Lions not only embarrassment in Detroit

Dan Wetzel

DETROIT – Kwame M. Kilpatrick is the city's last duly elected mayor.

Through three thin, vertical windows of room 14J-4 in the Wayne County Jail where he currently resides, he could've looked across the snow-packed intersection of St. Antoine and Clinton on Sunday and watched a couple dozen Detroit Lions fans gather for what may be their final tailgate.

They were huddled in a near barren parking lot, gathering warmth from a grill cooking steaks. They would fill their cups with booze, turn toward the jail and hoist a shot for the former mayor of a city that's expected to end the year with a $300 million deficit.

"The idea that he's in our tailgate," smiled Michelle Alessandri of Dearborn Heights, "we note the irony of it."

Three blocks north of where Kilpatrick sits and the crowd drinks is Ford Field, home of another local embarrassment – the lifeless, hopeless Detroit Lions. Sunday they became the first team in NFL history to go 0-15 with a pathetic 42-7 loss to New Orleans.

Two blocks south is the Greektown Casino, which filed for bankruptcy protection in May. A bankrupt casino? It's a testament to the economic disaster in a state with unemployment nearing 10 percent. The casino's November revenue was down 16.4 percent from the year before according to state filings.

Four blocks south of Greektown, looming over it all, is the world headquarters of General Motors. Chrysler and GM need a $13.4 billion emergency loan from the federal government to avoid its own Chapter 11 filing.

Even with the lifeline of money, no one here is optimistic. GM has 88 days and counting to restructure. Chrysler has already shuttered its plants for a month at least.

A failing industry. A bankrupt casino. A jailed mayor. A winless football team.

It's winter in Detroit.

Within a quarter mile of the tailgate there isn't a whole lot of good news and even less on the horizon. All they have is gallows humor and joy of friendship. It's always been strange tailgating next to a jail before watching a franchise with one playoff victory in 51 seasons, they say.

There was the time one guy got his car stolen. Another when they say a suspected drug addict overdosed in the parking lot. And then there was the Thanksgiving they gave some turkey to a homeless man only to have him note "it's kind of dry, isn't it?"

Through the bitter, biting wind they laughed at the memories and took turns blaming owner William Clay Ford for the on-field debacle.

Alessandri turned and looked up to the windows of Kilpatrick's cell. They are too dark to see into, but she figures he must look out at some point. Due to two felony convictions for obstruction of justice, he's in there 23 hours a day.

"Kwame was running the city under the cover of lies and arrogance," she said. "And William Clay Ford has a certain amount of lies and arrogance too."

Rod Marinelli is the head coach of the Lions.

He's 59 years old, a Vietnam veteran and was so tough back in high school he once wrestled a bear just to impress some girls. By every account he's a good man. He's also a terrible head coach, 10-37 now with one game to go before he's likely fired.

He's trying to avoid becoming the coach of the first 0-16 team in NFL history. Only a game at Green Bay remains. The Lions have lost 17 straight road games against the Packers, which doesn't bode well. Although as center Dominic Raiola notes, what's the difference?

"We haven't had much success winning anywhere," he said.

The Lions turned in a bleak performance Sunday. It looked like an 0-16 team.


The Lions are 10-37 under head coach Rod Marinelli after they lost to the Saints 42-7.

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

On offense their best play – a 40-yard touchdown, was called back because a lineman lined up in the wrong spot. They inexplicably started the second half with 12 men in the huddle.

Defense was worse. The Saints scored on their first six possessions. They went 11 of 11 on third down until taking a knee to kill the clock. There was no pressure on the quarterback. There were times the secondary just didn't cover receivers. The Saints punter never had to punt.

The joke around the stadium was that the best tackle of the day was made by "Biggie Bagel" during a Dunkin' Donuts promotion.

Joey Harrington, a colossal bust as quarterback of the Lions is now a Saints backup. He marveled at his former team's futility and told the Detroit Free Press, that despite never having a winning season in Detroit, "it's weird I was here in the heyday."

After the carnage Marinelli looked like a shell of a man, staring off into space and trying to make sense of how everything could go wrong. He tried to take all the blame, although much of this was decades of bad ownership and years of mismanagement by fired team president Matt Millen.

