Without a doubt, Wayne Fontes was one of the best coaches in Detroit Lions franchise history.
Prior to Fontes’ first full year as Detroit’s head coach in 1988, the Lions had missed the postseason 27 times since they won their fourth NFL Championship in 1957.
Fontes promptly righted the ship and guided the Lions to four postseason appearances and two division titles during his nine-year tenure in the Motor City.
Fontes helped the Lions win a franchise-record twelve games in the 1991 NFL season. To nobody’s surprise, he won 1991 NFL Coach of the Year honors.
Not only that, but Fontes also helped establish legendary Lions running back Barry Sanders’ Hall of Fame career.
Wayne Fontes, the popular players’ coach, will always be a part of Detroit Lions Nation.
Early Life and Playing Career
Wayne Fontes (pronounced “Fonts”) was born to parents Caetano and Matilda in New Bedford, MA on February 2, 1940. He is the third of their five sons.
Three of Wayne’s four brothers – Mel, Lenny, and John – also became football coaches at the high school, college, and professional levels.
Fontes is of Portugese descent. His father, Caetano, was a fisherman born in the Portuguese colony of Cape Verde.
Fontes spent the first fifteen years of his life in Wareham, MA. He and his family moved to Canton, OH when he was 16. His dad, Caetano, got a job in a steel mill when the family moved to the Buckeye State in 1956.
According to The New York Times’ Timothy W. Smith, the Fontes family settled in an ethnically-diverse neighborhood. Their house was just a stone’s throw away from the famous R&B group’s, The O’Jays. It wasn’t a coincidence Fontes regularly sang their songs in his office well into his NFL coaching career.
Wayne Fontes attended McKinley High School in Canton, OH. McKinely was a three-sport star who excelled in basketball, football, and baseball for the McKinley Bulldogs.
Fontes was one of the most popular students in school during his high school days. Many girls also adored him, per The Washington Post’s Michelle Kaufman.
Fontes attended Michigan State University from 1958 to 1961. He played wide receiver for a Michigan State Spartans team that went 11-6-1 under head football coach Duffy Daugherty from 1959 to 1960.
Fontes also played baseball as an infielder for the Spartans.
Wayne Fontes, Spartan Infielder pic.twitter.com/QFBi1cyUV0
— Iffy The Dopester (@IffyTheDopester) September 23, 2019
The NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles selected Fontes in the ninth round of the 1961 NFL Draft. However, he decided to sign with the AFL’s New York Titans (now known as the New York Jets) in 1962.
Fontes had a solid season with the Titans as a defensive back. He recorded four interceptions, including an 83-yard pick-six – a team record that stood for the next twenty-seven years.
The Titans went 5-9 in Fontes’ lone year with the franchise in 1962. An injured posterior cruciate ligament forced him to end his pro football career prematurely.
Fontes returned to his alma mater, Michigan State University, to study for a master’s degree. Before long, Wayne Fontes embarked on a memorable football coaching career that spanned three decades.
Football Coaching Career
Wayne Fontes began his football coaching career when he was 23 years old. He became an assistant under his college football coach, Duffy Daugherty, in the 1963 NCAA season. The Michigan State Spartans went 6-2-1 in Fontes’ only year as an assistant coach in Lansing, MI.
Fontes guided the Visitation Panthers, a Catholic high school football team based in Bay City, MI, to an undefeated season in 1965.
The Panthers were in their last year of existence in 1965. They ended things on a high note by winning all nine of their games and clinching the Valley Parochial League title – their first in a decade. Among Visitation’s standout players were Tom Satkowiak, Keith Volk, Don Norgan, and Dan Gavrila.
The Panthers almost squandered their undefeated season when they trailed 20-0 after the first half in one game. Norgan remembered Fontes kicking a pail of oranges that hit the ceiling at halftime. The Panthers ultimately recovered from the deficit and won the game.
“He made us love the game – that I know,” Norgan told MLive.com’s Lee Thompson in September 2017. “There’s no question that he loved it.”
Not only did Wayne Fontes love football with all his heart, but he also gave credit to the Visitation Panthers for setting the tone for the rest of his memorable, three-decade career as a football coach.
— Hank Steeler (@HankSteeler) February 10, 2020
Fontes thought it was good for young, determined, and passionate football players like the Panthers to surround a young coach like him.
