INDIANAPOLIS – The soon-to-be-announced coach of the Detroit Lions had just arrived in Motown on a Thursday night in the middle of January, and now Jim Schwartz was checking into the Ritz-Carlton Dearborn, mindful that his profile was about to be raised significantly.
Someone suggested to Schwartz that he check in under an alias, and the former Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator and major music junkie nodded his head in approval.
"How about Ted Nugent?" Schwartz said, paying homage to the Motor City Madman.
Uh, that might kind of attract attention.
Finally, Schwartz settled on a slightly less obvious Detroit rocker – White Stripes guitarist extraordinaire Jack White, who happened to have lived in Schwartz's neighborhood in suburban Nashville.
"It was pretty amusing," Schwartz recalled Thursday from the NFL scouting combine, where the man charged with turning around the team that just suffered through the worst season in NFL history was the day's most conspicuous media darling. "At a hotel like that, they're very formal and attentive, so any time I picked up the phone or saw an employee, it was, 'How can we help you, Mr. White?' "
Like the ripping axe-master whose identity he borrowed, Schwartz is not a subtle person. Smart, smooth and supremely confident, Schwartz, 42, is attacking his first head-coaching job like a man plugged into an amplifier. As White once sang, If you can hear a piano fall, you can hear me coming down the hall.
There's no guarantee he'll be successful, but Schwartz has the precise personality suited for a seemingly daunting job: turning around a team that went 0-16 in 2008.
His first major move will likely be his most scrutinized. The Lions, as draftniks everywhere know, are currently on the clock. Not only does Detroit hold the No. 1 overall pick in April's draft, but it also owns additional selections in the first and third rounds (from the Cowboys, thanks to the Roy Williams trade).
The team is also poised to make some noise in free agency – perhaps even to pursue star defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, whom Schwartz helped turn from a troubled underachiever to a dominant All-Pro in Tennessee.
All of this has generated some serious buzz around a hapless franchise and made the erstwhile Mr. White a very popular man at the combine.
"I look at this as a really good opportunity," Schwartz said. "When I was interviewing one of the guys I ended up hiring as an assistant coach, he put it this way: 'We've got the first overall pick, and five of the first 82. We've got money to spend in free agency. Hey, let's take advantage of being crappy.' Only he didn't exactly say 'crappy.'
"I agree. We need to capitalize on this opportunity."
It was a typically entertaining and candid response from Schwartz, a coach who honed his media-friendly persona under the Titans' ultraprofessional Jeff Fisher. That's one reason he was a man in demand on Thursday, packing the house for a lengthy press conference at Lucas Oil Stadium which had to be cut off by an NFL public-relations official. While new Colts coach Jim Caldwell followed Schwartz at the podium, commanding an audience about a fifth of the size, Schwartz relocated to a wall outside the media room and continued to hold court with more than 30 reporters for another half-hour.
After a radio interview and a couple of other side chats, Schwartz sat down with me and kept the good quotes coming.
"I'm the new flavor," he said, rolling his eyes in mock exasperation. "You know how that goes – everybody wants to sample the new flavor."
By radiating a self-assured enthusiasm, Schwartz has created a sense of optimism among an NFL fan base that has enjoyed far too few ebullient moments over the past 75 years. As improbable as a quick Lions turnaround might seem on a logical level, crazy swings are possible in the 21st-century NFL, as evidenced by the Miami Dolphins' jump from 1-15 in 2007 to an AFC East title in '08.
Throw in the improbably instant proficiency of a pair of first-round draft picks thrust into starting quarterback roles last season as rookies – Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco – and it's easy to fantasize that Matt Stafford, Mark Sanchez or Josh Freeman could step right in and lead the Lions to respectability.
Schwartz, while intent on building a versatile, consistent winner, does not reside on Fantasy Island.
"I think there's a tendency to force it when you've got the No. 1 pick and you're evaluating quarterbacks, and we've got to guard against that," he says. "As far as a turnaround, you've just got to play your hand. Everyone talks about the Dolphins last year, but they had two Pro Bowl running backs [Brown and Ricky Williams] coming back off IR and they got a quarterback [Chad Pennington] halfway through training camp. What's the chance we'll be able to replicate that model?"
