Niyo: Darrell Bevell quarterbacked Wisconsin’s turnaround. Can he do it for the Lions?

Detroit News

John Niyo
 
| The Detroit News

Maybe it’s not the way he would’ve drawn it up, but for Darrell Bevell, the Lions’ interim head coach, that’s nothing new.

Not for a man whose football career took a detour designed by his faith 30 years ago, one that ultimately led him to a starring role in Wisconsin’s first- Rose Bowl triumph. And not for a coach whose two decades in the NFL have run the gamut of emotions, from Super Bowl glory and grief to a year of unemployment and now this latest awkward twist of fate, after a post-Thanksgiving purge in Detroit gave him a fourth-quarter shot at the job of a lifetime.

One that had him on the phone with one of his coaching mentors last weekend, shortly after Lions owner Sheila Ford Hamp made it official, firing both general manager Bob Quinn and head coach Matt Patricia and elevating Bevell, who was in his second season as the Lions’ offensive coordinator, for the remainder of the season.

“I saw the news break on Saturday and I texted him and said, ‘OK, now you get a chance to sit in the big chair,’” laughed Brad Childress, the former Minnesota Vikings coach whose history with Bevell dates back to the late 1980s. “Bev called me back a half-hour later and said, ‘Geez, it’s kind of a whirlwind here. You got any pointers for me?’ We talked for a while, but I told him, ‘You just gotta be yourself and do what you believe. You’re not gonna turn everything around in five games. But you can put your stamp on it.’”

Childress would know, because he’s seen Bevell do this before, turning awkward first impressions into lasting memories. Now 64 and recently retired from coaching, Childress was the offensive coordinator at Northern Arizona who’d recruited Bevell, an all-city quarterback at Chaparral High in Scottsdale, where his father, Jim, was the coach. He was also the one back then who, oblivious to the tenets of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, didn’t understand why a redshirt freshman quarterback in line for the starting job wasn’t on campus in the summer of 1990.

“I called at the beginning of the summer and talked to his dad, and he said, ‘Well, he got the call, Coach,” Childress recalled in a phone interview this week, as he drove from Chicago — where his son, Kyle, is on the Bears’ coaching staff — to his winter home in Bonita Springs, Fla. “I said, ‘I don’t really know what call he got, but the call I’m making is I’m the offensive coordinator and I’d like to get him up here.’ And he’s like, ‘No, Coach, he got the call to go on his mission. He’s had a mission piggy-banked since he was a little boy.’” More confusion followed, but eventually Childress understood.

And soon after, Bevell was off on a two-year missionary trip, sharing the gospel in inner-city Cleveland instead of throwing touchdown passes in Flagstaff, Ariz. A life-changing experience, to be sure. Yet when he returned home in the fall of 1991, Bevell’s father got another call. Childress was on the phone again, this time from Madison, where he’d taken a job on Barry Alvarez’s staff at Wisconsin. They needed help at quarterback, and wondered if “Elder Bevell” was ready to play football again.

He was, in fact. But shortly after arriving on campus, some surely wondered if this was the right idea. Here was a devout member of the LDS Church on a decidedly liberal campus, a teetotaler at a party school — “He was the designated driver I don’t know how many times for the offensive linemen,” Childress chuckled — and what’s more, a quarterback who hadn’t thrown a football or lifted a barbell in 18 months or more. Alvarez remembers the Badgers’ strength coach being aghast at Bevell’s conditioning level, and as Childress, the assistant who’d gone to bat to bring him on board, recalls those early workouts, “He said the only running he’d done in two years was to get away from dogs and people with guns. And, I mean, he takes his shirt off and you’re like, ‘Oh, God, put your shirt back on.’”

“Everybody was like, ‘Who is this guy? Where did this guy come from?’” laughed Michigan State coach Mel Tucker, who was part of Alvarez’s first recruiting class at Wisconsin in 1990. “But next thing you know, he’s leading us to the Rose Bowl.”

‘Coach on the field’

Sure enough, it didn’t take long for Bevell to reward the coaches’ faith in him. He led the Badgers to an upset win over Ohio State in his Big Ten debut in 1992, then took Wisconsin to Pasadena for the first time in 30 years the following season, clinching a 21-16 win over UCLA with a 21-yard touchdown scramble that still leaves Alvarez howling — “I don’t think he’d flushed the pocket that whole year!” — as he relives one of the defining plays of his career.

 “He was like a coach on the field,” said Alvarez, now Wisconsin’s athletic director. “He wasn’t overly talented — not real fast, not real strong-armed. But he always knew where to go with the ball, he always knew the right key and made the right decisions.”

When he was done playing, he had another decision to make, however. Bevell ended his senior season in a hospital bed after he suffered a lacerated kidney in a 3-3 tie against Illinois. And after going undrafted the following spring, his NFL dreams didn’t have much life after minicamp tryouts in Miami and Oakland. Already married — he and his wife, Tammy, met on that missionary trip in Cleveland — he decided it was time to follow his father’s lead.

Alvarez called it a “natural progression,” and Childress agrees, adding, “There was no doubt he was gonna be a coach.” But retracing the steps now, it’s easy to see where it could’ve ended long before it got here.

Bevell’s first stop came in 1996 at tiny Westmar College in Le Mars, Iowa, a school that would close for good the following year. But he caught a break when Dan McCarney, the former defensive coordinator at Wisconsin, hired him to be a graduate assistant on his staff at Iowa State. Then another after spending a couple years on Skip Holtz’s staff at Connecticut. Childress had recommended him for a job on Mike Sherman’s new staff with the Green Bay Packers, and suddenly Bevell found himself as an NFL quality control coach working with Brett Favre, the three-time MVP and Super Bowl champ.

