September 7, 2013 at 8:01 pm

Jerry Green

The Lions coach who gave up - and the team that didn't

Coach Buddy Parker (with hat) is hoisted by his Lions players after beating the Cleveland Browns on Dec. 28, 1952, for the world championship. Parker would quit just before the 1957 season. (Detroit News file)

The athletes entered the large ballroom in the Statler Hotel in downtown Detroit. Most had been champions just a few years ago.

There was Bobby Layne, the quarterback who had won two NFL championships. His face was ruddy, cheeks puffy, his head blond. He smiled and chatted as he walked to his seat. He was the most recognizable and most revered athlete in Detroit. When you heard him speak on the radio, his voice was pure Texas.

There was Joe Schmidt, the intimidating middle linebacker, leader of the smothering defense, still a young aggressor.

And there was Tobin Rote, the new quarterback whom the Lions pried away from the Green Bay Packers. He was tall and balding and at times had outduelled Layne in the annual Thanksgiving game at Briggs Stadium.

Already there were the roots for a quarterback controversy. But Detroit was accustomed to controversy involving its sports team.

As they entered the ballroom, the players had the appearance of men who had been partying — before the party.

It was August 1957, and this was the annual Meet The Lions dinner at which the fans fawned and cheered. Unlike in most of America’s large cities, pro football had grabbed the populace with its excitement and explosiveness.

There were great expectations for the Lions.

There always were.

The franchise owners — there were 14 on the board — entered. The owners, too, had the appearance of men who had been partying.

Buddy Parker entered the room. He was a dour, seldom-smiling man whose coaching wizardry had enabled the Detroit franchise to win two championships in the past five years, Parker, on this night, looked especially grim. Seething anger masked his face. Something was bugging him as he sat at the dais.

“We’re a definite contender for the championship,” club president Edwin J. Anderson told the fans.

When the platitudes had been spoken and the preliminaries ended, it was Parker’s turn to offer his words about the upcoming season.

He stood to address the multitudes. The applause was thunderous.

“There comes a time in every coach’s career when he faces a situation he can’t handle,” Parker said. “That time has come for me.

“Tonight I’m getting out of the Detroit Lions organization. I’ve had enough. I’m through as coach of the Detroit Lions.”

No turning back

The silence was sudden and absolute as Parker turned abruptly and returned to his seat.

“I don’t think Buddy means that,” sportscaster Bob Reynolds, the toastmaster, said into the microphone.

“I meant what I said,” Parker said from his seat. “That’s it.”

Parker was surrounded by the sports reporters. They scribbled away, their pens scratching the paper of their notebooks.

“I can’t handle this team anymore,” Parker told them. “It’s the worst team I’ve ever seen in training camp. They have no life, no go; just a completely dead team. The team got away from me, got beyond me.”

Parker went on:

“I’ve been in football a long time. I know the situation. I don’t want to get into the middle of another losing season.

“Material-wise, it’s a good team. Maybe somebody else can handle it better than I can.”

The next day’s Detroit News would smother the story, the scene and the dialogue.

It was well-known at the time the owner-directors loved hobnobbing with the athletes. You could tell just by watching them bow and kowtow to the players in the locker room at Briggs Stadium after games.

And it was also well-known the franchise owners — all wealthy and influential men in Detroit — were divided into factions.

Parker knew all this that August night when he entered a Statler suite for a private party. What he did not know that several of his star players would be at the party holding glasses containing a variety of amber liquids.

That’s when he started to simmer. And the simmering turned into a storm as he sat at the speaker’s table before his speech. He decided then to resign — in public — from his very public job.

A committee of players — Layne, Schmidt, Jack Christiansen — went to Parker’s Dearborn home to press their coach into changing his decision. Parker remained adamant. He was gone.

The owners promptly named George Wilson to become Parker’s successor as coach of the Detroit Lions. Wilson had been an assistant. But he had never before been head coach of an NFL team.

The 1957 season remains unforgettable in the memories of those who were there — those who followed the Lions that autumn. It has become part of the knowledge of the generations who have been born since and have become affixed to this football franchise, worshipping, and crying, screaming and ranting.

That autumn the great Bobby Layne and the competent Rote did share the quarterback job. They won games, they lost some. They yanked victories away from defeat. Layne was injured toward the end. Rote finished up.

He rallied the Lions from 27-7 down in the third quarter to a 31-27 victory in a playoff game at San Francisco.

The next week at Briggs Stadium, Rote threw four touchdown passes. Schmidt led a punishing defense. The Lions made mincemeat of the Cleveland Browns, 59-14.

The team Buddy Parker had forsaken had won the NFL championship.

The Lions’ last championship.

Hasty decision regretted

In postscript, Parker became coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers — a franchise with a historic future — had been non-winners for nearly a quarter-century. A year later the Steelers traded for Bobby Layne. Like Parker, Layne left Detroit in a fury.

But the supposed Bobby Layne curse the Lions would never win another championship is a myth. A well-lubricated fabrication. It just has worked out that way.

Parker, some 15 years later, divulged what prompted his spontaneous speech before the Lions’ 1957 championship season. He was candid in an interview I was conducting for a book about the Lions. He described the prelude, a party in the suite of powerful owner D. Lyle Fife:

“We’d just traded during the offseason for Tobin Rote. Some man saw me on the elevator and told me to come up to a social gathering before the banquet,

“I went up there, and when I saw Tobin Rote and some other ballplayers in there drinking the night before a ballgame, I just got teed off.”

Parker made his quick-triggered decision — and quite honestly he quickly regretted it.

“I wish I’d stayed,” he told me in our phone conversation in 1972. “I’m sorry I left Detroit. I’ve regretted for a long time.

“If I’d wanted to make a change, I could have picked a better place to go than Pittsburgh. They weren’t going all-out in those days, and it was a bad move on my part. I loved it in Detroit, and I still think of myself as coach of the Lions.

“Not Pittsburgh. Detroit!”

Now as another NFL seasons starts, in a pro league totally different in atmosphere, vivid images of the Lions’ last championship season remain bright 56 years later.

The fans bouncing Joe Schmidt atop their shoulders and heads on the field after the rout of the Browns.

Layne flipping a touchdown pass to Howard “Hopalong” Cassady up the sideline to beat the Baltimore Colts.

Jim Martin bouncing the opening kickoff of the championship game on one-hop off the left-field wall.

And George Wilson somehow managing, somehow handling this rambunctious, hard-living group of athletes — and winning the Lions’ last championship.

Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sportswriter. Read his web-exclusive column Sundays at detroitnews.com.

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