The story is not apocryphal, which makes it even funnier.
“If you want a messenger, call Western Union.”
The speaker was Lions running back Joe Don Looney. The year was 1965.
The person Looney spoke those words to, incredibly, was his coach, Harry Gilmer.
Gilmer had wanted Looney to send in a play into the Lions huddle. And the free spirit from Oklahoma responded in a way that only Looney could.
Gilmer, never incredibly popular with players or fans, lasted two gut-wrenching years as Lions coach. He was the first coach hired by Bill Ford, who had taken control of the team from a group of partners in early 1964. One of Ford’s first flexing of muscle was to inform the coach he inherited, George Wilson, to fire some assistants after the ’64 season. Wilson relented, and told Bill Ford to take his job and shove it.
Gilmer’s last game as Lions coach ends on a December Sunday in 1966 at Tiger Stadium. Gilmer, wearing his trademark cowboy hat, is peppered with snowballs as he runs off the field and into the dugout.
A couple years later, Joe Schmidt sits in a bar across from Alex Karras. After a couple of seasons as coach—Schmidt was tabbed to replace Gilmer—Schmidt complains over his beer to his defensive tackle and former teammate.
“I can’t take it anymore,” Schmidt tells Karras. “I can’t take all the second guessing and the meddling.”
Schmidt was in a power struggle with GM Russ Thomas. And every Monday during the football season, Schmidt was subject to weekly meetings with Thomas and owner Ford—meetings that Schmidt derisively calls the “How come?” Sessions.
“Well,” Karras tells his coach, “if it’s that bad, why don’t you quit?”
Schmidt sneers at Karras. “That’s the stupidest f***ing idea I’ve ever heard!”
There’s a press conference in January, 1973. Schmidt tells the assembled media, “Coaching isn’t fun anymore.”
Schmidt had given himself the ziggy—a word he invented for when the coach gets fired.
He took Karras’s advice, after all—some four years later.
It is the fall of 1973. Don McCafferty, the new Lions coach, is beside himself. The Lions, struggling out of the gate, have just lost to the woeful Baltimore Colts.
“We can’t even beat the Colts,” McCafferty moans.
“(The players) don’t look like they have any pride,” the owner Ford says in anger.
McCafferty would drop dead less than a year later, during training camp.
It’s October, 1976. Someone named Rick Forzano is coaching the Lions. Forzano was a McCafferty assistant and inherited the head coaching job. He has become Lions coach much the same way that Jerry Ford became President of the United States—by default, never having an interview, never having to survive a challenge for the job.
Forzano is called into Ford’s office and is given the ziggy. Another unknown named Tommy Hudpseth—he was working in the team’s player personnel department at the time—is given Forzano’s old job.
Hudspeth coaches the Lions for a year and a half, in total obscurity. And awash in mediocrity.
It’s January, 1978. The big, bear of a man stands before the Detroit media, beaming. He learned his pro football as an offensive lineman, playing for Paul Brown in Cleveland. After retirement as a player, the offensive lineman is hired by Don Shula in Miami and guides the offensive line for Shula and the Dolphins.
The Dolphins are in their heyday, going undefeated in 1972 and winning two Super Bowls in a row. Following the success in Miami as an assistant, Monte Clark is hired by the 49ers as head coach for the 1976 season.
It starts out well for Monte, then the team tanks. He is fired in a dispute with GM Joe Thomas, after just one year on the Bay.
Now Clark has been hired to coach the Lions. He is given the additional title of Director of Football Operations. It’s an empty title, because Russ Thomas is still around, pissing people off as GM. Everyone, that is, except Bill Ford, indebted to Thomas for personal reasons that have forever gone unreported.
Clark lasts seven seasons as Lions coach, a lifetime for a football coach in Detroit. He takes the team to a couple of playoffs. He coaches the team to a 4-0 start in 1980, a start so heady that his players record a song—a bastardized version of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.”
Yet the lasting image of Monte Clark as Lions coach is that of Clark holding his hands up in prayer, prior to an Eddie Murray FG attempt in the 1983 playoffs in San Francisco.
It’s 1988. The Lions coach is staring at the roof of the Silverdome. A newspaper columnist sidles over and asks Darryl Rogers what he is looking at.
“I’m just counting the pigeons,” Rogers says.
Later, Rogers, deep into his fourth season, his team mired in bad, boring football, asks openly to some gathered reporters, “What does a guy have to do to get fired around here?”
The new Lions coach, rotund and with a big, cherubic face, smiles broadly and pulls owner Ford against his big body. He clutches the owner as if he’s still a defensive back for the New York Titans and Michigan State, making a tackle.
“I just wanna thank Mr. Ford for this opportunity,” Wayne Fontes says. Fontes took over for Rogers in that lovely “interim” basis. After five auditions, the Lions going 2-3 (both wins were over a bad Packers team), Ford decides he’s seen enough and eschews a coaching search. The owner gives Fontes, who’d never been a head coach at any level of football, a multi-year contract to be the head coach of the Lions—after five games as interim coach.
Fontes’ days, amazingly, are still today considered the apex of Lions football during the Ford ownership. Wayne takes the Lions to the playoffs four times in eight years, and manages to win a game in the post-season in the process.
“I’m the big buck,” Fontes famously says during one of the many times where he was in the fans’ crosshairs, explaining that he can take the heat.
Even after being fired in 1996, Fontes shows up during Ford’s press conference announcing the dismissal and gives the owner one more bear hug.
