Green: Once again, Lions wait for a new coach

Jerry Green
Special to The Detroit News

Minneapolis — The vigil is part of the process. Always has been, ever since pro football opted to unite two warring factions — the established and the upstart — and created a championship football game.

The football game would become known as the Super Bowl, a trite and simple name. But it was a name that stuck. And I was eager and impatient to fly to California for the event pitting the champions of the savvy, old National Football League with its young competitor, the American Football League, for an overall world championship.

The buildup had begun. A compelling publicity mystery developed over whether the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs would be able to compete with the haughty NFL champion Green Bay Packers.

And here I was in the middle of a countdown, pacing in the lobby of the austere Detroit Club instead of jousting out in California, obtaining bon mots from Vince Lombardi.

The Lions were changing coaches. And I was required to stick around until the new coach was presented. That took precedence. It was Wednesday early in January 1967, end of my rookie year as pro football beat writer for The Detroit News. Departures on Monday, then Tuesday had to be postponed.

So I paced as upstairs the negotiations continued.

Ultimately, Joe Schmidt, the wondrous championship middle linebacker on the triple NFL champions of the 1950s, emerged as the new head coach. Harry Gilmer has been fired, gone after a barrage of snowball missiles from the faithful after the final game of 1966 at Tiger Stadium.

In this age of augmented everything, technological advances, robots, mood changes, there is at least one carryover from the week of what history now acknowledges as Super Bowl I.

It is the Lions compulsion to fire football coaches and hire new presumed wizards who have the talent to construct football champions. To construct them in the manner of Vincent Lombardi in Green Bay more than a half century ago.

A slice of the intrigue here at Super Bowl LII is that the Lions are again paused while waiting to anoint their new coach. Jim Caldwell has been cashiered. The new head coach-in-waiting, presumbaly, is the black-bearded Matt Patricia, disciple of Bill Belichick.

But Patricia remains in the employment of Belichick’s Patriots, a team involved in Super Bowl LII. So shhhh, all is hushed up — until the next Lions’ coronation next week.

The Lions are in the process of their 16th coaching change since Joe Schmidt was proclaimed head coach in the Detroit Club.

Long list of outcasts

And from Joe through Rick Forzano, Monte Clark, Wayne Fontes, Bobby Ross, Steve Mariucci, Marty Mornhinweg, Jim Schwartz, Caldwell and other assumed coaching wizards, the Lions are the oldest pro football franchise that has never reached the Super Bowl in its half-century plus.

“Yeah, he’s gone.” I heard the words over the telephone. It was Super Bowl VI week in New Orleans, Don Shula’s Dolphins vs. Tom Landy’s Cowboys, January 1972.

A then-middle-aged sports journalist reveled in the Super Bowl scene in the French Quarter of the city.

The Absinthe House was jammed every night with writers, owners and visiting players. We exchanged tidbits, told stories, drank beer and thought bawdy thoughts. The strip joints down Bourbon Street were for tourists, folks from Yonkers.

This was football people and football talk. Tom Dempsey, the placekicker, stood at the bar one night and told me how he kicked the historic 63-yard field goal that had crushed the Lions in New Orleans a couple of years earlier.

“I never kicked another ball in my life like that,” he said.

It was 3 o’clock in the morning, same as it was every night that week when I left the Absinthe House to walk back to our press hotel quarters. Yet somehow, when the NFL sounded reveille in the morning, I was up and out on my way to hear Tom Landry and his comments packed with all the imagination of supermarket coupons.

Then the office phoned with a report.

Up in Detroit, not quite expectedly, the Lions were involved in a coaching change.

Deeply frustrated, Schmidt had told the Lions to stuff the job. Russ Thomas, then the general manager, used his booming voice to confirm Schmidt’s departure.

There was some giggling in the background. William Clay Ford, the Lions’ gentle late owner, had gotten rid of a problem — the feud that had existed between Schmidt and Thomas.

Through all these futile years — with the moaning of three generations of moaning loyalists — only three coaches have managed to leave with winning records.

Schmidt departed with a 43-34 record. And Jim Caldwell was canned despite his 36-28 resume and two playoff appearances. Gary Moeller went 4-3 in a partial 2000 season.

Not even Wayne Fontes, the self-styled Big Buck, could amass a winning record with the Lions.

And now as we step toward Super Bowl LII, the vigil again is part of the process.

All change is not progress.

Jerry Green, a retired sports writer, has covered every Super Bowl for The Detroit News.