Lions bear down

Dan Wetzel

ALLEN PARK, Mich. – It was a sure-fire way to draw a crowd because, really, who doesn't want to see some fool mauled by a bear?

It was the cheesiest of car dealership promotions – a wrestling bear named Victor – but it was good enough to get Rod Marinelli and his high school buddies to stop one summer night in 1966 in Pasadena, Calif.

The future head coach of the Detroit Lions was a strong, tough kid, 17 years old and an excellent football player and wrestler. He and his friends had been cruising around when they saw the "Wrestle Victor the Bear" sign and couldn't help but stop.

"That sucker was on Colorado Boulevard, a million teenagers were out there, gathered around," Marinelli said.

The deal was simple, for $10 you could get in the cage and wrestle an Alaskan black bear. Sure, Victor was muzzled and de-clawed, but he was still a damn bear, still strong as hell. He stood about 6-foot-6 on his hind legs and weighed around 400 pounds. Who knew what he could do to you?

Marinelli had a lot of courage, but didn't have 10 bucks to his name. His friends, however, did, so they laid the money down and boldly proclaimed to the crowd that Marinelli could whip Victor.

"I got caught in peer pressure," Marinelli laughed. "My friends said, 'This guy can take him.' They put the dough down and called me out. There were some good-looking girls there. I couldn't back off."

This is what guys had to do to meet girls before Facebook.

All of a sudden, Marinelli was stepping into a cage in this Pasadena parking lot, a big crowd hooting and hollering. And there waiting for him, staring him down, was this giant bear.

"It was cold, the mat was all wet, and this bear was smelly, let me tell you," Marinelli's friend, Gary Schram told the Detroit Free Press. "So we put the money up there, and in goes Rod."

So how do you wrestle a bear? Marinelli had no jab-and-move strategy. He just flat-out attacked the thing.

"Rod did then what he does now, he went in to win," Schram told the paper. "And let me tell you he had that bear on his back in about 10 seconds."

Victor the Bear recovered and flipped Marinelli who then flipped him back and away they went, crashing around the cage. It was a pretty good fight, considering Victor's Russian trainer kept poking Marinelli with a stick when he got on top.

In the end, Victor was declared the winner, although Marinelli's friends cried that their guy was cheated.

Marinelli didn't complain though and, as the story is told over four decades later, post-match he tried to shake Victor the Bear's hand, er, paw in some bizarre show of man-beast sportsmanship.

Victor mistook the gesture and they were at it again, an unsanctioned rematch.

Marinelli shakes his head at the memory, but the story is sure to be retold over and over now that his 6-2 Lions have emerged as the surprise of the NFL.

"You've got to be kidding me," Marinelli said. "That was so long ago. So long ago."

Well, did it at least help you meet any of the good-looking girls?

"No. I stunk like a bear."

Forty years later, in 2006, Rod Marinelli was offered the head coaching job of the Lions, perhaps the toughest in the NFL at the time. The guy who hired him, team president Matt Millen, was perceived to be a lame duck. The team had, over the past five seasons, averaged four wins. The locker room, by all accounts, was cancerous.

Naturally, Marinelli attacked the assignment like it was Victor.

He demanded accountability, honesty, attention to detail and a commitment to what he calls "non-talent issues" – namely "the hustle, the effort, the technique, the fundamentals, all of those things."

This was going to be a no-nonsense, no-excuse football team. It would be Marinelli's way, or no way at all. Everything was going to change. He knew he had one shot to make this right.

"He was sure-footed," said linebacker Boss Bailey. "You'd have thought he'd been a head coach before."

He hadn't. During those 40 years, Marinelli had been a small-college football star, served a tour in Vietnam and spent 33 seasons as an assistant in high school, college and professional football.

He was one of those guys who couldn't catch a break. Everyone raved about him, but he wasn't a self-promoter, he deflected praise onto the players. He was obsessed with teaching the game, not the peripheral stuff that gets you hired as a head man.

So he was passed over for job after job. So many that after a decade under Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he had come to grips with the idea that, at 56, he may never get his chance.

