| Detroit Free Press
Assessing Detroit Lions’ coach, GM searches as regular season ends
Free Press sports writers Dave Birkett and Carlos Monarrez debate Jan. 4, 2021, who the Detroit Lions should hire as general manager and head coach.
Carlos Monarrez and Dave Birkett, Detroit Free Press
Robert Saleh spent a few hours Thursday interviewing with the Detroit Lions. Earlier in the week, he did the same with the Atlanta Falcons.
The New York Jets are next up on Friday, and the Jacksonville Jaguars and Los Angeles Chargers are still waiting their turn to talk to one of the hottest commodities on this year’s head coaching market.
Saleh, the San Francisco 49ers’ defensive coordinator, is in the mix for five of the six current job openings — all but the Houston Texans job. And the Dearborn native may soon have a choice to make.
Come home, where he’s beloved by a city and where most of his family still lives, or take a more appealing job elsewhere, like in Jacksonville, where he spent three years of his NFL career, or Los Angeles, where he would have one of the best young quarterbacks in the game.
For a family man — a football man — the hypothetical choice will not be easy, and a few weeks ago, when it became obvious Saleh and the Lions could be a match, Saleh’s old high school coach, Jeff Stergalas, gave his pupil a rare piece of advice.
“I’m certainly not going to give him my opinion on what he should do, not that, that would matter,” Stergalas said Thursday. “The only thing I told Robert earlier, when this process started this year, is that, especially towards the Lions, I said, ‘The one thing that you can’t let happen is you cannot let your emotions drive your decision on this thing, because a lot of times that doesn’t end up well. You have to do what is best for you and your family. And your immediate family.'”
Saleh has a big family — six kids, with a seventh on the way — and plenty more people rooting for him and hoping he becomes the next Lions coach.
That could be a blessing, or a curse.
“Here’s what I can say from experience,” said Stergalas, now the athletic director at Riverview High. “When you coach, you want (one of) two things. You want to take over a program that’s been successful, obviously. That would be great and continue that success, and take it maybe to the next step, which is always intriguing for a coach.
“And the other thing that’s just as intriguing is that you want to take a team that is struggling and improve and (win). So I’m sure he knows that, and being in the business, that’s always intriguing to be able to be the guy that turned the corner for that certain team or organization.”
None of the five teams Saleh is interviewing with have much in the way of a recent winning tradition.
The Falcons reached the Super Bowl four years ago, but have had three straight losing seasons. The next coach inherits a team with Matt Ryan at quarterback and Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley at receiver, but Ryan and Jones are on the backside of their careers and Atlanta is in salary cap hell.
The Jets are a bigger mess, organizationally, than the Lions. They have one of the worst rosters in the league and an owner who is wrapping up a stint as ambassador to the United Kingdom and who reportedly will not be involved in the coaching search. They are in a major media market, and they do have the No. 2 pick in the draft. But they won just enough — twice — at the end of the season to miss out on the presumptive top pick, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
The Jaguars and Chargers have the most appealing vacancies from a football standpoint, with young quarterbacks, solid salary cap situations and — in Jacksonville’s case — a boatload of draft picks. Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert is the presumptive Offensive Rookie of the Year, and the Jaguars — at No. 1 overall — are poised to take Lawrence, one of the best quarterback prospects to enter the NFL in the modern era.
The Lions, though, have the allure of home. If Saleh wins in Detroit, he will be king. The hometown boy, from the high school named after Ford Motor Co. founder Henry Ford, helping bring a title to the team owned by his family.
I asked Stergalas how Saleh responded to the advice he offered last month. Saleh, Stergalas said, told him, “I appreciate it.”
“He’s not a guy that talks a lot,” Stergalas said. “Robert’s calculated. He’s very calculated until he gets on that field. Then he’s very vocal and very animated and very, as you know, excited. But if you would meet Robert Saleh on a golf course or at a restaurant, you would never — and then watch him on a Sunday afternoon — you would never know it was the same guy.”
Ultimately, if Saleh is fortunate enough to have options when it comes to his future place of employment, Stergalas said he believes Saleh will do as he advised and pick the best situation for his family.
If that is somewhere other than Detroit, Saleh’s family — both his immediate family and the extended family, the entire city of Dearborn — will understand Stergalas.
If the Lions decide to go in another direction on their own, however, that might be a tougher sell.
“East Dearborn is a very, very loyal — loyal — community,” Stergalas said. “I’m not sure they would quite understand or accept the fact, if the Lions don’t offer him the job. That’s just the makeup of the community, because of the loyalty.
“Let’s face it, the Lions have struggled and the people that played against Robert, in high school for crying out loud, they want to see him get the job. Guys that coached against Robert’s teams, they want to see him. Everybody wants to see Robert get this job. The roots are deep. The roots go deep, and they touch a lot of people.”
And all that could weigh on Saleh’s mind.