Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Summer Of 63

I started following the Detroit sports scene in 1970. That’s 36 years, and the only reason that I’m not yet a curmudgeon is because I was seven years old in ’70. But still, 36 years is 36 years. Vietnam to Iraq.

The other day I decided to count coaches/managers in that time frame for our four major sports teams. Yes, I have no life. But it only took me a few minutes, thanks to the brain that resides in my cranium that has the amazing ability to remember Sparky Anderson’s first uniform number worn with the Tigers (it was #7), yet filters out commands to pick my dirty socks off the floor.

The grand total? 63. Sixty-three men have been hired and fired as leaders of our teams since 1970. Lions coach Rod Marinelli, conducting his first training camp right now, is #63. A perfect number. I was born in 1963, in August. So thanks to Mr. Marinelli, we have The Summer of 63 redux.

We’ve had boisterous (Wayne Fontes, Butch van Breda Kolff). We’ve had wallflowers (Billy Dea, Tommy Hudspeth). We’ve had snake oil salesmen (Dickie Vitale, Ned Harkness). We’ve had geniuses (Scotty Bowman, Chuck Daly). We’ve had vagabonds (Larry Brown, Darryl Rogers). We’ve even had a Flip (Saunders) and a Mayo (Smith).

We’ve had the French (Jacques Demers). We’ve had the German (Joe Schmidt). We’ve had the Italian (Steve Mariucci). We’ve had the Latino (Luis Pujols). We’ve had the Jew (Ron Rothstein). And, since we have a hockey team, we’ve certainly had the Canadian (just pick one, eh?).

We’ve had the fighter (Billy Martin). We’ve had the lover (Larry Brown – who said during a timeout in the Finals, “I love you guys!”). We’ve had the good guy (Alan Trammell). We’ve had the bad guy (Teddy Garvin). We’ve had the hugger (Fontes).

We’ve had the military man (Bobby Ross). We’ve had the ex-player, many times over. We’ve had the past and future TV announcer (Doug Collins). We’ve had the college guy (Gary Moeller). We’ve had the Unknown Soldier (Les Moss).

We’ve had the quotable (Anderson). We’ve had the strong, silent type (Rick Carlisle). We’ve had the affable (Fontes). We’ve had the truculent (Bowman). We’ve had the fill-in guy (Joe Schultz). We’ve had the Answer To a Trivia Question (Moss; as in who did Sparky Anderson replace in June 1979 after just two months on the job?).

We’ve had the Major (Ralph Houk). We’ve had Captain Hook (Anderson). We’ve had Daddy Rich (Daly). We’ve had Scrap Iron (Phil Garner).

We’ve had one-year wonders (Don McCafferty, who died of a heart attack before his second season with the Lions). We’ve had one-year blunders (Harry Neale). We’ve had the interim man (Dick Jauron). We’ve had the nomad (Brown).

We’ve had brothers (Larry and Herb Brown). And we’ve had bro-thus (Ray Scott and Earl Lloyd).

But what we also have, in 2006, are four men who are all either in their first season in Detroit, or have just completed their first: Marinelli; Mike Babcock; Jim Leyland; and Flip Saunders. And in no other year, since 1970 or before, has that ever been the case in this town.

You prefer savants? Try on Scotty Bowman. You like your coaches with more baggage than the main terminal at Metro Airport? Then Larry Brown’s your guy.

You stick around long enough, you’ll see it all, I suppose.

I decided to do a little math. I wanted to figure out the average tenure of our 63 leaders. It was simple, really. I took those 36 years and multiplied it by four, for our four major teams. Then I took that product (144) and divided it by the number of men (63). The quotient: 2.3.
That means the average schmoe lucky enough to lead one of our teams lasted 28 months on the job. Chalk up a win for the real estate agencies.

That’s an average, of course. So when you combine, say Sparky Anderson’s 16-plus seasons as Tigers manager with the Lions’ Gary Moeller’s month or so, it’s no wonder that you get a number like 2.3. But it really is a good indicator of average tenure. You find – should you research it like a certain nerd who shall remain nameless, except on his byline – that the dudes who drifted in and out of Detroit truly did stay the 2-3 years indicated by my math. That’s not a career – that’s a residency.

Forget the math. You want color? Boy, do we have color. Billy Martin prowled the dugout here, after all. And Sparky. And Chuck Daly had his moments with the Pistons. Dickie Vitale’s color went off the spectrum. Wayne Fontes had so much color he was still awash with it, even after being fired. “Fired? What do you mean I’m fired?,” he bellowed, laughing, as owner Bill Ford Sr. talked to the press and shifted uncomfortably.

You prefer savants? Try on Scotty Bowman. You like your coaches with more baggage than the main terminal at Metro Airport? Then Larry Brown’s your guy. Or maybe you’re fascinated with an opening act (Les Moss) and a closing act (Buddy Bell) – consisting of the men preceding and following Anderson as Tigers manager, some 17 years apart.

Sometimes we need to stop and think about how blessed we are to have had such an array of winners, losers, goofballs, professors, and entertainers blow through town to take the reins. Rarely has there been a dull moment, even when the man himself has been dull (read: Pujols, whose complete lack of panache created its own panache). Mostly there’s been at least one man here at any given time who’s been great copy, or who’s provided memorable sound bites. Or who’s kicked dirt, or thrown his glasses, or slipped and fell on his bum on the basketball court sidelines. All those happened, by the way. I promise you.

So Rod Marinelli is a neophyte at this head coaching thing. He’s not even one week into his first training camp with the Lions. He can still walk around in public and not be recognized. He is, for now, simply #63 for me in Detroit.

But I’m sure we’ll have some Marinelli stories to tell by the time coach #64 hits the city limits. Which, by my math, should be sometime late next year.

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