“See you at the cemetery.”
Sadly, those words are no longer simply metaphorical.
Monte Clark is gone—dead at 72 after a long illness—and this has been a ghastly year for sports deaths, if you’re a follower of the teams in Detroit.
The following list is only partial: George Kell; Bill Davidson; Chuck Daly; Mark Fidrych; Brad Van Pelt; John Gordy. And Ernie Harwell is likely dying.
Most tributes to Clark, the former Lions coach (1978-84), like this one from my friend Big Al, have mentioned in vivid detail the “praying hands” that Clark displayed prior to Eddie Murray’s FG try in the 1983 playoffs in San Francisco. As well they should, for that might have been one of the most iconic images in Detroit sports history, bar none.
But the opening line of this post resonated with me almost as much.
For there would have been no playoff appearance in ’83 if the Lions hadn’t rebounded from a 1-4 start.
It was in Anaheim, after that fourth loss, when Clark—a former offensive lineman and a hulk of a man—stood before the cadre of media folks who all wanted to know the answer of the typical post-game question for the loser: “What happened out there?”
In a hushed tone, filled with gallows humor, Clark placed himself on the hot seat—practically giving himself the ziggy.
“See you at the cemetery,” he said, then stepped away from the microphones and notepads.
The inference was impossible not to understand. Monte knew that the papers on Monday morning were going to be filled with poison, so might as well do a pre-emptive strike.
Well, now we truly will see Monte at the cemetery, thanks to his passing.
Clark was the first football coach in Detroit to be given the highbrow title of Director of Football Operations, even though GM Russ Thomas was far from retirement. Monte wanted some control beyond just that of drawing up plays and game plans. He wanted some say so in drafting, trades, and other personnel matters.
The highbrow title was mandatory, if the Lions wanted Clark as their next coach. It was a distinct lack of control, working for eccentric GM Joe Thomas, that slayed Clark after just one year as coach of the 49ers, in 1976.
Thomas dumped Clark rather unexpectedly after that ’76 season, and the experience stung Monte. So when the Lions came calling, looking for a coach to replace Tommy Hudspeth, Clark insisted on the broadened title and increased input, beyond that of “just” a coach.
Monte was Don Shula’s o-line coach in Miami for many years, and there are far worse folks from whom to learn your coaching chops than Mr. Shula.
Monte Clark, as he looked when he became the Lions’ new coach in 1978
The Lions started 1-6 in Monte’s first season, but gathered themselves and went 6-3 the rest of the way.
Then came a fateful exhibition game at the end of the 1979 pre-season.
QB Gary Danielson, who led the Lions to their fine finish the year before, went down with a serious knee injury, in Baltimore. He was done for the season.
The Lions had creaky Joe Reed as their backup, and by the third game Reed was done, also by injury.
The Lions were then QBd by rookie Jeff Komlo—he died this year, too—and the result was a horrific 2-14 season.
The Lions went through Reed, Komlo, Jerry Golsteyn, and Scott Hunter behind center, but Komlo by far got the most playing time. He completed about 50 percent of his passes and threw a ton of interceptions.
But that 2-14 year enabled the Lions to draft Billy Sims with the No. 1 overall pick, and playoff contention was just around the corner.
Clark avoided the coaching cemetery in 1983, but fell victim to it one year later after a disappointing 4-11-1 record, thanks largely to losing Sims to a career-ending knee injury in October.
But yes, that image of Monte praying to the football gods prior to Murray’s 43-yard try on the final play in, of all places, San Francisco, will be burned into the minds of all Lions fans old enough to remember it when it happened.
I’m one of those, and that December 31, 1983 game ruined my New Year’s celebration, as it did millions of others’.
The funny thing is, if you ask, most Lions fans will tell you that as soon as they saw Clark praying, they knew Murray was going to miss. I was one of those, too.
The Lions are the NFL’s fallen angels, and those types don’t have prayers answered.