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How we got here: A look back the history of Detroit Lions head coaches

A full scale tour through the history of Lions coaches

New Orleans Saints v Cleveland Browns

There’s something about Memorial Day weekend that gets me in my historian mode. The Detroit Lions have been through a lot of coaches in their history. Dan Campbell makes 30. That’s tied for second most of any team in NFL history. Somehow the Cardinals have gone through 42 coaches. Don’t ask me how.

Being that I was in this historian mood, I spent Memorial Day weekend going back in time and taking a look at each Lions head coach. Follow along. Bring your tissues. You’re gonna need them.

Hal Griffen (1930)

Hal Griffen was the Lions first coach ever, though the team was still technically the Portsmouth Spartans at the time. He did indeed coach a football team. But not well, and not for long.

Hal Griffen coached the Lions for one season and went 5-6-3. The interesting thing about Griffen is that he was also playing for the Spartans.

George “Potsy” Clark (1931-36, 1940)

Potsy was technically the Lions first head coach. When Clark joined the franchise in 1931, they were still the Portsmouth Spartans. Clark came in and immediately made the Lions/Spartans one of the best teams in the league when he coached the team to an 11-3 record.

Clark’s early success wasn’t a fluke. He led the Lions to the championship game in 1932 and back again for a their first championship win in 1935. Clark coached the team until 1936 when he left the team to go coach the Brooklyn Dodgers—the football team, not the baseball team. Clark’s success led to him being the franchise’s Lions longest-tenured coach until 1957.

The Potsy story isn’t over, though. The Lions hired him back four years later in 1940. He coached the team for one season and then retired from coaching for a while before coaching college football.

Earl “Dutch” Clark (1937-38)

After the Lions moved on from Potsy, they hired Dutch. It did not go well as Potsy. Maybe it’s because old Dutch had a lot on his plate at the time. In addition to coaching the Lions, he was also the team’s running back.

Clark’s first year as the team's coach went well. The team went 7-4 and he ran for 468 yards and five touchdowns. Year two, the Lions went 7-4 and then Clark quit. He quit so he could take a job with the Cleveland Rams. He then quit that job to sell insurance and fight in World War II.

Dutch would later be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a player.

Gus Henderson (1939)

Henderson coached the Lions for just the 1939 season. The Lions went 6-5. Dick Richards sold the team to Fred Mandel after the season and Mandel chose not to go forward with Henderson.

Bill Edwards (1941-42)

Edwards came in as a hot coaching prospect at the time. New owner Fred Mandel paid Edwards a mega $10,000 to coach the Lions for two years. Things were on the up and up. Sadly for Edwards, it didn’t work out. He coached the team to a 4-6-1 record. He was fired after three games in 1942. Although it’s hard to blame him. Most of the team’s good players went off to fight in the war. Edwards joined them the next year when he joined the Navy.

John Karcis took over for the remaining eight losses and the Lions had their first winless season.

Gus Dorais (1943-47)

Dorais came in for the 1943 and turned the 0-11 Lions into a power house 3-6-1 team. Things eventually turned around for Dorais and the Lions. He coached the team to winning seasons in both 1944 and 1945. When Dorais was fired in 1947, he was the team's second longest-tenured head coach in franchise history.

Bo McMillin (1948-50)

McMillin was not a good coach. He coached the Lions to a 2-10 record in 1948 and then a 4-8 season in 1949. McMillin’s biggest contribution to the Lions was bringing in both Doak Walker and Bobby Layne.

Buddy Parker (1951-56)

Now it’s time for the glory years. Parker was an immediate success for the Lions. He led the team to a 7-4-1 record in his first year. The team then went on to win the NFL championship in 1952 and then again in 1953. Then things got weird.

In 1956, Parker was supposed to be the keynote speaker at a training camp dinner. Instead of delivering a speech, he got up at the dinner and quit his job in front of everyone. Classic Lions type stuff.

George Wilson (1957-64)

Wilson, who was the team’s assistant coach at the time, replaced Parker after the dinner incident and became that era’s Jim Caldwell. You know, he was the first coach “that was only good because he inherited Parker’s roster.” Wilson led the Lions to an NFL Championship in 1957 and won NFL Coach of the Year award.