It is a horrible Sunday for the Lions in 1999. The coach, Bobby Ross, has tried an ill-advised two-point conversion that has indirectly cost the Lions a game against the Arizona Cardinals, on the road. Ross, ultra defensive, berates the media for daring to question the move.
Sometime later that season, Ross would lose it again, after another Sunday of foolish penalties and other sundry mistakes.
“I don’t coach that stuff!” Ross screams, a man coming unglued.
A year later, Ross quits on the Lions during the season, his team a respectable but apparently anguished 6-5.
It is January, 2001. The rookie football executive has chosen his first head coach. Both the executive and the coach will be learning on the job, because the coach is someone named Marty Mornhinweg—supposedly a hot shot offensive assistant who worked with Brett Favre in Green Bay.
“The bar is high,” Mornhinweg tells the mystified media. “We want to win Super Bowls.”
Sometime early in his first training camp, Mornhinweg, upset by something on the practice field, dramatically hops on his motorcycle and drives away. Just like that.
About 18 months later, Mornhinweg is given the ziggy, after a 5-27 record.
The Lions are introducing their new coach. It is January, 2003.
The new coach stands before the media and someone needs to pinch him.
“Wow,” the new coach says, grinning in disbelief at the pomp and circumstance surrounding his opening press conference—a real show put on by the Lions.
Steve Mariucci is the man Matt Millen wanted to hired two years prior, when Millen settled for Mornhinweg.
Mariucci is another ex-49ers coach, but one who has some playoff success under his belt, at least.
Mariucci, with northern Michigan roots, is a big name hire, given the ziggy by the 49ers a few weeks earlier. Not long before that, Millen gives Marty Mornhinweg a vote of confidence.
“Marty will be the Lions coach in 2003,” Millen tells the papers.
Then Mariucci becomes available, and Millen drops Marty like a hot potato.
It is Thanksgiving, 2005. The Lions lay another egg on national TV, a bad loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
A day after the game, Millen calls Mariucci—the man Millen wanted oh-so-badly—into his office and renders Mooch the ziggy.
The new Lions coach is a balding, ex-military man. He greets the media with, “Good morning, men,” just like a military man would.
Rod Marinelli is another assistant who has never been a head coach anywhere, at any level of football.
Marinelli talks of “pounding the rock” and of pride and of discipline.
Two years later, the Lions suffer the ignominy of being the first—and only—NFL team to go 0-16.
It’s January, 2009. The new Lions coach is another assistant coach—a defensive coordinator from Tennessee. But coming off 0-16, it’s the best the Lions can do.
“Bobby Layne doesn’t play here anymore,” Jim Schwartz tells the media who have once again been bugled to Ford Field to meet a new coach. The new coach has chosen to give a history lesson, right off the bat.
Schwartz gets his next Bobby Layne three months later, when the Lions draft Matthew Stafford, a quarterback from Georgia, with the first overall pick of the 2009 NFL Draft.
It is pointed out that Stafford attended the very same high school as Layne did, in suburban Dallas. As if.
It is October, 2011, and the Lions have suffered their first loss after five wins, to the 49ers in Detroit. Schwartz shakes the hand of 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, but something goes terribly wrong. Within moments, the Lions coach is screaming and chasing after Harbaugh. Video replays will show that Schwartz looks like a man who is unhinged. It’s a freaking post-game handshake, and Schwartz has turned it into must-see TV.
Two years later, Schwartz is caught on camera screaming again, this time at fans at Ford Field. The fans have booed the Lions’ decision to drain out the clock in a crucial game against the Giants and take their chances in overtime.
The fans hate the decision, which is dripping in cowardice.
Schwartz doesn’t like the booing and turns and gives it to the fans.
“I was just trying to fire up my players,” Schwartz feebly explains after the game.
Eight days later, Schwartz is given the ziggy, his teams carrying a well-deserved reputation of being talented but terribly undisciplined and a bunch of hotheads. They are a reflection of their coach.
Which brings us to…
“The time is now. Not two, three years down the road. Right here, right now,” Jim Caldwell tells the media as he’s introduced as the 16th coach hired by Bill Ford, today at Ford Field.
Caldwell is a change for the Lions. He’s actually been a head coach, for starters. And he’s been to the Super Bowl.
Then again, so had Bobby Ross. And Don McCafferty, who won it with Baltimore in 1970.
But Caldwell, the perceived second choice when the Lions lost Ken Whisenhunt to Tennessee, seems to be a level-headed, smart football man who has been around some very good people, such as Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning and John Harbaugh, to name a few.
“My father worked in the auto industry for 35 years,” Caldwell tells the folks who are feverishly converting everything he says into 140-character bites. “My brother is in his 34th year of working in the auto industry. The UAW has supported my family for almost 40 years.”
Caldwell doesn’t know his history as well as Jim Schwartz, who spoke of Bobby Layne. Someone ought to tell Caldwell that his employer’s ancestors fought the formation of the UAW tooth and nail.
No matter. Caldwell is the Lions coach, fair and square.
Bill Ford has owned the Lions for 50 years, and the 15 men preceding Caldwell as coach have never been heard from again, after leaving Detroit. The Lions are the Bermuda Triangle of the NFL, when it comes to head coaches.
“I have been hired to deliver a championship,” Caldwell said today.
That might be the last time the new coach and the Lions fans agree for quite some time.