Sports

The Detroit Lions' glory days

In a scene that became familiar to Lions fans, Joe Schmidt stops 49ers fullback John Henry Johnson at the goal line in 1956.Johnson later played fullback for the Lions.

The 1950s were the “Golden Age” for the Detroit Lions. They dominated the National Football League with three NFL titles, a Western Conference crown, and two close runner-up finishes . Stars of those glittering teams included future Pro Football Hall of Famers quarterback Bobby Layne, running back Doak Walker, safety Jack Christian, tackle-guard Lou Creekmur and middle linebacker Joe Schmidt.

Joe Schmidt came to Detroit before the 1953 season as a modest number-seven draft choice out of the University of Pittsburgh. He felt unwanted as a rookie. “I was about ready to quit football,” says Schmidt reflecting on his early days as a pro. “I had hoped to be drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers since the Lions had so many big stars I never thought I could make the team.”

 Schmidt, No. 56, with teammates, back row, Brian Vidosh and Milt Wolff, and, front from left, Jim Martin, Schmidt, Charlie Ane and Lou Creekmur

Schmidt, No. 56, with teammates, back row, Brian Vidosh and Milt Wolff, and, front from left, Jim Martin, Schmidt, Charlie Ane and Lou Creekmur.


He made it and made it big. Becoming one of the greatest middle linebackers ever to play pro football. He appeared in the Pro Bowl 10 times in 13 seasons with the Lions and was All-Pro eight times. His teammates voted him Lions Most Valuable Player four times and he was captain of the team nine straight years.

He spent 20 years with the Lions, the last six years as head coach.

Buddy Parker, Schmidt’s first pro coach, said “He was a bargain. We only had to pay him $7, 500 that first year.”

Detroit won two world championships while Schmidt was playing, in 1953 and 1957. One of the most memorable games came in the Championship year of ’57, when the Lions beat San Francisco 31-27, in a playoff to reach the championship game against Cleveland.

The 1950s were the “Golden Age” for the Detroit Lions. They dominated the National Football League with three NFL titles, a Western Conference crown, and two close runner-up finishes. Stars of those glittering teams included future Pro Football Hall of Famers quarterback Bobby Layne, running back Doak Walker, safety Jack Christian, tackle-guard Lou Creekmur and middle linebacker Joe Schmidt.

Joe Schmidt came to Detroit before the 1953 season as a modest number-seven draft choice out of the University of Pittsburgh. He felt unwanted as a rookie. “I was about ready to quit football,” says Schmidt reflecting on his early days as a pro. “I had hoped to be drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers since the Lions had so many big stars I never thought I could make the team.”

The Lions fell behind 24-7 in the game and San Francisco quarterback Y.A. Tittle was shredding the Lions defense with his passes. Detroit blitzed Tittle in the second half and Schmidt led the rush that stopped him cold and let Detroit rally. The Lions went on to beat Cleveland for the title.

After this and hundreds of other sparkling performances the quiet but terrifying linebacker became a hero to Detroit fans.

Schmidt in his rookie year.

Schmidt in his rookie year.


Schmidt played with the likes of Bobby Layne, Alex Karras, Wayne Walker and Dick LeBeau. They were the Lions and he was toughest of the bunch.

Linebacker was sort of an undefined position before Schmidt took it over and made it his own. He pretty much invented the position of middle linebacker in 1955, his third season with the Lions. It was an invention born of necessity.

Most clubs in the early 50s employed a 5-2 alignment which featured a burly player in the middle, a line clogger. Then some teams began dropping off their defensive ends and moving the middle guard back a step or two. “Offenses started going into more spreads and using slot backs and so the middle of the defense was left open to passing, “explained Schmidt. “The middle guard was dropped off and the middle linebacker took his place.”

Detroit was one of the first teams to go all the way with it.

“They used a five-man line on defense then,” Schmidt said. “Les Bingaman was middle guard, I played the left corner. We had nobody in the middle. When pro teams started opening up their offenses, I moved to the middle.”

Schmidt’s performance as middle linebacker caused coaches all over the league to change their thinking about defenses.

“He was the best at his position,” Parker said. “He had an instinct for defense that few players ever acquire. He wasn’t big, as defensive players go, but he was one of the surest and hardest tacklers you’ll ever see.”

