- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 18, 2003

Like most crazed competitors, Matt Millen has what you might call a Losing Management problem. The scene between him and the Chiefs’ Johnny Morton last weekend was hardly the first postgame episode he’s had in his career. In fact, he had an even wilder one during his playing days with the Raiders.

This was in ‘85, just after his club had been eliminated from the playoffs by the Patriots. Pats GM Patrick Sullivan, watching from the sideline, had been riding the Raiders’ Howie Long all afternoon because of some impolitic remarks he’d made about the New England franchise the week of the game. When Sullivan decided to rub it in a little more on the way to the locker room, Millen, the Third Man In, bopped him in the head with his helmet.

It was no love tap, either. Sullivan wound up needing stitches, if memory serves, and sported a bandage above his eye the next day.

This is the guy (Millen) the languishing Lions hired to be their president and CEO three years ago. A football guy through and through. A guy who wore his heart — and your blood — on his sleeve. A guy who seemed to represent all that was good about the game (except, maybe, for that little run-in with Patrick Sullivan).

You know what I remember most about Millen during his season with the Redskins in ‘91? Not something he did, but something he didn’t do: complain. When the team deactivated him for the Super Bowl against the Bills, reasoning it would be better off with an extra defensive back (Terry Hoage) than an extra linebacker, he could have raised a fuss — especially since it was his last year in the NFL. (Imagine, say, Bruce Smith, in a similar situation.) But Matt remained the good soldier to the very end … and then marched right into the TV booth.

So it was hard not to root for him when he took the Detroit job. Here was someone who had played in the league being given the reins of a club — not some former scout or Somebody’s Son. Not only that, but he was young (42) and figured to have a fresh take on things. It was like Bronko Nagurski becoming a general manager. Or Dick Butkus. The Great Millen Experiment promised to be reeeeeal interesting.

But it hasn’t been interesting, except in a kind of ghoulish way. The Lions have been a disaster — 9-37 during his tenure — and now Matt’s in trouble for losing his temper after the latest Detroit defeat and shouting a homophobic term at an opponent. (This, on the heels of last season’s celebrated slip-up, when he called one of his own players a “devout coward.”) It’ll be miraculous, really, if owner William Clay Ford gives him another year.

The most disappointing part isn’t that the Lions are bad but that they don’t reflect the personality of their president. They’re wusses. They can’t run the ball (32nd in the league), and they can’t stop anybody (29th in points allowed). At the very least, you would have expected Millen’s Lions to be a rugged bunch, the kind of team you hate to play. Guess toughness doesn’t trickle down.

And I guess there’s something to be said for paying your dues. Millen, of course, didn’t. He took a shortcut to the Detroit front office, won the boss over with his astute observations as an television analyst — and also, no doubt, with his reputation as a rough-and-ready football player (perfect for a down-on-its-luck, Rust Belt franchise).

But it has all gone horribly wrong. Now Millen will go down in history — if, indeed, his Era of Error leaves any mark at all — as the Hawk Harrelson of pro football.

Remember Harrelson’s brief reign as the Chicago White Sox’s general manager back in ‘86? One day he was critiquing the club as part of the broadcasting crew, the next he was calling the shots. Alas, most of Hawk’s ideas were for the birds, if you’ll pardon the expression. (Exhibit A: Firing Tony La Russa, who was almost immediately picked up by the A’s.)

Obviously, running a sports franchise is serious business. Matt Millen accepting the presidency of the Lions isn’t like Mike Weir goofing around at practice with the Caps. Nor is it like Dennis Miller taking a stab at “Monday Night Football.” After all, when things didn’t work out for Miller, he could crack, if he so desired, that he thought it was a good career move, “but I could be wrong.” And people would laugh. Nobody’s going to be laughing in Detroit if Millen is shown the door later this month. What’s happened to the Lions just ain’t funny.

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