Archive for football
The National Football League’s roots in the 1920s were planted in sleepy burgs across the Midwest. It was a small town league, offering the curious something to follow until the next baseball season.
The franchises were located in such dazzling metropolises as Canton, OH; Racine, WI; Akron, OH; and Rock Island, IL. The locations were fitting, when you consider that the league itself was founded in an automobile showroom in Canton, on August 20, 1920.
In 1921, the Akron franchise (the Pros) was one of several which had one of its players double up as the coach.
Fritz Pollard, who stood 5’9″ and who was listed as weighing all of 165 pounds, coached the Pros. Mainly a running back, Pollard’s tremendous speed and elusiveness as a player caused legendary sportswriter Walter Camp to remark that Pollard was “one of the greatest runners these eyes have ever seen.”
Pollard coached Akron in 1921—the league was known as the American Professional Football Association (APFA) back then—to an impressive 8-3-1 record, all while maintaining his roster spot as a running back, scoring seven touchdowns on the season.
But Fritz Pollard wasn’t just any coach in the APFA—he was the only African-American one in the league.
Pollard lasted just one season as a coach, and in 1926 he was dismissed as a player as well, when the NFL (name changed in 1922) booted Pollard and the other eight black players at the time out of the league, permanently.
Pollard wasn’t just a footnote in pro football history. After being kicked out of the NFL, Pollard organized all-black barnstorming teams, playing under names such as the Harlem Brown Bombers. This barnstorming continued into the 1930s.
The NFL didn’t go the black head coaching route again until 68 years after Pollard coached the Akron Pros, when Art Shell became coach of the Los Angeles Raiders in 1989.
While Fritz Pollard should be lauded for his stature as a league pioneer, it would be disingenuous to say that he paved the way for Shell to coach the Raiders. Nearly seven decades kind of dilutes Pollard’s participation toward Shell’s hiring.
But Shell, who played for the Raiders to the tune of a Hall of Fame career as an offensive tackle, is rightly recognized as the modern game’s first black head coach, and thus was indeed a trail blazer of sorts for those of color who followed him on the sidelines over the past 25 years.
The Lions’ Jim Caldwell is one who should give a nod of appreciation to Shell—and, maybe more so, to late Raiders managing general partner Al Davis, who hired Shell after firing Mike Shanahan.
It took the Lions a little bit longer than some franchises—but quicker than others—to hire an African-American head coach. Caldwell became the first on January 15, 2014.
Many Lions fans, if they had their druthers in January, envisioned Ken Whisenhunt as the one who would open training camp on Monday in Allen Park. Whisenhunt, who is white, was seen as the Lions’ first choice after firing Jim Schwartz.
But Whisenhunt spurned the Lions and never got on the private plane that was famously waiting for him in San Diego, ready to jet the Chargers’ offensive coordinator across the country where he would, presumably, get a contract offer in Detroit.
I am not, for a moment, suggesting that the popularity of Whisenhunt over Caldwell, in the fans’ eyes, had anything to do with race. For whatever reason, Whisenhunt’s resume excited the Lions fan base more than did Caldwell’s.
Frankly, the fact that Caldwell is the Lions’ first black head coach kind of slipped my mind until it was brought to the fore on Saturday, when the coach was honored by the Detroit Historical Society’s Black Historic Sites Committee for the distinction.
The celebration of Caldwell’s status was nice, but it was low-key and it should have been. For despite the fact that Caldwell is the Lions’ first black head coach, thankfully those of Caldwell’s ilk aren’t a novelty anymore in the NFL.
Not that the league couldn’t do a little better in that regard, as Caldwell pointed out on Saturday, but in his usual classy way.
“It’s (black head coaches) come a long way because of the fact that I think now there might have been 47 (African-American coaches) that have gotten that opportunity (in NCAA Division I football), if I’m not mistaken,” Caldwell told the Detroit Free Press.
“And in the National Football League there’s 17, I think, that have gotten that opportunity, even some of those that have been interim. So there’s been quite a few guys.
“I think it’s changed quite a bit in my lifetime. You can see some progress in that area, but certainly a long way to go.”
The Lions are the only team in the NFL with a black head coach and a black general manager, something that has happened just once prior in league history. That, too, should be celebrated, but not without some concern.
The NFL has always been a little slow on the uptake when it comes to minorities holding positions of power and influence, though progress is indeed being made.
But I don’t believe the fans in Detroit care if the football coach is white, black, blue or purple. The Lions haven’t won a league championship in 57 years. To give that perspective, remember when the Red Wings finally ended their Stanley Cup drought in 1997? That was a mere 42 years between Cups at the time.
Caldwell was not quite three years old when the Lions beat the Cleveland Browns to capture the 1957 NFL championship.
Now he is set to open his first training camp as the first black head coach in Lions history—and the team still hasn’t won it all since ’57.
Jim Caldwell was properly honored on Saturday night, but that distinction should lose its luster pronto. The Lions were hardly on the cusp in this regard, as Caldwell followed Shell in Oakland by a quarter century.
Since Shell in 1989, the Lions have gone through eight head coaches before hiring Caldwell (including interim coaches). Three of those guys were assistants who’d never been a head coach in the NFL prior to Detroit—hired when there were eminently more qualified black men available at the time.
But that’s all ancient history now, right?
Caldwell’s being black won’t shield him from criticism when the Lions falter, and it won’t help give him accolades when times are good.
He will be judged solely on his win/loss record.
I think even Fritz Pollard would agree with that notion.
It’s an old line, written by an ink-stained wretch sometime in the early-1960s, when the Yankees were continuing to dominate Major League Baseball.
“When the New York Yankees go out to dinner together, they sit at 25 different tables,” the line went.
The implication was clear. Togetherness and camaraderie, those feel-good words, were overblown.
The Oakland A’s of the early-1970s were a mustache-wearing, raucous group that disliked their owner slightly more than they disliked each other. Yet they managed to win three straight World Series.
During the “Bronx Zoo” Yankees years, circa 1977-78, one of the zoo’s animals said that losing streaks weren’t necessarily a bad thing, because “the more we lose, the more (owner George) Steinbrenner flies around the country to watch us play. And the more he flies, the greater chance that his plane will crash.”
The Yankees won the World Series in both ’77 and ’78—with a group that battled the owner and the manager, Billy Martin, with the same ferocity with which they battled the Orioles and the Red Sox and the Royals.
There are two C-words that are mightily overblown in the world of sports: camaraderie and chemistry.
The former is at least somewhat easy to define. The latter, not so much.
But neither word has as much to do with winning as the users of the words like to think.
Chemistry is the worst word in sports.
It is undefinable, overused and is trumped by the king of all words, which is TALENT.
Give me talent over goodwill any day of the week.
Long ago, we should have added the L-word to the list of offensive utterances in pro sports.
It’s another word that is hard to define, overused and is most certainly trumped by talent, which is the Godfather of words in the sports lexicon.
Nice guys don’t necessarily finish last, but their niceness alone won’t win any brass rings, either.
This isn’t to say that talented groups don’t need leaders, because they do. But not every talented guy can be a “leader,” however you choose to define that.
The Lions’ Ndamukong Suh seems to find himself swimming in the 24-hour news cycle, often not by his own choosing.
Suh, the fifth-year defensive tackle, is immeasurably talented, gifted and strong. He can be a game changer at a position that can change games.
So why can’t we just let him play football?
There seems to be an obsession in Detroit with making Suh a “leader”—that obtuse, undefinable noun that nonetheless makes sports fans and analysts salivate.
Why do a team’s best players all have to exhibit model behavior and all be chiefs?
