If there’s anyone who knows the double-edged sword of Bill Ford’s loyalty, it’s Joe Schmidt.
Joe was to middle linebacking what Thomas Edison was to electricity. And when you invent a position, you’re excused if you feel some bravado.Schmidt, from the University of Pittsburgh, entered the NFL in 1953, the Lions already a winner—defending league champs. And they stayed that way, largely due to Schmidt’s brutality against opposing ball carriers. They won the championship again in Schmidt’s rookie season. Another world title followed in 1957.
They could have won at least a division in 1962, were it not for a boneheaded loss in Green Bay, thanks to a highly questionable pass play call late in the game that resulted in an interception. The old timers will tell you that the Lions never fully recovered from that loss.
Schmidt was a winner. And Ford, who took over as sole owner of the Lions in 1964, recognized that. He rewarded Schmidt with the head coaching job in 1967, two years after Joe retired.
It took him a couple years, but Schmidt started winning as a coach, too. The Lions were 9-4-1 in 1969. They went to the playoffs in 1970 with a 10-4 record. 1971 and ’72 produced winning seasons, too.
But Schmidt had another fight on his hands. This time it wasn’t Jim Brown or Hugh McElhenny or Paul Hornung who Schmidt had to stop. It was his own general manager, Russ Thomas.
Thomas was your father’s Matt Millen. He was as popular in Detroit as a foreign carmaker. If they had sports talk radio back then, hours could have been devoted to Thomas bashing.
Thomas was cheap. He treated players poorly. He never got the Lions over the hump. For most of Thomas’s tenure, the Lions were a mediocre team, bobbing above and below .500 every season.
Except when Joe Schmidt was the coach.
Schmidt was winning football games, and the more he won, the less tolerant he was of Thomas and the GM’s meddling.
There was a drink shared by Schmidt and defensive tackle Alex Karras, circa the late-1960s.
After listening to Schmidt bitch and moan about Thomas for several minutes, Karras had a suggestion.
“Joe, if it’s so bad, why don’t you quit?”
Schmidt, according to Karras, leaned in, sneered, and said, “That’s the dumbest blanking thing I’ve ever heard.”
So Schmidt, armed with four straight winning seasons, decided to take his personal war with Russ Thomas to owner Ford. This was January 1973.
It’s him or me, Schmidt basically told Ford.
Then Schmidt got sliced with the other side of Ford’s loyalty machete.
Schmidt underestimated the affection Ford had for Thomas, who’d been with the Lions organization since the 1950s himself, starting as a player—just like Schmidt.
Thomas stayed. Schmidt quit, after all. Apparently it wasn’t the dumbest blanking thing he’d ever heard anymore.
Funny, but as soon as Joe Schmidt quit in a huff, the Lions went down the tubes.
So you can forgive those who roasted Ford when he promoted from within last year at this time, elevating Martin Mayhew to general manager. Ford’s loyalty to coaches and executives, which had gotten the Lions into trouble many times before, was at work again.
Promote from within? After an 0-16 season?
Martin Mayhew? Wasn’t he hired by (gulp) Matt Millen?
Yep. And yep.
Mayhew (right) drives Ford around; it's only fair, since Ford has been taking everyone else for a ride for years
Oh-and-16 will live in infamy in Detroit, no matter how much winning the Lions might do in the future. I believe the organization will never fully rid itself of that stench. Ever.
But that’s water under the Ambassador Bridge. Mayhew got the job, another beneficiary of Bill Ford’s loyalty.
You think they’ll give the old man his props?
Mayhew was a splendid choice, as it turns out. He drafted better, in just one try, than his former boss, Millen, did in his eight drafts combined, just about. In October ’08, Mayhew, still interim GM, fleeced Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys in his first few weeks on the job, taking them for a first round draft pick for receiver Roy Williams.
Mayhew spent most of 2009 combing the waiver wires, trying gamely to bring the most talented players he could find—defensive backs, especially—to the Lions. Not all of his expensive free agent signings during the off-season worked out, but the draft is where you really build a team. And in that area, Mayhew did wonderfully.
I was one of those less than thrilled with the promote-from-within tact, a year ago December. Mayhew was a Millen guy, or so we thought.
Instead, it must have been on countless occasions when Mayhew—and you’ll never get him to admit to this—left meetings with Millen shaking his head, his advice either ignored or overruled.
Did Ford see this or did he just get lucky?
It must be the latter, because no one is giving the owner credit for making Martin Mayhew the general manager of the Detroit Lions. And they should.
So I will.
Congratulations, Bill—you got one right. Put this one in the left-hand column, for a change. I was wrong. You were right. You got a guy already roaming the halls in Allen Park, and for cheaper than you could have brought a big name guy in from the outside.
Mayhew is a fine general manager, me thinks. I think he’ll do alright, given a few more years—and drafts.
This time, “L” doesn’t stand for losing with the Lions. It stands for loyalty.
This time, it worked.
Even if you think Ford is a blind squirrel who found a nut, be happy that he found one at all. The Lions have a franchise quarterback, a young coach, and a blossoming general manager.
Now, compare that to last year around this time.
The Beatles got it right.
“I have to admit it’s getting better—it’s getting better, all the time.
It can’t get much worse.”