THERE'S A SPECIAL place in our culture for an American success story such as Matt Millen's. That may sound like a joke, considering his famously disastrous tenure as the Lions' general manager. But it is true. As a child in Hokendauqua, Pa., Millen lived with his parents and 10 siblings in a two-bedroom house. They did not have a bathroom until Matt turned 11. For fun he played in the woods, building dams and tree forts, catching snakes and salamanders. He earned a football scholarship and then a degree in finance and marketing from Penn State, won four Super Bowls as a linebacker (with three different teams) and became an accomplished NFL analyst on CBS, and then Fox.
This is an article from the Dec. 2, 2013 issue
Millen finished off this American dream by buying a rundown farmhouse in Durham, Pa., and rebuilding it, a project that took eight years to complete because he did almost all of the work himself. He dug out the basement, jacked up the foundation, poured the walls, put down the floors, built the cabinets and laid the roof. He also constructed seven other buildings on nearly the 200-acre property. Millen estimates that the main house fills 8,500 square feet, but he never forgot one of the principal lessons of his childhood: "You don't need much." Millen's two sons, Matt Jr. and Marcus, shared a bedroom for their entire childhood, as did his two girls, Michalyn and Marianne. Now 55, he cuts the enormous lawn with a push mower. It takes three to four hours. He prefers to wash dishes by hand.
Explaining his construction skills, Millen says, "I've always been able to look at something and see how it's built and.... " Wait—does that sound like the setup for another joke?
Understandable. As the general manager of the Lions from 2001 until just after Week 3 of '08, Millen built eight teams. Those teams combined to win 31 games and lose 84. The last Lions team he put together finished with the only 0--16 record in NFL history.
You could easily argue that this was the worst performance by a GM in American sports history—and I have. For the last four years of Millen's tenure I was a sports columnist at the Detroit Free Press. Criticizing him was part of my job. Many days it was the whole job.
"It's a good thing Matt Millen isn't designing cars for [Lions owner] William Clay Ford," I once wrote. "The steering wheel would be in the trunk." I once riffed on Mark Twain's line about smoking: "Firing Matt Millen is easy. I've done it hundreds of times."
Millen tried not to read too many stories about himself, but he was well aware of them. The only way to change the narrative, he always told reporters, was to win.
"I get it," he said repeatedly—and he proved that this summer when I called him for this story. He agreed to an interview, insisted that I stay at his house, picked me up from the airport and invited me on his daily five-mile, early-morning walk with his wife, Patricia, during which he told me, "You should come back with your kids—they'd love it here."
After Patricia made breakfast, Matt and I talked extensively about the only time in his life he was an utter failure.
IN SPRING 2000, Millen met Ford in Detroit to talk about becoming the Lions' GM. To that point, Millen had held only one job for an NFL team: linebacker. He had never even thought about being an executive.
"I said, 'Mr. Ford, I really appreciate this, but I'm not qualified,' " Millen recalls. " 'I've had no training. I know the game of football—but there's a lot more to it than that.' "
"He said, 'You're smart. You'll figure it out.' "
Millen turned the job down. But when Ford came back to him a year later—the Lions having missed the playoffs for the second time in three years following a successful run in the 1990s—he accepted. Millen says now that he took the gig partly because he's "a why guy, always wondering, Why do they do this?" What never crossed his mind was failure. Worrying is not his style. This is a man who does not wear a seat belt when he drives, who rides his Harley-Davidson without a helmet or windshield because he likes the wind in his face.
To this day, Millen doesn't know why Ford chose him. He never asked. (Ford declined to comment for this story.) But as a guy who had played in 180 regular-season NFL games and won roughly 65% of them, whose teams had gone to the playoffs in eight of his 12 years, Millen embodied winning. The telling fact about Millen is not that he won four Super Bowl rings, but that three franchises won Super Bowls after acquiring him. (The Raiders' second-round pick in 1980, he signed with the 49ers in '89 and with the Redskins for the '91 season.) He was selfless, tough, smart and self-motivated.
Millen had played for Penn State legend Joe Paterno, two-time Super Bowl winner Tom Flores and Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs. As a broadcaster, he had discussed the game with almost every great coach in the NFL—he knew coaches. And so, with his first coaching hire, Millen chose a man whose quick mind and X's-and-O's knowledge impressed him: San Francisco offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg.
Mornhinweg would have been the perfect coach for a player like Millen—and that was the problem. "[As a player], my view of a coach was, Tell me what you want and then get out of my way; I'll get it done," Millen says. "For [Detroit], I was looking for a guy who could tell you what to do and get out of the way. And that was wrong. You need a guy who can sell it, who can lead."
Mornhinweg might have stood a chance to succeed if he'd had a stronger GM to guide him. But he didn't. Millen quickly discovered that his own learning curve was "huge." He says, "It was too big for me. I felt bad for Marty. I couldn't help him. I was just trying to figure [everything] out."
Mornhinweg was fired after two years and five wins. The Lions replaced him with his old 49ers boss, Steve Mariucci. But the damage had already been done. Millen had hoped to fix the Lions' losing culture, but by the time Mariucci arrived, that culture had only become more ingrained.