You need to have some pretty damn good Indians to win, as well.
Let’s talk about some of the so-called “leaders” in Detroit sports history.
There was the Red Wings’ Steve Yzerman, who was the strong, silent type. I maintain that one of the most brilliant moves ever made by any coach/manager in Detroit was when Jacques Demers bestowed the team’s captaincy on Yzerman, who was a 21-year-old entering just his fourth NHL season.
Demers was crazy like a fox when he put the “C” on Yzerman’s jersey.
At the time (1986), Yzerman was the captain of a fledgling team coming off a 57-loss season. Nearly 20 years later, the Red Wings had won three Stanley Cups and were constantly in the mix for more titles when Yzerman hung up his skates as one of the most-respected captains in league history.
Yzerman played hurt, he played hard and his teammates followed suit, yet Stevie did so without raising his voice much above a whisper.
Yzerman was perhaps the quintessential captain of anyone who pulled on a uniform in the Motor City.
Isiah Thomas, pound-for-pound the toughest player in NBA history, led the Pistons by example while also functioning as a de facto coach on the floor.
Thomas’ performance in the 1988 NBA Finals, when he played the last 72 minutes of that series on one leg, will never be forgotten in Detroit, nor should it.
The Pistons lost that series, but rebounded to capture the next two NBA championships with Thomas’ on-court presence leading the way.
I will give you Yzerman and Thomas as the two greatest, measurable leaders in Detroit sports history.
I will even give you Bobby Layne of the Lions, who was the unquestioned Chief of the Lions in the championship days of the 1950s. Bobby led on the field and he led in the saloons. His teammates followed him in both environs.
Now, back to Suh.
The Lions, and their fans, should toss away this misrepresentation of Suh as a so-called leader, forthwith.
They should leave him alone and let him play football, for crying out loud.
So Suh doesn’t show up to voluntary camps. He is absent at teammates’ charity events. He prefers to be left alone and work out on his own.
He is the Garbo of the Lions. He is enigmatic, like DiMaggio of the old Yankees and Jeter of today’s.
He can also be one of the most dominant players in the NFL. He has the potential to be the best football lineman in Detroit. Ever.
But it says here that we may never see how close Suh can come to reaching his ridiculously high ceiling if the yoke of leadership and being an extrovert continues to be placed on him.
Suh didn’t enter the NFL with a reputation of being a leader in college, if you recall.
He was known for tossing blockers around like rag dolls and for busting heads. That, presumably, is why the Lions drafted him second overall in the 2010 NFL Draft.
This is the perfect time to leave Suh alone and let him play football.
The Lions have a new coach, Jim Caldwell. This, naturally, ushers in new systems on both sides of the ball. There are new assistants and new philosophies and new playbooks.
There ought to be a new approach when it comes to engaging Ndamukong Suh, as well.
He doesn’t have to be well-liked by teammates, contrary to popular belief. He doesn’t have to show up at voluntary camps. He doesn’t have to walk around with a smile on his big face.
Suh isn’t Steve Yzerman, and he sure as hell isn’t Isiah Thomas.
But that’s OK.
One of the greatest of all the Lions, running back Barry Sanders, was an Indian. He didn’t have a Chief’s bone in his elusive body. You didn’t hear what Barry said on Wednesday—you heard what he did on Sunday.
Yet I don’t recall anyone in the Lions organization, or within his adoring fan base, trying to make Barry Sanders a leader. He was accepted for what he was—the best runner in the NFL who made our jaws drop every week.
Why can’t we accept Ndamukong Suh for what he is—which is a beast of a defensive lineman who can change games in the blink of an eye?
Why does he need to be a leader, if it’s not in his DNA?
If you want to dog Suh because he doesn’t attend voluntary camps and he prefers to be introverted, fine.
I happen to believe that you win football games with talented, dominating players—whether they get along with each other or not.
The Lions should strip Suh of his captaincy, but not to be punitive—to be realistic.
Square pegs never did do very well with round holes.
Someday it won’t be big news that an NFL team drafted an openly gay college player.
Someday that player’s name won’t be prefaced with a designation of sexual orientation, just like we no longer use the word “Negro” to describe black players, like the newspapers and magazines did some 50 years ago.
Someday the drafting team won’t have to go out of its way to say how honored it is to be selecting the openly gay player.
How far we are from that “someday” is anyone’s guess. Mine is that we’re not on the precipice.
But that’s OK. Any journey, no matter how long, needs that first step.
The St. Louis Rams selected Missouri defensive end Michael Sam in the seventh round of the 2014 Draft—the 249th overall pick.
This isn’t quite Jackie Robinson jogging onto the field, along with eight white guys, back in 1947 for the Brooklyn Dodgers, but it’s not insignificant.
The key word is “openly.”
You’d have to be ridiculously naïve to think that Sam, should he make the Rams (which he almost certainly will), is the lone ranger when it comes to gay NFL players today.
And you’d have to be almost as naïve to think that those gay players’ sexual orientation is unknown to all of their teammates.
There are certainly NFL players in 2014 who know damn well that they are lining up with and against gay men.
But Sam is the first to make no bones about it. He came out on ESPN just prior to the scouting combine in Indianapolis in February.
There is one comparison to Robinson, however.
Michael Sam can play football. Like Robinson, Sam is hardly a benchwarmer.
Sam was the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 while playing for the Tigers. He was credited with 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss.
So barring injury or something catastrophic, Sam will indeed become the NFL’s first openly gay player. He may even start for the Rams—if not right away, then soon.
This isn’t a huge day for just the LGBT community—it’s huge day, period.
This is America, where we pride ourselves on our diversity.
But until today in pro sports, that diversity has never really included sexual orientation.
Sam isn’t just the first openly gay man to be drafted into the NFL, he’s the first to be drafted into any of the four major sports.
MLB recently celebrated Jackie Robinson Day, and while we should never forget Robinson’s courage and significance in history, it does seem kind of silly that we once made such a big deal about a black guy taking the field in a big league game.
Someday we won’t make such a big deal about a gay man or woman suiting up in a major sports league contest.
But that day, clearly, is not today.
I hope Michael Sam knows what he’s up against, and I’m sure he does. If he doesn’t, that would be naivety to the max.
But let’s keep things in perspective.
No matter what Sam may go through, from his first day at training camp to the first scrimmage play in which he assumes the three-point stance, it will pale in comparison to what Jackie Robinson endured.
The fans are a million miles away in an NFL stadium, compared to big league baseball games, where you can almost reach out and touch the guy in the on-deck circle.
Sam won’t even hear much of the vile, disgusting words that are sure to be hurled his way.
Robinson’s appearance in big league games was fought tooth and nail by team owners and players. It wasn’t just the fans who spewed their hate. Some players in 1947 initially refused to take the field in any game in which Robinson was scheduled to play.
And, of course, there were the death threats.
Michael Sam will get some static, for sure. But I doubt that the brotherhood of NFL players will be anything more than a tiny source of that static. The owners, I believe, won’t provide any resistance. They know better.
What Sam will have to deal with that Robinson didn’t, is the venom from social media.
His Twitter account exploded after the Rams’ announcement. Sam gained 20 percent more followers within two hours of his being drafted.
But as we all know, the Internet is the ultimate double-edged sword.
Sam may have gained followers, but he will also be vilified and filleted on his Twitter account. The Internet will be filled with words of hatred about a gay man playing in the NFL.
This is actually kind of hilarious.
One of Sam’s new teammates with the Rams, defensive lineman Chris Long, told ESPN.com, “Obviously people are going to make something out of it. He’s not the first gay player to ever play football. He might be the first openly gay professional football player, but there’s all types of people from all over in an NFL locker room; it really is a melting pot and it never ceases to amaze me how a locker room can just mesh, people from all different walks of life, so I don’t think it’s an issue. He’s coming to a really good D-line room.”
