Published July 14, 2018
The football practice carried on under the Teflon roof of the Pontiac Silverdome. It was the middle of another drab season of NFL football for the Detroit Lions.
A reporter noticed the head coach, far off to the side, his attention not on the action on the field but rather at the roof above.
The head coach was asked what was so fascinating on the roof.
Counting pigeons, the coach replied.
A few moments later, in a sheepish manner on the heels of the pigeon revelation, the coach asks the reporter, “What does a guy have to do to get fired around here?”
Darryl Rogers would find out soon enough.
After a 2-9 record to start the 1988 season, Rogers was fired. The offense was a drab, plodding mess.
“I want Roman Candles going off,” Lions owner Bill Ford said after firing Rogers. And, “We’re losing. But worse than that, we’re boring.”
Enter assistant Wayne Fontes, who ushered in the Run ‘n Shoot offense the following year. The Lions still lost more than they won, but with Barry Sanders in the backfield and four receivers running around the field, they weren’t boring.
Rogers, 83, passed away earlier this week, from natural causes, according to his family.
Rick Forzano, age 89, remains the oldest living ex-Lions head coach.
The marriage of Rogers and the Lions wasn’t exactly of the shotgun variety, but it followed a very brief courtship. In fact, it was tantamount to a couple tying the knot a couple weeks after a blind date. The result was pretty much what you would expect from such an odd hookup.
Rogers was a successful college coach, moving around the circuit in California for 16 years, before landing the Michigan State job in 1976, replacing Denny Stolz.
Rogers led the Eddie Smith-Kirk Gibson Spartans of 1978 to the Big Ten co-championship, which included a beat down of the Michigan Wolverines, but the Spartans had been slapped with NCAA violations and were forbidden to play in a bowl game.
Rogers left MSU after 1979 to take the job at Arizona State, and it was after five years in the desert that the Lions came calling. Rogers won a lot at ASU (37-18-1), but again the NCAA uncovered violations.
Ford had fired Monte Clark after seven seasons when Rogers expressed a desire to leave the college game and try the pros, where there were no such things as budget cuts and recruiting violations.
The grand experiment
The courting of Rogers appeared to be without any serious competition. Clark was out and Rogers was in, pretty much.
It didn’t take long to realize that the Lions had made a mistake. Another bad coaching hire. Hiring Rogers marked the first time the Lions had dipped into the college ranks to find their next coach. They haven’t done it since.
In fairness, the roster that Rogers inherited wasn’t exactly filled with Pro Bowlers. And he had no star quarterback. And no dynamic running back, as the great Billy Sims had retired prior to Rogers’ first season due to a knee injury.
But Rogers didn’t help matters by stuffing his staff with college guys with little experience in the pro game.
Rogers’ laid back style didn’t ingratiate him with the Lions fan base. The losing didn’t help. The high water mark of the Rogers regime was 7-9 in 1985, followed by 5-11, 4-11 and 2-9.
In 1986, the Lions thought they had drafted a franchise-type QB—an Oklahoma kid via Iowa University named Chuck Long.
Long had no running game, poor receivers and a leaky offensive line, all of which combined to label him a “bust.”
Bill Ford was right. The Darryl Rogers Lions were boring.
But we can thank Rogers for Wayne Fontes.
Plucked from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Fontes was pretty much the only assistant on Rogers’ staff with NFL chops. A defensive guru, Fontes ironically made his name in Detroit with the Run ‘n Shoot, to combat the owner’s charge of the team being dull. Fontes brought in the innovative Mouse Davis to run the offense, which at the time was like bringing in Bill Gates to run your IT department.
Darryl Rogers didn’t win in Detroit, but very few coaches have. He took the Lions job blind and never truly adapted to the pro game. Where Clark had the “prayer” in the 1983 playoffs and Bobby Ross had “I don’t coach that stuff!”, Rogers had his line about being fired. So there’s that.
Once upon a time, the University of Detroit Mercy had a football program. Sadly, that’s kind of what you say now about basketball, but I digress.
U-D sent many players to the NFL in the 1950s and ’60s, and one of them passed away this week as well. It was a bad week for the Honolulu Blue and Silver.
Bruce Maher was a safety on Lions teams that were known for their defense. From the front four to the secondary, the Lions more than held their own in the rough and tumble NFL of the 1960s. He died at age 80.
Maher was a second round draft pick in 1960 and by 1963 he was entrenched as a starter on a punishing defense that carried the water for Lions teams that were brutal offensively.
Maher intercepted 16 passes for the Lions between 1960-67 before moving on the New York Giants for two years, picking off six more aerials for the Big Blue.
Maher wasn’t a Pro Bowl player but he was steady. When you think of the Lions secondary in his day, you think of Dick LeBeau, Lem Barney and Tommy Vaughn. But Maher was a hard hitter who always suited up; he didn’t miss a game in his eight years with the Lions. Not a one.
Such was Maher’s value to the Lions that he was named team MVP in 1965.
No less than Hall of Fame linebacker Joe Schmidt, who served as both Maher’s teammate and coach, said, “[Bruce] wasn’t a very big person, and he would come up and make some fantastic tackles. He was very good at that and a very good defensive back. A lot of the guys enjoyed being around him so he contributed quite a bit to the Lions.”
Maher is in the UDM Hall of Fame, inducted in 1979. He had maybe the perfect major in college to prep him for a career with the Lions: philosophy.