Essay: The Whimper of the Detroit Lions

Exploring 60-plus years of Ford family futility with a legendary columnist who covered it all
detroit lions
The Detroit Lions enter the field before a preseason game against the Buffalo Bills, at Ford Field, on Aug.
13, 2021; they would lose that game and finish the season 3-13-1. // Photograph courtesy of Nic Antaya/Getty Images

By November, the field was soggy, and the football grid consisted of patches of brownish grass and fresh mud. This was the playing field of the Detroit Lions. It was also their practice field, churned up daily by the athletes. It was inside Tiger Stadium 48 years ago, a weekday after a bitter Sunday — and another defeat. Twenty seasons earlier, this was where the Lions enjoyed a championship dynasty: three NFL titles in six years in the 1950s.

By the early 1970s, this threadbare field symbolized the Detroit Lions. They were trapped in another dismal season. Annual rumors floated that another coach was about to get the “ziggy.” “Ziggy” was a Detroit-only word perpetuated by Joe Schmidt, star linebacker during the championship seasons and frustrated head coach during the late 1960s into the ’70s.

In other words, the head coach was about to be canned.

And on this grim weekday, inside the locker room, William Clay Ford, the club owner, was fuming. “Do you know what it’s like to fire somebody?” he lectured me.

“No idea.”

The head coach in jeopardy in 1974 was Rick Forzano.

“I want to see Roman candles shooting over the sidelines,” Ford said, describing his vision for the Lions.

Roman candles? The Lions had not had a quarterback capable of shooting Roman candles since Bobby Layne was exiled back in ’58. The Lions were reigning NFL champions then.

They have not won another NFL championship in the 64 seasons since. In fact, the Fords’ Lions are the oldest franchise to never appear in any of the 56 Super Bowls. At least equally astonishing: In all those years, the Lions have won just one postseason game. One.

During these barren years since stampeding Detroit fans carried linebacker Joe Schmidt off that field in celebration of the 1957 championship, the franchise has employed 21 head coaches and 44 starting quarterbacks. They have played on three home fields — Briggs/Tiger Stadium, the Pontiac Silverdome, and Ford Field. Eight general managers have struggled to control the team’s operations — player acquisitions, scouting, negotiating contracts, placating coaches, and managing disenchanted athletes. Plus, mollifying the critical media.

Incandescent stars have come and gone, too; Yale Lary, Night Train Lane, Lem Barney, Charlie Sanders, Barry Sanders, Dick LeBeau, John Henry Johnson, Alex Karras, and Calvin Johnson are all in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In 2008, the Lions became the first NFL team of the Super Bowl era to lose every game, and as a result, they used the first pick at the 2009 draft to acquire Matthew Stafford.

Then they neglected to build a team around the guy. And the fault for that, like the rest of the years of disappointment, rests firmly on the Fords.

The malaise, to me, originated Aug. 12, 1957. That was the night of the annual Meet the Lions banquet in the downtown Statler Hotel. I was there. At the time, the Lions were a rollicking collection of athletes under the ownership of a syndicate of 144 preening co-owners.

All was well, or so it seemed; the Lions had won championships in 1952 and 1953, too, under head coach Buddy Parker. In advance of the coming season, Tobin Rote had been acquired from Green Bay to back up Layne at quarterback.

The Statler ballroom was packed that night with expectant fans. It was a routine banquet — until toastmaster Bob Reynolds summoned Parker to the microphone.

“I quit,” Parker began, stunning the room. “I can’t handle this team anymore.”

The next day, assistant George Wilson took the job and led the team to the 1957 championship. Rote carried the Lions after Layne injured his leg, and by the next season, Layne would be shuttled out of town.

Meanwhile, the owners continued to fawn over the athletes, jollying it up in the locker room, while feuding viciously among themselves. A power struggle erupted between Edwin J. Anderson, former boss of the Goebel Brewing Co., and D. Lyle Fife, an electricity contractor, that resulted in the emergence of a minority stockholder as peacemaker: William Clay Ford. Henry Ford’s grandson became club president in 1961. The team remained competitive for a few years before its descent into enduring mediocrity.

Part of the challenge was the rise of the American Football League. By the early 1960s, the AFL was competing with the NFL for draft choices and was overpaying them. The Lions were outbid for key picks — Johnny Robinson; John Hadl, who would have solved a quarterback problem; Earl Faison; and Gerry Philbin. All became prominent in the AFL. Anderson, the co-owner who served as Detroit general manager, lost them all.

The Lions players that season were in revolt against Anderson. At one point, Anderson was hung in effigy from the goalposts at Tiger Stadium before a practice. And after the ’62 season, Don Shula, age 33, a defensive specialist being groomed to become the eventual head coach, was plucked away by the Baltimore Colts.

The shareholder drama ended for good on Nov. 22, 1963, coincidentally the day JFK was assassinated, when William Ford — Billy to his friends — became the team’s sole owner. He paid $4.5 million, about $42 million in today’s money but a whopping sum for any sports franchise 58 years ago.

Billy Ford was 38 and on the rise at the Ford Motor Co. He was a friendly, compassionate — sometimes outspoken — and dignified gentleman. And now he became owner when television was beginning to attract the masses to professional football. The purchase would prove Ford to be a brilliant investor — and a lousy, micromanaging supervisor.

