship in an era of franchise turbulence in 1957. George Wilson received a battlefield commission during training camp when Buddy Parker publicly announce at a banquet that he could no longer handle a team of talented but wild athletes.

Wilson’s Lions won the NFL championship a decade before the first Super Bowl.

And then the series of coaching changes began.

Harry Gilmer might have won with a qualified quarterback. He left in a barrage of snowballs from fans at Tiger Stadium.

Later on, quiet but efficient Monte Clark was on the griddle.

After a loss in Los Angeles, Clark greeted beat writer Mike O’Hara and me with the comment: “See you at the cemetery.” Expecting to be fired the next day, Clark survived until he ultimately caught the zig

Darryl Rogers came out college coaching to lead the Lions for a few years.

Under duress one day at the Silverdome, he passed me in the ramp and quipped, as was his wont: “What does it take to get fired here?”

This is the atmosphere that Matt Patricia is going to enter.

But Patricia brings with him — along with the picturesque beard — the cherished qualities of the New England Patriots.

Jerry Green, a retired sports writer, has covered every Super Bowl for The Detroit News.