(note: this column was written BEFORE Saturday's Lions-Chargers game)
Wayne Fontes was a rotund, big bear of a man, a cigar-chomping, round-faced football coach of Portuguese descent. Fontes couldn’t have been more different than the man he replaced as Lions coach in 1988, Darryl Rogers.
Rogers, fresh from Arizona State University to the Lions in 1985, was often sullen, humorless and seemingly devoid of the passion that you normally find in a head football coach.
But Fontes, who replaced Rogers on an interim basis in November ’88 before getting the full-time gig after the season, was gregarious, loved the media and seemed to bask in the spotlight.
Once, during a particularly dicey period in Fontes’ tenure (1988-96)—and there were plenty of those—Wayne-o stood up to the media and took the bullet for his players.
“I’m the big buck,” Fontes said, comparing himself to a deer in the crosshairs. “Everyone wants a piece of me.”
Fontes rode golf carts during practice, kibitzed with his players and openly fawned over owner Bill Ford. The coach wore a Honolulu Blue heart on his big, fat sleeve.
Fontes coached the great running back Barry Sanders for eight of Barry’s 10 NFL years, and the two formed a tight bond that continues to exist today.
At Barry’s Hall of Fame induction in 2004, Fontes stood from the audience and gave his old RB several fist pumps of support.
Fontes was, at various times, a clown, a martyr, a “big buck” and a Coach of the Year. His players loved him because as a so-called “players’ coach” Fontes didn’t push them too hard—especially in December, when padless practices were not uncommon.
There must have been something to Fontes’ laid back approach at the end of the year because his teams made several playoff runs after Thanksgiving.
The last Lions team to beat the Packers in Green Bay was coached by Wayne Fontes in 1991—in December, by the way, as the Lions made one of their famous late-season runs.
The Lions under Wayne Fontes were stuck in neutral, however—good enough to make the playoffs in most years, but not nearly good enough to know what to do when they got there.
The playoff losses were painful and infamous.
Today’s Lions fan worth his salt no doubt can recall with a sour look the image of Green Bay’s Sterling Sharpe, standing alone in the back of the end zone at the Silverdome, as young gunslinger Brett Favre found him for a game-winning touchdown in the first round of the 1993 playoffs.
There was the ugly post-season loss in Green Bay the following season, when the Packers, playing on their God forsaken Frozen Tundra, made Sanders look like he was playing with his ankles tied together. The Packers held Barry to the ignominious total of minus-1 yard rushing for the afternoon.
It got worse the next year, in Philadelphia.
The Lions finished the season on another of their hot streaks—seven wins in a row to close out the schedule. Tackle Lomas Brown, momentarily forgetting for what franchise he was playing, blabbed to the media that he “guaranteed” a Lions victory.
The Eagles dismantled the Lions at Veterans Stadium—jumping out to a 51-7 lead before coasting.
After a disheartening 6-10 season in 1996, Ford finally fired Fontes after eight seasons, which makes him the longest tenured coach in Lions history.
As Casey Stengel once said, you can look it up!
The fans would like to think that they helped drum Fontes out of town, except that Ford doesn’t do anything just to placate the fan base, much less fire anyone.
Matt Millen ought to be proof of that.
Yet it’s an indictment of the Lions since Fontes’ firing in 1996 that his 66-67 career record can now be looked at as the “good old days” of Lions football, for fans that aren’t yet drawing Social Security.
Might as well say it: Wayne Fontes is still the only Lions coach to win a playoff game since 1957.
Since the 21st century dawned, the sometimes mediocre, sometimes brilliant, sometimes befuddling era of Wayne Fontes—he of the 1-4 playoff record—has been looking better and better the further it gets in the rearview mirror.
That’s ironic because today’s Lions coach doesn’t believe in looking behind you.
Jim Schwartz is perhaps as far away from Wayne Fontes as garlic is from honey.
Schwartz is fit and trim where Fontes was a big bowl of jelly. Schwartz is covert where Fontes was an open book. The only place you’ll find Schwartz driving a golf cart is to the first tee.
Schwartz doesn’t chomp cigars or go easy on his players. He doesn’t call himself by any catchy, cutesy nicknames. Smiling is a chore for him.
But the Lions under Jim Schwartz have made leaps.
Schwartz came to town just weeks after the Lions lost in Green Bay to end their 2008 season at 0-16, which I submit will be among the most notorious numbers in Detroit sports history.
In 2009 the Lions won two games. In 2010 they won six, including their last four in a row. Today they sit at 9-5, with their playoff destiny in their own hands, to use a tired cliché.
It’s appropriate that the Lions are owned by a car guy because Jim Schwartz is on the verge of taking this franchise from zero to the playoffs in three seasons.
Schwartz is looking to forge his own era of success—and one where just making the playoffs isn’t considered to be such a great feat.
If the Lions beat the San Diego Chargers on Christmas Eve, Schwartz’s team will be in the playoffs. No help needed, no scoreboard watching to be done. No formulas to calculate. Win and you’re in.
With the young talent assembled by GM Martin Mayhew—Fontes didn’t have such a whip smart personnel guy to help his cause—the Lions look to be set up for success for years to come. Meaning, the playoffs could become familiar again around these parts.
And playoff victories, that most precious commodity, could be mined by Schwartz and Company as well.
It’s a new age of Detroit Lions football. Jim Schwartz aims to make his the next great era. One that will make history not as kind to the Fontes years, after all.
If that happens, we just might look back to Christmas Eve 2011 as the victory that started the Lions on their way.