Detroit History and an Accusation of Initialism

Posted on August 25, 2007 by

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Let me start this post by noting that I was born in Detroit in 1969.  So I was born a fan of Detroit sports, and although I currently live in California, still follow Detroit sports to this day.  If you are not a fan of Detroit, this post may not be your favorite.  Well, at least, not until I get to my accusation of “initialism.” 

A Brief History of the Red Wings, Pistons, and Tigers

The Pistons moved to Detroit in 1957 giving the Motor City a team in each of the four major North American sports.   Across the past 50 years, each of these teams has had some success.

Let’s start with the Red Wings.  Technically, despite my general allegiance to Detroit sports (where I was born), I am not really a fan of the Red Wings. Hockey just has never been my thing. There is too much fighting and I can never find the puck when I am watching the game on TV (Stacey, on the other hand, is a rabid hockey fan and would have liked The Wages of Wins to focus entirely on his favorite sport).  Still, the Red Wings have had a winning record in each of the past 15 seasons, winning three Stanley Cup titles along the way.  In contrast, when I lived in Detroit (1969-1981), the Red Wings missed the playoffs virtually every season.  And in those days, when the majority of the teams qualified for the post-season, missing the playoffs year after year was quite an accomplishment.

Like the Red Wings, the Pistons were also generally unsuccessful during my childhood.  Again, from 1969 to 1981, the Pistons only had a winning record three times.  In contrast, in 2006-07 the Pistons finished above the 0.500 mark, which is the 18th time that has happened in the past 23 years.  And like the Red Wings, the Pistons have also won three titles in recent memory.

Moving on to baseball…in the first 25 years of my life (1969-1993), the Tigers finished with a winning mark 17 times, winning the World Series in 1984.  Last year the Tigers returned to the World Series, ending a streak of 12 consecutive losing campaigns.  The Tigers, despite the problems of Jeremy Bonderman (How can you give up at least one run in the first inning every time you pitch?  Seriously, how is this possible?), seem to be a good candidate to finish 2007 with more wins than losses.  And if that happens that will mean three Detroit franchises finished with a winning record in the same year.

Can the Lions make it four for four? Let me note that, if that happens, it will be the first time in the history of Detroit that all four teams finished with a winning record in the same year.  In nine different years there have been three teams with a winning record.  But in each instance, the fourth team couldn’t avoid a losing campaign.

A Brief History of the Lions

At the moment, the Lions don’t look like a team that will help Detroit make history. The Lions last won a title in 1957.  In my lifetime the Lions have managed to win exactly one playoff game.  Of course, most years the team hasn’t even made the playoffs.  Since 1969 the Lions have only won 43% of their regular season contests and only 32% of the time did the Lions finish with a winning mark. 

Despite this record, fans of the Lions are always optimistic in August.  This optimism stems from the nature of the sport.  As we detail in The Wages of Wins, football is the least predictable sport.  Consequently, every fan can believe in August that if things work out a bit differently this year, their football team can finally be successful. 

Of course, the Lions under general manager Matt Millen have defied the basic randomness of football.  Over the last six seasons the Lions have averaged only four victories per season, with their best campaign being the 2004 season where the team won six games.  Millen has promised to stay as general manager until the Lions are successful, which appears to be a promise that Millen is going to a Lion for life.

And tonight our lifetime with Millen continued. The third pre-season game is a dress rehearsal for the regular season.  Unlike other pre-season games, the starters tend to play the entire first half. Unfortunately for Detroit fans, if tonight was a dress rehearsal, we don’t want to see the show.  When the first half ended the Colts were leading 21-3.  And from what I could hear on the radio, the game didn’t seem that close.

Is Millen an Initialist?

Hence, writing this weekend, it looks like season seven under the lifetime reign of Matt Millen will be much like the first six.  And this brings me to an observation I was planning on offering last year, but somehow never got around to posting.

Millen came to the Lions after a career as an NFL player and broadcaster.  He had never coached at any level.  He had never served in the front office of any team.  Despite this lack of experience, Millen was placed in charge of the entire Lions operation.

Millen’s first decision was to hire Marty Mornhinweg.  Like Millen, Mornhinweg also came to the job of head coach with no prior experience.  After two failed seasons, Mornhinweg was fired and Steve Mariucci was brought in to coach the team.  Three more losing seasons and Mariucci was fired.  Then in 2006, Millen hired his third non-interim head coach, Rod Marinelli. 

Do you notice the pattern?  Matt Millen seems to have a preference for coaches who share his initials.  In other words, Millen appears to be an initialist. Yes, that is a serious charge.  One should not take initialism lightly.  Still, I think the evidence is overwhelming.  Millen tends to zero in on the person he hires as head coach and coincidently, all those choices have a last name that begins with “M”.

Of course, when you discriminate against people with last names that do not begin with “M”, you are left with a very small pool to choose from and likely some less than talented coaches.  Like Mornhinweg, Marinelli had never been a head coach before Millen placed him in charge of the Lions.  In fact, Marinelli has never even been a coordinator before becoming the Lions head coach.  So one could argue that Marinelli’s only qualification for this job was his last name.  If he was named Jones or Smith, he would still be a defensive line coach with Tampa Bay. 

For the sake of Lions fans everywhere, I hope the league launches a full investigation into Millen’s initialism.  Perhaps this issue could finally drive Millen out of Detroit, and hence Lions fans might finally have some legitimate hope that all coaching candidates – with initials from A to Z – can be considered to lead Detroit football back to the success seen 50 years ago.

Of course, there is one tiny problem.  Someone from the Ford family would still be picking Millen’s successor.  And as I argued last November, the decision-making of the Fords is the best argument I have ever seen for a very high inheritance tax. 

– DJ

Posted in: Football Stories