Since the hiring of Steve Mariucci became official last week, many experts and fans alike have touted this as the greatest coaching hire in team history. While I hope that this will eventually be the case, to say Mariucci is the greatest Lion coaching hire of all time is incorrect. Not only is it incorrect, it does a great injustice to the indisputable champion of all Lion head coaches. That man's name was Raymond K. "Buddy" Parker.
Mariucci's rise through the NFL coaching ranks, though, has many similarities to the path that Parker took over 50 years ago. Lions' fans everywhere should be hoping that Mariucci can achieve the same level of success that Parker did during the greatest era in Lion's history.
Like Mariucci, who was a three time All-American quarterback at Northern Michigan in the 1970s, Parker also achieved success as a player. Parker was a member of the Detroit Lions 1935 NFL championship squad, scoring a touchdown in the 26-7 championship win over the New York Giants. Like Mariucci, Parker also achieved championship success as an assistant coach. Parker served from 1946-48 as a chief assistant with the Chicago Cardinals under future NFL Hall of Fame coach Jimmy Conzelman. Parker helped Conzelman lead the Cardinals to two consecutive NFL championship games, winning the first. To this day, those are the last appearances the Cardinals have made in the championship game. When Conzelman retired after the 1948 season, Buddy was named, of all things, a co-head coach with Phil Handler for the 1949 season. That arrangement lasted for six games, as Parker took over the post himself after the Cardinals got off to a 2-4 start. Under sole command of Buddy, the Cards went 4-1-1 down the stretch to finish 6-5-1.
Then, just as Steve Mariucci with the 49ers, Buddy Parker had a falling out with his bosses in Chicago. When Parker pressed the Bidwell family on who the permanent coach for the Cardinals would be, the Bidwell's wavered. As a result, Buddy angrily resigned and went looking for another job. It would not be the last time Parker would quit a job in an impulsive, angry fashion.
Parker ended up in all of places, Detroit. He served as the Lions' backfield coach during the 1950 season under Bo McMillian. When McMillian was relieved of his duties at the end of the '50 campaign, Parker was elevated to the top post. Buddy Parker was hired by the Detroit Lions as head coach on December 20, 1950, and he immediately went to work. In his first year, he led the Lions to a 7-4-1 mark in the NFL's National Conference. It was the Lions' first winning record in 6 years. Over the next five years, it would only get better for Lions' faithful.
Like Mariucci, Parker was looked upon as a players coach with a tremendous football mind. Parker was as good as any coach in history when it came to dissecting an opponents strengths and weaknesses. In addition, as a halftime adjuster, Parker was without equal. Buddy learned from Jimmy Conzelmen not only the Xs and Os, he learned the importance of developing a give and take relationship with his players. "He treated us like men. . . . There was no B.S. with Buddy," said Lou Creekmur, the Hall of Fame Lion tackle, who played for Buddy during those championship years.
Parker's Lions went to three straight NFL title games from 1952-54, and finished lower than second in their division only once. They won back-to-back titles over the Cleveland Browns in '52 and '53, and lost to the Browns in the re-rematch for the '54 crown. After the Lions fell to the cellar at 3-9 in 1955, they rebounded with another strong season in 1956 with a 9-3 mark. However, it was not quite good enough. They finished 1/2 game out of first again, this time to George Halas and his Chicago Bears. However, even with all of Parker's success in the Motor City, he remained as impulsive and shorted fused as the day he arrived. Just before the start of the 1957 season, Parker resigned during the annual preseason "Meet the Lions" banquet saying, "I've been in football a long time. I don't want to get in the middle of another losing season. . . . I've got a situation here I can't handle anymore. . . . I'm getting out." Ironically, that "dead" team went on to win the championship that very year, 59-14, with longtime Parker assistant George Wilson at the helm. Once again, the Cleveland Browns were their championship victims.
Parker went on to coach the Pittsburgh Steelers. While he had many competitive teams with the Steelers, he was never again able to reach the heights he did in Detroit. He remained with the Steelers until he left coaching for good in another impulsive preseason tirade in 1964. His final record as an NFL coach was 104-75-9. He was named one of the NFL's 30 greatest coaches by the editors of "Total Football" in 1999.
Buddy Parker's six years in Detroit gave the Lions a combined 50-24-2 record, for a winning percentage of .657. No Lion coach has surpassed Parker's record before or since. Most importantly, Lion fans are still waiting for that next Buddy Parker to take them to the promised land. Is Steve Mariucci going to be that man? Keep your fingers crossed Lion fans, only time will tell.