Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Clark's "Cemetery" Line Rang True -- Eventually

He stood in front of the media masses, towered over them really, and gazed across the room, full of pens and microphones that wanted to know, as usual, "Hey, what happened?"

Monte Clark wasn't in the mood to give very many answers. After the usual eulogy over his team in a losing effort that brought the Lions' record to 1-4 that October Sunday in 1983, head coach Clark lowered his voice into a somber stage whisper.

"See you at the cemetery," he said, stepping down from the podium and seeking the refuge of his squad's lockerroom.

It was then that Clark imagined he was a goner, about to get the ziggy. He was in his sixth season as Lions coach, and except for a tainted playoff appearance the season before (the Lions were 4-5 in the strike-shortened '82 campaign and lost to Washington in the first round), the team's success was limited to a single winning record, in 1980. Now the Lions had fallen to the Rams in Anaheim, and sported that 1-4 record. So Clark decided to beat the media pallbearers to the punch, and invited them to his own wake.

But Clark was not fired that week, nor the next. Nor the next. In fact, the Lions staged a remarkable (for them) recovery, and finished 9-7. It wasn't a great record, but it was good enough to win the rotten NFC Central.

Clark was 43-61-1 as Lions coach from '78 to '84

Then the Lions played the 49ers in San Francisco in the playoffs on New Year's Eve, and would have won, had Eddie Murray's right leg not gone crooked at the final gun. The TV image of Clark, praying on the sidelines before Murray's errant kick, was beamed into homes in Detroit and became the team's post-1957 history in a microcosm.

But so was his "See you at the cemetery" remark. Big Al (The Wayne Fontes Experience) and I have had fun assigning each Lions coach in the Bill Ford Sr. era with an infamous quote or event. Clark had two: the cemetery line, and the praying hands.

It's appropriate to think of Clark and his message of apparent foreboding, because the Lions are getting ready to play the Rams on the road, albeit in St. Louis.

Monte Clark is still hanging around Lions Land. He's employed as an assistant to Matt Millen. But from 1978-84, Clark coached the Lions. His time was the usual time for a Lions coach. Pretty good running back (read: Billy Sims), not bad defense (read: The Silver Rush), but question mark at the quarterback position. Surprise, surprise. Eric Hipple and Gary Danielson battled it out in the Clark Era, and when the dust settled, the Lions were still stuck in the spectre of mediocrity. After a 4-11-1 mark in 1984, Clark was finally laid to rest, so to speak, in that Lions coaching cemetery. Darryl Rogers replaced him. Heaven help us.

There'll be no such message of foreboding for current Lions coach Rod Marinelli, even if the team gets drilled under the St. Louis dome. His job is safe, if only because he's just four games into it. So Marinelli won't stand before the media "men" after Sunday's game and tell them to meet him at the cemetery. But if the Lions lose and drop to 0-4, his tone is sure to be funereal. He's a Lions coach, after all. What else is there to expect?

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