The snowballs rained down, some hitting their target but most of them missing.
But the misfiring didn’t matter—the message was being sent, loud and clear.
Harry Gilmer’s cowboy hat provided an ample target, and the Lions fans at Tiger Stadium on that December afternoon in 1966 aimed for it with their white, icy projectiles.
Gilmer was the first Lions coach hired by owner Bill Ford, and the trend of each of them becoming a caricature started on that wintry day in 1966.
When Ford took control of the Lions on November 22, 1963—talk about a day that will live in infamy—he inherited coach George Wilson, by all accounts a fine man and to this day, the last Lions coach to lead the team to a championship, in 1957.
But Ford, 39 years old and cocky, ordered Wilson to fire his assistants and when George refused after the 1964 season, Ford gave Wilson the ziggy.
Ford then hired Gilmer, who lasted two disastrous seasons before the fans chucked snowballs at him after the home finale in ’66, a loss to the Minnesota Vikings.
Fourteen men, including Gilmer, have held the non-interim title of head coach of the Detroit Lions during the Ford ownership.
And each of them has had their Waterloo moment.
Jim Caldwell, number 14, had his last week.
You can now add The Hail Mary to the inglorious list of nouns that have defined 14 sad sack men who have never gone on to coach another NFL team after the Lions.
The list is as follows, in chronological order: The Snowballs. The Power Struggle. The Tragedy. The Ultimatum. The Accidental Coach. The Prayer. The Question. The Big Buck. The Two-Pointer. The Wind. The West Toast. The Pounded Rock. The Handshake.
The nouns identify, respectively, Gilmer; Joe Schmidt; Don McCafferty; Rick Forzano; Tommy Hudspeth; Monte Clark; Darryl Rogers; Wayne Fontes; Bobby Ross; Marty Mornhinweg; Steve Mariucci; Rod Marinelli; and Jim Schwartz.
Schmidt lost his power struggle with GM Russ Thomas and resigned in anger in 1973.
McCafferty dropped dead of a heart attack while mowing his lawn during training camp in 1974.
Forzano was given an ultimatum to win in 1976 and when he didn’t, he was given the ziggy.
Hudspeth was minding his own business in the personnel department when he was asked to replace Forzano.
Clark prayed for a field goal in the 1983 playoffs.
Rogers asked, “What does a guy have to do to get fired around here?”
Fontes, feeling tormented by the media, called himself “The Big Buck.”
Ross famously went for a two-point conversion that lost a game in Arizona.
Mornhinweg took the wind instead of the ball in overtime in Chicago, costing the Lions the game.
Mariucci forced fed his West Coast offense down the throats of a team that had inadequate personnel to run it.
Marinelli spoke mystically of pounding an imaginary rock—straight into an 0-16 season.
Schwartz couldn’t execute a postgame handshake with the 49ers’ Jim Harbaugh without causing a scene.
Now Caldwell, with his complete bungling of a 61-yard Hail Mary that beat his team last Thursday, has officially had his defining moment as Lions coach. It was only a matter of time.
Caldwell admitted, unbelievably, after Thursday’s loss to the Green Bay Packers, that he wasn’t anticipating Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers heaving a throw into the end zone on the game’s final play.
It will likely prove to be his Waterloo.
And Caldwell will be added to the list of the Lions’ version of the Walking Dead.
They each had their shot, and some of them enjoyed moderate success.
But it always ended the same way—the coach gone, never to be heard from again (for the most part).
It took Jim Caldwell 28 games as Lions coach before he met his Waterloo. That’s about right.
The first of the doomed Ford Fourteen, Harry Gilmer, is 89 years old and at last report, is living in St. Louis.
Nearly half a century has passed since they threw snowballs at Gilmer’s cowboy hat as he jogged off the field at Tiger Stadium in 1966.
Harry didn’t know it as he sought shelter in the dugout, but he was a trend setter!