Rams coach Jeff Fisher said he was honored to be part of the Sam pick, and reiterated that the team is getting a good football player, not a gay one.
It seems Sam will have acceptance within his own locker room, and I suspect throughout the league, for the most part.
So he’s one up on Robinson in that respect.
This openly gay stuff really shouldn’t be a big deal, but that can only be assured as the years go by and we look back at the 2014 Draft and kind of chuckle at Michael Sam’s drafting being a sensation.
It will be, “Jeez, can you believe we made such a thing over that?”
But we’re not there yet.
When the St. Louis Rams picked Sam on Saturday, they didn’t just take a football player. They took the first step on a journey that, with any luck, will be anti-climactic in reaching its destination.
Starting on Thursday, May 8 and continuing throughout the weekend, Las Vegas will have nothing on the Big Apple.
With apologies to “Guys and Dolls,” 32 high rollers will gather and hold the world’s second oldest established permanent floating craps game in New York.
It’s time for another NFL Draft.
The interviews are over. The combine is history. The Wonderlic scores are in. The mock drafts are (mercifully) shoved aside.
It’s time to roll the dice.
Entire futures of franchises are at stake. Coaches’ fates are in the hands of the players whose names will be read by the Commissioner. Fans are on the edge of their seats.
Luck, be a lady.
The terrific irony of all the preparation, speculation, mock drafts and scuttlebutt over which player will go to which team is…that all of it really doesn’t matter.
You can’t count cards at the NFL Draft. The house usually wins. Things often don’t go as planned.
Luck can be a blessing or a curse.
The NFL Draft is full of cases of “What if?”
The Lions, like so many teams, know that as well as anybody.
In 1960 a group of eight men called themselves The Foolish Club.
They were the original owners of the teams of the American Football League. They would challenge the mighty NFL, both on the field and in the courts. It didn’t take long before the AFL began challenging the NFL on draft day.
Four players who would become stars in the new league—in some cases, Pro Football Hall of Fame members—could have been Detroit Lions.
Should have been, really.
The Lions didn’t draft poorly in the ‘60s—they just didn’t have the best of luck, or the deepest of pockets.
The decade’s drafts would eventually bring star players such as Mel Farr, Charlie Sanders, Lem Barney and Greg Landry to Detroit. But there could have been so much more.
The fledgling AFL screwed up the Lions’ plans.
It started in 1960—the AFL’s first year in existence.
Johnny Robinson was a gem of a player from Louisiana State University. He played in the backfield on both sides of the football—a stupendous defender in the secondary and a nifty ball carrier as a halfback on offense.
So heralded was Robinson in college that the Lions snapped him up as the third overall pick of the 1960 Draft.
But the Foolish Club liked Robinson, too. The Dallas Texans drafted Robinson as well.
The Lions of the established NFL and the Texans of the Foolish Club engaged in one of the first bidding wars between the two leagues.
The Foolish Club won. Robinson went to the Texans, who would become the Kansas City Chiefs.
Johnny Robinson played for the Texans/Chiefs for 12 years. He made nine All-Pro teams. He intercepted 57 passes as a safety in the AFL and NFL. Such was his impact that when Robinson intercepted a pass, the Chiefs’ record was 35-1-1.
Robinson is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He is a member of the AFL’s All-Time team. He is considered by many to be one of the top five defensive backs in pro football history.
And the Lions lost him to the Foolish Club, in the AFL’s maiden year.
John Hadl was a multi-dimensional player from Kansas who played halfback and quarterback—and with such aplomb that the school named him as its Player of the Century.
Hadl was an All-American quarterback in his senior year of 1961, and in the 1962 draft the Lions took him with the 10th overall pick.
The San Diego Chargers of the Foolish Club picked Hadl, too.
The Lions had a chasm the size of the Grand Canyon at quarterback throughout the 1960s. A rifle-armed guy like John Hadl would have looked very nice in a Honolulu Blue jersey.
But Hadl, like Johnny Robinson two years earlier, snubbed the Lions and signed with the Chargers, who were coached by pass-happy Sid Gillman.
John Hadl would play 16 years of pro football and throw for over 33,000 yards, almost 27,000 of those coming with Gillman and the Chargers.
How would the Lions’ fortunes have changed with Hadl as their QB?
In 1964, there was a towering, quick defensive end from the University of Buffalo named Gerry Philbin. At Buffalo, Philbin earned all sorts of honors, including Little All America.
The Lions selected Philbin in the third round of the 1964 draft.
But once again, the Foolish Club fouled things up.
Philbin was also drafted by the New York Jets, a team just a hop, skip and a jump from Philbin’s home town of Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
Philbin signed with the Jets, again leaving the Lions holding the bag.
Gerry Philbin became a member of the AFL’s All-Time Team and recorded 15 sacks for the 1968 Jets, winners of Super Bowl III.
And he did it all while not playing for the Lions.
The Lions kept drafting well but signing poorly.
It happened to them again the year after drafting Philbin.
Fred Biletnikoff was a sure-handed receiver out of Florida State—the school’s first consensus All-American.
The Lions could have used a playmaking receiver in 1965, with their plodding offense, led by unspectacular quarterbacks not named John Hadl.
Inspired by Biletnikoff’s college greatness at catching passes, the Lions selected him in the third round of the 1965 draft.
So did the Oakland Raiders of the AFL.
Naturally, Biletnikoff spurned the Lions and signed with Al Davis and the Raiders.
They named an award for Biletnikoff in 1994. It goes to the best receiver in college football. Biletnikoff was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1988 after a stellar, 14-year career with the Raiders.
What might the Lions have been in the 1960s and ‘70s, if Johnny Robinson, John Hadl, Gerry Philbin and Fred Biletnikoff hadn’t spurned them?
The Lions crapped out on all four of these AFL stars. Their stingy ways scared them all off. The house won.
It’s all ancient history now, but isn’t it the unalienable right of the Lions fan to ask “What if?”
Earl Morrall spent his entire career, it seemed, encased with a sign that said “In case of emergency, break glass.”
If he was a movie actor, he’d be a stand-in. The only part of him that you’d see would be from over his shoulder.
Morrall, the quarterback from Michigan State who passed away the other day at age 79, managed to stay on an NFL roster for 21 years, though he was usually the one on the sidelines with the cleanest jersey.
But Morrall had his moments, and those kept him on those rosters for those 21 years.
Morrall was the Forrest Gump of pro football—the guy whose face and famous crew cut always appeared in the background, behind images of such luminaries as Fran Tarkenton, Johnny Unitas and Bob Griese.
But when Morrall got a chance to play, he was no slouch. It was just that he played behind some of the game’s greats.
There was 1968, for example.
Morrall, then playing for the Colts at age 34, was the starter for that season because Unitas went down with torn muscles in his arm in the final pre-season game.
Morrall was 34 but 1968 was only the second time in his career that he was his team’s starting QB. The other was in 1965, when Earl went 7-7 for the New York Giants.
So Morrall was 34 but his arm was probably nine years younger from limited use.
While Colts fans were crestfallen when defending league MVP Unitas was destined to be a season-long scratch, Earl Morrall, the stand-in QB from Muskegon, did his best stand-in work.
Earl almost made Johnny U turn into Johnny Who?
Playing with the talent that was always there but rarely given a chance to shine—even in Detroit, which had the thoroughly underwhelming Jim Ninowski and Milt Plum ahead of Earl in the early-1960s—Morrall authored a stunning season that earned him NFL MVP honors.
