Green: Since 1957, Lions’ tortured history riddled with coaching zigs

Detroit News

By Jerry Green
 |  Special to The Detroit News

Detroit — The coach was trudging up the slope in the corridor outside the Lions’ locker room past a cluster of critical, curious sports journalists. Suddenly he stopped.

“What does it take for a coach to get fired around here?” he whispered into the right ear of a particular ink-stained wretch whom he had known for a while.  

He said it in a conspiratorial tone flavored with a tinge of mirth, for that was Darryl Rogers’ manner. Rogers had bit of a grin. And the response was a snicker.

This was in another October. In the midst of another disastrous season for the Lions. The scene was inside the Silverdome. The year in 1988.

And what it took for a coach to get fired was a couple more losses. With the Lions stuck at 2-9 — the nine losses in a 10-game span — was broomed before Thanksgiving.

Darryl was replaced by Wayne Fontes, who went 2-3 the rest of the season.

This scenario is just one packed into the Lions’ tortured history over the 63 years since The Last Lions Championship.

I say with assurance that the Lions have been the most hopeless franchise in major American sports over those three-plus generations.

That covers great grandpa, grandpa, dad and son and/or daughter!

In that period, stemming from George Wilson to Matt Patricia, the Lions have employed 18 head coaches — from 1957 into 2020.

There was fair warning early in my rookie season as pro football beat writer for The Detroit News in 1966. Harry Gilmer was in his second season as head coach.

The Lions had lost, 17-3, to the woebegone — then — Steelers in Pittsburgh. I asked club owner William Clay Ford his opinion about his team’s performance.

“We weren’t only outplayed, we were outcoached,” Ford told me in the press box at Pitt Stadium.

Woe!

The comment was profound — and summarizes to me the Lions’ history over the last half-century. And beyond.

Getting ziggy with it

Most of the 17 coaches before Patricia caught the ziggy. And there is a misconception that the Lions would not dare fire a head coach during a season.

Balderdash!

Four of the 18 were bounced out during the season — Rick Forzano, Rogers, Bobby Ross and Steve Mariucci. Those ousters followed a precedent the Lions established far back during winless 1942 — before their championship dynasty in the 1950s.

“Do you know what it’s like to fire somebody?” Ford responded some 45 years or so ago when I was badgering him about the status of Forzano.

Thus, I quickly learned that Ford, who became sole owner of the Lions in 1963, was a man of more than pithy, incisive comments. He did, indeed, run his franchise with admirable compassion and staunch loyalty. Those are prime traits with which to judge the character of a gentleman.

For Ford, those traits were difficult to break.

But they do not work to judge a proprietor of a pro football franchise competing with other NFL owners.

Ford was obliged to give Forzano the ziggy four games into the 1976 season. The Lions had jumped to a 1-3 record to start the season. Tommy Hudspeth, a member of Forzano’s staff, replaced him and would survive through 1977. Another assistant on Forzano’s staff was an apprentice coach, passed-over fellow named Bill Belichick.

It was early on that I learned about the ziggy.

Joe Schmidt was Detroit’s favorite pro football player during the championship 1950s, an era also dominated by Bobby Layne. The All-Pro, Hall-of-Fame middle linebacker, Schmidt became head coach after Gilmer caught the ziggy in 1966 after two lackluster seasons.

Schmidt, a year from his retirement as a player, would allow a young sports journalist into his office for conversation. He would talk about — not for publication — his lodge of NFL coaches. George Allen and other rivals.

“He’s gonna get the ziggy,” Schmidt would say about another club’s coach, followed by, “Heh, heh, heh.”

A flavor-filled word for firing, ziggy, entered my vocabulary. And onward into the Detroit sports lexicon.

Schmidt was not actually fired after coaching the Lions for six seasons. He delivered a self-ziggy well after the 8-5-1 season of 1972. He had been required to explain the previous game’s strategy and tactics to Bill Ford on the day after during each of his seasons.

“Every Monday, the ‘how come?’ meetings,” Schmidt said with distaste.

So early in 1973 — during Super Bowl week as I recall — Schmidt resigned as head coach.

In Los Angeles, over the phone Ford and his general manager, Russ Thomas, sounded joyous. Ford would never be required to fire his favorite all-time Lions player.

Schmidt himself was witness, as a one-season assistant coach, when Gilmer was drummed out of this list of coaches since The Last Lions Championship.

It was after the final, snowy, loss of the 1966 season — to the Vikings at Tiger Stadium. The people — the fans — delivered the coup de grace to the previously jeopardized Gilmer.

Harry left in a barrage of snowballs.

“At least, they didn’t have rocks in them,” Gilmer told me in the thereafter in the Lions’ locker room.

Harry left with his sense of humor intact.

Few did, among the departed.

Monte Clark left angry. Ross left perplexed. Mariucci left for television glory. Others left for assistant coach assignments elsewhere, pained from their experiences in Detroit.

Clark had coached the Lions for seven seasons — from Hudspeth to Rogers — from 1978 through 1984.

