From a prayer to a fake field goal: a look back at Lions’ coaching history

Monte Clark coached the Detroit Lions from 1978 to 1984.

Monte Clark coached the Detroit Lions from 1978 to 1984.

It’s been less than a week since the Detroit Lions bumbled their way through a fake field goal attempt against the Pittsburgh Steelers in a controversial play call that still has the talk show lines heated. Coach Jim Schwartz is taking the heat for that call, though he staunchly defends it. Sadly, for Lions’ fans it’s just one more peculiar head coaching move that leaves them scratching their heads.

Hopefully the loss in Steel City won’t cost the Lions a chance at their first division title in more than two decades. But only time will tell if that’ll be the case.

Though the 2013 Detroit Lions have been erasing several long-standing streaks of bad luck and bad play (they beat the Chicago Bears in the Windy City for the first time since 2007, and amazingly they won their first game in Washington since FDR was president), they still seem to have many of the same tendencies that have cursed our Tabbies for decades. They find a way to lose and they always seem to fall back to their “Same Old Lions” ways. Schwartz’s gamble on the trick field goal play proved costly – a simple boot through the uprights would have given the Lions a 7-point lead early in the 4th quarter. Instead, they found themselves down by 10 points late in the game when that extra three would have been oh so critical to their chances. Was it the only reason the Lions lost to the Steelers? No, but the fake field goal was a questionable move.

“We got the look that we wanted. We thought it was there,” Schwartz told the Detroit Free Press on Monday. “We have a chance right there to really put a dagger in that game and go up 11. We didn’t get it done.”

Well, if pigs had wings they’d be eagles. But that play probably wouldn’t have worked against the Eagles either.

Here’s a look at the head coaches for the Lions since the ’78 season, 35 years ago. It includes some very controversial and memorable blunders and moments.

Monte Clark’s sideline prayer in San Francisco
Poor Monte Clark will always be remembered for one excruciating loss in the playoffs. Clark was a very good football man with success everywhere he went as a coach. He was hired to be the head coach by the Lions prior to the 1978 campaign and guided the Lions to a 7-9 record as they were much improved and more disciplined. Two years later, with rookie running back Billy Sims and a talented defensive unit, Clark’s Lions went 9-7 and owned a share of the NFC Central title, though they missed the playoffs. In ’83, Clark coaxed the Lions to 9-7 and their first playoff spot in more than a decade. In the first round of the playoffs, Detroit was a huge underdog to the San Francisco 49ers, a team that Clark had previously coached. But the Lions, behind Sims, stuck with the 49ers and were just one one point behind when they drove down the field in the final minute to set up a field goal try to win the game. As Eddie Murray lined up for a 43-yarder, Clark, clad in his Honolulu blue sweater, stood on the sidelines with his hands clenched in a prayer and raised to the heavens. Murray narrowly missed the field goal and the Lions lost 24-23 to the eventual team of the decade. For most Lions fans who watched the game, the sad image of Clark on the sidelines frozen in that prayerful pose serves as the snapshot of that disappointing era. Clark was fired following one more season.

The Polyester era
While Clark was a smart football man who actually melded the Lions into a better team, the next Lions’ coach was so inept, so pathetic, that even he wondered why he was on the sidelines. Darryl Rogers did the impossible: he parlayed one Big ten title (a share of a big Ten title at that) and one Bowl victory into a pro coaching job. he was hired in 1985 to replace Monte Clark, but there isn’t much of consequence to remember about his tenure as the Lions’ head honcho.

In ’85 his team beat teams they shouldn’t have (four wins over teams that went on to the playoffs, including the 49ers, Cowboys, and Dolphins), but they also lost to the dismal Buccaneers and Colts. The following year the Rogers-led Lions went 5-11 with losing streaks of three, four, and four games. The next season they went 4-11, and if it wasn’t bad enough that the team was terrible, Rogers seemed like he was overmatched on the sidelines, as he paced aimlessly like an old man who had forgot where he parked his car.

To add insult to injury, as teams were pummeling the Lions (the Broncos beat them 34-0 at Mile High Stadium and the Bears pounded the team 30-10), Rogers was wearing polyester pants that were about four inches too short. If he’d been in 9th grade he’d have been beaten up every day.

Rogers was not the sort of imposing figure a team or a fan base could rally behind. At one point, after a loss, Rogers said, “What does a guy have to do to get fired around here?”

The coach got his answer after Detroit lost an overtime game to the Giants in 1988 to fall to 2-9 (it had been more than two years since the team had won back-to-back games). Rogers was fired and replaced by defensive coordinator Wayne Fontes.

Good Time Wayne
Wayne Fontes is not lampooned here because, remarkably, he was the most successful coach the Lions have had in the last 35 years. Even though he had his bumps in the road, Fontes, who was loved by most of his players, usually righted his ship in time to save his job. He never had that one terrible season or dastardly event that would earn him a place among the other fools who have guided the team in recent history. Case in point: in Fontes’ first 7 full seasons, his record in games from Thanksgiving through the end of the season was a shining 27-12. He got his teams to finish strong. Still, despite guiding the Lions to two division titles and four playoff spots, he failed to get them to a Super Bowl, and after a 5-11 mark in ’96, he met the same fate as his predecessors and was fired.

