DARRYL ROGERS : In Tempe, He Could Not Hide Those Lion Ayes

Times Staff Writer

Those who are close to Detroit Lion Coach Darryl Rogers say two of his outstanding characteristics are honesty and integrity.

Sure, they say, Rogers lied when he left Arizona State last winter, claiming he had not even met with the Lions less than 24 hours after he had signed a contract to coach them.

But, they quickly add, Rogers is honest enough to admit that he lied.

And he has the integrity to say that he would do it again.

As Rogers said in an interview last week: "How could I have done anything else under the circumstances?"

The circumstances:

In December, after Monte Clark had been fired as Detroit's coach, the Lions contacted Rogers to see whether he would be interested in the job.

On Feb. 5, the Lions signed Rogers to a five-year contract, reportedly worth $1.3 million. They agreed at the time that no announcement would be made until Feb. 15, two days after the national signing date for high school football recruits.

Also on Feb. 5, newspapers in Detroit and Phoenix reported that Rogers would be the Lions' new coach.

On that same day, Rogers denied it.

The next day, a press conference was called in Detroit to introduce Rogers as the Lion coach.

"The lyin' coach," is the way one Detroit columnist introduced him.

Even if he bothered to read it, Rogers said he would not have been bothered.

He said he did what he had to do to protect Arizona State. In his book, that makes him loyal. If someone else wants to call him a liar, so be it.

"College coaches have a very difficult time in making a decision to go to pro football during the college recruiting season," he said. "By the nature of the business, switching from the college to the pros comes at a very inopportune time. How can you tell everyone you're leaving without hurting the university's recruiting?"

It is a good question.

So is this one:

How can a coach not tell high school athletes, who are in the process of making perhaps the most important decision of their lives to that point, that he will not be the one coaching them if they decide to enroll at the university he is representing?

Rogers said he considered that, eventually concluding that he was recruiting the athletes to play for Arizona State, not for Darryl Rogers.

Nothing would change at Arizona State, except, of course, for the head coach.

As it turned out, that made a difference to several athletes, which Rogers knew that it would when he asked the Lions to delay the announcement of his signing until Feb. 15. By then, recruits would would have signed away their next four years.

While Rogers was still recruiting for Arizona State, he said he had verbal commitments from 26 players. A week after it was announced that Rogers was moving to Detroit, that number had dwindled to 14. Quartz Hill's Aaron Emanuel, one of the nation's most highly recruited running backs, canceled his visit to Arizona State after learning that Rogers was leaving. Emanuel signed with USC. The Sun Devils eventually signed 21 prospects, only two of whom are expected to see much playing time Saturday night in Tempe against the Trojans.

Rogers not only had sacrificed his credibility, he had failed to deliver for Arizona State.

"If I had to do it all over again, I'm sure there would be some things that I'd do differently," Rogers said. "I think there are some misconceptions to some degree about what happened, circumstances on how it came about. But when it gets down to to it, I'm the one who has to take the blame.

"I should have handled it better, but I don't have anybody to blame but myself."

A coach who lied? He admitted to that.

A lyin' coach? No, he said.

"I honestly believe that if anybody knew me, they would never say anything like that," he said.

One person who came to Rogers' defense was the Lions' owner, William Clay Ford.

In an interview with The Detroit News, Ford said: "His intentions were the best. He really wanted to protect Arizona State the best he could. It was in the recruiting period. He was damned if he did and damned if he didn't.

"He'll be the first to admit he made a mistake in judgment. But this stuff that he's a liar and deceitful, nothing could be further from the truth."

An epilogue:

Emerging from the rubble appears to be a happy ending.

Rogers was extremely popular in Detroit after the Lions won their first two games, including a 26-21 victory over the Dallas Cowboys. He probably is less popular after the Lions' 14-6 loss to Indianapolis Sunday in their third game.

Still, he is considered an improvement over his predecessor, Clark.

The players like Rogers' low-key, thoughtful manner, which, ironically, was one of the reasons he was criticized at Arizona State. Many Sun Devil followers felt he could not inspire college athletes.

"He's a great chess player," Lion nose guard Doug English said after the victory over the Cowboys.

When that was relayed to Rogers, he said, "I don't play chess."

"Well," English said, "if he did play chess, he'd be great."

In five years at Arizona State, Rogers never won over the majority of Sun Devil fans.

Joe Gilmartin, sports editor of the Phoenix Gazette, said that is because Rogers followed Frank Kush, who has been elevated to near legendary status in Tempe.

"It was a no-win situation," Gilmartin said, despite Rogers' 37-18-1 record. The Sun Devils were 9-2 in 1981 and 10-2 in 1982, which ended with a 32-21 victory over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. A 2-3 record against arch-rival Arizona did not help.

Gilmartin said the fans never forgave Rogers for settling for a 26-26 tie against UCLA in the second game of the 1983 season, even though it was a sound football decision.

"They knew Frank Kush never would have done that," Gilmartin said.

When the newspapers defended Rogers, Gilmartin said the critics called to complain.

"One called Darryl's radio call-in show and asked how much he was paying the newspapers," Gilmartin said.

The new coach at Arizona State is John Cooper, who spent the last eight seasons as the head coach at Tulsa.

Gilmartin said he anticipates a long honeymoon for Cooper, if, for no other reason, because he succeeded Rogers.

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