I can personally relate to what the Lions are going through right now. A similar situation occurred during my first year with the Buffalo Bills way back in the day. As I recall things were pretty dire in Buffalo too but then, they worked out pretty well in the long run.
Fortunes change. Seriously.
HISTORY LESSON FOR LIONS
It was 1986: Imelda Marcos had lost all of her shoes; the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up; and the Buffalo Bills were in a free fall. Buffalo’s consecutive 2-14 seasons followed by a dismal 2-7 start to ’86 meant heads would soon roll. The media was in full throat calling for one of those heads, that of our head coach, Hank Bullough.
We were milling around the locker room awaiting our “horror film” session to review the previous day’s unnecessary and excruciating loss to Tampa Bay when word spread that the meeting was postponed. Just hang tight and await further instruction, they said. Sure, we were big dumb football players, but we knew something was afoot!
And why wouldn’t there be? We sucked and weren’t getting better. Misery had a name, and it was Buffalo Bills Football.
And what the hell am I doing in Buffalo?
MAKING OF A MAN
In truth, I was there mostly because Coach Bullough had taken a shine to me. Hank had been the freshman football coach for my dad, S. Rahn Bentley, at Michigan State back in 1960, the year I was born. Coach Bullough loved my dad’s toughness back in the day.
My dad loved Hank and often credited him with “making a man out of me.”
Apparently, Hank wanted a shot at making a man out of me, too, so he signed me to a free-agent contract and I became a woeful Bill in week three of the ’86 season. Through the first seven games of my tenure with the Bills I had yet to play a single down of defense having been relegated to Special Teams duty.
I kept wondering when Coach Bullough was going to commence with the “man-making” process.
BACK TO THE LOCKER ROOM
As we waited back in the locker room a remarkable transformation was beginning to take place. For the first time in my two-plus months with the team it looked like we finally found some common ground we could enthusiastically agree upon.
The rumor rampaging through the locker room was Hank Bullough had been fired. Guys were mingling, laughing and bonding over the news. It was a low-key party atmosphere, very upbeat and filled with future hope. It took an effort from a bunch of guys to not celebrate too loudly.
It wasn’t that everybody hated Coach Bullough. Personally, I loved the man. We just knew it wasn’t working. We were a mess and Hank was at his wit’s end trying to clean it up. We were ready for a change.
Voices quickly hushed when the meeting was finally called. Coach Bullough was nowhere to be seen as we filed into the team meeting room. It appeared to be time for another new beginning, a fresh start, a clean slate.
DING DONG THE WITCH IS DEAD!
We were informed that, yes, indeed, Hank Bullough had been terminated. I was sad for Coach Bullough but admit my heart leapt in joy when they introduced our new coach. Marv Levy strode to the front of the room. Marv and I had history; you see.
Fortuitously, the weekend prior to signing with Buffalo I had taken a trip north of the border to visit with the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL. I had made this journey at the behest of Montreal’s GM, Marv Levy. Marv had won a couple of Grey Cups with the franchise and was currently out of coaching and was back working with his former team.
I’d come close to signing the generous offer Marv tendered on behalf of the Alouettes, mostly because of the positive impression Coach Levy had left on me. But alas, I told him my dream was to play in the NFL and Buffalo was saying they were going to sign me soon. I had to wait to see if some of their lies were true. Some actually were.
But now, there was Marv Levy, my new head coach, at the front of the room!
After the meeting I maneuvered into the receiving line to greet and welcome our new head man.
“Hey coach, remember me?” I said with my biggest, dumbest smile.
“Of course I do, Ray!” he said with genuine excitement. “And since you wouldn’t come to Montreal to play for me, I had to come all the way to Buffalo to coach you.”
“I’m glad you did, coach. I’m glad you did.”
(I was even gladder that Sunday when I got my first NFL start, led the team in tackles and we beat the Pittsburgh Steelers!)
And I stayed glad while winning three AFC East Titles, and two AFC Championships over the next five years.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
Obviously, the Lions are in a similar yet vastly different situation. But if the Bills can climb out of a bottomless pit and make it to four straight Super Bowls then there is no real-world reason it couldn’t happen in Detroit.
It is possible the Lions get it right this time.
It really happens. Or at least it did…
Marv Levy photo from AARP