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When there's a job to do, former linebacker Matt Millen doesn't hesitate to jump in and get his hands dirty, but this novice NFL executive has his work cut out for him in trying to turn the Detroit Lions into champions

July 16, 2001
July 16, 2001

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July 16, 2001

When there's a job to do, former linebacker Matt Millen doesn't hesitate to jump in and get his hands dirty, but this novice NFL executive has his work cut out for him in trying to turn the Detroit Lions into champions

Matt Millen stood, soaking wet, outside the 226-year-old stone
house he owns in eastern Pennsylvania. It was late May. A steady
rain was falling on the 150-acre estate, and that made Millen
happy. The rain was feeding his wife's endless flower beds and
filling the property's cistern.

This is an article from the July 16, 2001 issue Original Layout

"I love this cistern," said Millen, who, in a workout shell and
jeans, was making no attempt to stay dry. "This property is set
on a limestone vein, and when we dug around to get stone for the
addition to the house and for a garage we were going to build, we
found this stone cistern. Four thousand gallons. Over two hundred
years old. The guys working with me said, 'Get rid of it. That's
a lot of stone we could use.' I said no. We relined it and
restored it. We slanted the gutters on the house so they'd feed
the water into the cistern. Two good thunderstorms and it's
filled. Then if we go three weeks without rain, we can still
irrigate the whole property with the rainwater." Millen shrugged.
"I love that we took something so old and made it valuable again.
In life you take what you have and you make it work. Football's
the same way."

Millen recently began another rocky renovation project. This one,
the reconstruction of the Detroit Lions, promises to be tougher
than relining a 200-year-old cistern. The Lions last won an NFL
title in 1957 and have won only one playoff game in the 44 years
since. The previous regime tried to narrow the talent gap between
Detroit and the league's elite by throwing huge money at players
with slightly-above-average talent at best--running back James
Stewart, quarterback Charlie Batch, defensive tackle James Jones,
for example--thus creating major salary-cap problems for the new
administration.

When Lions owner William Clay Ford handed the CEO and president
job to Millen last Jan. 9, the hiring marked the first time since
the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 that the day-to-day operations of a
team had been turned over to someone with no coaching, scouting
or front-office experience. Millen played linebacker in the NFL
for 12 seasons--with the Raiders (in Oakland and L.A.), the San
Francisco 49ers and the Washington Redskins--and won four Super
Bowl rings, but for the past nine years his association with the
game has been limited to working as a broadcaster for CBS and
Fox. Millen, in fact, has never run anything bigger than a
construction project.

He liked broadcasting, and it was no secret that he was being
groomed as John Madden's successor at Fox. Still, the job left
Millen with an empty feeling: He missed the emotions associated
with winning and losing. "There was a void," he says, "that
nothing in broadcasting could fill." Ford had almost hired him
two years earlier, only to get cold feet when Bobby Ross,
Detroit's coach at the time, balked at the notion of turning over
personnel authority to Millen. Ross, however, retired nine games
into last season, and when the Lions were upset by the Chicago
Bears at the Silverdome last Christmas Eve, throwing away a
playoff spot in the process, Ford took another run at Millen.

"Matt came to see me at my home in Florida, and after 10 minutes
with him I was charged up," Ford recalls about a late December
meeting. "He convinced me there's little difference between our
team and the great teams." For the first time since he took over
as owner, in 1964, Ford gave one man sole control of the
operation.

Hardly the executive type, Millen showed up for his introductory
news conference wearing a wrinkled, seven-year-old blue blazer,
sneakers that had belonged to Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington
and a tie borrowed from broadcast partner Dick Stockton. His
office decor is best characterized by a pair of framed Three
Stooges pictures that hang on the wall. He rides a Harley to
work. In Millen's world every day is casual Friday, his typical
attire being polo shirt, jeans, sneakers and a ball cap that
reads DO IT ONCE--DO IT RIGHT. When Mike Holmgren, the Seattle
Seahawks' executive vice president and coach, saw Millen scouting
on the Michigan campus in March, he quipped, "Team president,
CEO, general manager--and he looks like a schmo." Even the
43-year-old Millen admits, "I am an experiment."

