LARRY LAGE, AP Sports Writer
ALLEN PARK, Mich. (AP) — Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell took players — by position group — out to dinner during the offseason and allowed them to pick their favorite restaurants in the Motor City.
Caldwell asked each player what their favorite books and movies were along with other questions, probing for details about them as people.
“The more you know about them, the better you can serve them,” Caldwell said in an interview with The Associated Press after Thursday’s practice. “I’ve always believed coaching is a service business.”
Jim Schwartz never seemed to say anything like that during his five years with the Lions.
Schwartz was emotionally charged on the sideline — and infamously on the field during one postgame exchange with San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh — and his ways appeared to wear on executives and players.
When Schwartz did not point out mistakes made by top players while he would sharply criticize others on the roster, he appeared to lose respect in the locker room and front office.
That may have led to him getting fired following last season’s flop to a 7-9 finish that dropped his overall record to 29-51 in Detroit.
Caldwell was hired, getting a second chance to lead an NFL team after coaching the Indianapolis Colts from 2009-2011, and his even-handed approach has been a welcome change of pace.
“He treats everyone the same from top to bottom,” Lions center Dominic Raiola said. “He has called (Matthew) Stafford and (Ndamukong) Suh out and the last guy out. I’m not going to compare other coaches to him, but I will say it is refreshing.”
Caldwell’s cool and calm ways were needed for a franchise that has been desperately seeking success for nearly six decades.
When the Lions won their last NFL title, it was 1957 and Caldwell was 2 and likely was spending time at a church in Beloit, Wisconsin. His father, Willie, worked for General Motors for 35 years — on the line and as a skilled tradesmen — and his mother, Mary, was a nurse with a particular interest in geriatric care.
“You could walk into my parents’ home right now and you would not see a bunch of Bibles — though you may find one — or a bunch of signs of them professing their faith,” Caldwell said.
“But if you’re around them for 30 minutes, you’ll get a sense of their character and deep faith. From them, I learned to live my life by example and not to just talk about it.”
Caldwell played defensive back for Iowa and began his coaching career as a graduate assistant for the Hawkeyes in 1977. He went on to work as an assistant coach at Southern Illinois, Northwestern, Colorado, Louisville and Penn State, where he struck up a friendship with then-assistant Nittany Lions basketball coach Jerry Dunn.
Caldwell and Dunn, who attended the same church, would often get their families together on Sunday evenings to eat dinner and play spades. They’ve kept in touch, going on vacations together and attending family functions such as the wedding of Caldwell’s daughter earlier this year.
“He is a spiritual, well-respected person who walks the walk as well as any man can,” Dunn said in a telephone interview Thursday. “He commands respect because he is a person of substance and people around him figure that out very quickly.”
Caldwell earned his first opportunity to be a head coach at Wake Forest, where he was from 1993-2000, before going to the NFL to work for Tony Dungy in Tampa Bay and Indianapolis. When Dungy retired after the 2008 season, Caldwell won 14 games as a rookie NFL head coach and helped the Colts reach the Super Bowl. He was fired two years later after a two-win season that was stunted by Peyton Manning’s neck injury.
Caldwell, who was the offensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens when they won the Super Bowl two years ago and had the same job last season, impressed the Lions during interviews when they were searching for someone to replace Schwartz.
Lions running back Reggie Bush was sold on Caldwell as soon as they spoke last winter.
“Anybody who gets a chance to speak to him — even if just for 5 minutes — finds out how good of a guy he is,” Bush said. “I think that carries over in the way he coaches and the way he treats people and the way he treats us as men. It’s very refreshing, obviously, to have a coach like that.”
Follow Larry Lage on Twitter at http://www.Twitter.com/larrylage
(© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)