A FEW YEARS into his Detroit tenure, a friend gave Millen a wooden sign that read NEVER, EVER, EVER GIVE UP. That sign now sits above a window near the kitchen. It's perfect for Millen, who never considered quitting. He assumed, mistakenly, that others shared his determination.
Millen lacked an important quality for any GM: skepticism. He wanted to believe in his No. 2 pick in 2003, Michigan State receiver Charles Rogers, but Rogers was hindered by drug and attitude problems. He loved the potential of his No. 7 pick in '04, Texas receiver Roy Williams, but, Millen says, "Roy didn't like to work. I had him in my office all the time." Williams was so talented, he could get away with imprecise route-running and ignore the coaches—for a while, anyway.
Millen had always believed in himself; that's how he went from a house with no bathroom to fame and fortune. Publicly he remained confident. But privately he started to waver.
On the morning of the 2005 draft the Lions had made a decision: With the 10th pick they would take Troy linebacker DeMarcus Ware. This wasn't just Millen's call; the organization was in agreement. Scouts and coaches loved him. When Detroit's turn came, Ware was still available—but so too, surprisingly, was USC wide receiver Mike Williams. And even though the team had taken wideouts with top 10 picks the two previous years, a movement started in Detroit's draft room to choose another.
Millen acquiesced. His son Matthew, 24 at the time, was so angry that he punched his father in the stomach and walked out of the room. Millen is still annoyed with himself. "To me, that tells me [I wasn't] strong enough," Millen says. "That bothers me."
Ware became one of the best players in the league. Mike Williams did not. "His rookie year, I think I fined him every cent of his salary," Millen says. "I fined him, like, $400,000. It was ridiculous. He just didn't care."
For his part, (Williams once told me the Lions were scapegoating him and called it "chickens---." Writing about those teams was a bit different from covering the Patriots.)
As the losses mounted, Millen retreated into his work, the way he always had. As a rookie linebacker in 1980, he had been so consumed by football that when he arrived in New Orleans for the Super Bowl, he asked why yellow ribbons were wrapped around the Superdome. For the hostages, he was told. What hostages? The ones who had just been released in Iran, after being front-page news for 444 days. "I mean, that's sad," Millen says. "But that's the way you get."
With the Lions, Millen watched film late at night and sometimes slept at the training facility. He saw his record and knew he was doing the job poorly. He didn't realize that he was doing it wrong.
AS A BOY, when Millen asked his mom to make him a sandwich, she would tell him, "You have feet. You have hands. Go do it." This is how he tried to rebuild the Lions. He discussed strategy with coaches, watched tape of practice and consulted players about the locker room mood. He met with Ford twice a week to talk about the team. But the Lions needed a broader vision. They needed him to define people's roles more clearly.
Millen's personality was not suited for the job. Although he treats strangers like friends, he is comfortable being alone. He does not like talking on the phone. He did not spend enough time building relationships with executives around the league. And he rarely traveled to college games.
"What I should have done, if I was going to be a GM, was gone on the road, gotten into the personnel a lot better," Millen says. "To do that job, you've gotta do it all year. I just did it at draft time."
As Millen continued to fail, Fire Millen became a joke within a joke in Detroit: proof that the city could not implement even the most obvious solutions. The mayor is a sleazeball crook? Fire Millen. The auto industry is collapsing? Fire Millen. The city can't respond to 911 calls quickly or keep the streetlights on? Fire Millen.
For the last home game of the 2005 season, fans planned a "Millen Man March"—a pregame protest in the streets outside Ford Field. Millen heard about it from one of his sons. His reaction? "The Millen Man March? That's hilarious! That's very clever."
As the Millens drove up to the stadium that day, they saw a dummy version of Millen with a noose around his head. Then they watched the Lions lose 41--17 to the Bengals to fall to 4--10. Then they went home.
"Pretty soon," I wrote in the Free Press, "even Matt Millen will be holding a FIRE MILLEN sign. And the Fords, impressed with his wit, will give him a contract extension." As it turns out, I was not far off.
When Millen came home one December, his daughter Marianne had placed a FIRE MILLEN sign atop the Christmas tree. But to many Lions fans, the house itself was proof Millen quit before he started. His family never moved to Detroit. He was accused of being a half-time GM, a carpetbagger who wasn't really trying.
Once, when he flew home, Patricia greeted him with a question: "If you're never in Detroit, and you're never here, where are you?"
The truth was that he saw his family one day a week during the season if he was lucky, and two days a week in the off-season. He didn't want to move his wife and kids, because they were entrenched in Pennsylvania. He called home every day. He sent flowers to his daughters at school on their birthdays. There was never a doubt he cared, yet the girls cried regularly during that first year he was gone. And still: Millen says he never thought of resigning and going home, and Patricia says she never wanted him to quit.
To outsiders, his refusal to step down seemed stubborn and delusional. But during many of those phone calls home, Matt and Patricia would talk about their son Marcus, an Army captain who has participated in fire fights in Afghanistan. And Patricia would talk about her work counseling prisoners who had been physically and sexually abused; Matt would self-mockingly reply, "Yeah, but they have never lost on a last-second field goal!" If they never quit, how could he?