"You know what I did, honestly, how I looked at it? I prepared to be a head coach. I mean I really prepared every day to be one. Then I made a conscious decision that I was one. If I didn't become one by someone appointing me, that was fine. I was one.

"So I didn't worry about it."

That's how he coped. That and promising himself that if the opportunity ever did come, he would act like a guy with five Super Bowl rings, present a clear plan and make everyone do everything to his exacting specifications. Through the years he had learned not only what to do, but what not to.

"The thing about Rod is he's very stubborn," said offensive lineman Damien Woody. "He will stay on it until he gets what he wants. He just stays on the small stuff. He stays on the details.

"It was just a matter of time until guys started doing what he wanted. You see the entire locker room taking (a lead) from him."

Last season, Marinelli's first, the Lions went 3-13. But the record doesn't tell the entire story. Attitudes changed, bad apples were dismissed and guys began committing themselves to Marinelli physically and mentally.

Progress was made, too. In December, the Lions led the New England Patriots in the fourth quarter before falling. They had the Chicago Bears beaten if not for a dropped pass in the end zone.

Maybe most importantly, Marinelli never waved in his approach. He was just as determined, just as demanding at 2-13 as he was in September. In the last week of the season, the Lions practiced in full pads for their game at Dallas, like it was they and not the Cowboys playing for home-field advantage in the playoffs. With 11 one-time starters out with injuries, they stunned Dallas 39-31.

The tone, they say, was set. The Lions knew they were on to something.

Jon Kitna, the quarterback, was so inspired that he boldly said he'd be disappointed if the Lions didn't win 10 games this season. Later, when he saw the schedule, he modified that to "at least 10."

Everyone laughed. The Lions hadn't been to the playoffs since 1999. But Kitna knew that the old, divisive Lions were a thing of the past. The "non-talent issues" were solved.

Marinelli was even telling the players that the Lions had enough talent to be an elite team. They just needed to believe it.

"I knew what kind of toughness, what kind of leadership we are getting from our head coach on down," Kitna said of his preseason prediction.

"Rod cleaned all (the attitude problems) up. Rod fixed that, swept it out, removed it, tightened it up. He is a bulldog. He is relentless. He is going to get what he wants. If you are not going to give it to him, then that's fine, you just have to move on."

Detroit is on pace for more than 10 victories, in prime position for the playoffs and boasts a physical, turnover-machine of a defense and a balanced, dangerous offense.

Almost no one outside the locker room saw this coming. And inside it, if you ask how the heck it happened, the players will point to the same person.

The old bear wrestler.

Marinelli, 58, may be the most anonymous head coach in the NFL. This is how he likes it. He prefers the attention to be placed on the players and the assistant coaches. He is in constant deflect mode.

"That's just me," he said. "The only thing I can tell you is I really respect the game. And the game isn't about (the coach). It is about the players who play the game. That's the most important thing."

In a league with more than a few spotlight-seeking coaches, with more than a few guys seeking a "genius" label, Marinelli wants none of it. He may be the only person who doesn't think he is an obvious coach of the year candidate.

"That's why every guy in here would probably fall on a sword for that guy," Kitna said. "He's in it with us. He never separates the team from himself. He hates when people put him above the team. He has no ego. All he cares about is what is best for this football team and guys love that."

"Rod is the type of guy," Woody said, "who when things are going well, he wants to be in the background. When things aren't going well, he wants to be in the front. Any praise or anything coming out of winning, he reflects it on the players. That's what leaders do. That's the thing that's really appealing about him."

Detroit is the surprise team of the NFL and, if you listen to the players, they plan on continuing the surprise. Kitna has even mentioned the Super Bowl. At this point, who knows?

Marinelli wants them to reject the idea that just because the Lions haven't won in years, they can't win this year. If anything, he tells them, it should be easier to believe now than before.

"You have a coach preaching, 'Why can't we win now?' " Woody said. "It's, 'let's win now,' instead of some rebuilding plan. I think that's the biggest thing, the sense of urgency.

"It all starts with Rod. All of it."

When you're staring down a bear in a cage, he'll tell you, it's best to just attack. You can worry about the handshake later.