Still, you can be sure Schwartz understands how landing a franchise quarterback can impact the psyche of an entire region. Right now, Daunte Culpepper is the presumed front-runner for the starting job, with fellow holdovers Jon (Ten Victories Or Bust) Kitna and Dan (I've Been Out of the End Zone For 15 Steps) Orlovsky also in the mix.
That sound you hear is an entire state groaning in unison. And Schwartz's ability to enunciate the most glaring source of angst for Lions fans endeared him to the Michigan masses even before he was offered the job.
During a long day of interviewing at the team's facility in Allen Park, two days after the Titans' divisional-round playoff loss to the Ravens, Schwartz was told by team officials that he'd be meeting with the local media. The way Schwartz handled himself at that press conference undoubtedly helped convince team president Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew (who repeated the exercise with Todd Bowles, the far more understated Dolphins secondary coach who was also a finalist for the position) that Schwartz could handle the public part of the job.
Schwartz's signature line from the press conference came after he was asked what he'd do with the No. 1 pick in the draft were he to get the gig.
"Obviously, there's a lot of needs," he answered. "I think, obviously, the most important position on the team is quarterback. It's probably time to find a replacement for Bobby Layne."
The historical reference – Layne quarterbacked the Lions during their glory days in the '50s; they've won one playoff game since, with one Pro Bowl appearance by a quarterback – drew big laughs.
"I thought it was important for the people in Detroit, for fans of the Lions, to know I knew something about their history," Schwartz says now. "In general, even though I had almost no prep, I was at ease in that situation because of the way Jeff has prepared me. He allows his assistant coaches to talk to the media, and encourages it, and as a result I'm very comfortable in that situation.
"It was a really smart thing for Martin and Tom to do – to put a guy in front of the media with no preparation. That was part of the interview process, and that makes sense because it's a big part of the job. So I was selling myself, but hey, that's what I do every day during the season. I sell myself to 53 millionaires."
The fans won't really buy in, of course, until they see some serious progress in the on-field product. Experiencing victory for the first time since Dec. 23, 2007 (a 25-20 triumph over the Chiefs) would be a nice start.
And if the Lions become a full-fledged contender? At that point, Schwartz might as well check into the Ritz under his own name, for he'll be the rock star.
TAKE IT TO THE ATM
The Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs will complete a trade at some point over the offseason, and no one will find out about it for several days. … After hitting free agency and realizing he is less marketable than he thought he was, Kerry Collins will quietly re-sign with the Titans… Kurt Warner and Anquan Boldin will suit up for the Cardinals in the 2009 season opener, but Edgerrin James will have been granted his wish to play elsewhere.
LIES, LIES, LIES
1. After torching the combine during my first-ever visit last year, I've totally warmed to the concept of grizzled talent evaluators carefully inspecting the musculature of chiseled young men.
2. Upon being interrupted by a loud, angry and fully deserved wall slam while boisterously blathering to Miami Herald writer Jeff Darlington in my room at the Indianapolis Westin at 4 a.m. Thursday, I was cognizant that the grumpy guest next door was a certain former Raiders and Bucs coach known for his animated facial expressions.
3. FOX is planning a reality series featuring Dwyane Wade's estranged wife, Siohvaughn, and Tyna Robertson, the mother of Brian Urlacher's son, sharing a Las Vegas hotel suite and an unlimited expense account. Working title: Hell Hath No Fury.
OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE
That unexplained fireball that flashed across the Texas sky last Sunday morning? I know people are talking about big meteors and week-old satellite collisions, but has anyone pondered the possibility that we might have been witnessing a delayed vision of the Cowboys' 2008 season?
LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …
The people who run the Tennis Channel, for refusing to televise the Dubai Tennis Championships after Israeli player Shahar Peer was denied entry into the United Arab Emirates for political reasons. I know the conflict in the Middle East is a contentious and messy issue that is far bigger than anything we typically discuss here, but I also believe denying entry to Peer was a very, very bad idea that deserves a swift and emphatic response. Ask yourself, UAE leaders – do we really want to go down this road? I suspect the majority of us would agree that we don't. Therefore, it's up to the people who stage and enable sporting events to take their business elsewhere when something like this happens. Not televising the tournament was absolutely the right call.