The wolves were baying for Clark’s ziggy when the Lions started the season at 1-5. This was nearly two generations ago. The media were full of the usual rumors. And after a particularly painful loss, Clark was dreading the next day’s “how come?” meeting with Ford.

“See ya at the cemetery!” Clark said as my News colleague Mike O’Hara and I left the locker room.

But next day, Clark received a reprieve until the end of the season. A newspaper reminder about Gilmer’s snowball farewell did not help to thrill Clark.

Fleeting success

Rogers was Clark’s successor. Darryl was a vagabond coach — in 1980, he had left Michigan State in the lurch to go to Arizona State. And five years later, his hiring by the Lions was a surprise — well, perhaps not, all things considered. From 1985 into ’88, he presided over four losing seasons.

But he was fun, and he brought Fontes with him as an assistant.

Fontes almost did it.

He had Barry Sanders and Chris Spielman and Robert Porcher and some positive seasons.

“I’m the Big Buck,” he told the attacking Detroit media one day in 1995. “With a bull’s-eye on my back. Everybody is aiming for me.

“Everyone wants to take down the Big Buck.”

Fontes, too, caught the ziggy, after a season’s flotsam of rumors, 5-11 in 1996.

But he left as the most successful head coach since The Last Lions Championship.

Under Fontes, the Lions were in the playoffs in 1991, 1993, 1994 and 1995. In those four seasons, Fontes won two NFC Central titles, in ’91 and ’93.

And he coached that elusive, monumental — single — Lions playoff victory after a 12-4 mark in 1991. It was a glorious 38-6 thumping of the Cowboys and a young Troy Aikman and a preening Jimmy Johnson at the Silverdome.

In one game, the Lions outplayed and outcoached the soon-to-be three-time Super Bowl champions.

But then, Fontes’ Lions were destroyed by Washington — with its now-forbidden team nickname — in the NFC championship game, 41-10.

That ‘91 season was the closest the Lions have ever gone to the “impossible dream” of qualifying for a Super Bowl.

And as Fontes’ seasons passed, he became the target.

So Fontes caught the ziggy, too. Perhaps undeserved but welcomed by Detroit’s passionate and frequently angry pro football fans. Plus, the media messengers.

“A country-club atmosphere,” it was said of Fontes’ coaching style.

So, a disciplinarian would become the next victim.

Ross was hired with considerable fanfare and rewarded with talent-procurement authority denied in predecessors.

But soon, Ross took heat, too. A Super Bowl coach with the Chargers — albeit solidly beaten — he came to Detroit with an air of clairvoyance.

He delivered his resignation to Bill Ford at midseason 2000, with the Lions standing at 5-4. But he was doomed by then because the Lions had played haphazard football.

Ross had discovered the trouble two seasons earlier. The Lions, with Barry then, had agonized over their seventh defeat in a nine-game sequence. That November 1998 Sunday they were edged, 10-9, by the weak Eagles in Philadelphia, a game viewed via television.

The Lions were sloppy and reckless. And in the postmortem, Ross ranted to the traveling media personages:

“We shot ourselves on that last drive . . . two holding penalties, a motion penalty.

“You think I coach that stuff? I don’t coach that stuff. I work on that stuff.

“And I’m getting all the heat.”

All the heat did not come from the journalists.

That 1998 season under Ross would be the last for Barry Sanders.

Barry had played 10 years, unmatched as an NFL running back. The Lions, coached by Fontes and then Ross, had reached the playoffs five seasons of Barry’s 10.

Discontented with the Lions’ culture, the failure to advance toward a Super Bowl, Sanders shocked Ross — plus all of Detroit and all of the NFL — retiring on the brink of training camp in 1999.

Onward, another decade, a new century — Gary Moeller after Ross. Marty Mornhinweg and Mariucci, Dick Jauron to finish a season, in 2005.

Then Rod Marinelli for three years — the ziggy after the winless season in 2008. Jim Schwartz, then Jim Caldwell — and a new regime with Bob Quinn as general manager.

And soon a ziggy for Caldwell, whose playoff appearances and an 11-5 season plus two 9-7 seasons “weren’t good enough.”

On to Patricia, more failed seasons. And now, the squandered double-digit leads and the howling from the TV-bound multitudes in the 2020 bye week.

Fact is, firing the head coach never has been a solution.

Tracing back, this repetitious turnover had its roots in wartime 1942 when Bill Edwards was canned as head coach with a 0-3 record. He was replaced, during that season, by John “Bull” Karcis.

New coach? A solution?

Karcis finished up 0-8.

And the futility continued with a run of primarily losing seasons until 1951 — and the arrival of Buddy Parker as Lions coach.

Truth is, it seldom has changed since the 1950s — when a young, innocent journalist covered Parker as a quote-runner in 1956. Then, listening to reports from a 1957 “Meet The Lions” dinner at the Statler Hotel, Parker saying via radio:

“I’m quitting. I can’t handle this team.”

His players — Layne, Tobin Rote, a rollicking, renowned bunch of athletes — had been feted before the dinner by the posse of then-partying club owners at a cocktail blast.

Wilson took over. And as a rookie head coach, won The Last Lions Championship in 1957.

I remember it well!

Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sports writer.

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