Morrall completed 57.4 percent of his passes—a considerably high rate in those days—and fired 26 TD passes among his 2,909 yards through the air for the 13-1 Colts, who won the league title and would meet the New York Jets in Super Bowl III.
That’s when Morrall’s fantastic season made a horrifying turn.
Hardly anyone knows that Morrall was the NFL MVP in 1968, because Joe Namath and the Jets turned Earl and the Colts’ excellent year upside down.
The Jets upset the Colts, 16-7, and worse for Morrall, he didn’t see a wide open Jimmy Orr for what certainly would have been a crucial TD pass late in the first half.
And Morrall, who threw three interceptions, was eventually replaced late in the game by a clearly less-than-whole Unitas and his mangled arm.
That loss in SB III haunted Morrall and the rest of the Colts so heavily that even winning Super Bowl V two years later, with Morrall saving the day in relief of Unitas, couldn’t sweeten the bitterness of the loss to Namath and the Jets.
In 1972, Morrall was traded to the Miami Dolphins. The Colts decided to go with young Marty Domres at quarterback when it was evident that Unitas’ career was done.
In Miami, Mr. Backup took his usual place, standing in the shadows of the much younger Griese.
The Dolphins had appeared in Super Bowl VI, but Griese and company were manhandled by Dallas, 26-3. Don Shula, who coached Morrall in Baltimore, brought his old QB back in Miami, just in case the Dolphins would need a steady veteran’s calm if the unthinkable happened.
Griese went down with a broken ankle in Week 5. The Dolphins were undefeated but now their fate was in the hands of a 38-year-old career backup who hadn’t seen serious playing time in several years.
Morrall finished the Dolphins’ perfect 14-0 season by taking the last nine games home with his precise, if less-than-impressive, arm.
Morrall threw just 150 passes in those nine games, as the Dolphins’ trio of runners—Jim Kiick, Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris—made sure that Earl’s signature play of the season was the handoff.
Griese recovered from his injury in time to start for Miami in Super Bowl VII, in which the Dolphins would attempt to finish the 1972 season a perfect 17-0.
Morrall was again relegated to backup duty, despite his 9-0 record as Miami’s starter in place of Griese.
“A younger player might have sulked,” Morrall once said about his personal disappointment but professionalism in respecting Shula’s choice.
Miami beat Washington, 14-7, as Morrall’s only claim to fame in the big game was as being the holder when Garo Yepremian’s famous “pass” after a blocked field goal attempt was intercepted and returned for a touchdown by Michigan’s Mike Bass.
Morrall stuck around Miami for four more years, throwing 134 passes combined, before retiring at age 42.
Morrall was Mr. Backup, yet he led two different teams to the Super Bowl as a starting quarterback—and he and Kurt Warner are the only two guys to ever have done that. And Morrall is, to this day, the only QB in Super Bowl history to come off the bench and lead his team to victory (SB V).
Earl’s old coach in Baltimore and Miami, Don Shula, put Morrall’s career in perspective after learning of Earl’s death.
“All Earl ever did was win games for me, whether it was as a starter or coming off the bench,” Shula said in a statement. “And he did it in such a humble way—he was a great team player who would do whatever was asked of him. And he was an outstanding leader who inspired confidence in his teammates.”
Morrall showed that humility when he was asked who he thought the Dolphins’ MVP was in that perfect 1972 season.
“Bob Griese for breaking his ankle so I could play.”
Earl Morrall made a career out of being the other guy. But, as Coach Shula said, all the old QB ever did was win games.
There always seemed to be someone who was better than Morrall, except when that QB went down and Earl managed to get on the field.
“I always wondered why he wasn’t starting,” Morrall’s old Lions teammate, receiver Gail Cogdill, once said of Earl’s years in Detroit (1958-64), when no one named Tarkenton, Unitas or Griese were remotely on the roster.
But that’s another column entirely.
Maybe Bill Ford wasn’t cutthroat enough.
Pro sports ownership is unlike any other business. Some of the basic tenets of corporate life just don’t apply. Improving the bottom line often isn’t as simple as cutting costs if you can’t increase revenue. Pro sports is a crazy business, truthfully. That’s part of why some of our wackiest public figures have been team owners.
Bill Veeck. Charlie O. Finley. George Steinbrenner. Al Davis. Mark Cuban.
Only in pro sports could men of this bombastic nature have been successful.
Bill Ford, the Lions owner who passed away today at age 88, subscribed to behavior that is just fine and dandy in the conventional business world, but not always so good in the competitiveness of pro sports.
Two L-words come to mind when I think of Ford and his Lions ownership, which spanned an even 50 years.
Loyalty is one. Losing is the other.
The two are not mutually exclusive, except that Ford was never able to strike a healthy balance between loyalty and the cutthroat nature needed to be successful in the NFL.
Ford employed two of the most hated men in Detroit sports—Russ Thomas and Matt Millen—for a combined 30 years between them. Thomas served as GM from 1967-89, and Millen was team president and de facto GM from 2001-08.
Thomas was a miserly curmudgeon who was maybe just as reviled by some of the players as he was by the fan base. Millen had no real issues with the players, but was toxic among the fans.
Neither Thomas or Millen would have survived with any other NFL team for nearly as long as they did with the Lions. Their woeful won/loss records simply would not have been tolerated for that many years by other team owners.
Losing branded the Ford ownership. This is true. But let it never be said that Bill Ford didn’t want to win. He just didn’t know how.
Part of that not knowing was exhibited in his nearly blind faith and trust in Thomas and Millen.
Ford didn’t have the hardened heart of a Davis, who ran the Oakland Raiders with swagger and a mentality that matched his team’s nickname and logo.
Ford didn’t have the creativity and outside the box thinking as an Edward DeBartolo, who took the San Francisco 49ers in his ownership from losers to Super Bowl champs within five years.
Ford didn’t have the daring of a Robert Kraft, who has been winning with the New England Patriots almost from the moment he bought the Pats in 1995.
And, in his defense, Ford didn’t have the luck of an Art Rooney, who as Pittsburgh Steelers owner hired a rookie coach named Chuck Noll in 1969, watched him suffer through a 1-13 first season, and then also watched as Noll drafted incredibly well in building a four-time Super Bowl champion.
What Ford did have, was an almost fatherly kindness and unwavering faith in those he hired, for better or for worse.
That’s fine in the “normal” business world, but as has been noted, pro sports isn’t normal.
Lions fans had a problem with Ford because they felt that he put his loyalty in the wrong people and places.
Where was the loyalty to the fans, for example?
In pro sports, tough decisions need to be made—decisions that affect families, tarnish careers and leave people scrambling. But America doesn’t tolerate losing, so these decisions are necessary, more often than the decision maker would prefer. And those decisions are decisions that are made in loyalty to the paying customers, not necessarily to those on the payroll.
Bill Ford never truly understood that. Or, at the very least, he didn’t want to face it. So he didn’t, more often than not.
You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who worked for Ford who would have anything bad to say about him. A cynic would scoff and say, “Of course you wouldn’t. There wasn’t any accountability.”
I don’t think that lack of accountability was the issue. It was too many second chances.
Ford’s lineage was to a time when the auto industry was in its heyday—when a worker for the Big Three put in his 40 hours, stayed with the company for 30 years, and got his gold watch. The worker was loyal to the company—even after the advent of unions—and the company was loyal to the employee.
But that isn’t pro sports.
In Thomas’s era as GM, with Ford’s blessing, the Lions traditionally went cheap with the coach. The results weren’t good, with the exception of Joe Schmidt’s six years. To make matters worse, several assistants who worked for the Lions during Thomas’s time ended up finding success elsewhere as head coach.
