(Photo courtesy of Bowman via Wikimedia Commons)
By Clark Judge
Talk of Fame Network
It’s been years … no, decades … since the Detroit Lions were a dominant team, but in 1953 they were more than simply dominant. They were back-to-back league champions, beating Cleveland 17-16 on a 33-yard touchdown pass from Bobby Layne to Jim Doran in the closing minutes.
Dating back to 1933, it marked only the third time in NFL history that a team won consecutive championships. And it was under the guidance of a head coach who would take Detroit to a third straight NFL title game one year later.
Buddy Parker, come on down.
Parker and his team were so accomplished that not only were they 2-1 in three straight title runs; they won nine or more starts in four of Parker’s last five seasons in Detroit. OK, so that sounds modest except … well, except they played 12-game seasons.
In five of his six seasons with the Lions, Parker finished no worse than second in the NFL’s Western Conference, a six-team division that included Los Angeles and Chicago. Better yet, under his direction Detroit was 47-23-2, winning three conference titles and two consecutive league championships.
No, that doesn’t put him in the Hall of Fame, but it should put him in the conversation. I mean, we’re always talking about head coaches who won two or more Super Bowls, right? Jimmy Johnson did it, and he was a Hall-of-Fame finalist. Buddy Parker won two championships, went to three straight title games and gained – what? – from the Hall of Fame.
Nothing, that’s what. He hasn’t been discussed.
Don Coryell has. He’s a three-time finalist and cracked the top 10 this year, which is significant, and hallelujah. I’m on board with that. Coryell was one of the most innovative coaches of his era and had an enormous impact on offenses and the defenses that had to stop them.
But Buddy Parker was an innovator, too, as well as a tactician, teaming up with Layne to popularize what would later be known as the two-minute offense. No, it wasn’t Air Coryell, but it was good enough to put Dick Stanfel, Lou Creekmur, Doak Walker and Layne into the Hall, and there’s a reason.
He knew how to adjust to his personnel. He knew how to use the power running game of fullback Pat Harder to offset the outside speed of running backs Bob Hoernschemeyer and Gene Gedman and the talents of Walker. And he knew how to take advantage of Layne’s considerable abilities, keeping defenses honest with play-action football.
Those Lions were good. No, they were damned good – so accomplished that seven players, including linebacker Joe Schmidt and defensive backs Jack Christiansen and Yale Lary, are in Canton. But there’s no Buddy Parker, and I’m not sure why.
Maybe it had to do with his career record of 107-76-9 (including the playoffs), a .577 winning percentage that puts him 19th on the all-time list of coaches with 100 or more victories. Maybe it was because he never reached the playoffs in eight later years in Pittsburgh, only three times finishing above .500. Or maybe it was because of a fiery temperament that had him abruptly quit the Lions prior to the 1957 season, saying, “I can’t handle this team anymore. It’s the worst team I’ve ever seen in training camp.”
One problem: Those Lions went on to win the NFL championship that season behind a backup quarterback Parker acquired shortly before exiting, Tobin Rote.
All I know is that Buddy Parker assembled and coached one of the premier NFL teams of the 1950s and produced a winning percentage better than Hall-of-Famers Bill Parcells, Weeb Ewbank, Hank Stram, Sid Gillman and Marv Levy and better than Hall-of-Fame finalist Coryell.
Yes, Coryell deserves to be discussed, and, thankfully, he has been. But Buddy Parker deserves to be discussed, too. He made us care about the Detroit Lions, and he made opponents fear them … and when’s the last time we can say that?