ALLEN PARK — Former Lions great Chris Spielman was approached by multiple teams over the years. But no offer was ever enticing enough to pull him out of broadcasting. And even when his old team came calling in recent weeks, he still wasn’t sure whether he was ready to leave behind an accomplished career in the booth.
Then he had one more meeting with owner Sheila Ford Hamp, and he knew.
“I can’t tell you how excited she is and bad she wants the Lions to represent the city of Detroit — to win a lot of games and (be) something that everybody can be proud of,” Spielman said on Tuesday afternoon. “She’s the one that put me over the top when I was deciding whether to do this or not. She’s fabulous. Great leader. She’s a leader to me. I was like, ’Let’s go!’ Felt like I talked to a head coach before a game. She gave me a locker-room speech, and I was ready to run through the hotel door in Cincinnati.”
The times, they are a’changin’ in Detroit.
Hamp just took over as principal owner in June, and didn’t even make it through an entire season before firing the general manager and head coach she inherited. Now she’s succeeded where many failed across the league, and lured Spielman into her new-look front office. The longtime Lions linebacker will serve as a special assistant to Hamp and team president Rod Wood, and his first order of business is advising Detroit’s top brass on the search for a new general manager and head coach.
So what exactly is Spielman bringing to Detroit?
Some badly-needed football expertise at the top levels of the organization, for starters. He played 10 seasons in the league, the first eight of which he spent in Detroit. He still holds the team record for tackles and was here for some of the best Lions teams of the Super Bowl era, including starring for the last squad to win a playoff game (1991) and division title (1993).
That title drought, now officially 27 years and counting, is the longest in the league.
The Lions have tried all kinds of general managers and coaches over the years, and all of them have failed. Their most recent reboot attempted to import the Patriot Way with the hiring Bob Quinn as general manager and Matt Patricia as head coach. But the Quinntricia era failed spectacularly, going 13-29-1 before Hamp pulled the plug last month after just 43 games.
The talent level was a problem, especially on defense, but the culture never came together either. In fact, it became outright toxic after Patricia’s hire in 2018. He was a tough, brash coach who came into the locker room telling players they didn’t know how to play football. He bashed players in meetings. He singled out players for embarrassment. Things were bad. And while Patricia’s comportment improved over the last couple of years, as did his relationship with the locker room, his teams did not. He was fired after another blowout on Thanksgiving, and Quinn was dismissed too.
Now as the Lions try to put the pieces back together after the failed Patriot Way experiment, they are focusing on rebuilding their own culture. And they’ve hired one of the organization’s most respected leaders, a guy who was at the very heart of some of Detroit’s best teams in the modern era, to help them do it.
“Chris Spielman has been a tremendous ambassador for the Detroit Lions since the day he first put on a uniform as a rookie in 1988,” Hamp said in a written statement. “He brings great passion for people and the game of football, and we are thrilled to have him on board to help lead our team. This position is a full-time opportunity for Chris that will allow him to work across various departments on both the football and business sides of our organization.”
Spielman has the bonafides as a player and leader in Detroit. He’s also spent the last five years traveling around the league as a broadcaster, and his highly-regarded reputation has given him some inside access to how many other teams are trying to do it. He’s taken a notebook everywhere he’s gone, trying to learn what’s working and what’s not. His home office is littered with notes scribbled down from all over the football world.
Now he intends to lend that insight to Detroit’s latest rebuild.
“(The notebooks) are right across the room here, and journals and notepads. I mean, it’s like you walk in here and I spread it out, it’s like ‘A Beautiful Mind Part II’ because there’s so much knowledge to be gained out there,” Spielman said. “I’ve been blessed with insight, and an insight to know that I can always learn, I can always grow, I can always develop. And there are so many smart guys out there. And when they’ve put information out there, whether I agree with it or disagree with it, I write it down, because I want to think about it and say, ‘Did that work? How does that work? How does it work with this guy? How does it work with that guy?’
“Some of the people I’ve talked to over the years, and recently, are very smart people who had a lot of success. Doesn’t mean I agree with everything that they say, but they give me thoughts to think about and ideas to think about, and to me, you only grow when you’re out of your comfort zone and you’re challenged that way, and you have the insight and humility to know that you don’t have all the answers. Somebody does. You go find that persona and find out what the answers are.”
Spielman said the biggest thing he’s learned about successful organizations is they all have clear communication coming down from the top. He intends to create that kind of culture in Detroit’s new administration, and it will be a focal point as he consuls Hamp and Wood in the search for a head coach and general manager.
“Every guy I spoke to (put communication) in the top-three things in a great organization,” Spielman said. “There’s got to be communication. Everybody has to understand the direction that we’re going. Everybody has to know what our culture is, and you can’t waiver from that culture. Everybody has to know, ‘OK, what kind of character do we want in the building?’”
Spielman said nothing about candidates for the open jobs during his initial meeting with reporters, and revealed very little about the kinds of credentials for which he’s looking. But it was abundantly clear culture and top-down communication will be at the heart the search. So, too, will be building something that is uniquely Detroit’s.
“The ‘One Pride’ thing, to me, goes beyond the building,” Spielman said. “Obviously in the building (too), but the ‘One Pride’ thing is embracing Detroit. The City of Detroit. The fans of Detroit. That’s something that I think I still identify with, I feel a part of, and for lack of another word, it’s really, really good to be home in that regard. I have a vision that matches exactly what Rod and Sheila envisioned, and that’s the only way that could work because we’re completely in sync of the direction of the culture of the building and something to be proud of for everybody that’s a Lions fan.
“The timing is right. I’ve been approached over the years for different opportunities within football, and life takes you sometimes in different directions, and choices that we all make as husbands and fathers and wives and mothers and all those kinds of good things. (But) I really do think that this is the absolute right time to get involved. I’m really excited. I can’t tell you how excited I am about the opportunity. The Lions are part of my identity. They always have been, and they always will be. When I say, ‘One Pride,’ that’s not just a noun for me. I always take that as a word of action. That’s going to be my goal moving forward.”