All of our recent World Champions — and by recent I mean starting with the 1984 Tigers — tried the same tack, and all failed miserably doing it.
It was called coaching on the cheap.
The prevailing wisdom, with the Tigers, Red Wings, and Pistons, was that an assistant, or a prime time wannabe, would be a suitable choice to be the coach, or the manager. Mostly, they had one and only one thing going for them: convenience.
The Pistons, when they were still slapstick in the 1960s, constantly promoted assistants to take their turn with the silver whistle and clipboard. They had names like Donnis Butcher and Paul Seymour and Red Rocha. And each would do their thing for a year or so, and then vanished into the NBA night, never to be heard from again. The trend continued thru the 1970s, though it got a little better, with Coach of the Year Ray Scott interrupting the madness for a few years.
The Red Wings were experts at getting coaching on the cheap. When the team was constantly stumbling through the NHL schedule in the ’70s and early-1980s, they turned to assistants or minor leaguers, always with disastrous results. Teddy Garvin, Doug Barkley, and Wayne Maxner were among those who blew in and out of town, with already unimpressive resumes weakened by their time here.
The Tigers, after the departure of Sparky Anderson in 1995, got cheap, mostly. Buddy Bell, Larry Parrish, and Luis Pujols were either convenient or unwanted elsewhere. Phil Garner was duped into thinking the team was going to spend some money. Alan Trammell was convenient, and a reminder of better times.
But times didn’t get better for the Pistons until they hired Chuck Daly, and paid him enough money to get him to stay. World titles and annual appearance in the NBA’s Final Four became commonplace before long. Then after some down years in the late 1990s, the Pistons eventually hired Larry Brown to nudge them back to the top again. The Red Wings scuffled along, hoping to overachieve every year, until snagging Scotty Bowman and his Hall of Fame background. Stanley Cups soon followed. The Tigers made a splash in 1979 when they hired Anderson, and were champions within five years. Then after their cheapness stage, they landed Jim Leyland last year.
None of these teams found any success until they quit hiring the unknown soldiers and started going after higher profile guys with rich pedigrees.
But there is one team conspicuous from its absence from this group.
The Lions haven’t, truthfully, ever gotten away from hiring coaching on the cheap. And I don’t mean cheap in terms of strictly dollars and cents. I mean cheap in terms of poverty of pedigree.
Oh, there were the just plain cheap ones, money-wise (Tommy Hudspeth and Rick Forzano come to mind). And there were convenient ones (assistants Wayne Fontes and Gary Moeller). And there were those who were neither, but also not qualified (Darryl Rogers).
The Pistons have their Chuck Daly and Larry Brown. The Red Wings have their Scotty Bowman. The Tigers have their Sparky Anderson and Jim Leyland.
The Lions have none of that, harkening back to the late 1950s, early 1960s.
Don’t talk to me about Steve Mariucci, whose background and style were both ill-fits with the team. And don’t talk to me about Bobby Ross and his Super Bowl appearance with the Chargers. The list of coaches who’ve taken their teams to Super Bowls — and lost — isn’t all that impressive.
Rod Marinelli wouldn’t, on first glance, appear to be the Lions’ Daly or Bowman or Leyland. His team went 3-13 in his first season. He was a career assistant, and never a coordinator — supposedly a requirement to be a capable head coach. He might be another example of coaching on the cheap — again, not in terms of dollars.
Whether Marinelli succeeds or not, the fact remains: the Lions have never made the splash at the coaching position that other NFL teams have made. Never have they brought in a bona fide, high profile, rich-with-winning guy who is capable of turning a franchise around.
They’ve let a few of those go, though, to other teams.
Don Shula was a bright young assistant, working with the Lions’ defensive backs, in the early part of the 1960s. But by the time their head coaching job was open, Shula was starting to make a Hall of Fame name for himself with the Baltimore Colts. Charles “Chuck” Knox cut his football coaching teeth as a Lions assistant in the 1970s, but was shunned by the team after Joe Schmidt resigned in 1973. Knox then went on to great success as leader of first the Rams, then the Seahawks.
Did you know Bill Belichick started as a Lions assistant? Or Jerry Glanville? Or Marty Schottenheimer?
It’s true. As Casey Stengel once said, “You can look it up.”
Marinelli could be our Knox, or Shula. Maybe he’s the assistant that his former team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, will rue letting leave.