Published August 28, 2017
By the time Joseph Paul Schmidt was 13 years old, he had lost his father and two of his older brothers. He had to be a man while going through puberty.
Schmidt grew up in Brentwood, a borough of Pittsburgh—the Steel City. It was so appropriate, steel. For that’s what Schmidt had to do to himself to get through a life filled with family tragedy.
One brother died after falling out of a tree. The other died while serving his country, in June 1944. Less than a year later, Schmidt’s dad passed.
Joe Schmidt found refuge on the football field. There, the only tragedy was the kind that befell the opponents.
They say that Schmidt invented the middle linebacker position in the NFL. When Joe entered the league, teams still used “middle guards,” who were essentially nose tackles on a five-man defensive front. After Schmidt’s entry, teams began dropping the middle guard behind the line as a middle linebacker.
There are those who might debate that Schmidt “invented” MLB, but none would debate that Joe Schmidt was the best at the position until pro football’s gridirons were being roamed by the likes of Butkus, Nitschke and Lanier in the 1960s.
Schmidt, naturally, went to Pitt University. Where else could he go? Where else would he go?
The Lions, long before they made it a habit of stumbling all over themselves on and off the football field, had the wisdom to draft Schmidt in the 1953 NFL Draft. You might think that Schmidt, an All-American at Pitt in 1952, was a first round choice. Yet he dropped all the way to the 85th overall pick, in the seventh round. Eighty-four players were picked ahead of Joe Schmidt, a future NFL Hall of Famer. Just goes to show you.
Another NFL season is nigh. It will be the 45th campaign since Schmidt roamed the sidelines as the Lions head coach, which is what he did from 1967-72 after a brilliant 13-year NFL playing career. And, some 45 years later, no Lions coach (non-interim) other than Joe Schmidt has left the team with a winning record.
Schmidt’s ledger will forever read 43-34-7, plus a gut-wrenching playoff loss to the Cowboys in 1970 that still riles the old-timer fans.
Even Wayne Fontes, whose tenure from 1989-96 is considered the salad days of Lions history anymore, was 66-67 overall.
There’s sadness with Schmidt’s coaching career, because the job wore him down. He left the Lions willingly, which is another thing that makes him stand out from the crowd. Not too many NFL head coaches tell their employers to take their job and shove it.
Yet that’s what Schmidt did in January 1973. Tired of the meddling of GM Russ Thomas, who had owner Bill Ford’s ear, and weary of the fans’ criticism, Schmidt committed a self-ziggy.
“Ziggy” is Schmidt’s word, by the way. It’s a Detroit word second, but Schmidt’s word first. And I’m not talking about today’s defensive end Ansah.
Getting the ziggy means the coach got fired, and Schmidt came up with it back in the day. Ironically, Schmidt himself wasn’t fired; he resigned, right when the Lions were contenders.
That 1970 squad, which lost 5-0 to the Cowboys in the playoffs, might have been the best Lions team since the 1962 unit that went 11-3 and was a heartbreaking, self-inflicted loss to the Packers away from forcing a playoff for the Western Division title.
Schmidt guided the Lions to 7-6-1 and 8-5-1 records the next two years, and were it not for being unable to beat the Minnesota Vikings, Schmidt’s teams would probably have made the playoffs more than once.
All I know is that when Schmidt coached the Lions, the team was good. After he left, it wasn’t. For years.
He had a QB controversy, because what Lions coach didn’t have one? Schmidt’s two-headed signal caller consisted of Greg Landry and Bill Munson. Each of them was the starter until he wasn’t. Even in the playoff loss to the Cowboys, Schmidt brought Munson off the bench to lead the Lions’ final drive of the game. Can you imagine such a thing today?
Munson almost made the coach look like a genius. Billy led the team down the field and got the Lions to the Dallas 29 with under a minute to play. But a pass thrown with too much mustard bounced off the usually sure hands of Earl McCullouch and into the grateful arms of Cowboys CB Mel Renfro. Game over.
Schmidt coached fellow Hall of Fame players Charlie Sanders and Lem Barney, and two should-be Hall members in Wayne Walker and Alex Karras. He also coached Dick LeBeau, who eventually would make it to Canton as an assistant coach, though LeBeau was a helluva CB in his own right.
When Schmidt gave himself the ziggy in 1973, it wasn’t the first time he had entertained such drastic measures. In his first year as coach, in 1967, Schmidt went out for beers with former teammate Karras.
Inside the bar, Schmidt complained to Alex about everything that had to do with coaching: Thomas, the players, the fans, the pressure.
Karras listened dutifully then suggested, “If things are so bad, Joe, then why don’t you quit?”
Schmidt sneered at Karras and said, “That’s the stupidest bleeping thing I’ve ever heard.”
Joe Schmidt wasn’t a quitter, though his resignation as Lions coach would suggest otherwise. The reality was that Schmidt was too proud—too proud to take any more of the fans’ barbs, too proud to wrestle in the mud with Russ Thomas, too proud to further sully his reputation in Detroit.
“The game isn’t fun anymore,” Schmidt told the press the day that he announced his own pink slip.
When the Lions won their last NFL Championship in 1957, the fans inside Briggs Stadium streamed onto the field after the game. They found one player in particular and hoisted him onto their shoulders: Joe Schmidt.
It was cruel irony, then, that those same fans would turn on Schmidt and help shove him out of coaching 15 years later. A few NFL teams approached Schmidt after he left the Lions, gauging his interest in returning to the sidelines. Joe said thanks but no thanks. He went into the corporate world, where Monday morning quarterbacking isn’t played out in the newspapers, TV and on the radio. In private business, Schmidt found the solitude that had eluded him for decades in pro football.
Schmidt is 85 today and, thankfully, is still among us, residing in metro Detroit. Jim Caldwell is the 12th Lions non-interim coach since Joe tendered his resignation. Caldwell’s current record is 27-21 after three years. He has a decent chance to break the streak of non-winning Lions coaches hired since 1972.
Until then, let the record show that Joe Schmidt entered the league as a winner—the Lions won the championship in his rookie year—and he left it the same way. The 1970 playoffs still roil him, but it wasn’t like the Cowboys were chopped liver. Going into that game, the Cowboys were riding a streak of 16 straight quarters without allowing a touchdown. The victory over the Lions extended that streak to 20.
Joe Schmidt left the Lions on his own terms. He left football on his own terms. No other coach in franchise history has done both.
Lift a cold one to no. 56 a week from Sunday.