Green: Quinn's hiring brings hope, but so did Millen's

Jerry Green
Special to The Detroit News

The press conference to welcome the new guy was a gala affair. It was held in a hotel grand ballroom. The TV cameras towered in a semi-circle in the back of the room.

Every media outlet in town dispatched journalists to cover this announcement. We were there to interrogate the new guy, to grill him, to roast him — to locate his flaws.

Lions general manager Bob Quinn has made his first big decision, keeping Jim Caldwell on as coach.

Finally, after decades of wallowing in ineffectual mediocrity, there was going to be change at the top. Change in the old format. You could sense the ooze of optimism in the ballroom.

The new guy brought with him a fine pedigree. He had been an All-America on a winner in college. He had been associated with three professional championship teams, teams that won in multiple Super Bowls.

And now he told us his plans for building a winning organization out of the ruins for past seasons.

Flaws? We did not seem to find any.

One skeptical, craggy sports journalist, lurking to the side, asked the new guy if he planned to use know-how absorbed from his most successful teams on his trip up through the player ranks.

“Great question!” said the new guy, and proceeded to offer a summary of is worthiness

The new guy was Matt Millen.

Millen unfulfilling

This is not to pour rain on the parade of optimism that has accompanied the Lions hiring of Bob Quinn as the general manager this past week.

But it’s not all yippee.

Quinn arrived as the protégé of Bill Belichick. Belichick runs the New England Patriots as a dictator. He is the most successful coach currently operating on any professional sports team. He has guided the Patriots to six Super Bowls, winning four of them.

Fifteen years ago Millen arrived in Detroit with the stamp of Al Davis and the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders. With credentials acquired when he played for San Francisco 49ers, who carried influence from the regime of Bill Walsh. With the expertise gained from playing for Joe Gibbs and Washington.

And Matt joined the Lions with a whopping approval rating from Joe Paterno, his coach at Penn State.

With Millen as GM in Detroit, with the ebullient Marty Mornhinweg as the new head coach, with the fresh ooze of optimism — how could the Lions miss?

We all know how!

The Lions annually flubbed on draft day, failing in the vital replenishment area. They didn’t bring in proper pro talent.

Just this thread of caution via a favorite quote spoken wisely by the late Spanish philosopher, George Santayana:

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Again, Bob Quinn might turn into the genius that the Lions have been yearning for since the 1960s. He might be able to do what Belichick did in New England, what Al Davis did long ago in Oakland and Los Angeles, what W. Nick Kerbawy did more than a half-century ago in Detroit.

Build a winner — a championship winner — out of the residue of a franchise afflicted with the agonies of chronic defeat.

Quinn already has proven to be decisive and swift. He had a priority — and with it he sent a message. The priority was to determine that Jim Caldwell had earned the right to coach the Lions in the 2016 season.

With one move the new guy in charge stifled the coaching controversy that has been part of the Lions’ makeup the past 69 years. Quinn quickly eradicated any gossip and rumors that have accompanied those controversies.

Bucking the trend

He went against the current in this annual period of the Super Bowl Playoffs and the guillotining of unsuccessful head coaches.

Commonsense prevailed. And Quinn spoke quite a mouthful in the public statement the Lions released Friday about Caldwell’s future.

“Not only did he lead the Lions to the playoffs in his first season here,” Quinn stated in the announcement, “but when you look at how the players responded in the second half of last season, under difficult circumstances, it’s clear to me that this team believes in him and responds positively to his leadership.”

It was Caldwell, who somehow restored order out of chaos and defeatism this just-ended season.

From the Santayana Doctrine: Coaching changes do little but stir up expectations — and so quickly, historically, there is a painful drooping.

The last coaching change that clicked for the Lions was in 1957. You have to be nearing age 70, or higher, to remember it — the Lions’ last championship season. That season remains the dividing line between a pro football championship dynasty and mostly failure and mediocrity.

And that coaching change 59 years ago was a bomb burst.

A clearly ticked off and eminently successful coach — Buddy Parker — quit the Lions from the speaker’s podium during training camp at a fans’ banquet in a downtown Detroit hotel.

“I can’t handle this team anymore,” said Parker, miffed at Bobby Layne, Joe Schmidt and teammates for their pre-dinner partying with the-then cadre of wealthy, fawning clubowners.

Next day, George Wilson was promoted to head coach. And in December, the Lions won the 1957 NFL championship for Wilson.

Lions fans were delirious that afternoon at Briggs Stadium.

Since then — now scraping quite higher than age 70 — I remember 16 more head coaching changes during all those barren seasons.

Millen, with his pedigree, came in as GM with the sharpest blade. The Lions employed four head coaches in his seven seasons of controversy and anger. Millen started with Mornhinweg and soon switched to Steve Mariucci, who arrived with glowing credentials as winning former coach of the 49ers.

Mariucci became victim of the inertia and never succeeded in his mission. Millen also flopped, and just recently has admitted publicly to his flaws, back sharp as a TV analyst

Now GM Bob Quinn and Jim Caldwell are on a mission.

Another ooze of optimism is understandable.

Where have you gone Wayne Fontes?

Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sports writer.