Don Shula, Chuck Knox, Jerry Glanville and Bill Belichick were four assistants who used the Lions as springboards, which made Ford’s ownership look even worse.
The same thing went for players, particularly in the AFL-NFL bidding wars of the 1960s.
Fred Biletnikoff, John Hadl, Gerry Philbin and Johnny Robinson were four AFL stars who were drafted by the Lions but, because of money, opted to sign with the “other” league instead. It’s mind-boggling to think of how different the Lions’ fate would have been with those players on the roster.
As it was, the Lions fielded some pretty decent rosters in the 1960s and ’70s, but tended to underachieve, big time.
The gaping hole during Bill Ford’s ownership of the Lions was the lack of a strong, proven football man at the top. As a mostly hands-off owner (though he did talk to his head coaches every week), Ford needed that brilliant football mind to run the show on a day-to-day basis. He never found that mind, wasting 30 years on Thomas and Millen instead.
Ford took his team north to Pontiac in 1975, but returned it to Detroit proper in 2002. Both were the right moves at the time.
The Lions organization, under Ford, was first class. The facilities, the generosity and loyalty, were all regarded as top drawer by those within the NFL. The Ford family’s support of the league by way of TV advertising in the 1960s helped stabilize the league in its early days of TV contracts.
But little of that mattered to a fan base that hasn’t known a championship for 57 years now and counting.
The only bottom line that fans pay attention to is the won/loss record. They couldn’t care less if the team owner is a mean, heartless son of a bitch, as long as their guys win.
I believe Lions president Tom Lewand, who said in a prepared statement in the wake of Ford’s death this morning that “No owner loved his team more than Mr. Ford loved the Lions.”
I also don’t doubt for a moment that Ford wanted to win a Super Bowl.
But his being tone deaf to his fan base yet at the same time being loyal to the incompetent, chafed Lions followers, and with good reason.
Bill Ford was a decent, kind man in a business where that wasn’t a prerequisite for success. He lacked the meanness and dog-eat-dog mentality necessary to end up on top in February.
There is no crime in that. It just didn’t work.
In a way, Dominic Raiola is the last man standing. He’s like the ruins of Rome. He’s the remembrance of a monarchy. He just needs a tour guide and a brochure for the passing patrons.
In April, 2001, Raiola, a stubby center out of Nebraska, was the second draft pick ever made for the Lions by President Matt Millen. Doubtless that Raiola had no idea what he was being drafted into.
There is no one on the current Lions roster that better symbolizes the ruins of the Millen Era than Raiola.
Calvin Johnson, the NFL’s best receiver, dates back to Millen’s tenure, but CJ was drafted in 2007 and Millen was gone a year later.
Raiola joined the Lions organization just three months after Millen did. Millen finally got fired early in the 0-16 2008 season, but Raiola and Jeff Backus, the tackle from Michigan drafted ahead of his offensive linemate in ’01, weren’t so lucky; part of their penance was to remain behind—guilty as sin of being drafted by Millen.
Could anyone have possibly known that, 13 seasons later, Dominic Raiola would still be squatting on Sundays, gripping the football and readying it for a snap—all 13 years spent with the Lions?
Raiola plays arguably football’s most thankless position. Nothing can happen until the center does his thing, but aside from that, you hike the football and then ten second later, you pull yourself out from a pile of humanity.
The centers for the game’s greatest quarterbacks are remembered no more than the fellow who broke the four-minute mile after Roger Bannister, the second guy to climb Mt. Everest and the act that followed the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Center in football is not a position played for notoriety, though Raiola has tried to be the story in the past.
There have been some ill-advised, occasionally outrageous comments. He’s gotten into it with the fans, walking off the field. There was an alleged incident with a marching band before a game, with an ugly epithet supposedly tossed around by Raiola.
And through it all there’s been one playoff game in 13 years, a monumental occasion that so overwhelmed Raiola, his comments leading up to the game indicated that he could scarcely believe it was happening. By the time he realized it was real, the Lions were being lapped by the New Orleans Saints, 45-28.
Centers don’t typically play their best football in their 13th season. Two reasons for this: 1) centers don’t typically play 13 seasons; 2) their bodies age as well as bananas.
Yet Raiola, in 2013, was ranked by Pro Football Focus as the second best center in the NFL. Not bad, considering the Lions almost didn’t bring him back after season no. 12.
There won’t be any doubt of Raiola’s coming back in 2014. Moved by perhaps his best season ever, the Lions recently rewarded their center with a one-year contract and a reportedly sizable raise—from $1 million in 2013 to $1.525 million in ’14.
Raiola captained an offensive line that, despite a 60% turnover from 2012, was among the NFL’s best and most consistent units in 2013.
“It’s humbling to me that I earned another year in the NFL, that’s first and foremost,” Raiola told the Detroit Free Press on February 7, after the Lions announced the signing.
“I’m in the same spot as I was last year, another proving ground. Can this 35-going-on-36-year-old play? And I’m going to work hard and let my play do the talking.”
Raiola, like Backus before the latter retired a year ago, is often guilty by association with the Lions when it comes to his legacy. He has never made the Pro Bowl, despite missing just four games in his 12 years as a full-time starter (all four came in 2008). Consequently, he’s often been portrayed as part of what’s wrong with the Lions instead of being lauded for his durability and solid play.
But Raiola hasn’t helped his own cause with some of his antics, usually involving his mouth.
Raiola hopes to play 15 years and hang them up. His newest contract is for one year, so like he said, it’s proving time again in 2014.
Since becoming a starter in his second season, here’s who Raiola has hiked the football to: Joey Harrington; Mike McMahon; Jeff Garcia; Jon Kitna; J.T. O’Sullivan; Dan Orlovsky; Daunte Culpepper; Drew Stanton; Shaun Hill and Matthew Stafford.
That’s 10 quarterbacks, and only Stafford was worth a hill of beans. It’s also a big reason why the Lions’ record while Raiola has been with the team is a putrid 60-148.
Hence the guilt by association thing.
It doesn’t matter that Raiola is hardly why the Lions have been so bad for so long—he’s been here, and that makes him part of the problem in the fans’ eyes.
Also, Raiola lives in his native Hawaii in the off-season, which doesn’t help. He’s not Nate Burleson, the recently released receiver whose gregarious demeanor and frequent appearances on national networks, pumping the Lions and the city of Detroit, have ingratiated him to the fan base.
Raiola leaves the mainland after the season and never makes it back unless there are OTAs to be conducted.
Plus, well, he’s a freaking center.
But the Lions aren’t bringing Raiola back for a 14th season out of pity or nostalgia. Salary cap dollars are too precious for anything silly like that. Witness the cashiering this past week of Burleson and safety Louie Delmas—two vocal leaders and proud Lions.
It’s about whether you can still play football, no matter what the birth certificate and the calendar have to say.
The Lions inked Raiola for another year because they don’t have a ready replacement, and his 2013 season was pretty damned good. And by all indications, the new deal is met with great appreciation by its recipient.
“I call (the Lions) my hometown team,” Raiola told the Free Press. “So it’s very humbling to me and I’m just thankful that they saw more gas in my tank.”
It’s funny. Raiola, the man who ends just about every play on the turf, is still standing when it comes to the Matt Millen Era.
It’s almost here. The game so big, they need to use Roman numerals to name it.
The history of the Super Bowl is filled with pre-game antics, outlandish quotes, flaky players and impressive individual performances.
But it’s amazing what you can find out when you do a little research.
There are tons of nuggets out there.