Bobby Ross, meet Barry Sanders, he’s kind of good
After the cushy conditions under Fontes, the Lions were subjected to a real wake up call when Bobby Ross was named their next head coach for the 1997 season. Ross had been a successful college coach, most notable at Georgia Tech, before becoming the head man in the pro ranks at San Diego. His iron fist ways were not popular in Detroit however, and his handling of star running back Barry Sanders was bizarre. In the first two games of his first season, Ross barely used Sanders, handing him the ball 25 times total. #20 wasn’t happy and neither were Lion fans. In week three, Sanders scampered for 161 yards and was on his way. He ended up with a career-high 2,053 yards in one of the best seasons ever by a ball carrier. It was not, however, a very happy time for Barry. He resented playing for Ross, who wanted a traditional “power” running back. Sanders retired following the ’98 season, never giving a clear reason for his decision, but Ross’s presence played a large part in it.

To his credit, the autocratic Ross led the Sanders-less Lions to the playoffs in ’99, but the following season he committed the ultimate sin. After his team lost 23-8 to the Dolphins at home to fall to 5-4, though still in the playoff hunt, Ross quit. His exit included this charming line: “I can’t lead a [team] that won’t fight back.” The irony of a quitting coach calling out his team as being soft was not lost on Detroit faithful.

Assistant coach Gary Moeller, a former head coach of the Michigan Wolverines, stepped in and led the Lions to three consecutive wins, including a thumping of the Patriots on Thanksgiving, but the Lions still missed the playoffs. Moeller was not asked back on a permanent basis.

The stupidest thing any coach has ever done in overtime
It was 2002 and the Lions were one of the stinkiest teams in the NFL (again). Coach Marty Mornhinweg was in his second season on the sidelines for Detroit, and his era was not epic. He’d end up with  5-27 record in his two seasons, and less puzzling than why he lost that many games was how he possibly won 5 times in two years.

In the Sunday game before Thanksgiving, the Lions were in Chicago at Soldier Field facing the division-rival Bears. The two teams beat each other up for four quarters to a 17-17 standoff. At the onset of overtime, the captains met at the center of the gridiron for the coin toss. The Lions won the toss, but incredibly, Mornhinweg chose to kick the ball to the Bears. His reasoning? he wanted the wind at his back. But even though his able kicker Jason Hanson had already booted a field goal to beat the Lions in OT earlier that season, he didn’t trust his offense. The Bears took the kickoff and marched down the field to kick their own field goal and win the game as everyone wondered what the hell Mornhinweg had been thinking. He didn’t lose his job right then, but he may as well have. The Lions lost their next five games to close out the season, and Marty was mercifully axed.

Thanksgiving Massacre
Only one Lions’ head coach has been fired after the traditional Thanksgiving game. That was Steve Mariucci, an Iron Mountain native who had enjoyed great success as a head coach in the NFL before coming to Detroit. the key word there would be the word before. To be fair to Mariucci, he was head coach during the Matt Millen era, when the Detroit GM was making the worst personnel decisions in the history of organized football anywhere in the universe. After his team was pounded by the Falcons, 27-7 on Turkey Day in 2005 to fall to 4-7, Mariucci was asked to leave. Assistant Dick Jauron drew the short straw and had to watch over the team as they went 1-4 the balance of the season.

O for the season
Rod Marinelli did a lot of coaching in a 40-year career that still plods along as an assistant in Dallas.

He didn’t do any of that coaching in Detroit.

Yes, he was listed as the head coach for three seasons from 2006-08, but he was a phantom, an empty shirt on the sidelines as the Lions fell deeper into the abyss and became the biggest laughingstock in sports. In ’08 the team went 0-16 and Marinelli’s career as a head coach in Detroit was over. The ledger showed him with 10 wins and 38 losses, one of the worst percentages in league history. Why he’s not in the witness protection program is beyond me.

May the Schwartz be with you
In 2009, the Lions not only swept out Marinelli, they also finally (finally!) fired Millen, the worst executive in the history of the NFL. In a reversal of team policy, the Lions hired a man whose name didn’t start with the letter “M”, the first full-time head coach since Bobby Ross with that surname distinction.

Jim Schwartz has had his ups and downs, from embattled handshakes (a famous mighty backslap from Jim Harbaugh), his violent throwdowns (he’s wrecked his share of headphones in celebration and in defeat), and of course, there’s the fake field goal that started this entire article. Whether you love him or loath him, Schwartz is part of a special clan – The Head Coaches of the Detroit Lions – a strange, pathetic, dysfunctional, fashion-challenged, stubborn, moronic group who have tried their best to take this franchise to the promise land. It’s been more than 50 years and counting. Who will be next?

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He was formerly the Web Producer for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @twebman or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.