Fire Millen: A Microcosm Of Michigan's Year

December 27, 2005
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Arguably the worst managed organization in a city that boasts Delphi, GM, Northwest Airlines and Kwame Kilpatrick’s municipal government, the Detroit Lions are now facing an all-out revolt from customers and stakeholders — something that West Michigan business leaders believe could have been avoided with some help from the corporate playbook.

With little doubt, the “Fire Millen” saga marks the low point of the franchise’s history. In only a few short weeks, it has become a piece of pop culture, a brand unto itself that will produce countless T-shirts, bumper stickers, coffee mugs and boxer shorts. Perhaps even a track from Detroit’s Eminem or Kid Rock.

As fans rally for the removal of Lions President and CEO Matt Millen, the spectacle — including cat-and-mouse games of sign-waving fans at Ford Field, chants and John 3:16-style signs at sporting events across the nation and on Detroit-area lawns, a slew of Web sites, and the Dec. 18 “Angry Fan March” — is increasingly overshadowing the team itself (much like another Detroit original, Devil’s Night, once overshadowed Halloween).

For as long as most of its fans have been alive, the Detroit Lions have represented high hopes, ruined All-Stars, false starts, disappointing finishes, a body count of head coaches, and a battered customer base. In recent years, however, the team was also supposed to be a key part of Detroit’s urban renewal.

Instead, it serves as a reminder of all that is wrong with Michigan.

Mark de Roo, principal of Holland-based Keystone Coaching and Consulting, notes that in the Detroit area, and Michigan in general, things are not all that rosy. People desperately want something to rally around. If they can’t get that from their employer, maybe they can get it from their sports teams. In some ways, he says, Millen is the victim of circumstance.

At the same time Millen has obviously not been effective with his selection of players, coaches and support staff. Since his arrival in 2001 through Friday, the Lions were 20-58. His staff has produced seasons of 2-14, 3-13, 5-11, 6-10 and 4-10 (through Friday).

All this would likely have been overlooked, however, if not for the mid-season firing of head coach Steve Mariucci earlier this month.

As Jeff Lambert, managing partner of public and investors relation firm Lambert Edwards & Associates, told GRBJ, “As a microcosm for corporate business, what they lack is a vision that everyone buys into, including the players, coaches and fans.” In the absence of such communication, a void is created in which stakeholder assumptions can escalate into an unmanageable situation. For this reason, corporations are set up with a system of checks and balances, a board of directors that makes management accountable to shareholders. The Lions have no means of making owner William Clay Ford responsible to his stakeholders.

In a way, Millen and the Lions might be a foil for the frustrations of Michigan workers, but only a temporary one. In two weeks, the Lions’ season will be over, and save for a momentary reminder when the Super Bowl is played in Detroit in February, Michigan’s sports attention will turn to the Red Wings and Pistons. And with them, Michigan has new hope.    

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