Marinelli was repeatedly asked about the job done by defensive coordinator Joe Barry, who is his son-in-law. It's a relationship that infuriates fans: cronyism killing the team. Marinelli wouldn't specifically blame Barry. This was on the head coach first.

Finally Detroit News columnist Rob Parker laid it out.

"Do you wish your daughter had married a better defensive coordinator?"

"Next question," Marinelli said.

Bill Keenist is the publicity man for the Detroit Lions.

You get into that business to get positive stories out into the media. He's been with the team since 1985, which means he did experience its one playoff victory (1991 over the Cowboys) during the Barry Sanders era.


A fan sits with a mushroom cloud decoration on his cap at the Lions-Saints game.

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Since then he's dealt with more losses than any other franchise. There's been a parade of overmatched coaches and overwhelmed players.

One time an assistant got so drunk he went through a Wendy's drive-thru naked. Another time a player got cut and reportedly decided to steal the luggage of the player replacing him. Still another, the players filed a grievance to the union that they were practicing too hard. It goes on and on.

Now his team is 0-15, which means there's plenty of media but just about nothing positive to pitch. As one of his college interns lamented, "this might be the first 0-16 internship in NFL history."

This team is so bad the local media has run out of ways to describe it. You can only rip them so often. You can only laugh at them so much.

"It's one of the bigger journalistic challenges I can remember," joked Bob Wojnowski, a Detroit News columnist and local radio host. "The players don't even care anymore. They expect to be mocked."

So how do you publicize a team with seemingly nothing good happening? Keenist points to the professionalism of Marinelli and the players, the way they continue to work hard in the face of defeat.

"It's really remarkable," he said. "A lot of people would just quit. The dedication and work ethic, it's a tremendous inspiration for young people."

Give him credit, the man can spin anything.

John Masco is a Detroit sports fan.

In his basement in suburban Westland, he has a framed edition of a local newspaper after the championships of local team: Red Wings, Pistons, etc. He even has one when the Michigan Panthers won the now defunct USFL.


Lions owner William Clay Ford has announced only modest changes in the front office for next year.

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

He has just one newspaper that mentions the Lions. It's from Nov. 23, 1963. In big letters it reports the assassination of President Kennedy.

"Down at the bottom it says: 'Ford completes buy of Lions,' " Masco laughs. "What other day could it be than the same one Kennedy got killed?"

Masco is part of the tailgating crew just outside Mayor Kilpatrick's jail. Almost everyone here says after at least a decade they're giving up their season tickets.

A winless campaign is the final insult. William Clay Ford has announced only modest changes in the front office, so even without Marinelli and his son-in-law, little is likely to change.

Besides, money is tight whether you work for the Big Three or not. This is a farewell party more than a pregame gathering.

"It's very difficult, especially in this economy," Alessandri said. "All of us are affected one way or the other by the auto industry."

Masco works for the Ford Motor Company but notes it's under different family leadership than the Lions. "One puts out a quality product, the other doesn't," said friend Sebastian Cacciola.

Some of the lingering anger about the Lions is how it's added to Detroit's woes, given extra punch lines for a city already punch drunk from a public relations battering.

Across the parking lot, brothers Kevin and James Williams, both of whom work for auto suppliers, lament the state of affairs. They watched grandstanding politicians question loans for the auto industry just weeks after giving New York bankers billions without comment.

Some of them represented states with Honda and Toyota factories, they note. Others claimed the best way for the Big Three to get turned around is to stop producing its most popular and profitable models – trucks.

"Does Nancy Pelosi think a Prius could get through this snow?" asks Kevin.

Don't get them started on Kwame. Or President Bush. Or the auto company CEOs who flew in private jets. Or, yes, William Clay Ford.

Detroit is more resilient, more adaptable and more ambitious than it's portrayed. The leaders have repeatedly failed the people.

But as the Williams brothers agree, perception is reality. Until you can change things, you are what you are.

A failing industry. A bankrupt casino. A jailed mayor. The worst football team of all time. All within a few snowy blocks on a cold Sunday morning in a city in need of a bright new day.

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