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John Niyo: Darrell Bevell quarterbacked Wisconsin's turnaround. Can he do it for the Lions?

By John Niyo, The Detroit News on

Published in Football

Maybe it's not the way he would've drawn it up, but for Darrell Bevell, the Lions' interim head coach, that's nothing new.

Not for a man whose football career took a detour designed by his faith 30 years ago, one that ultimately led him to a starring role in Wisconsin's first- Rose Bowl triumph. And not for a coach whose two decades in the NFL have run the gamut of emotions, from Super Bowl glory and grief to a year of unemployment and now this latest awkward twist of fate, after a post-Thanksgiving purge in Detroit gave him a fourth-quarter shot at the job of a lifetime.

One that had him on the phone with one of his coaching mentors last weekend, shortly after Lions owner Sheila Ford Hamp made it official, firing both general manager Bob Quinn and head coach Matt Patricia and elevating Bevell, who was in his second season as the Lions' offensive coordinator, for the remainder of the season.

"I saw the news break on Saturday and I texted him and said, 'OK, now you get a chance to sit in the big chair,'" laughed Brad Childress, the former Minnesota Vikings coach whose history with Bevell dates back to the late 1980s. "Bev called me back a half-hour later and said, 'Geez, it's kind of a whirlwind here. You got any pointers for me?' We talked for a while, but I told him, 'You just gotta be yourself and do what you believe. You're not gonna turn everything around in five games. But you can put your stamp on it.'"

Childress would know, because he's seen Bevell do this before, turning awkward first impressions into lasting memories. Now 64 and recently retired from coaching, Childress was the offensive coordinator at Northern Arizona who'd recruited Bevell, an all-city quarterback at Chaparral High in Scottsdale, where his father, Jim, was the coach. He was also the one back then who, oblivious to the tenets of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, didn't understand why a redshirt freshman quarterback in line for the starting job wasn't on campus in the summer of 1990.

"I called at the beginning of the summer and talked to his dad, and he said, 'Well, he got the call, Coach," Childress recalled in a phone interview this week, as he drove from Chicago — where his son, Kyle, is on the Bears' coaching staff — to his winter home in Bonita Springs, Fla. "I said, 'I don't really know what call he got, but the call I'm making is I'm the offensive coordinator and I'd like to get him up here.' And he's like, 'No, Coach, he got the call to go on his mission. He's had a mission piggy-banked since he was a little boy.'" More confusion followed, but eventually Childress understood.

 

And soon after, Bevell was off on a two-year missionary trip, sharing the gospel in inner-city Cleveland instead of throwing touchdown passes in Flagstaff, Ariz. A life-changing experience, to be sure. Yet when he returned home in the fall of 1991, Bevell's father got another call. Childress was on the phone again, this time from Madison, where he'd taken a job on Barry Alvarez's staff at Wisconsin. They needed help at quarterback, and wondered if "Elder Bevell" was ready to play football again.

He was, in fact. But shortly after arriving on campus, some surely wondered if this was the right idea. Here was a devout member of the LDS Church on a decidedly liberal campus, a teetotaler at a party school — "He was the designated driver I don't know how many times for the offensive linemen," Childress chuckled — and what's more, a quarterback who hadn't thrown a football or lifted a barbell in 18 months or more. Alvarez remembers the Badgers' strength coach being aghast at Bevell's conditioning level, and as Childress, the assistant who'd gone to bat to bring him on board, recalls those early workouts, "He said the only running he'd done in two years was to get away from dogs and people with guns. And, I mean, he takes his shirt off and you're like, 'Oh, God, put your shirt back on.'"

"Everybody was like, 'Who is this guy? Where did this guy come from?'" laughed Michigan State coach Mel Tucker, who was part of Alvarez's first recruiting class at Wisconsin in 1990. "But next thing you know, he's leading us to the Rose Bowl."

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