Nonetheless, he shows signs of being the precocious leader this
slumbering franchise has hungered for. Over the past nine years,
it's unlikely that anyone has seen more NFL teams, in person and
on tape, and huddled with more players and coaches than Millen.
To prepare for his televised Sunday game and his radio broadcast
of the Monday night game, he sat in on meetings with four teams
each weekend. That access should stand him in good stead when it
comes to judging free-agent talent, though he is strapped by a
tight salary cap this off-season and will have to do surgery on a
2002 payroll already $4 million over the NFL's projected cap.

Millen is a hands-on boss. At a spring minicamp he jumped into a
drill with rookie tackle Jeff Backus, a first-round draft pick
out of Michigan, and showed him how to slap a defensive lineman's
hands off his jersey. While he leaves most of the contract work
to capologist Tom Lewand and senior vice president Kevin Warren,
Millen likes to be involved in the negotiations. Guard Brenden
Stai, who had met with the Lions early in the free-agent signing
period, was about to visit the New York Giants when he got a call
from Millen. "I just called up homefair.com on my computer,"
Millen told Stai, "and do you realize that a $700,000 house here
would cost you $1 million in Bergen County, New Jersey?" (Stai
signed with Detroit.) Finally, Millen is big on hugs. When he and
Warren say goodbye for the weekend, the two embrace warmly.

Millen hopes to build such camaraderie throughout the
organization. That's why he eliminated an arbitrary salary
structure and bonus system that former chief operating officer
Chuck Schmidt had used. (One secretary, for instance, had a
significantly higher Christmas bonus than a department head.)
Millen instituted a bonus system based solely on the team's
performance: winning the NFC Central and playoff games. All the
team's estimated 75 front-office employees are eligible to
receive a bonus (perhaps as much as $5,000) for a division title
and each postseason advance made by the team. "I want everyone in
the building to know everything we do comes down to winning,"
Millen says. "Nothing else matters."

There's no blueprint for running a football team, Millen mused,
as he sat at his Silverdome desk at dawn on a June morning--and
nobody ever told him that he'd have to read up on the federal law
on maternity leave. That's how this day started, with a meeting
to determine how to restructure the community-relations job of
Kim Doverspike, who is dividing her duties between home and
office to accommodate the recent birth of her son. "I'm concerned
with every employee because every employee touches this team,"
Millen says. "Everyone matters." That's a recurring theme with
Millen. He's an autocrat with a democratic sensibility.

Millen's initial personnel moves were uninspiring. After firing
coach Gary Moeller, Millen replaced him with Marty Mornhinweg,
who had previously labored as an assistant deep in the shadows of
Holmgren in Green Bay and Steve Mariucci in San Francisco. Millen
loves Mornhinweg's football mind, his variation of the West Coast
offense and his ability to deal with change in this era of
extensive player movement. Millen impressed no one with his
veteran free-agent pickups--Stai, cornerback Todd Lyght, tight end
Pete Mitchell, utility back Amp Lee and backup quarterback Jim
Harbaugh. On the other hand, the combined 2001 cap value of those
five players ($3.95 million) is about the same as what the Lions
would have had to pay next season to retain free-agent guard Jeff
Hartings, who signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers. "We'll plug
Stai in for Hartings," says Millen, "and not lose much."

After dealing with the maternity issue, Millen turned his
attention to the team's need for a third wide receiver. He wanted
Jerry Rice, who was about to be released by San Francisco,
because Millen felt the veteran's work ethic would rub off on
starting wideouts Germane Crowell and Johnnie Morton. If he
couldn't get Rice, Millen would have to persuade Herman Moore,
the club's alltime leading receiver but a player who was hurt
much of the past two years, to rework Moore's contract. Shortly
before 11 o'clock, Rice's agent, Jim Steiner, called to say Rice
had decided to stay in the West. "I'm sorry," says Steiner. "It's
down to Seattle or Oakland. The trek to Detroit would have just
been too much."