“I expected that everywhere I went after that because my guys in Bay City were like that,” Fontes told MLive.com some fifty-two years later.
Fontes went 5-2-1 in his first year as Panthers’ head football coach in 1964. It was his second football coaching gig after an injury forced him to retire from professional football after just one season.
Fontes spent the next several years as an assistant coach with the Dayton Flyers and Iowa Hawkeyes football teams.
Wayne Fontes summoned up the courage to approach USC Trojans head football coach John McKay at a coaches’ convention in Houston, TX in 1972.
The 32-year-old Fontes approached McKay and told him he wanted to work for him, per Kaufman.
Unfortunately, McKay wasn’t interested. However, Fontes persisted and before he knew it, McKay relented and granted him an interview. He told Fontes to call him the following morning.
Fontes rang him up before the crack of dawn. Corky McKay roused her husband from her sleep and told him Fontes was on the phone. McKay told him to call again later in the day. After receiving another call from Fontes within the next hour, McKay hired him.
“I hired the guy so I could get some sleep,” McKay told Kaufman nineteen years later. “I figured a guy that persistent had to be good.”
It was the beginning of a harmonious 29-year relationship between McKay and Fontes that lasted until the former’s death in 2001.
Fontes served as McKay’s assistant with the USC Trojans from 1972 to 1975. The Trojans averaged ten wins per year and won two national titles during that three-year time frame.
It's McKay Monday. Here we see John McKay looking rather dejected with assistant Wayne Fontes. (If only Fontes knew what his future held) After one loss McKay told reporters, "Well we didn't block. But we made up for it by not tackling." Thankfully that isn't the case for us now pic.twitter.com/MwhFsBL2KC
— The Pewter Plank (@ThePewterPlank) March 8, 2021
When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hired John McKay as the first head coach in franchise history before the 1986 NFL season, Wayne Fontes followed him into the pro football coaching ranks.
Fontes coached the Buccaneers’ defensive backfield from 1976 to 1981. The Bucs eventually promoted him to their defensive coordinator position in 1982.
Sometime in 1981, Fontes and his brother Len discussed the possibility of working on the same coaching staff. That vision never materialized until 1990 – Wayne’s third year as the Detroit Lions’ head coach. Len was his brother’s defensive backfield coach with the Lions from 1990 to 1991.
At the time when Wayne and Len first thought about the possibility, Wayne was entering his first season as the Bucs’ defensive coordinator. On the other hand, Len was in his second season as the Cleveland Browns’ defensive backfield coach.
Len, also called Lenny, told The Washington Post in 1991 that Wayne is more outgoing and gregarious than him. Consequently, Wayne is perfect for his coaching role on the sidelines. For his part, Lenny was at his best when he worked up in the press box.
During Fontes’ nine-year tenure in Tampa Bay, FL, the Buccaneers had several up-and-down seasons. They made three postseason appearances but never went past the NFC Championship Game from 1976 to 1984.
Fontes told the Tampa Bay Times’ Dave Scheiber in the fall of 2005 that defensive end Lee Roy Selmon and quarterback Doug Williams were the two Buccaneers players who stood out the most. In Fontes’ opinion, they were great players of high character.
Regrettably, the Buccaneers’ fortunes took a turn for the worse when they lost Selmon and Williams. Tampa Bay never won more than seven games in a season from 1985 to 1996.
Fontes had high hopes the Buccaneers would hire him as their next head coach after his mentor, John McKay, retired following the 1984 NFL season. He told the Tampa Bay Times he wanted the job because of his ties to the city.
However, Bucs owner Hugh Culverhouse hired Leeman Bennett instead.
“But it didn’t work out. They shut the door on me, and another door opened up,” Fontes told Scheiber twenty years later. “I walked through it, and the rest is history.”
The open door Wayne Fontes walked through was the Detroit Lions’ defensive coordinator position prior to the 1985 NFL season.
In Fontes’ three years as the Lions’ defensive coordinator, Detroit had a 16-31 win-loss record. Since winning their fourth NFL Championship in 1957, the Lions had missed the postseason 27 times in the past 30 years.
Wayne Fontes’ reputation took a serious hit in his third year as the Lions’ defensive coordinator.
Rochester Hills, MI police charged Fontes with two counts of drunk driving in the fall of 1987. According to a police report, The Washington Post’s Tom Friend obtained (via The Los Angeles Times), Fontes drove his car into a ditch and then walked to a gas station on November 15.
