May 3, 2014 at 8:58 pm

Jerry Green

In Barry Sanders, Lions boast best draft pick ever

The Lions drafted Barry Sanders in the first round 25 years ago. (Detroit News)

Before the music hall theatrics; before all the flashing, shooting lights; before the overkill of the perpetually changing mock drafts; before self-styled media savants called themselves talent-assessing experts -- the NFL did conduct an annual player draft.

And there were rubies -- as Joe Schmidt would call the especially talented prospects.

For example: “The Detroit Lions with the third pick of the 1989 draft select Barry Sanders, running back, from Oklahoma State.”

No histrionics, no showbiz about it.

The player was expected to provide the showmanship.

“Barry,” “Barry,” “Barry.”

Simply, the franchise that has won one postseason playoff game in 58 years deserves credit even now -- in the era of Tom Brady and Adrian Peterson and Peyton Manning -- for making the best pick in the history of NFL drafts.

The opinion is mine, personally. And I deliver this opinion based on the experience of covering and observing pro football drafts for close to 60 years. It goes back to when the Steelers were making their draft selections with guidance from player articles published by the Street & Smith College Football Annual.

It was 25 years ago -- a quarter of a century -- when the Lions drafted Barry Sanders in the first round. This coming week’s three-day NFL draft, brought to America with pomp and glitter and much racket by ESPN from New York’s Radio City Music Hall, provides an anniversary that warrants recognition.

Barry Sanders -- the third pick of the 1989 first round -- poof. Two guys actually were drafted ahead of Barry that year. Troy Aikman and Tony Mandarich. Aikman went to the powerfully stocked Cowboys and won three Super Bowls. Mandarich, from Michigan State, was an offensive tackle, who went to the Packers and became one of the frequent draft flops.

A true gem

Then the Lions made the best draft choice ever. Barry. It was a year when the late Russ Thomas was lame-duck general manager after a career of abusive criticism, much of it delivered in print by me. Thomas went and soon died with the credit of making the best draft pick ever -- on the advice of Lions’ player personnel director Joe Bushofsky.

It was a studied pick. And for a decade Barry Sanders electrified audiences and baffled defenses -- all without the glory of a true championship. Or a Super Bowl.

The oddity is that the Lions remain a laughing stock in the NFL for the quality of their drafting. Credited with the smarts of drafting Calvin Johnson and Mathew Stafford, there is the ridicule that the Lions also are the team that drafted Charles Rogers and Joey Harrington.

Through the years, going back to the 1960s, there was the folly of the drafting of Fred Biletnikoff, Johnny Robinson and John Hadl -- and failing to sign them. Losing them to stronger bidders from the American Football League before the pro football merger.

The Lions, in those days, had the smarts to draft Mel Farr, Lem Barney, Charlie Sanders and later Billy Sims, Chris Spielman, Doug English, Lomas Brown, Jason Hanson and Herman Moore.

Their drafts have not been as rotten as we the media made them out to be.

But then there were Ernest Price and Lynn Boden -- first rounders. Of course, Russ Thomas did not have the advantage of warnings from ESPN wizard Mel Kiper Jr. then.

There was only occasional theater at the draft in the old days. The usual routine was that a guy from public relations would emerge from a back room into a classroom where journalists were gathered -- and sequestered. The PR man would announce that the Lions had drafted Lem Barney from Jackson State.

“Who?”

Then the guy would hand out sheets disclosing Barney’s college statistics, his age, height, weight.

And an hour later the head coach, in this case Joe Schmidt, would come out to address the media rabble.

“A real ruby,” Joe would say about Barney. And Lions would be praised for their discovery of pro talent from within the smaller colleges. Lem would advance on to election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But there was little hot drama in those BLESTO draft years -- the Bears, Lions, Eagles, Steelers drafting together, sharing scouting information.

Except in the case of the 1968 draft, when the Lions did their drafting in their own building in downtown Detroit, caddy-corner from Tiger Stadium.

“The Lions have drafted Greg Landry, a quarterback from Massachusetts,” the PR guy told us that noontime.

The expected visit from Joe Schmidt did not occur an hour later that day. Joe did emerge. But it had to be two hours, or longer, before he discussed Landry.

Not too happily.

It was discovered a day or a week or a month later that there had been genuine theater at the draft that day in the Lions’ offices.

ESPN might have loved it. Except ESPN could not have claimed total knowledge of everything that happens pertaining to the pro football draft back then. ESPN would not be founded from a gleaming TV brainstorm for another decade.

Boss rules

But that day Schmidt was overruled by owner William Clay Ford and Thomas and the Lions selected Landry. Joe wanted fullback Mike Hull from Southern California.

“No, Joe, we’re taking Landry,” he was told.

“That’s it, get yourself another coach,” Schmidt said, in words to that effect.

And he was out, unseen by those of us clammed into a media room, leaving through the back door and into the parking lot. Joe was not seen driving off, headed for the freeway, toward the northern suburbs, to home.

It was several miles later that Joe calmed himself, realized that he had just given up his job -- and went up a ramp and turned south back to the Lions’ office. I reckon Messrs Ford and Thomas realized Schmidt’s temper would slacken and he would drive back to reclaim his job.

“A ruby.” I don’t recall Schmidt calling Landry a ruby that draft day. But Landry would become a very fine quarterback for the Lions.

The drafts have been fun all these years. They have led to speculation and guesswork and public applause and public outcries. They have led to Chris Berman -- a fellow alumnus from Brown -- rehearsing his bellowing. They have led to the mock drafts by TV performers with their comments celebrated in newspapers.

The drafts have led most of the NFL franchises to the Super Bowls. With the Lions still absent in the Super Bowl’s Roman numerals listings.

Somehow, the Lions never got there. Even with Barry Sanders, the best draft choice ever.

Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sportswriter who recently earned a lifetime achievement award from the Detroit Society of Professional Journalists. Read his web-exclusive column Saturdays at detroitnews.com.