Millen was chagrined. Now he'd have to deal with Moore, who had
already balked at Millen's request that he take a salary cut from
$3.3 million to $1 million. Millen would have to raise the offer,
but by how much? He convened a meeting of his personnel brain
trust--Lewand, Mornhinweg, Warren, executive vice president of
player personnel Bill Tobin and pro scouts Charlie Sanders and
Sheldon White--in the conference room adjacent to his office.
Millen has emulated Ron Wolf, the Green Bay Packers' highly
successful general manager who retired recently. "Listen to what
the people around you think," Wolf told him. "You already know
what you think." Millen told the others about losing out on Rice,
and they discussed the pros and cons of increasing the offer to
Moore.

"What's your gut tell you?" Warren asked.

"Let's move just enough to let him win publicly," Millen said.
"Start at a buck-two and see if we can get it done."

The new offer--$1.2 million--wasn't enough. Later in the day Millen
authorized a bump to $1.5 million, which pushed Moore's cap value
for 2001, including the prorated signing bonus left from his old
contract, to $3.2 million. That was too steep for Millen's
liking, but, he rationalized, Mornhinweg will use three wideouts
on more than half of Detroit's snaps. What's more, the offense
wouldn't be as effective with journeyman Brian Stablein as the
third wideout, instead of a healthy Moore, who can still put up
big numbers.

Rice was the third impact player Millen had failed to lure to or
acquire for Detroit; Barry Sanders, the Lions' retired alltime
leading rusher, and Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck were the
other two. One winter day Millen and Mornhinweg knocked on
Sanders's door in Rochester Hills, Mich., to find out if he had
any interest in returning to the game after a two-season layoff.
Millen asked the 33-year-old Sanders if he liked the multipurpose
role--running back, slotback, wideout--played by the St. Louis
Rams' Marshall Faulk. "Love it," Sanders replied. Millen
challenged Sanders to play that role with the Lions. Sanders
liked the idea, but not enough to come out of retirement.

As for Hasselbeck, a source close to the Seahawks' front office
says Millen tried to acquire him before the April 21 draft in a
three-way deal that would have sent a high draft choice from
Detroit to Jacksonville, with Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell
going to Seattle and Hasselbeck, whom the Seahawks had gotten
from the Packers in March, moving to the Lions. "How can I make
this work?" Millen asked the Seahawks, according to the source.
"I want Matt Hasselbeck." Holmgren, though, would not part with
his former Green Bay protege, and Detroit will stick with the
cap-heavy and injury-prone Batch.

The next order of business in the personnel meeting was a
discussion about free-agent defensive lineman Alonzo Spellman.
The raised eyebrows around the room when his name came up
indicated that this subject had already been discussed. In 1992
Tobin had drafted Spellman for Chicago, and Tobin's brother,
Vince, now the Lions' defensive coordinator, had coached him
there. Further, Detroit defensive line coach Bill Young had
worked with Spellman as an assistant at Ohio State. Spellman,
however, was found to be suffering from bipolar disorder after
barricading himself in his home in 1998. With the help of
medication over the past two years, Spellman played well in a
tackle rotation for the Dallas Cowboys, and Dallas wanted to
re-sign him for the NFL veteran minimum of $477,000. Bill Tobin,
Spellman's champion in this room, wanted the Lions to sign him
for a little above the minimum. Millen has great respect for the
60-year-old Tobin, but the older, more experienced man was
swimming upstream on this one.

Bill Tobin: "Alonzo's one heck of a disruptive force inside. He's
just what we need for our rotation, and Bill [Young] likes him."

Millen: "Bill coached him 10 years ago."

Tobin: "If we give him one year near the minimum, plus
incentives, we could get him."

Millen: "He scares me. I don't want all altar boys on this team,
but I remember one thing Ron Wolf told me: 'Don't pay for bad
character.' You've mentioned him before, and I've checked with
people in Dallas, and I think he might need some babysitting."

