By Ashley Dunkak
FORD FIELD (CBS DETROIT) – “Outstanding.”
When Cheryl heard her husband’s response, she knew what the good news was before he even told her. Jim Caldwell had gotten the head coaching job with the Detroit Lions.
“I’ll never forget when he got the call yesterday,” Cheryl said with a big smile Wednesday, “Where, the time and where we at and who I texted and who I called, so it’s exciting. I’m just so happy that he has an opportunity at this position.
“You look at, there’s only 32 head coaches, and to be one, it’s an honor,” she continued. “It really is, and he doesn’t take that lightly. He really, really does not, so he’s happy to get going. I’m sure he wishes tomorrow was opening day.”
It looks like the coach is off to a solid start. Expecting to eventually get an opportunity as a head coach again after a three-year stint with the Indianapolis Colts from 2009 to 2011, Caldwell put together a 30-day plan. He may have just arrived in Detroit, but he seems poised to get to work immediately.
“One of the big things at this point in time is to familiarize yourself with the roster,” Caldwell said. “You could have some guys that are going into free agency, possibly. You have to look and make certain and see if those guys are going to fit into your scheme and certainly be able to make recommendations in that regard, so I’ve got to study, I’ve got to look at this roster, I’ve got to get a good feel for the players, but then also, I’ve got to put together a staff as well, so we’re going to be really burning that candle at both ends. It’s a fun time, challenging time.”
Many in Detroit voiced skepticism about Caldwell’s hire. After Caldwell’s press conference, though, the general consensus was that Caldwell came off as a smart, articulate, confident, extremely well prepared, hard-working man of integrity. While a press conference proves nothing as far as whether a coach can actually win in an organization that has struggled for decades, Caldwell’s first impression was an overwhelmingly positive one.
Asked how a former defensive back developed a reputation as a quarterback guru, Caldwell shared a revealing anecdote. He had always had aspirations of being a head coach, and as a young man he saw that not many African-Americans were getting those kind of opportunities. He wanted to put himself in the best possible position, so he decided he had to be an expert on both defense and offense. He studied furiously, and when he took a job as a defensive assistant at Colorado, he asked head coach Bill McCartney to move him to offense when a job on that side opened up. McCartney did, and today Caldwell has a resume that includes working with the likes of Peyton Manning, one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game, and Joe Flacco, the 2012 Super Bowl MVP.
Lions general manager Martin Mayhew liked what he heard from Caldwell in terms of what he could do for Detroit’s quarterback, Matthew Stafford, who had 25 has shown moments of promise but faltered overall the last two seasons.
“He’s going to be very hands-on,” Mayhew said. “He’s going to have a quarterback coach trained on the things that he wants done, and he’s still going to be very hands-on, even though he’s the head coach, in terms of development of Matthew, and that’s one thing we talked about in the interview that really impressed me about him, or one thing that I was excited about, was that he’s not going to delegate that task to somebody and step back and say, ‘I’m the head coach. I’m the overseer.’ He’s going to be hands-on with Matthew.”
As far as specifics, Mayhew and Caldwell will keep those to themselves.
“I don’t want other QBs to know,” Mayhew said with a laugh. “There is some good stuff that we talked about, and there are some things that he knew about Matthew, things that he recognized immediately that we could do a little bit differently that I think are going to help him right away.”
The Lions wanted someone who had a strong history with quarterbacks, and they wanted someone with head coaching experience. In Caldwell, the organization got both characteristics, and the team received glowing recommendations from Caldwell’s former players to current Lions players.
“Unsolicited calls – not to us but to other players that we were hearing back from our players that they were getting calls on these guys,” team president Tom Lewand said Wednesday. “And that didn’t happen very often, and so that makes you take notice because when a guy who’s been coached by a guy is endorsing him unsolicited to other players, that’s noteworthy.”
To make the Lions successful, of course, Caldwell will need to connect with a whole new batch of players. He will need to instill mental toughness, a characteristic essential to finishing games strong, in a group that collectively lacked that attribute in late-game loss after late-game loss in 2013. Caldwell seems equipped with a solid plan to do that.
“Oftentimes in coaching we have our set way of doing things – ‘This is how you’re going to do it’ – but yet we never really find out exactly what makes this guy tick, exactly what he loves doing,” Caldwell said. “When you find out those particular things and then operate around that particular concept, I think you see guys develop and grow, prosper, and that’s been with every guy I’ve ever coached.
“I want to try to find out, okay, what do you think you do well? I want to ask them the question, well where do you think you need help? And let them speak about themselves, and then I’ll tell them, okay this is what I see. And this is where I think you need help. This is what I think you do really good. You agree with me or don’t agree with me, and we come to some sort of happy medium there,” Caldwell continued. “These are men. They’re experts at what they do. These guys have great talent, so I think there are times when you might just kind of want to open up your ears and listen a little bit to make a determination and see exactly what they feel they’re good at.”
Lewand mentioned that former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, who consulted with the Colts when the team went 2-14 in 2011, said he had never seen a coach hold onto a team the way Caldwell did in that difficult situation.
Many fans disliked the hire of Caldwell because he was publicly perceived to be the second choice to then-San Diego Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, who took the job with the Tennessee Titans. After watching Caldwell’s press conference, the perception seemed to shift, and many went from being disenchanted with the hire to at least being willing to give the new coach a chance.
At least one person believed Caldwell would land the job all along – Caldwell’s daughter Natalie.
“We were actually in Arizona visiting our daughter and, unbeknownst to Jim and I, she had already purchased a Lions T-shirt, so after he got the call, she went to her car and she pulled out this Lions T-shirt,” Cheryl, Jim’s wife, recalled. “She said, ‘Dad, I knew it was going to happen.’”
What will happen over the course of Caldwell’s four-year contract, no one knows, but now he has his chance.