Wojo: Spielman brings the Lions some juice in their hunt for a leader

Detroit News

Bob Wojnowski
| The Detroit News

Chris Spielman has seen a lot, heard a lot, knows a lot. He talks like he played, with authority and inspiration, and he’s back with the Lions for precisely those qualities.

Let’s begin with the legally required caveat for a franchise that has been forlorn virtually forever. Spielman’s hiring as a full-time advisor Tuesday won’t automatically provide answers to what’s gone wrong here. But I think he has the guts and the will to ask the right questions, for the right reasons, in the search for a GM and coach.

This is the type of hire Lions fans have craved, which doesn’t mean it’ll work. It does mean owner Sheila Ford Hamp perhaps learned from the mistakes of her parents, that she’s not afraid to admit the franchise needs help, lots of it, from every available resource. And for what it’s worth, she’s not tone-deaf, first evidenced by her midseason firings of Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia.

She’s also not too ego-driven — along with team president Rod Wood — to publicly solicit input.

Some will brand it a public-relations gimmick, bringing in a former star from the broadcast booth, and I get the skepticism. If your reflex is to think of Matt Millen, that scar won’t ever fade. But that’s not fair to Spielman, who’s intelligent and inquisitive, and doesn’t appear to be coming for power.

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Spielman’s official title is special assistant to Hamp and Wood, open-ended enough to allow for adjustments. He won’t have a supervisory role over the new GM, so don’t freak out about his absence of front-office experience. The hiring decisions will be made by Hamp and Wood, and that’s still unsettling. But if you wondered where they’d get their football feedback, here it is.

“I’m not qualified to be a general manager,” Spielman said. “I do know what works and what doesn’t work by being 30 years in this business and traveling around to 32 teams year-in and year-out, and having a brother in the business, watching and learning from him. … Our goal is that ‘One Pride’ thing, that one culture. If you put on a Lions shirt, it actually means something.

It’s not just a shirt to sleep in or to work out (in).”

And then, perhaps the most-telling lure for Spielman.

“The Lions are part of my identity,” he said. “They always have been, they always will be.”

Spielman, 55, starred at Ohio State and was the heart of the Lions defense from 1988-95, and has broadcast college and NFL games for 20 years. His brother, Rick, has been the Vikings GM since 2012, and is highly respected.   

The Lions hired three others in advisory roles, including all-time great Barry Sanders, as well as former Michigan State AD Mark Hollis and Rod Graves from the Fritz Pollard Alliance. Barely two weeks into the process, Hamp has shown more initiative than we ever saw under William Clay Ford and Martha Ford. In addition to a history of not drafting the best players available, the Lions have hired the most convenient GM candidates available. When they signed Quinn five years ago, they interviewed only two others, and then Quinn tabbed his buddy Patricia as coach.

This had better be a much wider scope. The Lions have interviewed three internal candidates, and in an organizational memo, Hamp wrote the process could take six weeks, “with the result being a well vetted and proven head coach/GM team.” Again and again, Wood and Spielman emphasized the unity aspect. The team’s “One Pride” slogan has been a punchline more than a culture description because of all the things Quinn and Patricia did poorly.

The divisions they created — within the building, among the players, with the fans — were the worst. Communication was horrible, and interests between management, coaches and players clashed.

Spielman will be part of the interviews, in an advisory capacity. After that, it’s unclear.

“His role will probably go in directions I can’t even predict right now,” Wood said. “We want to create a Detroit Lions culture, and I think having somebody who’s been here, understands the community, the fans, the blue-collar mentality of this town and how much our fans want us to win … having somebody that’s kind of been here, that was a home run.”

Can’t tell if it’s a home run yet, but at least it’s a good swing. For now, it’s only a bunch of words. With one playoff victory in 63 years, the Lions haven’t earned any benefits of any doubt. But Spielman has, and he’s not being asked to do more than he’s qualified to do.

In that sense, maybe his impact won’t be as long-lasting as we think. It’ll still be longer-lasting than the last person who tried to help — NFL consultant Ernie Accorsi, who recommended Quinn.

The Lions have been duped before, and that’s where Spielman’s intuitive BS meter should help. When he did broadcasts, including Lions games, he’d call out players for lack of effort or concentration, and sounds personally offended when a team is slacking. He’s allowed to be personally offended because he still identifies as a Detroit Lion, 25 years since he left town.

Spielman long has mulled an NFL role and started talking with Wood a couple weeks ago. He said an inspired meeting with Hamp sealed it for him.

“My role is to help get the best GM and coach for the Detroit Lions,” Spielman said. “Once it’s all in place, think of me as a servant. What do you need?  I have a saying — I’m gonna tell you what I need from you to do my job, and then you tell me what you need from me to do your job.”

Whether Spielman’s passion and motivational skills translate into identifying a strong leader, well, that remains to be seen. But there’s absolutely no harm in the Lions’ attempt to gather more insight and information.

Spielman didn’t want to speak on Matthew Stafford or any other personnel issues because he hasn’t been here. He joked about the stacks of notebooks in his house, filled with tidbits from years of talking to coaches and quarterbacks for his TV jobs. He doesn’t act like the smartest guy in the room, which is a pleasant departure from the departed regime. Over the years, when I’d see him at Lions games, he did more inquiring than pontificating, wanting to know what was up with the Lions and anything else back in Detroit.

The connection is legitimate, and the work ethic is too. For all the talk of “culture,” I asked Spielman how that reveals itself on the field.

“For me, culture is you never, ever, ever quit and you play hard and you play fast,” he said. “And how do you describe it? I see it Sundays with some teams, and other teams I don’t see it. Talking to very successful coaches, when you have players playing for each other and not worrying about anything else, that’s the type of culture you want. I do know exactly what it looks like, but I don’t know how to describe it in words. But when I see it, I know it.”

We’ve never seen it from the Lions, not for any extended period, and Hamp knows she has to dig deeper to find it. Spielman can provide ideas but no guarantees, but this is a collaborative effort worth taking.


Twitter: bobwojnowski

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