Millen kept looking for ways to climb out of his hole. In 2001 he almost worked a three-way trade to land quarterback Matt Hasselbeck from the Seahawks. Five years later he thought about pursuing injured free agent Drew Brees—the Lions' quarterbacks coach, Greg Olson, had coached Brees at Purdue—but Detroit's medical staff, like plenty of others across the NFL, was wary of Brees.
And he tried to learn from his mistakes. After Mariucci went 15--28 in 2½ seasons, Millen brought in Buccaneers defensive assistant Rod Marinelli to be his coach and, more important, his leader. Players loved and respected Marinelli. When Marinelli clashed with brilliant but enigmatic offensive coordinator Mike Martz, Millen remembered his failure to help Mornhinweg and stepped in. With Marinelli, he says, "I tried to get him what he wanted, what he needed."
Entering 2008 Marinelli had his choice of offensive coordinator (former Purdue coach Jim Colletto) and defensive coordinator (Joe Barry, Marinelli's son-in-law). Finally, everybody was on the same page. Alas, the whole league could read it. One offensive player later told me he was so underwhelmed by Colletto's offensive imagination that he "felt bad for Rod." Barry, meanwhile, was an overpromoted linebackers coach who failed to adjust his defense week to week.
By August 2008, "I knew we were in trouble," Millen says. "It was a matter of time. You can't run the same things in that league. You can get by with it for two weeks, maybe three. Once they see it, they're smart, so you have to adapt."
After the Lions lost their first three games Bill Ford Jr. publicly broke ranks with his dad, saying he would change general managers if he could. That week, Ford Sr. finally fired Millen.
And then, after seven-plus years of almost incomprehensible losing, Millen got the most amazing phone call: Raiders owner Al Davis wanted him to run his team's football operation.
"He said, 'I need somebody I can trust,' " Millen recalls. Millen loved Davis, but by that time Millen needed something else. He needed to go home.
ON THE day I left town, Millen met me in his kitchen at 4:40 a.m. to drive me back to Lehigh Valley International Airport. For me, the trip was a reminder of the walls between reporters and their subjects; I got to know Millen better in a day and a half than I had in several years covering him. With no game on Sunday and no secrets to hide, he let me into his world. Millen was a lousy GM, but he is a great example of how to avoid basing your self-worth on your work. He failed, and he knows it. But he does not carry himself as a failure.
As Millen drove, we passed a gorgeous plant for Bethlehem Steel, which once dominated the region but has been defunct for years. At Penn State, Millen had studied the company's demise. The plant is now the Sands Casino Resort, filled with people hoping to win easy money. Millen has vowed never to go inside.
He broadcasts college games for ESPN, basically the same job he did to mostly positive reviews before he took over the Lions. But fans have trouble seeing him the same way. When a pedophilia scandal brought down Paterno and Millen's former defensive coordinator at Penn State, Jerry Sandusky, ESPN put Millen on the air. His lack of cynicism had left him shocked again. He cried on the set and was mocked for it.
For years Ford Sr.'s loyalty and fondness protected Millen. But in retrospect, Ford could have done Millen a favor by having colder blood. Other GMs have had awful tenures; what separates Millen is that his lasted so long. Instead of being another failing general manager, he was the failing-est of them all. Despite his achievements as a player and broadcaster, he will always be remembered for his losing Lions.
"That was historic," Millen says. "So, yeah, I'll be that. That's fine."
So when the old finance major examines his own mismanagement, what does he see?
He refuses to blame the internal factions of a franchise that has one playoff win since 1957 because, as he points out, even Super Bowl--winning franchises have internal factions. General managers must deal with them. He seems to agree with one longtime NFL front-office person, who believes Millen's lack of experience was his undoing. But then, the team that went 0--16 was Millen's eighth.
That same NFL executive says, "As a player Matt was laser-focused on the task at hand. When you are in the role of a general manager, you need to have a broader view of everything. You better have a vision. Matt is very knowledgeable of what goes on on the field. The front-office side of it is a whole different game, though."
Millen agrees. He believes that when he leaped from the field to the front office, he jumped too far. Ultimately, if he could make one change to his general-manager tenure, he wouldn't be a general manager.
Millen would be a coach.
Go ahead, make more jokes. He would send the punter out on third down—when the other team had the ball. Ha! But Millen has the skills and personality of a coach, not an executive. Millen is lousy at setting an agenda for an organization, but great at inspiring people one-on-one. He prefers doing work to assigning it. The more he watched the Detroit coaches, the more he believed he could have done their job, and....
It does not matter anymore.
"All we are is a collection of our experiences," he says, "so you've gotta make the best of them."
Yes, the first line in Matt Millen's obituary has been written. But so what? He won't read that, either.
Where do Millen's old Lions—fresh off a loss to the Bucs—figure in Chris Burke's weekly NFL Power Rankings? And what's the fallout from Sunday night's epic Patriots-Broncos thriller? Find out at SI.com/NFL