August 12, 2010

1957: Buddy Parker Abruptly Quits as Coach of Lions

On August 12, 1957 a “Meet the Lions” banquet was held at a hotel in Detroit. The team was still in training camp with the first preseason game coming up shortly and some 600 fans were in attendance. When it was time for Head Coach Buddy Parker to speak, it was assumed that he would utter the usual cliches typical of such occasions. Instead, he said “I can’t handle this team anymore. It’s the worst team I’ve ever seen in training camp. They have no life, no go, just a completely dead team. I’m leaving Detroit football. And I’m leaving tonight.”

At least one member of the audience laughed, thinking that Parker was joking. He was serious, however, and in the end simply walked off the podium and out of the building, leaving behind a stunned group of team executives, fans, and reporters.

Under Buddy Parker, the Lions had been one of the NFL’s strongest teams. Since taking over as head coach in 1951, they had gone 47-23-2 and won three conference titles and back-to-back league championships in 1952 and ’53.

The offense, directed by fiery fellow Texan Bobby Layne at quarterback (pictured at bottom with Parker), was solid and prominently included OT Lou Creekmur, guards Harley Sewell and Dick Stanfel, ends Cloyce Box and Dorne Dibble, and halfbacks Doak Walker and Bob “Hunchy” Hoernschemeyer. Parker proved adept at adjusting the offense to his personnel, effectively utilizing the power of FB Pat Harder, obtained from the Cardinals at age 29 in 1951, and then featuring the outside speed of halfbacks Hoernschemeyer and Gene Gedman while maximizing Walker’s all-around talents. With the resourceful Layne at quarterback, the Lions utilized play action passes to great effect and pioneered in the development of the two-minute offense.

As effective as the offense was, the Lions were especially renowned for their defense. Middle guard Les Bingaman had provided a 300-pound impediment to opposing runners and, when he retired, Joe Schmidt became a groundbreaking and exceptional middle linebacker. The secondary was particularly outstanding, as the Lions led the way in the art of drafting athletes for the defensive backfield. Known as “Chris’s Gang” due to the presence of safety Jack Christiansen, the unit also included fellow safety (and eventual fellow member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame) Yale Lary as well as halfbacks Jim David, Bob Smith, and Bill Stits.

In three consecutive seasons, Parker and the Lions faced off for the NFL title against Paul Brown and the Cleveland Browns; the Lions won the first two of those encounters. But Parker was shattered by the failure to win a third consecutive championship in 1954, losing badly to the Browns by a score of 56-10.

Detroit sank to 3-9 in 1955, but in ’56 the Lions recovered to post a 9-3 record and missed winning the Western Conference by a half game to the 9-2-1 Bears. In the showdown for first place, Layne had been knocked out of the game when blindsided by Chicago’s DE Ed Meadows on a very late hit, although the inability to stop Bears FB Rick Casares, who gained 190 yards rushing, was likely an even larger factor in the loss.

But by the 1957 preseason, a number of issues were rumbling beneath the surface where Buddy Parker and the Lions were concerned. While Parker never elaborated on his reason for the abrupt departure, it was known that he was frustrated with divisions among the team’s owners that had led to meddling and open second-guessing of the coach’s decisions. An hour prior to the banquet, he had been summoned to a suite at the hotel where one of the owners was throwing a cocktail party, and found several of the players there. It might well have been the last straw.

Assistant coach George Wilson was elevated to head coach and the Lions went on to win the NFL championship, once more defeating the Browns in the climactic game. Bobby Layne broke his leg late in the season, but veteran backup Tobin Rote – obtained to provide solid relief in the event of another injury to Layne – capably guided the offense the rest of the way.

Buddy Parker didn’t remain unemployed long - after rumors had him replacing Weeb Ewbank in Baltimore, he was hired by the Pittsburgh Steelers two weeks after leaving the Lions. Layne was reunited with Parker in 1958, and the perennially-losing Steelers put together a 7-4-1 record.

Parker may have been an excellent tactician who was adept at game management, but he was also temperamental and prone to outbursts. The Lions obtained his services after he had quit the Chicago Cardinals in a huff, where he had been co-coach for a year and was caught in the midst of an ownership dispute. He would abruptly quit the Steelers shortly before the 1965 season, after compiling a 51-47-6 tally through eight years, and was finished as an NFL head coach at age 51.