Wilson coached the Lions to 53 wins. Get ready to hear this. That’s the second most in Lions franchise history. Sweet baby Jesus, that’s difficult to take in. You want more? Wilson coached the Lions for 104 games, making him the third-longest tenured Lions coach in franchise history. He left the team in 1966 to become the Miami Dolphins first head coach ever.

Harry Gilmer (1965-66)

Gilmer did not work out well. After the long success of George Wilson’s run, Gilmer coached the team to a 6-7-1 record in in 1965.

He was then fired the next season after a bad loss to the Vikings that ended with Lions fans throwing snowballs at him as he left the field. You know, Lions fans type things.

Joe Schmidt (1967-72)

Schmidt is known as one of the Lions greatest players of all time. So, of course, giving Schmidt a try as the Lions head coach would make all the sense in the world. Unfortunately that didn’t work out so well.

Schmidt’s first season as the Lions head coach led to a 5-7-2 record. Schmidt coached the Lions to winning records on multiple occasions. Although the team only made the playoffs one time and got knocked out immediately.

Schmidt did bring in a lot of Lions fans favorite legends though. He helped draft Mel Farr, Lem Barney and Charlie Sanders.

Schmidt coached the team until he quit after the 1972 season, stating:

“I really don’t enjoy coaching anymore. It got to be a burden more than a fun-loving game. I promised my family and myself when I started coaching that I would get out when it stopped being fun. Unfortunately, it’s reached that point.”

Don McCafferty (1973)

This one is sad. McCafferty just a few years earlier had become the NFL’s first rookie head coach to take a team to a Super Bowl win when the Baltimore Colts all the way. After refusing to bench Johnny Unitas, McCafferty was fired and the Lions swooped in to steal him.

McCafferty signed a three-year deal and coached the Lions to 6-7-1 record. He then unfortunately died the following summer when he had a heart attack while mowing his lawn. He could have been the Lions best coach ever. Sadly we’ll never know what could have been.

Rick Forzano (1974-76)

Forzano took over for the late McCafferty in 1974 and led the Lions to a 7-7 record in his first season. Forzano really liked 7-7 so he coached the Lions to that same record again in 1975. He was on his way to doing it again when William Clay Ford fired him in the middle of the 1976 season. Tommy Hudspeth took over for the rest of the season and the 1977 season. He failed too.

Forzano’s biggest contribution was bring in Bill Belichick for his first NFL job. So you can blame Forzana for being bored watching the Patriots succeed and then watching the Lions then try to recreate that success and miserably fail.

Tommy Hudspeth (1976-1977)

Hudspeth’s takeover was short lived. After becoming the interim coach when Forzano was let go, Hudspeth led the Lions to a 5-5 record down the stretch 1976, a nice improvement. Still, William Clay Ford decided not to bring him back. Ford wanted to bring in Rams head coach Chuck Knox to takeover, but Knox decided to stay with the Rams and Ford settled on Hudspeth for a three-year deal. He would be fired after his first full year on the job when the Lions went 6-8.

Monte Clark (1978-84)

Ladies and gentleman, I present the Lions second-longest tenured head coach in franchise history. He took over the team in 1978 and led the team to a 7-9 record. In all, he coached the team for 105 games and a 43-61-1 record. He did pick Lions legend Billy Sims in the 1980 NFL Draft though. So that’s cool.

He was fired after the 1984 season. He would later work for the Lions as an advisor from 1999 to 2008.

Darryl Rogers (1985-88)

Rogers biggest claim to fame was being the first Lions coach of my lifetime. His other claim to fame was being bad at coaching in the NFL. On his first year on the job, he went 7-9 and that was as good as it ever got for him. All told, Rogers went 18-40 with the Lions. He never coached in the NFL again.

He hilariously said on the record once, ”What does a coach have to do around here to get fired?” For him it was starting the 1988 season 2-9. Wayne Fontes finished the season.

Wayne Fontes (1988-96)

Fontes started it all off by taking over the Lions in 1988. But we’ll count his first year as the 1989 season when he led the Lions to a 7-9 record. From there, Fontes would coach the team until 1996, making him the longest-tenured head coach in Lions history. He tallied up 133 wins, a franchise record that stands today. Fontes is also the only coach in Lions history to win a playoff game during the Super Bowl era.

Fontes was fired after the 1996 season, opening the flood gates for the hell we’re all living in now.