So while you’re probably sick and tired (aside: why does “and tired” always follow “sick”?) of pre-game coverage of SB XLVIII by now, I hope you can find it in yourself to indulge in a few more tidbits.
Super Bowl I (Los Angeles, 1967). Coliseum security are called when the Kansas City Chiefs are caught trying to flee the stadium upon the arrival of the Green Bay Packers’ team bus. Authorities manage to corral the Chiefs back onto the field, where they are promptly buggy-whipped, 35-10.
Super Bowl III (Miami, 1969). Everyone knows of Joe Namath’s guarantee that his AFL New York Jets would defeat the mighty Baltimore Colts of the NFL, but how about the drunken guarantee made by Colts LB Mike Curtis, who told the media the day before the game that Namath would be embalmed at the fifty yard line by halftime?
Another fun fact: Jets coach Weeb Ewbank’s first name, spelled backward, is Beew.
Super Bowl IV (New Orleans, 1970). The Minnesota Vikings declare that SB III’s win by the Jets was a fluke and that the NFL is still the dominant league. The Vikes display that dominance by losing, 7 to 23. After the game, Vikings QB Joe Kapp’s ribs fall out. KC d-lineman Buck Buchanan adds BBQ sauce and engages in a post-game victory meal.
Super Bowl V (Miami, 1971). It was the most mistake-filled of all the games. There were six fumbles, six interceptions and 14 penalties—and that was all before kickoff. The fans weren’t much better. There were 12,787 beer spills, 9,452 mustard stains and three turnovers—women who went home with men other than their husbands.
Super Bowl VII (Los Angeles, 1973). The Miami Dolphins’ perfect 17-0 season is threatened when kicker Garo Yepremian’s ill-advised pass attempt after a blocked FG attempt late in the fourth quarter is returned for a touchdown by Washington’s Mike Bass, drawing the Redskins to within 14-7. Order is restored on the next series, when Miami fullback Larry Csonka runs out the clock with a five minute, 23-second rushing attempt for a one-yard gain, while Redskin defenders are unable to wrestle him to the ground.
Super Bowl X (Miami, 1976). Pittsburgh receiver Lynn Swann victimizes Dallas cornerback Mark Washington twice with acrobatic catches and once with an atomic wedgie. Steelers d-lineman Mean Joe Greene gets into the spirit of the upcoming USA Bicentennial by planting Cowboys QB Roger Staubach into the ground after a sack and painting his rear end red, white and blue.
Super Bowl XIII (Miami, 1979). Back in Miami for a rematch with the Steelers, Cowboys LB Tom “Hollywood” Henderson says before the game that Steelers QB Terry Bradshaw couldn’t spell “cat” if you spotted him the “c” and the “a.” Pittsburgh’s center Ray Mansfield responds that Dallas’s intellectual QB Roger Staubach couldn’t spell “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” even if you spotted him the “supercalifragilisticexp”.
Super Bowl XV (New Orleans, 1981). Raiders owner Al Davis is presented the Vince Lombardi Trophy after Oakland’s victory over Philadelphia by his nemesis, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle. After the cameras are turned off, Davis pulls Rozelle’s suit jacket over his head and a hockey game breaks out. Raiders QB Jim Plunkett is ejected from the post-game celebration for being the third man in.
Super Bowl XVI (Pontiac, 1982). It’s the first SB played in a northern climate. Temps the week of the game dip below zero, with wind chills of up to -50 degrees. Paid attendance is 79,877, but actual attendance is estimated at being about 6,000 fewer, with those unable to attend found frozen into human popsicles on the streets of downtown Pontiac.
Super Bowl XVII (Pasadena, 1983). The big play of this game is Washington’s John Riggins breaking off left tackle for a 43-yard TD run to put the Redskins ahead of the Miami Dolphins to stay. Riggins is named MVP and immediately places a call after the game to Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, starting a whirlwind courtship that would end dramatically months later.
Super Bowl XX (New Orleans, 1986). The Bears destroy the Patriots, with even DT William “Refrigerator” Perry scoring a touchdown as a fullback instead of Bears Hall of Fame RB Walter Payton, whose anger spills over into the locker room after the game. Feuding head coach Mike Ditka and defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan placate Payton by hugging each other, showing Payton the true meaning of Super Bowl.
Super Bowl XXII (San Diego, 1988). The Redskins score a Super Bowl-record 35 points in the second quarter against the Broncos and hop on a plane at halftime. The second half is played by members of the 1972 Redskins, giving them the feeling of victory they missed out against Miami. The ’72 Skins outscore the ’87 Broncos, 7-0, after intermission.
Super Bowl XXIV (New Orleans, 1990). The Broncos show up in the SB for the fourth time—well, maybe that’s an overstatement, as they lose to the 49ers, 55-10. San Francisco QB Joe Montana slings touchdown passes all over the place to Jerry Rice, even connecting with no. 80 on a 25-yard strike in the men’s bathroom.
Super Bowl XXVIII (Atlanta, 1994). The Buffalo Bills suffer their fourth straight SB defeat and NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue bans them from future appearances, a ban that despite several legal attempts by the Bills to undo, remains in place to this day.
Super Bowl XXXI (New Orleans, 1997). Green Bay’s Desmond Howard, the game’s MVP, returns a third quarter kickoff 97 yards for a game-clinching touchdown, and returns a post-game salami sandwich 965 yards to a New Orleans deli for extra provolone.
Super Bowl XXXIV (Atlanta, 2000). Tennessee’s Kevin Dyson is stopped one yard shy of the end zone on the game’s final play as the Rams’ victory is secured. The Titans immediately file a court injunction to have the field reduced to 98 yards long but judges don’t work on Sundays, preserving St. Louis’s win. Rams coach Dick Vermeil sheds tears of joy as his players cheer, then roll their eyes behind his back.
Super Bowl XXXVII (San Diego, 2003). The Tampa Bay Buccaneers finally yank off their cloak of franchise futility by capturing a 48-21 victory over Oakland. Bucs coach Jon Gruden, who coached the Raiders just the year before, is asked to come back to Oakland by Al Davis, but Gruden scowls the Raiders owner into the fetal position.
Super Bowl XLI (Miami, 2007). The Indianapolis Colts, behind QB and MVP Peyton Manning, defeat the Chicago Bears. Television microphones capture Manning’s audibles, as he yells out every state capital and other popular city names at least once during the game, though his attempt at Albuquerque results in a delay of game penalty.
Super Bowl XLII (Glendale, 2008). The New York Giants ruin the New England Patriots’ bid for a perfect 19-0 season when Peyton’s little brother Eli Manning makes a remarkable play late in the game, eluding a sack and throwing for a long gain. Eli’s Giants win the game, but that doesn’t stop Peyton from wrestling Eli to the ground after the game, a move that only ends when Eli yells, “I can’t breathe.”
Super Bowl XLVII (New Orleans, 2013). The game is remembered for a lengthy delay in the third quarter when the lights go out. After the stoppage, the Baltimore Ravens take control, their dominance enhanced when the 49ers complain to the officials repeatedly that their wallets are now missing.
So there you have it—crack research at its best, with an emphasis on “crack.”
What nuggets will SB XLVIII produce?
The story is not apocryphal, which makes it even funnier.
“If you want a messenger, call Western Union.”
The speaker was Lions running back Joe Don Looney. The year was 1965.
The person Looney spoke those words to, incredibly, was his coach, Harry Gilmer.
Gilmer had wanted Looney to send in a play into the Lions huddle. And the free spirit from Oklahoma responded in a way that only Looney could.