THIS WEEK'S PROOF THAT CAL IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE
I've been waiting a long time to say this – since May 2006, when star seniors Haley Woods, Lindsay James and Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year Kristina Thorson ended their collegiate careers – but Cal softball is back. Coach Diane Ninemire's program, which produced seven consecutive Women's College World Series appearances (including the 2002 national title and trips to the championship game in '03 and '04), has reloaded in a big way, and the ninth-ranked Bears' 8-1 start is no joke. The resurgence begins with a pair of switch-hitting, identical twins, freshmen Jamia and Elia Reid, each of whom has brought speed, power and attitude to an already impressive lineup. Cal, which has outscored opponents 76-16 in '09, competes in the Palm Springs Tournament this weekend – and yes, you'll be hearing way too much about their exploits in the coming months.
As for basketball, the Golden Bears (20-6, 9-4) continued their pursuit of a Pac-10 championship Thursday with a 78-60 victory at Oregon. Last Saturday was a particularly great day to be a Bear, not that they all aren't: Trailing by 22 points in the first half against Stanford, head coach Mike Montgomery's crew stormed back to win, 82-75, as freshman guard Jorge Gutierrez (10 points, eight rebounds) provided energy and hustle to the cause. And since you haven't had enough blue-and-gold today, I bring you …
YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK
ROLLIN' WITH THE ROYALS
Reading muddled through its second consecutive 0-0 draw on Feb. 7, failing to put away visiting Preston despite dominating possession at Madejski Stadium. The invisible shield in front of the opposing net disappeared last Wednesday evening as the reserves rolled to a 5-0 victory over Crystal Palace, a de facto exhibition notable for the return of American goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann, who missed more than two months with a calf injury. Now third in the Football League Championship table with 59 points – first place Wolverhampton, which has played two more games than Reading, has 63, while second-place Birmingham has 60 with one more game played than the Royals – Reading continues its promotion drive on Saturday against Bristol City at Madejski.
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)
(Note: Look for additional email exchanges when Trippin' Tuesday resumes on Feb. 24.)
Thanks, man. Please let me know where to send the fruit-and-cheese basket.
"You and the writers for sports are idiotic. Your profession is a waste of time and a joke."
Chris, meet Ari. Ari, Chris. You two kids have at it …
"Thank you for silencing your inner cynic and providing a truly poignant insight into the career of a man who has brought me to both the highest and lowest places a sports fan can achieve. You've done this lifelong Packers fan proud, Mr. Silver … "
Now here's a guy with a good (cheese)head on his shoulders …
"You are an awesome NFL writer. That being said, I speak for a vast majority of football fans under the age of 35 when I say, (expletive) Brett Farve. And yes, I know I misspelled his last name. We don't care anymore. Retire? Unretire? We don't care. Honestly, I don't even read Peter King anymore because half of his articles are dedicated to slobbering over No. 4. We are over him. I pray this is your last article about this guy. I'm down to you and Jay Glazer for my 'legitimate' NFL news."
Orange County, Calif.
I'm not sure if you speak for the vast majority of fans in what my friends in the entertainment business call "The Demographic," but there are definitely a lot more of you who feel this way than there were a year ago. That's what a months-long saga, a messy departure from Titletown and a 24-hour news cycle will conspire to spawn.
"LT playing for 'Hoodie'?" I feel faint … and that comet they keep predicting to hit the earth? Let it come … what's AJ's address? Seriously … I'm a diehard Chargers fan … but if they move LT, I'm stowing my Chargers gear for good … no way in hell I'm buying Pats gear, but no more San Diego gear either. … I' m in denial … "
It's not AJ Smith's address you need; at this point it's Dean Spanos'.
"Wow … just Wow! Your lyrically-altered version of 'Torn' featuring Wade Phillips in all of his current glory was just too spot on! So, as a favor for every Chicago Bears fan on the planet, could you rip Lovie Smith a new one for his ineptitude? Maybe you could use Rollins Band's song 'Liar' to describe L. Smith and J. Angelo's dealings with Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton in the preseason, or something like Whitney Houston's 'I get so emotional' to satirize Lovie's lack of emotion about anything? Just a thought, on behalf of one of the most frustrated fan bases in sports. I love your writing, by the way!"