Mornhinweg: "Can we bring him in? Look him in the eye?"

Millen: "Let me think about him, all right?"

Tobin smiles wryly. For years he made these calls in Chicago and
then with the Indianapolis Colts. Not in Detroit. His was the
smile of a beaten man. "I guess I get it," says Tobin. "That's
the fourth time you've said no on the guy."

True to his word, however, Millen thought further about Spellman.
Millen watched more tape of the player and liked what he saw. He
asked assistant coach Charles Haley, a former Pro Bowl defensive
end, if he'd help babysit Spellman. Haley said he would. Millen
consulted confidant and former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler,
who'd recruited Millen as a Pennsylvania all-state linebacker.
(Millen signed with Penn State.) Schembechler said he liked the
energy Spellman would bring the Lions.

Ten days later Spellman walked into the Silverdome for an
interview and a workout, and the Lions are strongly considering
signing him for near the minimum. In the end Millen decided the
risk was minimal--because NFL contracts aren't guaranteed, the
Lions would have a free look at Spellman until Sept. 9, the first
day of the regular season.

"What I appreciate about Matt," says Stai, who has been with the
Jaguars, the Steelers and the Kansas City Chiefs, "is he talks to
you [as if it's] player to player. He's going to tell you exactly
what he thinks. I'm sure he's like that with the guys in the
front office. This is unlike anywhere I've been. It's a fresh
start for everyone. But you need a fresh start when you've won
one playoff game in 43 years."

Millen is the same person on the practice field tutoring Backus
as he is in the personnel meeting listening to Tobin as he is
walking the alfalfa fields behind his house. He's interested in
what's going on around him. He's curious. "This makes me feel
good--I love nature," he said as the rain fell. "And I love
building things."

Building a champion in Detroit won't be easy. Unless he can push
the team's cap problems into the future, as Dallas and San
Francisco did several years ago, Millen will have to hope he hits
the lottery with draft picks and mid-level free agents for the
next couple of years. He saved the Lions another $2.5 million on
this year's cap by persuading Jones and linebacker Allen Aldridge
to take substantial pay cuts. "I'll do it," Jones told Millen,
"if you'll tell me one thing: Do you want me on this team?"
Millen said he did, and Jones took the whack, from a salary of
$3.6 million to $1.6 million. The Lions have a long-term question
at quarterback: Can Batch stay healthy and become a consistent
and accurate passer? The team also needs more speed on defense.

On the plus side, new arrivals should make Detroit better along
both lines. Backus and center Dominic Raiola, a second-round
draft selection from Nebraska, are expected to challenge for
starting jobs this fall. Shaun Rogers, a late second-round pick
out of Texas who might have been the highest-rated defensive
tackle in the draft were it not for a slow-healing knee injury,
should be at full speed by August and might play up to 30 snaps a
game.

Strolling his property, Millen acknowledged the obstacles he
faces, but he was undaunted. "Look at that house," he said. "In
its day it was a great house, probably the finest in the area.
But it fell out of repair and had to be rebuilt. Same with the
Lions. Champs of the league long ago, but the franchise fell
down. We need to bring it back to greatness. That's the only
reason I'm in this."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS Handyman The Lions believe Millen, in his workshop at home in Pennsylvania, has the tools to rebuild their team.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS Hands on Millen quickly made his presence known in Detroit, stepping into minicamp drills and working a new deal with Moore (84).COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS Winning personality With four Super Bowl rings in a 12-year career, Millen knows what it takes to be a champion.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS Homework Millen and his wife, Pat, have their hands full with children (from left) Michalyn, Marianne, Matthew and Marcus.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS Vicious cycle Salary-cap woes haunt the Lions, a problem Millen will have to grapple with and ride out.
"I want everyone to know everything we do comes down to
winning," says Millen. "Nothing else matters."
Millen knocked on Sanders's door to see if he could lure him
out of retirement.
"Matt came to see me," Ford says, "and after 10 minutes I was
charged up."
Hardly the executive type, Millen admits, "I am an experiment."