Gilmer, never incredibly popular with players or fans, lasted two gut-wrenching years as Lions coach. He was the first coach hired by Bill Ford, who had taken control of the team from a group of partners in early 1964. One of Ford’s first flexing of muscle was to inform the coach he inherited, George Wilson, to fire some assistants after the ’64 season. Wilson relented, and told Bill Ford to take his job and shove it.
Gilmer’s last game as Lions coach ends on a December Sunday in 1966 at Tiger Stadium. Gilmer, wearing his trademark cowboy hat, is peppered with snowballs as he runs off the field and into the dugout.
A couple years later, Joe Schmidt sits in a bar across from Alex Karras. After a couple of seasons as coach—Schmidt was tabbed to replace Gilmer—Schmidt complains over his beer to his defensive tackle and former teammate.
“I can’t take it anymore,” Schmidt tells Karras. “I can’t take all the second guessing and the meddling.”
Schmidt was in a power struggle with GM Russ Thomas. And every Monday during the football season, Schmidt was subject to weekly meetings with Thomas and owner Ford—meetings that Schmidt derisively calls the “How come?” Sessions.
“Well,” Karras tells his coach, “if it’s that bad, why don’t you quit?”
Schmidt sneers at Karras. “That’s the stupidest f***ing idea I’ve ever heard!”
There’s a press conference in January, 1973. Schmidt tells the assembled media, “Coaching isn’t fun anymore.”
Schmidt had given himself the ziggy—a word he invented for when the coach gets fired.
He took Karras’s advice, after all—some four years later.
It is the fall of 1973. Don McCafferty, the new Lions coach, is beside himself. The Lions, struggling out of the gate, have just lost to the woeful Baltimore Colts.
“We can’t even beat the Colts,” McCafferty moans.
“(The players) don’t look like they have any pride,” the owner Ford says in anger.
McCafferty would drop dead less than a year later, during training camp.
It’s October, 1976. Someone named Rick Forzano is coaching the Lions. Forzano was a McCafferty assistant and inherited the head coaching job. He has become Lions coach much the same way that Jerry Ford became President of the United States—by default, never having an interview, never having to survive a challenge for the job.
Forzano is called into Ford’s office and is given the ziggy. Another unknown named Tommy Hudpseth—he was working in the team’s player personnel department at the time—is given Forzano’s old job.
Hudspeth coaches the Lions for a year and a half, in total obscurity. And awash in mediocrity.
It’s January, 1978. The big, bear of a man stands before the Detroit media, beaming. He learned his pro football as an offensive lineman, playing for Paul Brown in Cleveland. After retirement as a player, the offensive lineman is hired by Don Shula in Miami and guides the offensive line for Shula and the Dolphins.
The Dolphins are in their heyday, going undefeated in 1972 and winning two Super Bowls in a row. Following the success in Miami as an assistant, Monte Clark is hired by the 49ers as head coach for the 1976 season.
It starts out well for Monte, then the team tanks. He is fired in a dispute with GM Joe Thomas, after just one year on the Bay.
Now Clark has been hired to coach the Lions. He is given the additional title of Director of Football Operations. It’s an empty title, because Russ Thomas is still around, pissing people off as GM. Everyone, that is, except Bill Ford, indebted to Thomas for personal reasons that have forever gone unreported.
Clark lasts seven seasons as Lions coach, a lifetime for a football coach in Detroit. He takes the team to a couple of playoffs. He coaches the team to a 4-0 start in 1980, a start so heady that his players record a song—a bastardized version of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.”
Yet the lasting image of Monte Clark as Lions coach is that of Clark holding his hands up in prayer, prior to an Eddie Murray FG attempt in the 1983 playoffs in San Francisco.
It’s 1988. The Lions coach is staring at the roof of the Silverdome. A newspaper columnist sidles over and asks Darryl Rogers what he is looking at.
“I’m just counting the pigeons,” Rogers says.
Later, Rogers, deep into his fourth season, his team mired in bad, boring football, asks openly to some gathered reporters, “What does a guy have to do to get fired around here?”
The new Lions coach, rotund and with a big, cherubic face, smiles broadly and pulls owner Ford against his big body. He clutches the owner as if he’s still a defensive back for the New York Titans and Michigan State, making a tackle.
“I just wanna thank Mr. Ford for this opportunity,” Wayne Fontes says. Fontes took over for Rogers in that lovely “interim” basis. After five auditions, the Lions going 2-3 (both wins were over a bad Packers team), Ford decides he’s seen enough and eschews a coaching search. The owner gives Fontes, who’d never been a head coach at any level of football, a multi-year contract to be the head coach of the Lions—after five games as interim coach.
Fontes’ days, amazingly, are still today considered the apex of Lions football during the Ford ownership. Wayne takes the Lions to the playoffs four times in eight years, and manages to win a game in the post-season in the process.
“I’m the big buck,” Fontes famously says during one of the many times where he was in the fans’ crosshairs, explaining that he can take the heat.
Even after being fired in 1996, Fontes shows up during Ford’s press conference announcing the dismissal and gives the owner one more bear hug.
It is a horrible Sunday for the Lions in 1999. The coach, Bobby Ross, has tried an ill-advised two-point conversion that has indirectly cost the Lions a game against the Arizona Cardinals, on the road. Ross, ultra defensive, berates the media for daring to question the move.
Sometime later that season, Ross would lose it again, after another Sunday of foolish penalties and other sundry mistakes.
“I don’t coach that stuff!” Ross screams, a man coming unglued.
A year later, Ross quits on the Lions during the season, his team a respectable but apparently anguished 6-5.
It is January, 2001. The rookie football executive has chosen his first head coach. Both the executive and the coach will be learning on the job, because the coach is someone named Marty Mornhinweg—supposedly a hot shot offensive assistant who worked with Brett Favre in Green Bay.
“The bar is high,” Mornhinweg tells the mystified media. “We want to win Super Bowls.”
Sometime early in his first training camp, Mornhinweg, upset by something on the practice field, dramatically hops on his motorcycle and drives away. Just like that.
About 18 months later, Mornhinweg is given the ziggy, after a 5-27 record.
The Lions are introducing their new coach. It is January, 2003.
The new coach stands before the media and someone needs to pinch him.
“Wow,” the new coach says, grinning in disbelief at the pomp and circumstance surrounding his opening press conference—a real show put on by the Lions.
Steve Mariucci is the man Matt Millen wanted to hired two years prior, when Millen settled for Mornhinweg.
Mariucci is another ex-49ers coach, but one who has some playoff success under his belt, at least.
Mariucci, with northern Michigan roots, is a big name hire, given the ziggy by the 49ers a few weeks earlier. Not long before that, Millen gives Marty Mornhinweg a vote of confidence.
“Marty will be the Lions coach in 2003,” Millen tells the papers.
Then Mariucci becomes available, and Millen drops Marty like a hot potato.
It is Thanksgiving, 2005. The Lions lay another egg on national TV, a bad loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
A day after the game, Millen calls Mariucci—the man Millen wanted oh-so-badly—into his office and renders Mooch the ziggy.
The new Lions coach is a balding, ex-military man. He greets the media with, “Good morning, men,” just like a military man would.
Rod Marinelli is another assistant who has never been a head coach anywhere, at any level of football.
Marinelli talks of “pounding the rock” and of pride and of discipline.
Two years later, the Lions suffer the ignominy of being the first—and only—NFL team to go 0-16.
It’s January, 2009. The new Lions coach is another assistant coach—a defensive coordinator from Tennessee. But coming off 0-16, it’s the best the Lions can do.
“Bobby Layne doesn’t play here anymore,” Jim Schwartz tells the media who have once again been bugled to Ford Field to meet a new coach. The new coach has chosen to give a history lesson, right off the bat.