Fontes, who admitted to his brother Lenny that he was drinking before the accident, was about to get into a second car his wife Evelyn drove when law enforcement arrived. Fontes got back into his car and drove off.
Police pulling Fontes over afterward was the reason behind the second drunk driving charge. Fontes told police his son was behind the wheel and transferred to his wife’s car. Authorities didn’t find his son in either vehicle.
Fontes promptly changed his story and told police officers a phantom was driving his car. They booked Fontes afterward.
Authorities also found a vial of cocaine in Fontes’ vehicle. However, since the police officer had no warrant at the time, a district judge consequently dropped Fontes’ cocaine possession charge.
John McKay, who was like a father figure to Wayne Fontes, told The Washington Post that the allegations of cocaine possession against his former protege couldn’t have been true.
Fontes would have dropped subtle hints he used cocaine in previous years if the charge against him was true, but he never did. McKay also insisted Fontes didn’t drink much, either.
After the Lions won just two of eleven games to start the 1988 NFL season, they fired head coach Darryl Rogers. Fontes replaced him on an interim basis and went 2-3 the rest of the way.
The Lions removed Fontes’ interim tag prior to the 1989 NFL season. At that point, Fontes had to determine whether he should retain his players’ coach approach or become the stereotypical, stoic NFL head coach.
His former boss with the USC Trojans and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, John McKay, called him up before he started his first full season as Detroit Lions head coach in 1989.
“Wayne, let me give you some advice,” McKay told Fontes (via The New York Times). “A lot of people get jobs and they change. They try to become a John McKay or a (Bill) Parcells or (Don) Shula. Just be Wayne Fontes.”
Fontes took McKay’s advice to heart and blazed his own trail in the National Football League coaching ranks for the next eight seasons.
Fontes told Smith in 1992 that just because coaches like Don Shula or Mike Ditka yelled at their players didn’t mean he had to follow suit.
Fontes had his own way of dealing with his players and coaches. He never chewed them out on the sidelines or in public – he always did it in private.
“When I come in the locker room and the doors close, I chew them out as good as any other coach in the NFL,” Fontes told The New York Times in January 1992.
His brother Lenny, who worked with him for two years with the Detroit Lions, told The Washington Post that Wayne, while friendly and outgoing by nature, showed his alter ego behind closed doors. Despite Wayne’s occasional dictatorial ways, he was still a pleasure to work for.
Fontes also organized a nine-player committee among the Lions, so he could get their feedback and ultimately earn their respect. He told Smith he met with them every ten days.
If the team had some pressing issues, Fontes met with his committee every other day. If coaches and players put an issue to a vote and it reached a stalemate, Fontes still had the final say.
Fontes’ second season as Lions head coach in 1989 coincided with the great Barry Sanders’ rookie season in the National Football League.
The moment Fontes saw game film of the electrifying 1988 Heisman Trophy-winning running back of the Oklahoma State Cowboys, all bets were off – Sanders was their guy in the 1989 NFL Draft.
While Fontes, a defensive mastermind, thought either Florida State Seminoles defensive back Deion Sanders or Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Derrick Thomas would have looked good in Lions’ Honolulu blue and silver, there was no doubt Barry Sanders was the better fit.
Fontes admitted to The Detroit News’ Justin Rogers thirty years later that if either the Dallas Cowboys or Green Bay Packers selected Barry Sanders, the Lions would have drafted UCLA Bruins quarterback Troy Aikman instead.
Fortunately, Detroit plucked Sanders, a future Hall of Fame running back, off the draft board.
Sanders, the 1997 NFL MVP and a ten-time Pro Bowler who had 15,269 rushing yards in his legendary 10-year pro football career, made special mention of Fontes in his Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement speech in 2004.
Sanders gave credit to Fontes for convincing him he could become a great player in the NFL. Fontes told Sanders he will exceed expectations as long as he did the right things consistently.
Part of Sanders’ Pro Football Hall of Fame induction speech reads:
“In all honesty, from the first day, Coach Fontes won my admiration and he’s a big reason why I’m where I am today.”
The 1991 NFL season was a memorable one for Fontes and the Lions. They went through some rough patches before getting their act together and advancing to their first NFC Championship Game during the Super Bowl era.
