New Fontes is same old self NFL's latest face of success lined with laughter, worry NFC CHAMPIONSHIP/LIONS at REDSKINS

January 11, 1992|By Mike O'Hara | Mike O'Hara,Special to The Sun

PONTIAC, Mich. -- The NFL's new face of success stands out from the gruff and stoic figures who patrol the sidelines.

Detroit Lions coach Wayne Fontes wears his emotions not just on his sleeve -- they run from head to toe.

In the course of a football game or an interview, his face is a pattern of worry lines and laugh wrinkles.

Failure didn't change him in his first three seasons as head coach of the Lions. Neither has winning.

He came to Detroit as defensive coordinator in 1985, hugging, cajoling, pampering, pleading, demanding -- whatever it took -- to get the maximum effort out of players.

People waited for Fontes' personality to change when he became interim head coach with five games left in the 1988 season. And they're still waiting.

"I talked to John McKay," Fontes said the other day, referring to his mentor at Southern California and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "He told me, 'Don't change. Be yourself.' "

With the rise in the Lions' fortunes this season, Fontes has been in the national spotlight.

"I have fun with my guys in the media all the time," he told reporters as he prepared for tomorrow's NFC championship game against the Washington Redskins at RFK Stadium. "I enjoy it. I have a good time.

"It's called 'play football.' It's not called 'work football.' "

But it has been hard work for Fontes and the Lions. At the start of the season, there was speculation about Fontes' future in Detroit. Although team owner William Clay Ford voiced support of Fontes whenever he was asked, many wondered if two straight losing seasons had cost him some of that support -- even with a contract that runs through the 1993 season.

Detroit's season started with a humiliating, 45-0 loss to the Redskins at RFK. But the Lions got on a roll after that, winning five straight. They ended the season with a seven-game winning streak for a 12-4 record and the NFC's Central Division championship, earning only the second division title for Detroit since it last won the NFL championship in 1957.

On Christmas Day, Fontes was named coach of the year by The Associated Press.

"Look at all the adversity this team has had," tackle Lomas Brown said. "He gets guys ready to play, and he keeps guys ready to play."

Fontes admits he has changed this season. He has returned to his old style and gotten more involved with his team.

"I've taken the headsets off," Fontes said. "I've become more of a hands-on guy than I was before. I needed to be the way I used to be.

"That's one of the reasons I took the sets off."

Now he roams the sidelines on game day, with one of his aides nearby carrying the headset that keeps him in telephonic communication with his assistants in the press box.

"If I want something changed, I put the headsets on," Fontes said. "I've become involved with the team. It's what I like to be."

Fontes, 51, was a career assistant coach when Ford gave him a battlefield promotion in 1988. He was on McKay's staff at Southern Cal, then moved to Tampa with McKay as a defensive assistant on an expansion team. When McKay was forced out in 1984, Fontes was a popular choice to succeed him. But Bucs management felt a wholesale change was in order, and Fontes was told he was not a candidate.

The Lions hired him as defensive coordinator, even before Darryl Rogers was hired as head coach. The team drifted away from Rogers, whose low-key approach failed to motivate the players.

Waiting in the wings was Fontes, -- whose rapport with his players would give Detroit's football franchise a badly needed jolt of enthusiasm. Ford turned to Fontes when he fired Rogers in 1988, then made him full-time coach after the season.

The Lions had few highlights in Fontes' first two years -- other than Barry Sanders' twisting runs and a five-game winning streak at the end of 1989. They were 7-9 that year, but slipped to 6-10 last season and appeared to be sinking.

If he ever doubted himself, Fontes didn't show it.

"I think it made me stronger," he said. "I don't know if I would have folded my tent before, but I don't think we would have turned things around.

"The players believe in me. They believe in my staff. The bottom line is, they believe in each other."

Brown said: "He's taken a team that was 6-10, with really the same talent, and turned us into division winners. He deserves to be Coach of the Year."

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