Published Jan. 14, 2019
At first blush, Rick Forzano was merely one of the many men who’ve served as head coach of the Detroit Lions, and who was never seen again on an NFL sideline.
Forzano, it could be rightly argued, was simply another Lions coach who swept into town, oversaw an unremarkable period of football and faded gently into the night, taking his place as nothing more than a historical footnote of slapstick gridiron history.
But Forzano, who passed away last week at age 90, had something in common with the last Lions team to win a championship, albeit in an indirect manner.
Buddy Parker, two-time champion as Lions coach and about to start his seventh season in Detroit, was speaking at a Meet the Lions banquet in August 1957. And he dropped a bombshell.
Parker quit, on the spot. From the dais. “I can’t get through to the players anymore,” Parker told the stunned crowd, before stepping away from the podium.
Thrust into the head coach’s chair was George Wilson, former Bears quarterback and a Parker assistant. Wilson, 43 years old at the time, had never been a head coach in the NFL when he suddenly became the field boss.
All Wilson did in 1957 was lead the Lions to a stunning comeback victory in the Western Division playoff in San Francisco before his team topped the Cleveland Browns at Briggs Stadium to capture the Lions’ third championship in six years.
Forzano, fresh off a four-year stint as head coach at Navy, had never been a head coach in the NFL when he was hired as an assistant by Lions coach Don McCafferty in 1973.
Just after training camp opened in 1974, McCafferty dropped dead of a heart attack while mowing his lawn.
The 46-year-old Forzano, like George Wilson 17 years prior, had suddenly realized his dream–to be a head coach in the NFL, tinged with tragedy as it was.
The ’74 Lions, perhaps still reeling from the death of their head coach, started the season 0-4. Forzano’s dream was turning into a nightmare.
But in very un-Lions-like fashion, the team rallied, winning seven of their final 10 games to flirt with a wild card berth. But they didn’t come close to replicating Wilson’s 1957 success.
Record not great, but coaching tree impressive
Forzano couldn’t do any better than 7-7 with the Lions, finishing that way in 1974 and 1975. After a 1-3 start in 1976, Forzano and owner Bill Ford agreed to disagree, and the Lions gave the coach the ziggy.
“We never had any animosity over that deal one bit,” Forzano said in a 2013 interview. “And it broke my heart. I’m going to tell you, to coach the Detroit Lions, that was always my goal from the time I started as a high school coach to be a head coach in pro ball, and to do that it broke my heart. You’re embarrassed, you’re dejected, you’re depressed, you’re all those things, cause I loved it. And I still love it, I still miss it. I’m like an alcoholic. I just, it’s a great sport and great people.”
Forzano didn’t win as Lions coach. That makes him no different than a slew of others who served before him and since.
But under the radar, Rick Forzano, in just two-plus years, forged a coaching tree legacy of sorts in Detroit.
Jerry Glanville. Fritz Shurmur. Joe Bugel. Raymond Berry. And, most famously, Bill Belichick.
All were men on Forzano’s staff in Detroit who either became head coaches in the NFL, or at the very least, were highly-respected assistants in the league.
Forzano also presided over the Lions team that closed Tiger Stadium (1974) and opened the Pontiac Silverdome (1975).
One last thank you
A couple of years ago, the New England Patriots were in Detroit for an exhibition game. The great Belichick, his ticket long ago punched for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, asked the Lions if a meeting could be arranged.
The Lions made it happen, and invited NFL Films to document it.
Belichick, thus, had the opportunity to one last time thank Forzano, then 89, for a position coach job that Forzano granted Belichick in 1975. Forzano hired Belichick, paying him $10,000 a year to be an assistant special teams coach before moving to tight ends a year later.
Forzano told Belichick at the meeting that he learned a lot from Paul Brown. Belichick, for his part, said that he learned a lot from Forzano, who coached with Belichick’s father, Steve, at Navy.
“I let Billy break down film for me,” Forzano told NFL Films. “He was about 10 years old at the time.”
It’s tempting to roast the Lions for letting Belichick go on to bigger and better things, as Don Shula did when he was poached from George Wilson’s staff in 1963 at age 33 to coach the Baltimore Colts.
But unlike Shula, who went right from the Lions to a head coaching job, Belichick bounced around for 13 years as an assistant in the NFL before being hired as coach of the Cleveland Browns in 1991. And it wasn’t like Belichick lit the league on fire in Cleveland, going 36-44 in five years.
Still, isn’t it just like the Lions to have had not one, but two future Hall of Fame coaches on their staff? When a steady line of nobodies were hired for decades from other teams to coach the Honolulu Blue and Silver?
With the death of Forzano, Joe Schmidt becomes the oldest living ex-Lions coach (87 years old this Saturday).
Old Joe left the Lions amid rancor, too.
The more things change…