Turning up 'heat' is key to coaching

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Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

It’s called the “hot seat” and for professional football coaches it conjures up anything but a warm and fuzzy feeling.

Jim Caldwell, now in his third season as coach of the Detroit Lions, was feeling the heat after the team’s decidedly slow start. Hosts of sports talk radio in Detroit were not kind to the Lions’ leader, labeling him as a “buffoon,” a “bungler,” a “moron,” and other unpleasantries in the wake of Detroit’s three-game losing skid entering an October 9 contest against the undefeated Philadelphia Eagles.

Caldwell, in turn, tried to maintain a sense of dignity while dodging all of the slings and arrows, preferring to focus on the task at hand – ending a losing streak that threatened to derail Detroit’s fleeting playoff hopes before the mid-point of the season.

His plight was a reminder of how quickly sentiments can change in the high-stakes world of sports, particularly the National Football League where millions are made and billions are reportedly wagered each and every week.

In February 2014, fittingly during Black History Month, Caldwell received a royal welcome at the federal courthouse in Detroit, enjoying a meet-and-greet with U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Damon J. Keith, the legendary Detroit jurist who for years has been a loyal season ticketholder for the Lions.

I was on hand for the occasion, helping chronicle the meeting between Judge Keith and the first African-American coach of the Detroit Lions. Caldwell, a defensive back for the Iowa Hawkeyes in the early ‘70s, chatted for more than an hour with Keith and his Court of Appeals colleague, Judge Eric L. Clay, a graduate of Yale Law School where he was a classmate of future President Bill Clinton. Others taking part in the get-together were Greg Adams, Caldwell’s roommate at Iowa, and Alex Parrish, an attorney with Honigman in Detroit and a former law clerk for Judge Keith.

The informal discussion focused more on the law than on the gridiron, although Judge Keith shared a long-ago story about the Lions that illustrated how far the team has come in terms of its makeup. The story revolved around Keith’s courtship of his future wife, Rachel, who completed post-graduate studies in biology at Brown University and obtained her medical degree from Boston University in 1949.

During the early days of the couple’s courtship, Keith invited the young doctor to see the Lions take on the Los Angeles Dons. The pair had breakfast beforehand at Kinsel’s Drug Store on Michigan Avenue, a 10-block walk from the then home of the Lions, venerable Tiger Stadium. In an excerpt from his biography, “Crusader for Justice: The Life and Amazing Times of Federal Judge Damon J. Keith,” the rest of the story unfolds.

“It was Rachel’s first time watching the Lions play and every time the Lions would score a touchdown, she would cheer very loudly, thinking that by cheering for his hometown team, she was making points with Damon,” wrote Trevor Coleman and Peter Hammer, authors of the Keith bio. “However, the Detroit Lions, like the Tigers and Red Wings, were segregated and didn’t have any black players. The Los Angeles Dons had three or four.

“Bemused by her enthusiasm, Damon finally told Rachel he wasn’t a Lions’ fan. ‘I’m not pulling for the Detroit Lions because they don’t have any blacks on their team and until they get some blacks, I won’t pull for them,’ he said.

“Rachel, who was not very political at the time, took a long look at Damon and softly smiled. Gently placing her hands in her lap, she didn’t cheer for the Lions again for the rest of the game.”

Some six decades later, with Caldwell at the coaching helm, the Lions have long since embraced the value and importance of diversity, and are led on the field by a man who has a Super Bowl pedigree, once as a head coach and twice more as an assistant.

“It’s a real indication of how much progress we have made,” Keith told Caldwell during their chat in the winter of 2014. “No affirmative action took place in this case. You earned every right to be the coach of the Lions.”

Indeed he had.

Caldwell, married and the father of five grown children, made his move to the pros in 2001 as quarterbacks coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, joining the Indianapolis Colt the following year. The Colts won the Super Bowl in 2007 under the leadership of Tony Dungy, while Caldwell succeeded his longtime friend in 2009. The Colts made it to the title game in 2010, losing to the New Orleans Saints. In 2013, Caldwell was the offensive coordinator for the Super Bowl winning Baltimore Ravens.

The Lions, of course, would be next on Caldwell’s impressive coaching resume when he took over in 2014 for Jim Schwartz, who was canned after a 7-9 season. Whether Caldwell survives his third season at the coaching controls will hinge squarely on the team’s record over the remainder of the 2016 campaign, which is lined with imposing obstacles for an injury-riddled squad.

Detroit’s hope, at least in some fan circles, is that he continues to right what looked like a rocky ship, guiding the Lions through the shoals of an unforgiving shoreline that is defined by the all-knowing Monday Morning Quarterback.

At this stage for the band of blood-thirsty critics, such a successful outcome equates to a football “Hail Mary,” just the type of miracle finish that could use a man like Caldwell in the starring role.
 

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