Thanks. I love the song "Liar," but I want to save it for someone really special – like, you know, Alex Rodriguez (or former Yankees employee George Costanza).
"Why do all the sports writers like to poke fun at the Cowboys when other teams like the Detroit Lions really suck?"
Because the Lions' sucking is so much less dramatic than the Cowboys' failure to reach lofty expectations.
"Wow, what a shock, yet another Yahoo 'employee' (I refuse to refer to any of you as sports journalists or writers, as you clearly were not hired as such) obsessed with Dallas, and even after many weeks of their own miserable season ended, you have nothing better to do than take up space mocking the organization. FYI: Terry Glenn, has nothing to do with the Dallas Cowboys. Since he was last released by or not re-signed by Dallas, the headlines have to be 'Ex-Cowboy' How 'bout 'recent has-been' or 'grossly overpaid'? And if anyone seriously thinks Jerry Jones would allow someone as head-strong as Reeves into the organization (see Jimmy Johnson, Bill Parcells exits), you're in a daze. How is that news? Oh, it's news because it all fell through? I didn't expect it to happen. But you take up readers' time, catering to the moronic masses of Cowboys' haters, by still choosing to mock the team. I thought ESPN had an immature obsession with Dallas. The lot of you at Yahoo is just as unprofessional. Why don't you take your little iPhone and notepad down to Cowboys' training camp and insult a few of them in person, 'off the record' to see who the real men are? Typical diarrhea of the mouth (keypad)."
Man, I haven't seen such sensitivity toward the feelings of Cowboys since 'Brokeback Mountain' (not that there's anything wrong with that).
"Your lyric-altered song about the messed-up state of the Cowboys (to the tune of 'Torn') was awesome! This is coming from a big Cowboys fan, and it's because all the things in your lyrics are sadly true. But that's not why I'm writing this … 'cause you really have a talent for parodying song lyrics. The trick is to leave enough of the original words in there so people can actually imagine singing the original song melody to these lyrics, and you nailed it. It also helps that your lyrics are pretty funny. Well done, my friend. If writing about sports doesn't work out, you can always go work for Sat Night Live."
Like many who have written for SNL, I've mastered the art of the all-nighter. Unfortunately – and you know it's not like me to be overly humble – that's pretty much where the similarities end.
"Just a quick note on your last column: 'Torn' is no more a Natalie Imbruglia song than 'Downtown Train' is a Rod Stewart song (Tom Waits is the man, by the way). I cannot stand Natalie Imbruglia, and that the song was written and recorded years previously by a little known band called Ednaswap (who never get mentioned by anyone) just makes me more crazy. Actually, the dedication of the song to Glenn is actually more appropriate given the almost-kinda-sort-couldabeen origins of the song, don't you think?"
Victoria, British Columbia
My bad on not crediting Ednaswap (or knowing that they existed) – I am one song re-writer who definitely strives to pay homage to the actual songwriters. In this case: Scott Cutler, Anne Preven, Rusty Anderson and Phil Thornalley. And, now that I've heard it, their version rocks.
"I read your column often and I generally like it. However when I read your response to the viewer's Wikipedia reference, I have to wonder whether you were joking? As to intentionally sabotage Wikipedia would be a very [expletive] move."
I think the fact that Wikipedia can be intentionally sabotaged by anyone pretty much proves my point. The real joke, in this case, is that people habitually cite it as some sort of journalistically accurate authority.
" 'A friend from another continent … ' etc. Wow. I was celebrating my 40th birthday by enjoying a trip from the UK to Texas, kindly provided by my wife. I took along two buddies who have never seen a football game in their lives and were not interested in the slightest. To say that they enjoyed the Super Bowl is an understatement. Of course the beers and Jagerblasts at Third Base in Austin helped, but I agree … there couldn't have been a greater endorsement of the strengths of the NFL. The whole season has been the best I have witnessed since the UK TV brought it into our home in 1984. Just superb. By comparison there'll probably be about 10 people at Daytona to watch NASCAR slide further downhill."
Similarly, there couldn't have been a greater endorsement of the strengths of Texas than a Super Sunday at a bar in Austin. Consider yourself charmed.
