DETROIT — Jim Caldwell stood at the podium on the makeshift stage at Ford Field on Wednesday afternoon and made a simple declaration.
He plans on winning. Now.
“Do you believe in providence? I certainly do,” Caldwell said. “I think there is a reason why I’m here. I think without question that is to win a championship.”
The 58-year-old Caldwell — he turns 59 on Thursday — spent much of his introductory news conference with the Detroit Lions speaking about accountability. How he wants to have a tough team that is disciplined as the team’s 26th head coach and first African-American head coach.
<!––> I think there is a reason why Im here. I think without question that is to win a championship.
” — Jim Caldwell
He said when he spoke with his new players throughout the course of the day, the message from them and from him was clear. They have the pieces in place to be a winner and a playoff team immediately.
“They believe and I believe the time is now,” Caldwell said. “Not two years or three years from now down the road somewhere. We’re right here, right now. As I had an opportunity to look at this situation from afar when the job first opened up, I took a look at what I considered to be not only the best job in the league I thought, but then also the best fit for me.
“And I believe, without question, this is the best fit for me.”
And he explained simply as well why he is different than every other Detroit Lions coach that has come before, he said because he has been there before.
There, of course, is the playoffs, a place the Lions have been only once this century. The Super Bowl, where he won one with Indianapolis and one with Baltimore. And he was the head coach for another Colts team that went to a Super Bowl — a game the Lions have never played in.
That, he said, was the difference.
“I can tell you why I think I have an opportunity to do so — that I know I have an opportunity to do so,” Caldwell said. “Because I’ve been there before, I’ve done it before.”
And it was part of the difference in why Detroit eventually tabbed Caldwell as one of its two finalists along with Ken Whisenhunt. The Lions admitted that they had a plane ready to go to San Diego to pick up Whisenhunt and bring him back to Detroit to meet with ownership, but said no offer had been made to the now-Titans head coach.
“I’m not saying that we didn’t get far down the road with Ken,” team president Tom Lewand said. “What I’m saying is we wanted to bring him back here and have some more conversations. If those had gone well, who knows what would have happened.
“But for us, we had two talented finalists and when Ken decided to go to Tennessee, again, I wish him well and it’s a great decision for him and for his family and for the Tennessee Titans. But for us, that other guy who fit that profile and was a strong finalist was Jim Caldwell. As I said up there, anybody who thinks that we’re settling for Jim Caldwell doesn’t know Jim Caldwell.”
They refused to say, though, that Caldwell was the second choice candidate. They instead insisted they had two finalists and when Whisenhunt chose Tennessee, they focused in more on Caldwell.
Of course, two weeks ago, the Lions brass didn’t know much about Caldwell. He was one of many candidates on a list Detroit had. Eventually, Lions vice chairman Bill Ford Jr. said he met or spoke with five candidates, although he declined to name who they were.
And both Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew said they spoke with more candidates than the four that had been publicly reported: Caldwell, Whisenhunt, former Tennessee coach Mike Munchak and former Houston coach Gary Kubiak.
One road they did not travel down, though, was the realm of college coaches.
“We did not interview any college coaches,” Mayhew said. “We had a list that was a little bit longer than the guys that we interviewed. As we went through our list of first choices for interviews, we realized that our head coach was coming from that list.
“We did not continue down speaking with some other people. We sent some requests to speak to a couple coordinators that we ended up not actually speaking to, but the list was a little bit longer than people thought.”
Mayhew said the list they devised had coaches with similar traits for their players to see someone with “credibility and confidence.”
Caldwell was 26-22 in three seasons with Indianapolis, including two playoff berths. He was the offensive coordinator in Baltimore this season and took over for the latter stages of the 2012 season, when the Ravens won the Super Bowl. His only prior head coaching experience was at Wake Forest, where he went 26-63 from 1993 to 2000.
The job opened after the Lions fired former coach Jim Schwartz on Dec. 30. His firing came after Detroit collapsed over the second half of the season, losing six of its last seven games and turning a 6-3 team bound for the playoffs to a 7-9 team that missed the playoffs entirely.
That left Ford Jr. and his family frustrated, necessitating the change.
“The second half collapse, particularly in the fourth quarter in so many games was incredibly disappointing,” Ford Jr. said in his first public comments about the Lions since October. “And that was something, obviously, that we couldn’t live with.”
So the Lions went searching for a new coach, but said the team did not think of replacing Mayhew.
Ford Jr. said the profile of what Detroit wanted in a head coach — previous experience and offensive knowledge — was not too constricting or limiting.
“I think,” Ford Jr. said. “We got the right guy.”
- Previously covered University of Michigan for ESPN.com and AnnArbor.com
- Also covered Notre Dame for Fort Wayne Journal Gazette