The two had met once before for a local newspaper photoshoot — the Rose Bowl champ and the rising NFL star — but years later, Bevell was admittedly nervous stepping into a quarterback meeting room with Favre and then-backup Matt Hasselback. (Doug Pederson, now the Philadelphia Eagles’ head coach, would take Hasselback’s place the following season.)

“I did a lot of listening,” Bevell said. “I learned a lot from those guys. … It was learning the system, learning how we do things, and then after three seasons, I had earned enough respect from the head coach, from the coordinator and of course the quarterbacks. 

“They were there to listen if you had information that could help them. But that taught me to always make sure that I was prepared … and not try to act like you know something that you don’t.”

Bevell says being around Favre, a gunslinger who played the game “like he was an 8-year-old Pop Warner kid,” also taught him to never lose the fun in the game, something his current quarterback, Matthew Stafford, will vouch for now.

“From Day 1, he’s always been the same guy,” Stafford said this week. “He’s been positive, upbeat, he loves to come to work, he loves the game of football. … And he brings that sort of youthful joy to the game, and always has since I met him. That’s really never changed.”

In 2006, Bevell was reunited with Childress, who brought him to Minnesota to be his offensive coordinator and handed over the play-calling duties a year later when a rookie running back named Adrian Peterson joined the Vikings. In 2009, Bevell helped convince Childress and the Vikings’ front office to sign Favre as a 39-year-old free agent, a move that led the Vikings to the NFC championship game, where they suffered a crushing overtime loss to New Orleans.

Bevell found even more success in his next NFL stop, building one of the league’s best offenses in Seattle around a young quarterback in Russell Wilson and a dominant run game led by Marshawn Lynch.

That earned him his first shot at NFL head coaching job, interviewing in 2013 for the Chicago Bears vacancy and making the cut as one of three finalists. Marc Trestman got the job, and the other finalist, Bruce Arians landed the Arizona Cardinals job that year.

But Bevell’s consolation prize was a Super Bowl ring the following season in Seattle, and nearly another in 2014, though that loss to New England in Super Bowl XLIX is the one that follows Bevell everywhere he goes. His play call on second-and-goal from the 1 — a pass that was intercepted by the Patriots’ Malcolm Brown to seal the win — will live forever in football infamy. But for Bevell, who coached three more years in Seattle before getting let go, it’s another reminder of what he told his Lions’ players this week: “There’s no rearview mirror.”

‘Audition’ with the Lions

So, then, about this new job.

Bevell, who turns 51 in January, was enjoying a rare off-day Saturday, spending time with his family when his career took another sharp turn. He and his wife and their three daughters, along with two “future son-in-laws” — Bevell recently granted permission to marry, but they’re still waiting to pop the question, he says — were at Greenfield Village, where they’d just watched a glassblowing demonstration and made their way back to the gift shop to buy one of the handmade ornaments his wife liked. That’s when Bevell got a text message from Kevin Anderson, the Lions’ chief of staff, telling him to call team president Rod Wood.

“It’s never good when you get a “Call the president, ASAP” text,” Bevell said. “You get that text, you know that something’s up.”

Something was up, all right: Quinn and Patricia had been fired. And in the brief conversation that followed, Bevell was offered the opportunity to take over as the interim head coach.

“Told them I was honored for it — I was excited to be able to do that,” Bevell said.

He also was told he’d have a shot to be a candidate for the job on a permanent basis, however unlikely that might seem as the Lions’ embark on what Hamp insists will be a “thorough and comprehensive search” for new leadership this winter.

“I view it as an audition,” Bevell said Thursday. “It’s a great opportunity for me to put out there who I am, what my teams are gonna look like, and let all that speak for itself. I told our players, ‘Everything counts. And everybody’s watching.’”

The players are watching, too, obviously. And already, they’ve noticed the changes, whether it’s the way meetings are run or how Bevell’s practices are structured. 

“Going through this week, with his approach to things, you know, it seems like he should’ve been a head coach a long time ago,” Peterson said. “He’s a players’ coach. And guys, from what I’m seeing, are responding well.”

Duron Harmon, the free-agent safety Patricia brought in from New England in March, echoed those thoughts when asked about Bevell on Thursday.

“A lot of energy, a lot of positivity,” said Harmon, one of the Lions’ defensive captains. “It’s hard not to like the guy. I love the guy. Loved him from the moment I got here. And as much as it sucks for Matty P, I’m excited for the opportunity for Bev and to play for him and have him be a head coach for the first time.”

So is Childress, of course. And while he understands all the talk about Bevell’s positivity, he’s also quick to add a negative word, just so no one gets the wrong idea here.

“I’ve seen him get pissed,” laughed Childress, whose son, Kyle, will be on the other sideline Sunday in Chicago as a Bears’ assistant coach. “But I think over the years he was also able to see that you don’t have to have your jaw locked all the time. I mean, that wears people out if you’re that way all the time. But if you show it rarely, people kind of know, ‘Well, I guess that is important to him.’

“So I don’t think he’s gonna have any trouble telling anybody where to get off or where to stop. But he’ll shoot ’em a straight shot, and I think at the end of the day, all a man ever wants to know is where he stands. Bev will be able to do that. You’re gonna always know who he is. What you see is what you get.”

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