Schwartz gets his next Bobby Layne three months later, when the Lions draft Matthew Stafford, a quarterback from Georgia, with the first overall pick of the 2009 NFL Draft.
It is pointed out that Stafford attended the very same high school as Layne did, in suburban Dallas. As if.
It is October, 2011, and the Lions have suffered their first loss after five wins, to the 49ers in Detroit. Schwartz shakes the hand of 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, but something goes terribly wrong. Within moments, the Lions coach is screaming and chasing after Harbaugh. Video replays will show that Schwartz looks like a man who is unhinged. It’s a freaking post-game handshake, and Schwartz has turned it into must-see TV.
Two years later, Schwartz is caught on camera screaming again, this time at fans at Ford Field. The fans have booed the Lions’ decision to drain out the clock in a crucial game against the Giants and take their chances in overtime.
The fans hate the decision, which is dripping in cowardice.
Schwartz doesn’t like the booing and turns and gives it to the fans.
“I was just trying to fire up my players,” Schwartz feebly explains after the game.
Eight days later, Schwartz is given the ziggy, his teams carrying a well-deserved reputation of being talented but terribly undisciplined and a bunch of hotheads. They are a reflection of their coach.
Which brings us to…
“The time is now. Not two, three years down the road. Right here, right now,” Jim Caldwell tells the media as he’s introduced as the 16th coach hired by Bill Ford, today at Ford Field.
Caldwell is a change for the Lions. He’s actually been a head coach, for starters. And he’s been to the Super Bowl.
Then again, so had Bobby Ross. And Don McCafferty, who won it with Baltimore in 1970.
But Caldwell, the perceived second choice when the Lions lost Ken Whisenhunt to Tennessee, seems to be a level-headed, smart football man who has been around some very good people, such as Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning and John Harbaugh, to name a few.
“My father worked in the auto industry for 35 years,” Caldwell tells the folks who are feverishly converting everything he says into 140-character bites. “My brother is in his 34th year of working in the auto industry. The UAW has supported my family for almost 40 years.”
Caldwell doesn’t know his history as well as Jim Schwartz, who spoke of Bobby Layne. Someone ought to tell Caldwell that his employer’s ancestors fought the formation of the UAW tooth and nail.
No matter. Caldwell is the Lions coach, fair and square.
Bill Ford has owned the Lions for 50 years, and the 15 men preceding Caldwell as coach have never been heard from again after leaving Detroit. The Lions are the Bermuda Triangle of the NFL, when it comes to head coaches.
“I have been hired to deliver a championship,” Caldwell said today.
That might be the last time the new coach and the Lions fans agree for quite some time.
It was never about the coordinators.
The images are iconic.
Woody Hayes, with his black baseball cap with the red block O outlined in white, prowling—and that was the word—the sidelines with his rumpled white shirt and thin black necktie, working the officials and, in one unfortunate incident, the opponent’s players.
Bear Bryant, with his checkered fedora, steel-jawed and squinting into the Saturday afternoon sun, the wheels turning in his mind as to how to grab a few yards on a crucial third down against Auburn.
Lou Holtz, marching up and down the sidelines in front of his team, moving 20 to 30 yards without even looking up from the ground, his play calling sheet folded up and jammed into his back pants pocket, the next chess moves racing around in his brain.
And Bo Schembechler, wearing the cap with the maize block M, holding a headset to his ear, crouched and peering through his sunglasses, wearing athletic cleats and white socks.
These were just a few of the men who ran college football’s most prestigious programs. They were in charge. The assistants were mere satellites—lieutenants to the four-star general.
Only the most die-hard, obsessed fans of Ohio State, Alabama, Notre Dame and Michigan knew who the offensive and defensive coordinators were for those schools when Woody, Bear, Lou and Bo were the big cheeses.
And there certainly weren’t any press conferences announcing the hiring of coordinators.
But in today’s world of college football, I am reminded of a gem of a quote from former NFL head coach Chuck Knox, who once was an assistant for the Lions.
“I’ve seen situations where the defensive coordinator was the head coach in charge of the defense, and the offensive coordinator was the head coach in charge of the offense, and you had a head coach who was in charge of nothing.”
In today’s game, the coordinators are almost more of the media and fan darlings—and goats—than their bosses.
The coordinators, if they are considered hot shot, are the anointed ones for another program, somewhere. They are just what the other program needs, according to the other program’s head coach and athletic director.
Pat Narduzzi is hot shot today. He’s the defensive coordinator at Michigan State and to hear some tell it, the Spartans wouldn’t be 13-1 and no. 3 in the country if head coach Mark Dantonio had someone else in charge of the defense.
Narduzzi, already the rejecter of the University of Connecticut for their head coaching position, was in the running for the top job at Louisville, filled last week by the ne’er-do-well Bobby Petrino.
Narduzzi is the flavor of the month.
Across the state, in Ann Arbor, Al Borges was the day old bread.
Borges was 180 degrees opposite of Narduzzi in terms of popularity at his school.
Borges, Michigan’s offensive coordinator, got real dumb in 2013, according to the fans and segments of the media.
He was brought to Michigan by head coach Brady Hoke, part of the minions who accompanied Hoke from San Diego State.
The offense struggled mightily in 2013, with quarterback Devin Gardner regressing with frightening rapidity as the season moved along.
So Borges, opposite of hot shot, was given the ziggy last week. Presumably, it was Hoke who rendered it, his decision alone.
“The decisions I make will always be what is good for Michigan,” Hoke said, as he introduced his new coordinator at a presser in Ann Arbor.
The new guy is Doug Nussmeier. Hoke snagged him from Alabama, but the Crimson Tide had already appeared to move on, hiring Lane Kiffin immediately after Nussmeier took the job in Ann Arbor.
Nussmeier is being warmly received, for the most part, by Michigan supporters. I suspect some of the support is derived from the fact that Nussmeier’s name isn’t Al Borges.
Hoke looked on at the presser as Nussmeier shared his vision for Michigan football, when the team has the football.
“We’re going to be explosive,” Nussmeier said.
This is what college football has become. Head coaches standing off to the side, listening to coordinators have a press conference.
This is also what college football has become: coaching trios instead of solo artists.
You don’t just hire a head coach. You hire two coordinators who come with him.
But the head coach can still offload coordinators. Michigan fans demanded a sacrificial lamb after 2013’s 7-6 record, and Hoke threw them one, in Borges.
But the head coach can only toss so many lambs out before he himself is offered up to the angry masses.
Coordinators are used as fodder, and as currency with which the head coach can buy some time.
Brady Hoke cashed in his Al Borges, and in doing so, purchased another year or two as head coach at Michigan.
Everyone knows what’s going on here.
Hoke felt the pressure, presumably from his superiors, and made the swap of Borges for Nussmeier. And everyone knows that if this doesn’t work, Hoke will be the next lamb.
Everyone knows that Nick Saban wanted Kiffin very badly at Alabama to coordinate his offense, and thus Nussmeier became expendable.
But it won’t matter, and no one in Ann Arbor will care how the sausage was made, as long as Nussmeier is able to develop Gardner and start torching defenses that Michigan should be torching, by all rights.
And Hoke won’t care how Nussmeier became surprisingly available, as long as the win totals start to move into double digits consistently.
If none of the above happens, Michigan will be looking for a new head coach. It’s as simple as that.
Is Brady Hoke, to invoke Chuck Knox’s words, a head coach in charge of nothing?
That’s actually OK, as long as the coordinators below you produce results.
It’s not how Woody, Bear, Lou or Bo would have done it, but this is a different time.