O'HARA: Wayne Fontes talks missing link and Sanders' retirement

Posted Jul 25, 2014

Wayne's World: Lions were a player (quarterback) away from being a Super Bowl team; and Barry's retirement was no surprise.

Wayne Fontes’ free-flowing wit is as sharp as ever, and so are his memories of the Lions teams he coached – and how close he thinks they were to being able to win multiple Super Bowls.

His opinion of how good his Lions teams were can be disputed, but Fontes was in winning form as a story-teller in a radio interview Detroit Sports 105.1 Friday afternoon.

There were some serious moments involving his tenure as head coach of the Lions. Without specifically mentioning any player or position by name, Fontes made it clear that the lack of a franchise-quality quarterback kept the Lions from fulfilling their potential.

Fontes talked about how good fortune allowed the Lions to draft Barry Sanders with the third pick overall, and about how he had predicted that Sanders would retire without fanfare or warning when he decided he was through playing.

Wayne FontesWayne Fontes (Photo: AP Images)

Fontes had a close coach-player relationship with Sanders, and he explained his feeling that Sanders would quit when he felt his time as a player had run out.

“That was him,” Fontes said. “He didn’t care about records. He didn’t care how many times he carried the football. He was 100-percent a team player. I just knew that one day he’d come in without any questions at all and say, ‘Coach, I’ve had enough.’”

Sanders announced his retirement to the Lions by FAX on the eve of training camp in 1999.

Fontes said he called Sanders when he heard the news that he was retiring, and the two spoke for a while. Fontes asked Sanders if he was ever coming back.

“He said to me, ‘Are you ever coming back?’” Fontes said, laughing,. “I said no. He said, ‘Neither am I, Wayne. I’ve had enough.’

“He walked away, being probably the greatest running back ever to play the game.”

The 1989 draft was top-head with stars. Four of the first five players are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame – Troy Aikman, Sanders, Derrick Thomas and Deion Sanders. The only player in the top five not to make it was offensive tackle Tony Mandarich, drafted second overall after Aikman went to the Cowboys – and leaving Barry Sanders to the Lions.

“We heard rumors that they wanted the big tackle to protect their quarterback,” Fontes said. “We were excited, hoping they would take Mandarich.”

The Packers did just that, and an iconic star fell into the Lions’ laps.

Fontes made his mark in Detroit, too. Players liked his coaching style, and the Lions often played their best ball late in the season when division titles, playoff berths – and jobs – were at stake.

The Lions made the playoffs four times in Fontes’ eight full seasons as head coach from 1989-96. They won two division titles (1991 and ’93) and had 10 or more wins three times (1991, ’93 and ’95). However, the Lions came up short in the playoffs every year, despite having a roster stacked with Pro Bowl players such as Lomas Brown, Chris Spielman, Bennie Blades, Jerry Ball, Herman Moore and Sanders.

The Lions’ lone victory in their four postseason appearances under Fontes was a 38-6 rout of the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC divisional round at the Silverdome in the 1991 season. In the NFC Championship the next week, Washington overpowered the Lions, 41-10, to go to the Super Bowl and crush the Buffalo Bills to win the championship.

The Lions were eliminated from the playoffs by the Packers twice and by the Eagles and Washington once each.

 “This is not sour grapes,” Fontes said. “We were a player (short) – maybe one key player, and the whole world knows what the key payer is.

“We were one key player from going to maybe three Super Bowls. That was a good football team. My coaching staff bust its behind. We just couldn’t get over the hump.”

Fontes, 75 and living in Tarpon Springs, Fla., never returned to coaching after being fired.

Midway through the interview with 105.1-FM, Fontes was talking about how he had occasionally thought about the possibility of the Lions calling him to return to coach. Suddenly, the telephone connection was broken.

Fontes laughed when he was back on the line after a short break.

“I said I was hoping to get a call back to coach, and the line went dead,” Fontes said. “You guys ran me out and are keeping me out.”

Fontes originally was hired as defensive coordinator under Daryl Rogers in 1985 and served in that position through the 11th game of the 1988 season, when Rogers was fired. Fontes was promoted to replace him on an interim basis.

The Lions went 2-3 under Fontes in the last five games and showed a surge of energy.  He as made full-time head coach early in the offseason and lasted eight full seasons.

Fontes had a 67-71 won-lost record in all games. He was 66-67 in the regular season, 1-4 in the postseason, and 64-64 in his eight seasons as full-time head coach.

The 67 victories are a franchise record. He was named Coach of the Year after the 1991 season, when the Lions went 12-4.