Tony Dungy and Les Miles wanted to return home to coach Lions and Wolverines

Andrea Kramer worked for ESPN when Detroit Lions head coach Wayne Fontes’ future teetered on the brink in the mid 1990s.

She’d check in to tell me who the NFL believed to be the next set of hot head coaching prospects. One name she kept mentioning was the Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Tony Dungy.

There was a caveat. Dungy not only wanted to become a head coach in the NFL. The Jackson native wanted to be a hero in his home state and coach the Lions. But he could not come out and say it out of respect for Fontes who still remained head coach.

Kramer urged me to push for Dungy in my columns in the mid 1990s. Here is how it works sometimes. Coaching candidates have their people reach out to media members to pump up someone who wants a job. The tough part for the media person is that candidate often has to deny they are interested even though they really want the job.

So you write and say one thing while the candidate says another.

Also the candidate is truthful when a media member asks if they reached out to a team about a vacancy. Technically they did not. But they let their interest be known.

I’ve been the go between person twice in my career and neither happened. Dungy to the Lions. And Les Miles to the University of Michigan.

Instead of hiring Dungy the Lions picked Bobby Ross to run the team. He immediately discovered that it takes someone special to handle the soft Lions culture where Fontes sometimes gave players popsicle breaks during practice. Ross wanted a tougher culture, but ran a fowl of players who were accustomed to a softer touch. He reluctantly gave players more control, let his foot off the gas and ran the team in a way that conflicted with his values.

Ross finished 27-37 in four seasons and made the playoffs his final year with an 8-8 record.

I thought it was a good hire at the time because Ross won an AFC Championship with the San Diego Chargers and advanced to the Super Bowl. Dungy, who was hired by Tampa Bay, may have been a better fit for the Lions because he refused to coach with an iron claw. He forced his assistant coaches to leave work at 6 p.m. some nights to be with their families. He allowed players and coaches to bring their wives and children to the Tampa Bay practice facility once a week to play and eat on the expansive practice fields and facilities.

Dungy helped turn around a Tampa franchise that was in worse tatters than the Lions. He was fired because the Bucs did not win enough playoff games to suit management. He was credited with putting together the team that finally won a Super Bowl under John Gruden.

Dungy also won Super Bowl XLI with the Indianapolis Colts with a historic win over the Chicago Bears and Lovie Smith. It was the first time two black head coaches faced one another in the Super Bowl.

Although the Lions did not hire Dungy most of the blow back I received was from Lions fans who wrote and told me I was promoting him simply because he was black, that he did not interview well and that if he was such a great head coaching prospect that he would have already been hired.

Miles wanted to coach at Michigan even as he was having success at LSU. He reached out to one of his Detroit area coaching friends who in turn kept me abreast of Miles’ thinking.

He wanted the Michigan job in 2007, but Kirk Herbstreit incorrectly reported that Miles had accepted the job to replace Lloyd Carr. Then too much noise got in the way and Miles was forced to profess his love and loyalty to LSU. As far as I know Miles was never officially offered the job because of scandals between coaches and wives when he served as coordinator at Michigan.

My guess is Dearborn native and San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh is using cornerback Richard Sherman to tell the world he is interested in the Lions job. My league people are telling me that Kansas City Chiefs OC Eric Bieniemy is interested in the Lions and would strongly consider hiring Clemson University OC Tony Elliott as his offensive coordinator.

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Published by terryfoster8

I am a 58 year old retired sports journalist, husband and father of two living outside of Detroit in search of his next big adventure in life.

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