Published Sept. 14, 2019
The term “getting the ziggy,” the euphemism for when a coach gets fired, is as Detroit as Vernors, Motown and potholes.
Ironically, the man who coined it, committed a self-ziggy. Doubtless, he had no idea what legacy he would be leaving behind.
Joe Schmidt was as tough as the steel that was forged in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His personal life, growing up, was filled with tragedy; he lost two brothers and his dad before he graduated high school. Then at Pitt University, Schmidt became one of the most ferocious defenders in college football. The Lions drafted him in 1953, and Schmidt pretty much invented the position of middle linebacker in the NFL. He certainly defined it, at the very least.
Schmidt, as it turns out, was the last of the Lions coaches who left as an overall winner, until Jim Caldwell was fired in January 2018.
From 1969-72, Schmidt’s Lions teams posted records of 9-4-1; 10-4; 7-6-1; and 8-5-1. But in January 1973, Schmidt, who came up with “getting the ziggy” while once talking to the Detroit media, bugled them to the old Lions offices on Michigan Avenue, across the street from Tiger Stadium. Joe had an announcement.
He was quitting as Lions coach. He grew tired of the media. He grew tired of the fans. And he grew tired of GM Russ Thomas and owner Bill Ford, and their weekly “What happened?” meetings after every game.
Football wasn’t fun anymore, Schmidt said, and that was indeed saying something, as the game had been a part of his DNA for some 30 years, one way or another.
Ushering in decades of coaching mediocrity
Little did Schmidt, the media, the fans or the Lions know at the time, but his self-ziggy would usher in over 40 years of mediocrity in the head coach’s office.
On Schmidt’s staff when he quit was an offensive line coach named Chuck Knox. That would be the same Chuck Knox who went on to win 186 games as an NFL head coach with the Rams, Bills and Seahawks. The Lions passed on Knox, who’d been a loyal assistant for six years under Schmidt.
There’s one thing the Lions, in all of their misery under the Ford ownership, haven’t tried in their pursuit of relevance first and championship contention second. In fact, they’re the only one of the four teams in town that hasn’t tried it.
Other Detroit teams have been bold
In June 1979, the Tigers, with a wealth of good, young talent that was ready to win soon, brought in Sparky Anderson to manage the team. Sparky was just three years removed from having won two straight World Series with the Reds. Five years later, the Tigers won the world championship.
In 1993, the Red Wings, tired of having impressive regular seasons, making the playoffs but not getting very far in them, brought in Scotty Bowman to coach the team. Bowman is only the greatest hockey coach in the history of North America. He was at the time and still is, to this day.
Two years after being hired, Bowman led the Red Wings to the Stanley Cup Finals. Two years after that, they won the first of two straight Cups. Bowman added a third Cup in Detroit in 2002 before retiring.
In 2003, Pistons GM Joe Dumars surprisingly fired coach Rick Carlisle after back-to-back 50-win seasons. But the playoffs weren’t as satisfying, so Carlisle was given the ziggy. Dumars brought in legendary Larry Brown.
Brown was a nomad but he was a very successful nomad. In his two seasons in Detroit, Brown won the NBA Championship and went to Game 7 of the Finals.
Anderson, Bowman and Brown were at the top of their game when the Detroit teams hired them. All three would have been courted by many other teams in their respective leagues, had the Tigers, Red Wings and Pistons not extended their offers.
Bad coaching hires abound
The Lions haven’t gone that route with their coaches. Not even close, really.
It’s the one thing the football franchise in Detroit hasn’t tried.
But if hiring cheap knock offs of successful head coaches from other teams was a thing, the Lions would win that award.
The Lions have hired recommendations from the likes of Don Shula, Tony Dungy and Bill Belichick. They’ve promoted their own assistants. They’ve tried poaching men who went to the Super Bowl with other teams but lost.
They’ve done it all, except extend an offer to a coach who was at the top of his profession. The Lions haven’t come close to hiring a man that has made the rest of the football world say, “WOW. So-and-so is going to coach the LIONS?”
The cruel irony is that so many football people—good football people—have lauded the Lions and the Ford ownership as being a fine organization. For decades. Yet the Lions haven’t hired those good football people to run their franchise.
A coordinator in head coach’s clothing
Once again, it appears that the Lions have a head coach who makes a great coordinator. Another who appears in over his head. Another for whom the job seems too big.
The league is littered with men who have returned to being coordinators after failed head coaching stints. So it’s not just the Lions.
Matt Patricia, after he’s gone from Detroit—and that may be sooner rather than later—will no doubt return to the ranks of defensive coordinators with another NFL team. Back to his comfort zone, like so many of his brethren.
No crime in that.
I understand the desire of coordinators to want to see if they can hack it as a head coach. It’s tempting, for sure. There’s more power, more control. And, let’s face it—more money.
And, truth be told, most guys who’ve been successful coordinators can always go back to that world if the head coaching thing doesn’t work out.
The Ford ownership is indeed the one constant in the 56 years of futility since Bill Ford bought out his partners in 1963. That’s true.
But if there’s a Hail Mary still left in the franchise’s playbook, it is to hire away from another team, a man at the top of the coaching game. Granted, this would mean anyone not named Bill Belichick, who will never leave the Evil Empire in New England.
Think Mike Tomlin leaving the Steelers, or Pete Carroll leaving the Seahawks. Someone like that.
The catch is the Ford family. They haven’t ever shown the proclivity to try something that bold. Jim Campbell threw caution to the wind when he hired Billy Martin for the Tigers in 1970, and again when he snatched Sparky in 1979.
Mike Ilitch said, screw it, and brought in Scotty Bowman, thanks to help from old Bowman friend Jimmy Devellano.
And Joe Dumars, who never met a coach he hated to fire (or hire), dismissed the concerns anyone might have had about Larry Brown’s mercurial career, and got his signature on the dotted line in 2003. Bold.
Can you look at the Ford ladies and see that kind of boldness?
So why am I suggesting an option that will likely never be exercised?
It’s not really a suggestion, per se. More of an observation.
The Lions, the way I see it—and I’ve been following this jaded franchise since 1970—have had the big name coaching option at their avail, though encased with a BREAK GLASS IN CASE OF EMERGENCY.
The Lions just need to break the glass.
Surely there’s a coaching savant out there that, if the Lions came calling, would drop the rest of the league like a hot potato. The possibility of being the man to bring a Super Bowl to Detroit, and all that comes with that, must be too tempting to pass up. For someone.
It’s the only thing the Lions haven’t tried. And if that doesn’t work, then nothing will. Because nothing else has.