That first full season of Ford ownership ended in a relatively dismal 7-5-2 record. The new boss ordered head coach George Wilson to fire his five assistant coaches; Wilson quit instead. Harry Gilmer, a former University of Alabama and NFL quarterback, came along as head coach. His second game at the helm, he lost 17-3 to the Pittsburgh Steelers, a bottom-feeder squad back then.

Ford was seated in the press box that day, so I solicited his opinion.

“We weren’t only outplayed — we were outcoached,” Ford said.

The Lions’ 1966 season ended with a 4-9-1 record, including three successive defeats, and Gilmer left the final game barraged by snowballs. He responded to the obvious queries from journalists with homespun humor: “At least they didn’t have rocks in them.” Then he was gone, replaced by Joe Schmidt, a recently retired Lions linebacker.

Ford summoned him every Monday after games to demand explanations for Sunday’s field decisions. Schmidt called them “how come?” meetings. He constantly complained about them.

Schmidt had a fine season, 10-4, in 1970. One of the defeats was a shocking loss in New Orleans on  Tom Dempsey’s 63-yard field goal, the longest in NFL history at the time. The Lions made the playoffs as a wild card. They lost at Dallas, 5-0.

Ultimately, Schmidt chucked the head coaching job in 1972. He delivered a self-ziggy, a resignation. “Why?” Schmidt, who just turned 90, told me recently. “I couldn’t do the things I wanted to do.”

Don McCafferty, Forzano, and Tommy Hudspeth came and went before Ford tapped Monte Clark in 1978. Clark was sure he’d be fired in 1983 when the Lions started 1-4, but the team finished 9-7, won the Central Division, and then lost a one-point playoff heartbreaker in San Francisco. Clark, whose team went 4-11-1 in 1984, was replaced by Darryl Rogers.

Rogers lasted one mediocre and two horrible seasons. During the second horrible season, Rogers was marching up the incline from the locker room to the practice field at the Silverdome when he stopped in front of me and dropped a conspiratorial whisper into my ear: “What does a coach have to do to get fired around here?”

The answer was quick. Rogers caught the ziggy with the Lions at 2-9 in mid-1988. Wayne Fontes was promoted to head coach, and a different era was about to begin.

Barry Sanders was drafted in 1989 with strong influence from Fontes. Sanders, with his slip-sliding ability to pivot in mid-run, gained more than 1,000 yards in each of his 10 seasons. He is widely regarded as the GOAT — greatest of all time — of NFL running backs, and the Lions went to the playoffs twice in the Fontes-Sanders era. They even won one of those games, and over the vaunted Dallas Cowboys no less, in 1992.

Then the Lions lost the NFC championship game to Washington, 41-10. They never came closer to a Super Bowl, unless you count the years — 1982 and 2006 — when the city itself hosted the game. By 1996, after four straight playoff appearances capped by a losing season, Fontes caught the ziggy.

Successor Bobby Ross guided the Lions to the playoffs in the 1997 and 1999 seasons, but again, they lost. Ross, a dour coach, did not have the relationship with Barry that Fontes had; just before training camp of the ’99 season, Sanders prematurely retired. He admitted that he was tired of losing. Later on, in his autobiography, it was confirmed further that the Lions had denied his trade request.

With Sanders’ departure, the Lions’ era of promise ended and the team’s sorrowful culture of the 1970s returned. Another series of coaches would pass through the Silverdome and then Ford Field until the nadir year of 2008 when the team lost every game. All 16. That earned them the draft pick that brought Matthew Stafford.

Billy Ford died in 2014. His widow, Martha Firestone Ford, took over for the rest of the decade before handing the reins to their daughter, Sheila Ford Hamp. The chairperson changed, but the outcome was the same — Stafford suffering through season after unrewarding season.

The tone was set by William Clay Ford Sr. He ran the franchise for 49.5 years. He was passionate — and compassionate. Among the posse of NFL owners, he operated largely with enviable integrity — and perennial failure.

It’s not that he was cheap. He spent big. But he failed to recognize the value of serious, strong, experienced football advisers. He micromanaged head coaches but failed to hire and empower qualified general managers. Matt Millen, for example, put in seven disastrous seasons as GM in the early 2000s. He’d been a four-time Super Bowl winner as a player and a sharp broadcaster, but even he knew that wasn’t enough.

“Mr. Ford, I appreciate this, but I’m not qualified,” Millen said when interviewed by the Lions.

“You’re smart,” Ford reportedly countered. “You’ll figure it out.”

Millen had been correct. His coach selections were horrid. His draft choices, mostly, were lacking in the necessities. By 2008, he was predictably cashiered by Ford, having amassed a horrific 31-84 record.

The most glaring proof that the Fords are the problem, of course, is Stafford’s disillusioning tenure — and triumphant first year after. At the end of the 2020 season, Stafford wanted out — like Barry and Calvin before him.

The Lions, this time, honored the player’s wishes. Stafford left for the Los Angeles Rams, labeled a loser by the Detroit fandom until Feb. 13 this year when his passing won the Super Bowl with a dramatic comeback drive over the Cincinnati Bengals.

And in Los Angeles, there were Roman candles shooting over the sidelines.

This story is from the May 2022 issue of Hour Detroit. Read more stories in our digital edition