'Right time to get involved': Lions hire Chris Spielman to help with GM and coach searches
To take the Detroit Lions where they want to go, the franchise is reaching back into its past.
Amidst concerns leadership didn't have anyone with a football background assisting the team's search for a new coach and general manager, the Lions announced Tuesday that Chris Spielman is being brought on as a full-time special assistant to owner Sheila Ford Hamp and team president Rod Wood.
“I’ve been approached over the years for different opportunities within football,” Spielman said. “I really do think that this is the absolute right time to get involved. I’m really excited. I can’t tell you how excited I am about the opportunity. The Lions are part of my identity; they always have been, they always will be.”
Drafted by the Lions out of Ohio State in 1988, Spielman spent his first eight seasons with the organization, earning All-Pro honors three times during that stretch. He remains the franchise's all-time leading tackler.
"Chris Spielman has been a tremendous ambassador for the Detroit Lions since the day he first put on a uniform as a rookie in 1988," Ford Hamp said in a statement. "He brings great passion for people and the game of football, and we are thrilled to have him on board to help lead our team. This position is a full-time opportunity for Chris that will allow him to work across various departments on both the football and business sides of our organization."
After retiring from the NFL in 1999, Spielman transitioned into a broadcast career, working for both ESPN and Fox Sports. Since 2016, he’s served as a color commentator for Fox NFL broadcasts, while simultaneously handling the same role for Detroit’s preseason games the past seven years.
He’ll leave that behind for this new position, which is designed to continue after the general manager and coach positions have been filled, even though the parameters of his role have yet to be defined, according to Wood.
“For me, once this is all in place, think of me as a servant,” Spielman said. “Whatever is needed to be done and however I can help the team in any way, that’s my job, and I am there just to serve. That’s my goal and that’s what I intend to do.”
Since taking over as Lions president and CEO in 2015, Wood has gotten to know Spielman well and said he’s long envisioned a role in the organization for the former linebacker, but it wasn’t until after the decision was made to fire general manager Bob Quinn and coach Matt Patricia that the ball got rolling on developing an official relationship.
Wood reached out to Spielman shortly after the firings, part of a general feeling-out process. Soon after, Ford Hamp was looped in on the calls and she was the one who made the final pitch that got Spielman to take the plunge.
“My last conversation with Sheila put it over the top for me,” he said. “I woke up that next day, because you know life changes in 24 hours, after processing that conversation with her. I can't tell you how excited she is and how bad she wants the Lions to represent the city of Detroit, to win a lot of games and (be) something that everybody can be proud of.
“She's the one that put me over the top when I was deciding whether to do this or not. She's fabulous. Great leader. She's a leader to me. I was like, 'Let's go!' Felt like I talked to a head coach before a game.”
And while Tuesday's conversation was steered away from specific candidates for the team's two openings, Spielman explained his general vision for what success would look like, placing an emphasis on communication, culture and unity, from the top down.
That vision has been cultivated from a life in football. The son of a high school coach, Spielman went on to star at every level before switching to broadcasting, which gave him access to all of the league's coaches and general managers. Included in that group is his brother Rick Spielman, the general manager of the Vikings.
And over the years, Chris has kept detailed notes of those conversations as he’s formulated his opinions about who has success in the NFL and why.
“I’ve been blessed with insight and the insight to know that I can always learn,” Spielman said. “I can always grow. I can always develop. There are so many smart guys out there, and when they put information out there — whether I agree with it or disagree with it — I write it down because I want to think about it.
“Some of the people that I’ve talked to over the years, and recently, are very smart people who have had a lot of success. It doesn’t mean I agree with everything that they say, but they give me thoughts to think about and ideas to think about. To me, you only grow when you’re out of your comfort zone and you’re challenged that way and you have insights and humility to know that you don’t have all the answers.”
In addition to hiring Spielman, the Lions also announced the Fritz Pollard Alliance Foundation executive director Rod Graves, Rock Ventures vice president of business development and former Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis and Lions Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders will serve as advisors for the team's search for a GM and coach.
“Each bring different things to the table, starting with Rod Graves, leader of the Fritz Pollard Alliance,” Wood said. “I’ve had several conversations with Rod already. He’s shared with me the candidates that the Alliance works with who are minority coaches and potential GMs who are trying to get their names in front of teams. He’s been very helpful in helping me kind of analyze those candidates and giving me some feedback. So, we’ll continue to talk to him regularly.
“Mark Hollis, because of his responsibilities at Michigan State as an athletic director, has done a number of coaching searches and he’s been interesting in providing some guidance on the process of what works, and outcomes that were successful for him. And Barry is more in some ways in a similar way to Chris, a Lion — someone who understands our culture, the Ford Family. Hopefully we can continue to bounce ideas off of him in terms of trying to find somebody who fits for us and obviously is one of, if not the greatest player in the history of the franchise. Anytime I can have Barry around it’s a good thing.”
So far, the Lions have interviewed three internal candidates for the franchise's general manager vacancy. The team isn't expected to hire replacements for Quinn and Patricia until mid-January.