Schmidt brought to the position his “clean but mean” tackling style, which helped to glamorize defenses.

Aldo Forte, Detroit line coach under Buddy Parker, described Schmidt as “something new and different” in pro football. “There’s never been anyone quite like him. He was the first of the great middle linebackers.”

Coaches throughout the league had nothing but praise for Schmidt and his exciting play.

 Schmidt was known and respected throughout the league as a clean but fearsome tackler.

Schmidt was known and respected throughout the league as a clean but fearsome tackler.


“He’s a cat, and not the purring kind!” said Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi. “He’s one of the top linebackers. A great diagnostician, a great tackler and strong defensive leader.”

Minnesota Viking coach Norm Van Brocklin, said, “I’d select Schmidt as the No. 1 man to form the core of my team. He knows enemy plays, calling habits, the time, field position and personnel.”

Regarded as Mr. Linebacker around the league, Schmidt personified the new era of pro football where defense has become dominant. Fans watch tackling as much as running and passing.

The responsibilities of a middle linebacker are awesome. He must have total recall of five basic defensive formations with possibly 50 variations, and he must keep track of dozens of related items for each snap of the ball.

Then-Lions assistant coach Don Schula kept charts that prove Schmidt was guilty of only seven mistakes in judgment or execution out of a possible 890 plays by the opposition during the 1961 season.

For his efforts Schmidt became the first Lion player or coach to receive a three-year contract (1958-1960). In 1960 after he dislocated his right shoulder he was denied another three-year contract because the Lions felt he wouldn’t be around that long.

Shoulder injuries in 1962 and 1964 hastened the end of his playing career. He continued to play through the 1965 season, then, still only 33, finished out the last year of his contract as a linebacker coach under head coach Harry Gilmer. The Lions retired his famed No. 56.

Schmidt became the only head coach of eight hired by owner William Clay Ford who would leave with a winning record. He took the head coach job two years after retiring as a player and with only one year as an assistant coach under Gilmer.

Schmidt coached with the same intensity that he played.


It was that hectic year under Gilmer that provided Schmidt with his favorite football story. That was the season when Joe Don Looney refused to carry one of Gilmer’s plays into the huddle, then vanished at half-time. “If he wanted a messenger he should have called Western Union,” Looney said.

In training camp that year, Looney skipped a practice session. Schmidt found Looney in a dorm room at the camp at Cranbrook School.

“You ought to come to practice,” Schmidt said. “You’re part of the team. You’ll get fined.”

“Joe, how long you’ve been doing this?” Looney said. “Going to practice every day?”

“Fourteen years,” Schmidt replied.

“Joe,” Looney said, “you ought to take a day off once in awhile.”

At the season’s end, Gilmer was booed off the field and Ford fired him. Schmidt was hired a few weeks later.

His camaraderie with the players made him a good choice as a ringmaster.

“I didn’t have experience,” Schmidt recalled. “I didn’t know the workings of the organization. I was kind of naive coming from playing ranks to coach.”

The first two seasons were difficult – each ended with losing records. But the team was developing with players like Mel Farr, Lem Barney, Charlie Sanders, Greg Landry, Mike Lucci. And Schmidt was developing as a coach. The club went 9-4-1 in 1969 and 10-4 in 1970, when they made the playoffs as a wild card.

Schmidt had two more winning seasons but missed the playoffs.

On the Friday before the 1973 Super Bowl, Schmidt told Ford “the game no longer is fun” and that he was quitting as coach. “I don’t enjoy coaching anymore,” he said. “It’s gotten to be more of a burden that a fun-loving game.”

He left the Lions with a 43-35-7 record — a .547 percentage that has been unmatched by his successors from Don McCafferty through Wayne Fontes. The following day he was voted into the NFL Hall of Fame.


Schmidt, right, announces at a press conference Jan. 12, 1973, that the game was no longer fun and that he was resigning as coach. Lions owner William Clay Ford is at left. Schmidt remains the only coach hired by Ford who left with a winning record.


(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News. To view images available for sale from our collection please visit our Photostore of historic galleries. )

By Mary Bailey / The Detroit News