" 'If you had a friend from another continent … .' We did, in fact. We invited a Chinese graduate student, in the U.S. since just August, to our small Super Bowl party. He didn't even know the rules, but by the end of the game he was trying to convince us we should all join an intramural league … even before we'd explained the concept of flag football."
Maybe it's time I got myself a friend from another continent … .
"Your 'Game for the Ages' article was beautifully written. Thanks for providing me with a few chillful memories of my own. Well done."
Udhailiyah, Saudi Arabia
My pleasure, Mr. Holloway. Want to be friends?
"Well you had to dig to the bottom of your article but you finally brought up the valid points of the game, regarding the officials. But before you proclaim the Steelers as the greatest football organization of all time, lets first state that they are also the luckiest team when it comes to big games. Starting with the immaculate 'deception' play in the 1972 playoffs …. Then the Seattle debacle and now this. It's really all rather funny. And least we forget the team that Obama wanted to win just happened to win also. Funny that his team won and beat the team from the same state that his presidential opponent John McCain was from. Meanwhile isn't it ironic that while everyone is feeling stoked about Obama, here he is picking a favorite team to win in the Super Bowl, (a thing most presidents don't do), and low and behold his team wins and on three questionable calls just ironic and amazing if you ask me. Yeah right!"
Nice job, Sherlock – you've uncovered a massive conspiracy in which the newly elected U.S. President, in an effort to tweak his vanquished opponent, rigs the outcome of the Super Bowl. Coming next: The Oregon State Beavers win the NCAA basketball championship. That might not be what you'd call immaculate, but it would take March Madness to a new level.
"RE: spacetime continuum … no worries. They know now it's not continuous and it's more than space and time … energy levels seem to be the new spacetime. You know, virtual particle clouds hiding quark storms. I'd explain more, but I'm afraid that might be another 15-yard penalty on the Cards … great game, though. You got the ball at the end and need one play to win, what else do you want? I'll miss reading you on football for the next few months … ."
Wait , I'm still here … and will be here regularly throughout the offseason, usually on Tuesdays and Fridays, trying to break through the virtual particle clouds until the games begin anew.
LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK
As pointed out so adroitly by my colleague Adrian Wojnarowksi – who, not surprisingly, took home a pair of first-place awards in the Pro Basketball Writers Association's annual contest last weekend – things have been mighty bleak for the basketball team in the Valley of the Sun. An already shaky situation turned surreal Sunday night when guard Jason Richardson was pulled over by Scottsdale, Ariz., police for allegedly driving 55 miles an hour over the speed limit – with his three-year-old son unrestrained in the back seat. Then, on Tuesday, the Suns went out and rediscovered their fast-breaking mojo in their first game since Alvin Gentry replaced fired coach Terry Porter, racing to a 140-100 victory over the Clippers. Here's point guard Steve Nash reflecting on the madness while doing his best David Lee Roth impression, to the tune of Van Halen's "Unchained."
You say, I cannot run the fast break, Terry
Well guess what, Porter? I'm runnin'
Here's to your lost hairline
Mmm, your reign is over
Thought I'd miss Mark Cuban when I got a Scottsdale address?
Now Rob Sarver – what an owner
Stoudamire trade, the team's a mess
Lame, give us back our game
Unchained, and I'll hit the ground runnin'
Change, ain't nothin' stays the same
Unchained, yeah we'll hit the ground runnin'
I know, J-Rich is drivin' so fast
This is his chance to fly
His little man don't need no car seat
It's worse than a DUI
In his booking photo he was wishin' he could wear Shaq's white mask
Gallows humor and trade rumors
Call Nowitzki and pass me the flask
Lame, give us back our game
Unchained, and I'll hit the ground runnin'
Change, ain't nothin' stays the same
Unchained, yeah we'll hit the ground runnin' …
Woo-hoo! Take a look at Al!
Hey man, that suit is you!
Whoo-whee! We'l l get some leg tonight for sure!
Put up 140! Hoo hoo hoo!
(Come on Steve, gimme a break)
Hey hey hey hey! One fast break, comin' up!
Tamed? 'Twas a cryin' shame
Unchained, and I'll hit the ground runnin'
Change, ain't nothin' stays the same
Unchained, yeah we'll hit the ground runnin' …
- Jim Schwartz