Saturday, June 18, 2005

Schmidt's Estrangement From Lions Another Sad Episode Of Ford's Ownership

(the following column can also be viewed at RetailDetroit.com, where a new column from yours truly appears each Sunday or Monday. They will also appear here for your reading pleasure. For archives of my columns there, go to www.RetailDetroit.com and click on "Columnists")

The man with the best winning percentage as a Detroit Lions coach under the William Clay Ford ownership -- 40 years and counting -- never was a head coach before, nor after guiding the team. He had the one NFL head coaching job -- with the Lions from 1967-72 -- and was basically never heard from in the league again. What’s worse, he has barely been associated with the Lions organization since he coached, and that’s a shame because the man is Joe Schmidt and he was only the greatest defensive player the team has ever had. Some might even argue he was the best player, period.


There was no such thing as middle linebacker before Joe Schmidt

The Lions have had 12 head coaches since Ford became sole owner of the team in 1964, and only one has ended his stint as a winner: Schmidt.Yet once he walked away from the Lions in early 1973, citing the meddlesome ways of GM Russ Thomas, Schmidt has been a stranger to the team. He was never sought out when the team needed football advice, which was basically constantly.. He was never offered a job in the organization. He was never a candidate anywhere else in the league for a coaching position, but that’s not so mysterious. However, Schmidt’s apparent estrangement from the team he served so well as linebacker and coach is disappointing, even if it never gets mentioned, which is another slight, as far as I’m concerned.

Schmidt played for the Lions from 1953-65, and if you have any doubt about his abilities, it has often been suggested that he helped invent the position of middle linebacker, just so you know. Schmidt was the anchor of a defense that at times dominated the league in the 1950’s. As a show of how much emphasis the team and its fans placed on defense in those days, when the Lions won the 1953 championship, it was Schmidt the players and fans held aloft, thrusting him as close to the sky as they could, even though the game was won by a Bobby Layne-led drive in the closing minutes. The Lions were a winning, entertaining group in those days, their roster heavily populated with Hall of Famers and near-Famers. Layne rightfully got his props as QB, but the defense was clearly led by Schmidt. Without Joe Schmidt, maybe there is no Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke, or anyone else with the initials MLB next to their name on an NFL roster. That’s no overstatement, either.

Schmidt’s prowess as a player continued over to his coaching. The Lions were a mess -- as usual -- when he took over in ‘67, and after a couple rebuilding years, the team became consistent winners, posting above .500 records in each of his last four seasons. Schmidt had restored the Lions -- his team, his franchise -- back to playoff-contending status. The only thing his teams couldn’t do was beat the Minnesota Vikings (the Lions were 1-11 against the Vikes during Schmidt’s tenure). I often wondered how far his 1970 squad, which finished 10-4, would have gone had it just managed to squeeze out a touchdown or even a couple of field goals against Dallas in the playoffs. That was the infamous 5-0 loss, and the Cowboys went on to the Super Bowl that season. What might have been.

But Schmidt coached like he played -- angry and no-nonsense -- and it eventually led to a butting of heads with Thomas, the general manager who at various times during his lengthy tenure may very well have been the most hated man in all of Detroit sports. In fact, it was Thomas’ unpopularity in Detroit that Schmidt was trying to parlay during a power struggle that emerged after the 1972 campaign. The Lions had, once again, finished second in their division, but Schmidt and Thomas disagreed about the team’s direction going forward. Schmidt complained that Thomas was overstepping his bounds as GM, becoming too involved in personnel and game preparation decisions. He took his complaints to owner Ford, figuring William Clay would keep the popular Schmidt and offload the mostly loathed Thomas. But Ford put his weight behind Thomas, an old friend, and Schmidt resigned, posthaste. His career won-lost-tied was 43-34-7. A record like that nowadays as Lions coach would enable a man to be elected mayor of the city.

Ford, for all his warts, has often brought old Lions back into the fold, either as an assistant coach or a front office person. He has, for the most part, respected the team’s tradition, such as it is. But when it comes to Joe Schmidt, it’s been different, and I’m dying to know why.

It’s not terribly surprising that Schmidt never coached again after quitting the Lions. He wasn’t all that jazzed to do it in the first place, and doubtless he would only have done it for the Lions, a team for which he bled Honolulu Blue blood. But Charlie Sanders, the great tight end, was welcomed back, both as an assistant coach and as a member of management. Greg Landry came back to coach quarterbacks. Larry Lee went from offensive lineman to the front office. Dick Jauron is the Lions’ current defensive coordinator. None of them, except for Sanders, had Lions playing careers half as brilliant as Schmidt’s. Yet they all drifted back to the franchise in some way, shape or form. As for Schmidt, he was almost immediately out of sight, out of mind after walking away. It wasn’t until 1993 -- 20 years after his resignation -- that the team mentioned Schmidt’s name publicly again, and when it did, it couldn’t have been more awkward, or disrespectful.

The Lions had traded for hotshot linebacker Pat Swilling that April, a deal made with the New Orleans Saints just before the ’93 draft. Swilling had always worn #56 with the Saints. Schmidt wore 56 with the Lions. Supposedly the number was retired by the Lions, although there was never a formal ceremony. Typical. Anyhow, Swilling thought it would be great if he could wear 56 in Detroit. Joe Schmidt’s number. The number of a Hall of Famer. That Swilling decided not to respect the team’s tradition and to put people on the spot, including Schmidt himself, told me a lot about Pat Swilling before he played a single down for the Lions. Schmidt had worn 56 for 13 seasons, doing it as proud as any NFL player could do a uniform number. Pat Swilling had been a Lion for about 48 hours.

So what did the Lions, those clueless boobs, do? They publicly announced that, yes, Swilling could have 56 -- imagine that -- and on top of it all, Joe Schmidt would be at a made-for-TV press conference to "offcially" unretire #56. I always wondered how the team got Schmidt’s phone number, or even his area code, considering his name was hardly breathed around the Silverdome. So the press conference was held, Schmidt presented the "Swilling 56" jersey, told the media that it was okay by him if Swilling wore the number (what else was he going to say?), and back into the closet he went. Have you heard anyone involved with the Lions mention Joe Schmidt’s name since then? Neither have I. Oh, by the way, Swilling wore 56 for a couple so-so seasons, and bolted for the Raiders. Letting Pat Swilling wear Schmidt’s #56 for about 30 games was like letting someone use the Mona Lisa as a dartboard. It still angers me that Pat Swilling, not Joe Schmidt, was the last Lion to wear #56.

Also, whenever the Lions have needed some football consultation -- and they’ve needed plenty -- never have they looked for Joe Schmidt. It’s probably too late now, since Schmidt’s been away from the NFL for so long, but if there was only one man -- ONE -- who’s been able to coach a team to an overall winning record in over 40 years, wouldn’t you think that team would want to tap into that man’s football brain from time to time? Yet the Lions have never, as far as I know, brought Joe Schmidt in for a cup of coffee and given him an opportunity to postulate as to what ails the team, and how it could possibly be cured.

So did Schmidt anger Ford when he resigned in ‘73? Did he burn bridges when he tried to win the power struggle with Thomas, who Ford adored and to whom the owner was loyal, to a fault? Or did Schmidt himself want nothing more to do with the Lions? Regardless, it’s sad that one of the greatest players in Lions history has had virtually no ties with the team in over 30 years, other than to unjustly "unretire" his jersey number. The least the Lions can do is to "re-retire" #56, complete with a festive Ford Field ceremony, at halftime of a game with, say, the Packers, a fierce Schmidt-era rival of the Lions. That would be fitting and proper.

This is where you picture me not holding my breath.

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