Matt Millen stood, soaking wet, outside the 226-year-old stone house he owns in eastern Pennsylvania. It was late May. A steady rain was falling on the 150-acre estate, and that made Millen happy. The rain was feeding his wife's endless flower beds and filling the property's cistern.
"I love this cistern," said Millen, who, in a workout shell and jeans, was making no attempt to stay dry. "This property is set on a limestone vein, and when we dug around to get stone for the addition to the house and for a garage we were going to build, we found this stone cistern. Four thousand gallons. Over two hundred years old. The guys working with me said, 'Get rid of it. That's a lot of stone we could use.' I said no. We relined it and restored it. We slanted the gutters on the house so they'd feed the water into the cistern. Two good thunderstorms and it's filled. Then if we go three weeks without rain, we can still irrigate the whole property with the rainwater." Millen shrugged. "I love that we took something so old and made it valuable again. In life you take what you have and you make it work. Football's the same way."
Millen recently began another rocky renovation project. This one, the reconstruction of the Detroit Lions, promises to be tougher than relining a 200-year-old cistern. The Lions last won an NFL title in 1957 and have won only one playoff game in the 44 years since. The previous regime tried to narrow the talent gap between Detroit and the league's elite by throwing huge money at players with slightly-above-average talent at best—running back James Stewart, quarterback Charlie Batch, defensive tackle James Jones, for example—thus creating major salary-cap problems for the new administration.
When Lions owner William Clay Ford handed the CEO and president job to Millen last Jan. 9, the hiring marked the first time since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 that the day-to-day operations of a team had been turned over to someone with no coaching, scouting or front-office experience. Millen played linebacker in the NFL for 12 seasons—with the Raiders (in Oakland and L.A.), the San Francisco 49ers and the Washington Redskins—and won four Super Bowl rings, but for the past nine years his association with the game has been limited to working as a broadcaster for CBS and Fox. Millen, in fact, has never run anything bigger than a construction project.
He liked broadcasting, and it was no secret that he was being groomed as John Madden's successor at Fox. Still, the job left Millen with an empty feeling: He missed the emotions associated with winning and losing. "There was a void," he says, "that nothing in broadcasting could fill." Ford had almost hired him two years earlier, only to get cold feet when Bobby Ross, Detroit's coach at the time, balked at the notion of turning over personnel authority to Millen. Ross, however, retired nine games into last season, and when the Lions were upset by the Chicago Bears at the Silverdome last Christmas Eve, throwing away a playoff spot in the process, Ford took another run at Millen.
"Matt came to see me at my home in Florida, and after 10 minutes with him I was charged up," Ford recalls about a late December meeting. "He convinced me there's little difference between our team and the great teams." For the first time since he took over as owner, in 1964, Ford gave one man sole control of the operation.
Hardly the executive type, Millen showed up for his introductory news conference wearing a wrinkled, seven-year-old blue blazer, sneakers that had belonged to Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington and a tie borrowed from broadcast partner Dick Stockton. His office decor is best characterized by a pair of framed Three Stooges pictures that hang on the wall. He rides a Harley to work. In Millen's world every day is casual Friday, his typical attire being polo shirt, jeans, sneakers and a ball cap that reads DO IT ONCE—DO IT RIGHT. When Mike Holmgren, the Seattle Seahawks' executive vice president and coach, saw Millen scouting on the Michigan campus in March, he quipped, "Team president, CEO, general manager—and he looks like a schmo." Even the 43-year-old Millen admits, "I am an experiment."
Nonetheless, he shows signs of being the precocious leader this slumbering franchise has hungered for. Over the past nine years, it's unlikely that anyone has seen more NFL teams, in person and on tape, and huddled with more players and coaches than Millen. To prepare for his televised Sunday game and his radio broadcast of the Monday night game, he sat in on meetings with four teams each weekend. That access should stand him in good stead when it comes to judging free-agent talent, though he is strapped by a tight salary cap this off-season and will have to do surgery on a 2002 payroll already $4 million over the NFL's projected cap.
Millen is a hands-on boss. At a spring minicamp he jumped into a drill with rookie tackle Jeff Backus, a first-round draft pick out of Michigan, and showed him how to slap a defensive lineman's hands off his jersey. While he leaves most of the contract work to capologist Tom Lewand and senior vice president Kevin Warren, Millen likes to be involved in the negotiations. Guard Brenden Stai, who had met with the Lions early in the free-agent signing period, was about to visit the New York Giants when he got a call from Millen. "I just called up homefair.com on my computer," Millen told Stai, "and do you realize that a $700,000 house here would cost you $1 million in Bergen County, New Jersey?" (Stai signed with Detroit.) Finally, Millen is big on hugs. When he and Warren say goodbye for the weekend, the two embrace warmly.
Millen hopes to build such camaraderie throughout the organization. That's why he eliminated an arbitrary salary structure and bonus system that former chief operating officer Chuck Schmidt had used. (One secretary, for instance, had a significantly higher Christmas bonus than a department head.) Millen instituted a bonus system based solely on the team's performance: winning the NFC Central and playoff games. All the team's estimated 75 front-office employees are eligible to receive a bonus (perhaps as much as $5,000) for a division tide and each postseason advance made by the team. "I want everyone in the building to know everything we do comes down to winning," Millen says. "Nothing else matters."