Stir It Up: Coaching carousel’s final spin for Detroit teams

Jan 7, 2015 at 1:00 am

I only write about sports about once a year, and the Harbaugh mania that dominated the media last week brought this one on.

All things U-M seemed to revolve around the hiring of new football head coach Jim Harbaugh. Wolverines fans' Christmas list, wish list, to-do list, long list and short list all had one item on it – and Santa delivered – albeit a few days after the holiday but still in time to make the season merry. It was right-on-time for the maize-and-blue folks who sat home with visions of 2015 sugar plums in their heads while their biggest rivals spun cotton and smelled the roses in warmer climes.

That has to be the final spin of a coaching carousel in southeast Michigan major sports that has been twirling over the past year or so. In November 2013 the Tigers hired still-wet-behind-the-ears manager Brad Ausmus. Then in January 2014 the Lions hired steady-handed Jim Caldwell as head coach. Then in May the Pistons hired Stan Van Gundy as president of basketball operations and head coach, solidifying power in what had been a splintered front office the past few years.

Add Harbaugh to the list of new coaches and you have a watershed era for coaching around here. Even MSU, which is currently a model of coaching stability in its football and basketball programs, is experiencing the angst (at least among fans) of having to replace storied defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who was hired as head football coach at Pittsburgh.

So far the results of the coaching changes have been promising but, to use a sports metaphor, nobody has knocked the ball out of the park yet.

Last season, Ausmus was a rookie manager who took over a team many expected to make it to the World Series. It was an up and down year. Although it wasn't necessarily Ausmus' fault, he never found or developed a closer among the myriad pitchers who made their way through the bullpen. That's been the biggest shortcoming of the team these past few years. Still, his aggressive base-running style ended with a 90-72 record for the Tigers and an American League Central Division championship. However, it was embarrassing the way they got swept out of the division series.

The Ausmus result wasn't what we expected, and if next year is not better there will be calls for his head. Either way I don't think Ausmus is going anywhere else soon.

Caldwell wasn't the first choice to be head coach for the Lions' brain trust. Among those approached was Caldwell's old boss Tony Dungy, and former San Diego offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. Dungy chose to stay retired from coaching and Whisenhunt took the helm for the Tennessee Titans (who went 2-14 this year).

So far Caldwell is looking like a pretty good hire. Fans are gaga over the 11-5 record in the regular season after most prognosticators predicted only seven to nine wins. Caldwell was expected to fix the offense, but lo and behold he delivered the number one run defense and overall one of the top defenses in the NFL. These guys were still playing in January, a time frame for playing little known among Lions devotees.

These new Detroit pigskin bad boys are inconsistent and have taken to stomping opponents' legs with their cleated footwear. Despite Caldwell's steady and calm public demeanor — he is more thoughtful than visceral, quoting Chinese and Greek philosophers — fans are ready to go bonkers. They've been waiting so very long for a winning football team and want to see the Lions stomp some rump. Even the Spirit of Detroit statue got into play last week by sporting a Lions jersey for the first time ever. The jury is still out on where this is going, but at the moment Caldwell looks like a great hire. If he delivers a couple more 11-win seasons, we'll be giving him the key to the city.

Pistons owner Tom Gores has already handed the keys to everything Pistons to the guy we are beginning to know as SVG – Stan Van Gundy. It's been some years since many people have cared about our Auburn Hills pro basketball team, and the stumbling beginning this season has been less than exciting. But even SVG managed to up the ante over the holidays by dropping Josh Smith from the team and eating some $27 million in salary over the next five years to do it.

Amazingly enough, the team responded by playing like pros and gifting us with a three-game winning streak for the holidays. It's probably more that the guys are finally getting the hang of SVG's system. Andre Drummond looks like the guy they've been telling us he can be, and Greg Monroe looks like he actually wants to be here, at least for the moment. Coach Van Gundy has to make a whole lot more magic happen here to be successful — and it is going to be at least a year before we know if this team is headed in the right direction. But when it all comes down SVG will be worthy of plenty of praise or blame because he holds all the cards.

The same thing goes for Harbaugh at Michigan. The Wolverines got their guy by putting a laser focus on him and no one else, and giving him two truckloads of money — not to mention sliding former coach Brady Hoke a few million to go away and keep his mouth shut. Seeing that Harbaugh was hired with no permanent athletic director in place it's difficult to believe that he hasn't been handed carte blanche to do whatever he wants. No athletic director is going to come in and start pushing him around. And that's just the way fans like it for the moment.

There's little more to say about Harbaugh until the fall when everyone expects him to start winning games out of the gate. Well, he could turn heads by inspiring a few five-star high school players to become Wolverines. Of course, Hoke pulled off that magic but couldn't spin it into wins during the season.

In the meantime folks around Ann Arbor can walk on clouds because hiring Harbaugh was their equivalent of winning a bowl game this year. They walk proudly with smiles on their faces and a gleam in their eyes.

Michigan basketball, as well as MSU hoops, isn't even thinking about a coaching change. And the Red Wings seem happy with Mike Babcock.

Hopefully all teams are well set in that regard for quite some time. If not, it means something has gone terribly awry. If all things go the way they seem to be headed, we should be awash in playoff appearances and bowl games in the 2015-16 sports season. There is not one fan base that will be satisfied without a postseason appearance.

We've been through a lot of head coaches around here recently. Let's hope they do well enough so that nobody is calling for their heads next year.