Bobby Ross (1997-2000)

Ross was able to have some success right away with the Lions. The Lions went 9-7 and made the playoff in his first year on the job. Then it all went to hell. Barry Sanders would retire after the 1998 season, and rumors have it Ross was one of the reasons Sanders decided to retire.

Outside of that, Ross wasn’t all that bad during his tenure. He coached the Lions to a winning record three out of the four seasons he was with the team. Ultimately, it would all end when the Lions fired him during the 2000 season and let Gary Moeller coach the rest of the year.

Marty Mornhinweg (2001-02)

It’s time to take the wind, everybody. This is as bad as it gets. Lions fans know this already. Mornhinweg has the team’s worst win percentage of any coach in franchise history. The Lions went 2-14 in his first year on the job and then improved to a nice 3-13 in his second season. Despite trending upwards, Mornhinweg was fired after the 2002 season.

The man has coached football in some capacity since 1985. He’s still working in football with the Eagles. He’s got a Super Bowl ring and an Arena Bowl ring. But he’ll always be known for this moment.

Steve Mariucci (2003-05)

Who’s to blame here? Mooch? Or the situation Mooch was thrusted into? Of all the coaches the Lions had during the Matt Millen era, it’s hard to not to think that Mariucci was most hamstrung by Millen’s world-class terrible drafting.

Mariucci went 5-11 with rookie quarterback Joey Harrington in his first season and 6-10 in his second season. He was then fired midway through his third season. Leaving Dick Jauron to take over.

Rod Marinelli (2006-08)

Millen took a big swing here when he gave the head coaching job to a guy who had only ever been a defensive line coach and just about every job he ever had in football. The gamble did not pay off. Marinelli went 3-13 in first season.

That 2007 season, though. Man was it fun when the Lions started the season with a 6-2 record. I distinctly remember ESPN calling the Lions “the red-hot Lions.” Those were fun days. Marinelli went 1-23 after that, including the infamous 0-16 season that I know everyone loves to talk about.

After that, Marinelli was fired along with just about everyone else in the organization.

Jim Schwartz (2009-13)

Welcome to the new era. Schwartz came in and things gradually began to change. The Lions drafted Matthew Stafford and then won for the first time in 19 games. The Lions went 2-14, but you could tell there was improvement on the horizon.

Schwartz got the Lions back into the playoffs for the first time in over 10 years in 2011. For a minute there it really did look like Schwartz was going to be the guy. Unfortunately he wasn’t and the Lions fired him two years later.

Looking back on it, you have to give Schwartz credit. He took a team that nobody wanted to coach and turned them into a playoff team in short order. But he just wasn’t fit to coach the team for the long term.

Jim Caldwell (2014-17)

Caldwell has the distinction of having the best win percentage in Lions history during the Super Bowl era. A lot of that comes from the team’s 11-5 record in 2014. That team had one of the best defenses in franchise history. Caldwell also became the guy that Matthew Stafford needed to settle him down. He quarterback whispered him into being one of the better quarterbacks in the league.

Caldwell coached the Lions to two more winning seasons before being fired after the 2017 season so new GM Bob Quinn could hire Matt Patricia. It still feels like a big mistake. Many Lions fans will say that things weren’t good under Caldwell, but his win percentage would suggest otherwise. Firing Caldwell was a mistake.

Matt Patricia (2018-20)

Lions fans were pumped to get Matt Patricia. Everything about the hire felt right. This was going to be the guy. After a summer of hype, everything peaked during the very first play from scrimmage when the Lions started the 2018 season with Quandre Diggs taking an interception to the house on the first play of the season. Everyone’s dreams were coming true. That dream quickly turned into a nightmare when the Lions allowed a lowly Jets team to drop 48 points on them in an embarrassing Week 1 loss. From there it never got better.

Yeah, the Lions beat the Patriots a few weeks later. That was cool, but it’s completely forgettable when you look at the rest of the Lions 6-10 season. Then the team went 3-12-1 in Patricia’s second year and as we all know, the wheels completely fell off in Patricia’s third season. He didn’t even make it through the whole year.

It’s probably hyperbole, but Patricia may be the worst coach in Lions history.

So that’s it. That’s every Lions coach in history. We’ll see where Dan Campbell will fit into this history.

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