There have been 49 NFL champions since the Lions last captured the honor — 41 Super Bowl winners and eight victors when it was still called, simply, the NFL Championship Game. And not once in those 49 years has the coach of those championship teams been someone thrust into the driver’s seat at the last minute.
Leave it to the Lions to be unconventional, even in one of their greatest hours.
Fifty years ago this month, Lions coach Buddy Parker, who had led the team to their 1952 and ’53 world titles, stepped up to the podium at a preseason banquet. He gazed out over the crowd of well-wishers and hangers-on who were expecting some canned words of optimism about the upcoming season. After delivering some obligatory, innocuous comments, Parker then stunned everyone.
“I can’t coach these guys anymore,” Parker said in so many words. Then, after some more exasperated words about losing control over his players, Buddy Parker quit the Lions — right then, right there, on the banquet rostrum.
Parker walked off the stage and into the night, leaving dropped jaws and reporters scurrying to telephones.
Parker’s assistant, George Wilson, took over the team. The regular season was about a month away.
In 1956, the Lions finished 9-3, just a half-game behind the 9-2-1 Chicago Bears. So this wasn’t a bunch of shmucks that Wilson was taking over. But to have a head coach bail on a team that close to the regular season didn’t appear to be a good thing. After all, Parker was the coach for those other championship Lions teams earlier in the decade.
After the regular season had been played, the Lions and San Francisco 49ers were tied at the top of the Western Division with 8-4 records. A playoff would have to be held to determine who would play the Cleveland Browns for the whole enchilada.
Lions QB Bobby Layne (left), head coach Buddy Parker (center) and assistant George Wilson (right) watch the action at Briggs Stadium, sometime before Parker’s stunning resignation in August ’57
The Lions traveled to the Bay and were getting their butts kicked in the first half. At halftime, some Lions players recalled, the paper thin walls at old Kezar Stadium enabled the whooping 49ers to be heard as they prematurely celebrated their divisional title. Supposedly, some 49ers were heard bragging about how they were going to spend their championship money.
In the second half, the Lions mounted a stunning comeback, beating the 49ers 31-27. Then, in the championship game, they destroyed the Browns, 59-14 — and with their backup QB, Tobin Rote, subbing for the injured Bobby Layne. And also with their thrust-into-the-spotlight coach, George Wilson.
As for Parker, he landed with the Pittsburgh Steelers the next season. And, ironically, he was reunited with Layne, who was mysteriously traded to Pittsburgh after just two games of the 1958 campaign.
But Buddy Parker didn’t come close to big-time success with the Steelers, who back then were usually among the league’s bottom feeders. By the early-1960s he was out of football, never to return.
Wilson coached the Lions — some very good Lions teams — thru the 1964 season, after which the team’s new owner told him to fire some assistants in order to keep his job. Wilson told the new owner to take his job and shove it. The new owner was an automobile heir, named William Clay Ford.
I’m not holding my breath that current Lions coach Rod Marinelli will pull a Buddy Parker and quit before August is out. Nor would I want him to. Something tells me that Ford may have finally gotten it right with Mr. Marinelli. Plus, there aren’t any banquets scheduled anytime soon, anyway.