The beleaguered Lions coach jogged across the expanse of snow-covered grass inside Tiger Stadium, and when he approached the dugout leading to the tunnel and the locker room, the snowballs came fast and furious.
If only Harry Gilmer had removed his cowboy hat, he wouldn’t have made such an easy target.
Lions fans pelted Gilmer with handmade snowballs as the coach left the field after the Lions’ last game of the 1966 season, a 28-16 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, putting the final touches on a 4-9-1 debacle.
The 1966 Lions closed the season with three losses, being outscored 92-33 along the way.
And the fans on that snowy December Sunday in 1966 let Gilmer know of their displeasure, using the ammunition of children, but this was no frivolous snowball fight.
“Goodbye, Harry!” the fans chanted all afternoon as the Lions slip-slided their way to another demoralizing loss.
Harry Gilmer wasn’t very popular in Detroit. He only served two years as Lions coach, replacing George Wilson, who led the Lions to their last championship in 1957, and who was unceremoniously forced out by new owner Bill Ford in January 1965.
Gilmer wasn’t a hit with the players—his most famous run-in being with wacky running back Joe Don Looney.
It’s not an apocryphal story. Looney really did level this zinger at Gilmer, when the coach asked Looney to send in a play from the sidelines.
“If you want to send a message, call Western Union,” Looney told Gilmer.
Gilmer was 6-7-1 in 1965 and 4-9-1 in 1966, and it didn’t help his cause that Wilson, his predecessor, had guided the Lions to some pretty good years in Wilson’s eight years in Detroit. The Lions under Gilmer still had that decent defense that the team had been known for in the decade, but the offense was a travesty.
Gilmer got the ziggy not long after that snowball fusillade. Ford hired former linebacker Joe Schmidt, just two years removed from his Hall of Fame playing career.
I couldn’t help but think of Gilmer and his snowball abuse by Lions fans, as the Lions of today blew another one on Sunday.
Harry Gilmer getting snowballed by fans in 1966
Jim Schwartz was caught by the Fox Sports cameras as he was seemingly giving it to the fans at Ford Field, as they booed the decision to run out the last 23 seconds of regulation, rather than try to turn an interception—a rare Lions-forced turnover—into a dramatic push for a game-winning field goal.
After the game, Schwartz hardly denied that he was frustrated, though he didn’t come out and admit that he was yelling at the fans. He didn’t need to—the video evidence was there.
It’s all coming apart now for Schwartz.
When the coach calls out the fans, as Schwartz did after the game to the media, and your name isn’t Belichik or Parcells or Harbaugh, then you’re a man flailing.
It’s cruelly ironic that amid calls for accountability by the fans and the media, the coach chose to hold the fans accountable for their actions.
Schwartz expressed more frustration with the paying customers on Sunday than he has with his players in five years as Lions coach, combined.
If Social Media and sports talk radio were around when Harry Gilmer coached the Lions, the dialogue would probably be similar as it is now regarding Schwartz’s future.
#FireHarry hashtags would sprout up on Twitter ’66. Video of the snowball attack would go viral. The talking heads on the TV networks would have a field day with Harry’s fate.
I’ve long suspected that Jim Schwartz’s prickly personality would eventually get the best of him. His verbal assault on the fans was hardly as dramatic as the fans’ assault on Harry Gilmer as far as visual spectacles go, but the root of both incidents is the same—anger and frustration.
Only Schwartz could turn a post-game handshake into must-see TV. What we thought back in 2011 was just a fiery guy has turned out to be, perhaps, the iconic moment of Schwartz’s career in Detroit—his run-in with 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh after a loss in 2011.
I don’t have a major problem with running out the 23 seconds. The Lions didn’t have great field position, and the Giants hadn’t been moving the ball, at all, in the second half.
But when the coach holds the fans more accountable than his players, then that’s a different story.
The Lions, if they fire Schwartz after the season, are on the hook for $12 million owed to him, according to reports. But it would hardly be the first time that a coach has gotten the ziggy with lots of money still owed him. It’s almost the cost of doing business.
Jim Schwartz doesn’t wear a cowboy hat, as Harry Gilmer was wont to do, and Schwartz wasn’t pelted with snowballs on Sunday. But the venom against the coach is at least as great from the fans against Schwartz as it was in 1966 against Gilmer.
It’s just been a snow job of a slightly different variety.