First, the Lions lost their season opener in humiliating fashion to the Washington Redskins, 45-0. Lenny Fontes claimed his brother fired him and called him “the worst coach in the world” after that game.
Next, starting linebacker Mike Cofer injured his knee in Week 3 and sat out the remainder of the season.
Quarterback Rodney Peete followed suit several weeks later. He tore his Achilles tendon and also missed the rest of the 1991 NFL campaign. To add insult to injury, the Lions’ offensive tackle injured his spine and became paralyzed in a game against the Los Angeles Rams on November 17.
— DFWGrapher (@DFWGrapher) February 11, 2021
The Lions persevered through adversity. They won a franchise record twelve games in the 1991 NFL season. Unfortunately, they lost to the Redskins in blowout fashion in the 1991 NFC Championship Game, 41-10.
Nevertheless, Wayne Fontes won the 1991 NFL Coach of the Year Award.
Buffalo Bills head coach Marv Levy, who guided his team to the second of four straight Super Bowl appearances that year, sang Fontes’ praises.
“It is an honor that is well-deserved,” Levy told The New York Times in January 1992. “I can’t think of anyone more deserving.”
Wayne Fontes experienced unspeakable personal tragedy the following spring. His brother Lenny passed away due to a heart attack on May 8, 1992. He was 54 years old.
Although the Lions were coming off a successful season, they also experienced one tragedy after the other. Eric Andolsek, one of their offensive linemen, was killed when a truck plowed into him just a month-and-a-half after Len Fontes’ death. It also hadn’t been a year since Lions tackle Mike Utley became paralyzed during a game against the Rams.
Nonetheless, Fontes guided the Lions to three more playoff appearances in his last five seasons as their head coach. Alas, they lost in the NFC Wild Card Game for three straight years from 1993 to 1995.
Wayne Fontes never forgot his coaching roots at the pinnacle of his success in the National Football League.
Fontes regularly invited his players from the 1965 Visitation Panthers championship team to watch Detroit Lions games at the Pontiac Silverdome.
Panthers fullback Tom Satkowiak told MLive.com in 2017 that he went to Lions training camp with his son one year. He approached Fontes and tapped him on the shoulder. Fontes, who was pleasantly surprised at seeing one of his former players, promptly exchanged pleasantries with him.
Satkowiak’s son was astonished at Fontes’ remembering his dad’s name. For his part, Tom thought Wayne Fontes had an incredible memory.
Wayne Fontes retired from the NFL coaching profession following the 1996 NFL season. He finished with an overall 66-67 win-loss record and guided the Lions to two division titles in 1991 and 1993.
Wayne Fontes and his family currently reside in the Tampa Bay area. They returned to their Tarpon Springs, FL residence after he left the Detroit Lions organization after the 1996 NFL season.
Fontes told the Tampa Bay Times in 2005 that several teams tried to lure him back into the coaching ranks after he left the Motor City following the 1996 NFL season. However, he was not interested.
Fontes, who spent nine years with the Buccaneers’ organization from 1976 to 1984, kept in touch with former Tampa Bay assistant coach Jim Gruden during retirement.
Jim is the father of Jon Gruden, the former Oakland/Las Vegas Raiders head coach, Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach, and ESPN NFL analyst.
Fontes became an avid golfer during his retirement years. Unfortunately, he had to give up the sport after he underwent back surgery in 2005.
For the most part, Wayne Fontes had been spending time with his wife Evelyn, their two sons Michael and Scott, their daughter Kimberly, and their grandchildren.
Oddly enough, I Ran into 1991 NFL Coach Of The Year Wayne Fontes the other night. pic.twitter.com/o212MFcgk9
— John (@NYIslanderz) August 11, 2017
A retired NFL players’ lawsuit identified Fontes as one of the head coaches who allegedly provided painkillers illegally to their players when they were still employed by their respective teams. The lawsuit made headlines in the spring of 2015.
Aside from Fontes, the lawsuit named Don Shula, Mike Tice, Mike Holmgren, and Howard Schnellenberger as the other coaches who allegedly warned their players they would release them if they refused to consume painkillers and return to the gridiron.
Fontes and the first football team he coached, the Visitation Panthers, became members of the Bay County Sports Hall of Fame in the fall of 2017.
Fontes likes to stay in shape by working out at the gym and swimming. He takes his wife out for lunch and dinner several times per week, per Scheiber.