Jim Caldwell strives to win over a skeptical fanbase

New Detroit Lions head coach Jim Caldwell, center, stands with team president Tom Lewand, right, and General Manager Martin Mayhew at Ford Field in Detroit.

Carlos Osorio/AP

Jim Caldwell and the Detroit Lions had a sales job to do Wednesday afternoon.

After Ken Whisenhunt snubbed William Clay Ford’s team plane, making Caldwell look like an obvious second choice, fans and media members started picking apart his record. Was he really about to lose his job as Baltimore’s offensive coordinator? Was Joe Flacco’s terrible season due to his coaching? Is his entire success as a head coach due to being in the right place at the right time with Peyton Manning?

The Lions could have repeated what they’ve done so many times in the past and ducked the questions or, in the Jim Schwartz era, come out fighting.

This time, they didn’t do either one. Lions president Tom Lewand took care of the Whisenhunt story quickly and efficiently.

"We talked about having a profile, and while we met with several candidates and had discussions with several others, there were two men who fit what we wanted in our next head coach," Lewand said. "One of those was Ken Whisenhunt, and we wanted to bring him to Detroit this week for more talks, and to give him a chance to meet the Ford family. He got a great opportunity in Tennessee and decided to take it. They are getting a fine man and a great coach."

After that, and a few words from general manager Martin Mayhew, it was time for Caldwell to speak. He could have talked about Ndamukong Suh, Calvin Johnson and Matt Stafford, and he did say a few words about them. He could have lapsed into coach-speak and talked about schemes and techniques. Again, that got a little bit in passing, but that wasn’t why he was on the playing surface at Ford Field — a carefully chosen spot, far away from the sterile press-conference room in Allen Park.

Caldwell was there to give a sermon to the Church of Motown Football.

One of Jim Schwartz’s final acts in Detroit was to swear at the fans. Caldwell started out as far from that as possible.

"When I came here a few weeks ago with the Ravens, the noise level was unbelievable," he said. "There were several opportunities where we had to take a step back, not only because of the passion of these fans, but because they knew just when to make noise. That’s one of the reasons I’m excited to be here."

Caldwell then took the next few minutes to talk about why Detroit is such a perfect fit for him, starting with his childhood in Wisconsin.

"I’m a Midwesterner, and I grew up in a little town right on the state border," he said. "My dad called it a poke-and-plumb town, because by the time you could poke your head out of the window to look around, you were plumb out of town."

The next life tidbit proved Caldwell’s credentials as someone who understands the Motor City.

"My father worked in the auto industry for 35 years, and the UAW took care of my family," he said. "My mom worked in the nursing profession, worked her way up to be a registered nurse, and was lucky enough to work in the field that she loves — geriatric medicine."

On one level, Caldwell could have been giving a motivational speech to any fanbase — he quoted Chinese philosophy, the Bible and John Wooden — but this was definitely a focused message. He didn’t talk directly about the problems that Lions players have had on and off-the-field in recent years, but he happened to have another useful quote.

"A while ago, there was a football coach up the road here at the University of Michigan — a man named Fielding Yost," Caldwell said, startling people who were expecting him to mention Bo Schembechler. "He had a saying about what he expected from his players: ‘Live clean, come clean, think clean. Stop all the things that destroy you mentally, physically, and morally, and begin doing those things that make you keener, finer, more competent.’"

If that didn’t make his point about the fact that he’s not going tolerate arrests or stupid penalties, he talked about wanting a team that was "steel wrapped in velvet".

"We need to have that steel on the field, but I want players who play with toughness and civility," he said. "Off the field, where we have a responsibility to the community that supports us, I want to see that velvet. Anything else will not be tolerated."

Caldwell never mentioned Schwartz by name, nor did he ever allude to him in any way. Still, when he finished his opening statement, there was no question that he had told the fans that those days were over, and there was a new man at the helm. A man who understands them and who understands their frustrations with their football team.

It was only a press conference, and Caldwell will get booed out of the building if he doesn’t win, but for one day, he showed he knew exactly what he needed to do to win over a skeptical fanbase.