Niyo: Austin auditions again for a team of his own

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Allen Park — One guy is staying.

The other? Well, he’s not saying.

Mostly because Teryl Austin doesn’t know yet whether he’ll be here or there a month from now.

But like his immediate boss and longtime coaching mentor, Austin, the Lions’ defensive coordinator, was focused on the here and now Wednesday, deflecting any and all questions about his own coaching career and answering only those about the task at hand.

“Listen, I’d love to talk about Seattle, guys, because that’s really what we’re here for,” Austin said at his weekly media session, declining to address reports he’ll be interviewing for NFL head coaching vacancies next week, as expected.

An hour earlier, Jim Caldwell was saying much the same, even as he confirmed he’ll be back as the Lions’ head coach next season, news that leaked earlier in the morning, first on ESPN and later from the team.

“Any other questions you have about Seattle would be great,” Caldwell said, after making an opening statement to “express my gratitude” for the support of Lions ownership and the front office.

Neither of those responses came as any surprise, of course, not with the Lions gearing up for a game that’ll decide their season — Saturday’s wild-card playoff clash in Seattle — and maybe much more than that for some in the organization.

Nor did the news itself, that Caldwell is coming back — the Lions are in the playoffs for the second time in his three years here — or that Austin, despite some underwhelming performances lately, might be leaving soon. Caldwell has been championing the latter possibility for a couple of years now, and though he declined to talk about Austin’s agent lining up interviews next week with the Chargers and Rams — “Certainly hope so,” was all Caldwell would say Wednesday — his players offered their endorsements.

Highly touted

They touted more than just his coaching acumen, or the fact his group finished 13th in scoring defense despite a rash of key injuries and a dearth of playmaking talent. (And despite ranking in the bottom third in the league in most other defensive categories, a fact that understandably has many fans howling.) In fact, they talked about many of the same traits they appreciate in their own head coach, both as a teacher and a taskmaster.

“His motto is ‘Keep it likeable and learnable,’ ” veteran safety Don Carey said. “He keeps the atmosphere loose in the meetings. No one’s uptight. He’s approachable. We also have a saying here, ‘Good advice has no rank.’ Anybody can go upstairs in his office and talk to him. And you want guys like that leading your team.

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“I tell everybody that Coach Caldwell has an ability to keep the main thing the main thing. But Coach Austin does, too. Even when we as players might not like it, he’ll say, ‘Hey, this is what we’re getting at, this is what we’re trying to do.’ ”

This week, he’s making sure everyone knows the main thing has nothing to do with his next job interview, however. It’s all about trying to stop the Seahawks. Or more specifically, “We’ve got to stop the run — I can’t make it any more clear,” Austin said, when asked about second-half collapses against Dallas and Green Bay.

“When people run the ball on us, we have no shot,” he said. “And that’s basically what happened the last two weeks. They’ve run the ball on us for 150-plus yards, and we got our teeth kicked in both times.”

How any of that — or what transpires Saturday night in Seattle, where the Seahawks have won their last nine playoff games dating back to 2004 — will affect Austin’s job prospects is unclear right now.

But having been through the offseason spin cycle twice already as a head-coaching candidate, most of the guesswork for Austin is gone now, at least.

Austin, 51, has interviewed for top jobs with eight different NFL teams the last two years. He backed out of another planned interview in Denver after the 2014 season — when the Lions boasted one of the NFL’s top three defenses in his first year as a coordinator — knowing that job was already earmarked for Gary Kubiak.

Two years ago, he was widely viewed as the runner-up to Dan Quinn for the Falcons job. And though he said in June only two of the four interviews he had last winter were ones where he felt he had a “legitimate shot at the job,” others remain optimistic about his chances.

Knows the routine

All NFL teams are required to interview at least one minority candidate for head coach and top front-office openings. And the Fritz Pollard Alliance Foundation, a group that promotes diversity in hiring practices, compiles a list of recommended candidates each year for the league. Austin heads that list again this winter, along with several other coordinators, including Vance Joseph (Miami), Anthony Lynn (Buffalo), Harold Goodwin (Arizona), Terry Robiskie (Tennessee) and George Edwards (Minnesota).

There are a half-dozen coaching vacancies at the moment, and though Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels appear to be the most coveted names — Joseph and Lynn also might be prime candidates in Denver and Buffalo — Fritz Pollard chairman John Wooten told me Wednesday, “Teryl’s right in the thick of it with those guys.”

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“He’s really ready to take over,” said Wooten, 80, a former Pro Bowl lineman in Cleveland and longtime pro scouting director in Dallas. “I think he’s going to have an excellent shot at the two that he’s going to (interview with) here next.”

Part of the reason is because Austin, who has three Super Bowl appearances in 13 years as an NFL assistant, has experience not just as a defensive play-caller now, but also as a candidate. And among the first lessons learned by most in his position is the need to have a solid coaching staff lined up for any potential job.

“We emphasize that all the time,” Wooten said. “You’ve got to have a staff that can teach, motivate and develop talent. Teryl understands that. And when we talk about who he’s looking at and who he plans to take with him — the staff may change depending on the team you’re going to – he knows which way this thing has to go.”

They all do, though the next stop is Seattle. After that, who knows? Caldwell’s coming back next season. Offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter likely is as well. But Austin?

“I’m being selfish here, I hope it’s later than sooner,” Carey said. “But it’s inevitable. It is inevitable.” @John_Niyo