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The Detroit Lions, Inc. operates the Motor City's representative in the National Football League. In almost 70 years of play, the team has won four league championships and reached the post-season playoffs ten other times. A dozen Lions' stars have been inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame, including Dutch Clark, Bobby Layne, Doak Walker, and Lem Barney, and recent stars such as Barry Sanders are in line to join them. The team is owned by William Clay Ford, former vice-chairman of the Ford Motor Company.
The Detroit Lions football team traces its origins to 1930, when the Portsmouth, Ohio, Spartans came into being as a member of the ten-year-old National Football League. The Spartans played well but the organization struggled financially, being based in an area that had been hit hard by the Great Depression. In 1934, the Spartans were sold to a group of Detroiters headed by George A. Richards, owner of a string of radio stations that included Detroit's powerful WJR. They paid $7,952.08 to cover the team's debts as well as a $15,000 NFL franchise fee. Investors numbered more than two dozen and included several prominent auto industry and department store executives.
After the sale, the team was moved north to Detroit, and Richards and company changed its name to the Lions, inspired by the moniker of the city's popular baseball team, the Tigers. For uniform colors they chose blue and silver and had the refurbished bus which was purchased for the team repainted to match. On the field, the Lions kept three-year Spartans coach Potsy Clark and many of his players, including quarterback Dutch Clark (no relation), a future Hall of Famer. For mascots, the Detroit zoo provided the team with two lion cubs, appropriately named "Grid" and "Iron," which traveled with the players to games.
The Lions were not the first professional football team in Detroit, nor its first NFL-affiliated one. Earlier, there had been the Heralds of 1920, charter members of the NFL's predecessor organization; the Panthers of 1925-26; and the Wolverines of 1928. These teams had failed to find an audience, however, and each had subsequently folded. In 1934, the Lions were given a much warmer reception, and during the team's first season crowds averaging 11,000 per game came out to see them play at University of Detroit Stadium, which was rented for $400 a week. Ticket prices ranged from 40 cents to $2. A Detroit tradition was established the first season when a game played on Thanksgiving day drew a standing-room only crowd of 26,000. The team posted an impressive record of ten wins and three losses for the year, but despite this success the organization recorded a net loss of more than $28,000 on receipts of $115,000.
The Lions went all the way to the top in their second season to win the NFL championship, bringing Detroit a rare pro sports "triple crown" in conjunction with the World Series win of the Tigers and the Stanley Cup victory of hockey's Red Wings. Average home game attendance for 1935 topped 13,000. At the end of 1936, coach Potsy Clark, whose relationship with owner George Richards was strained, left to be replaced by Dutch Clark. The latter exited just two years later when he, too, found the autocratic Richards difficult to deal with.
Playing at Briggs Stadium Starting in 1938
Attendance continued to grow during the mid-1930s, and by 1937 the Lions were attracting 19,000 fans to an average game. A deal was struck the following year for the team to move into the Tigers' home of Briggs Stadium, which could seat 55,000 patrons and which was available during the fall football season.
In 1940, after a recruitment scandal in which the Lions were fined $5,000 for tampering with the college draft, George Richards sold the franchise to Chicago department store executive Fred Mandel for $225,000. The war years saw the team hobbled by the military draft, with a number of players including star running back Byron "Whizzer" White joining the service for the duration. The year 1942 was a particular disaster as the Lions posted a 0-11 record and scored only 38 points during the entire season. After several coaching changes, the team settled in 1943 on Gus Dorais, who had formerly helmed the University of Detroit team. By 1945, the Lions had returned to form and took second place in the NFL Western division with a 7-3 record. The team also resumed the practice of playing a game on Thanksgiving day, which had been suspended during the war-clouded years of 1939-44.
After the war, the Lions faced the disappointing news that several star players were not coming back, including Whizzer White, who quit football to finish work on his Yale law degree (he would later serve on the U.S. Supreme Court), and Harry "Hippity" Hopp, who signed to play with a team in Buffalo, New York. The Lions' record for 1946 plunged to 1-10, and then improved slightly in 1947 to 3-9. In 1948, after first attempting to dismiss Dorais without giving him his full severance pay, Mandel paid him $100,000 to exit. A week later, he sold the team for $165,000 to a group of Detroit area businessmen led by D. Lyle Fife, head of an electrical products firm, and Edwin J. Anderson, president of Goebel Brewing Co. A new head coach, Bo McMillin, was named, and Anderson was appointed vice-president, then president a year later. The year 1948 also saw the Lions break the color barrier with the signing of the team's first African-American players, receiver Bob Mann and back Mel Groomes. Other stars of the 1940s included two future Hall of Famers--linebacker Alex Wojciechowicz and halfback Bill Dudley.
Dominating the NFL in the 1950s
In 1950, Lions management replaced head coach McMillin with his assistant, Buddy Parker. With Parker in charge, and with the help of recently acquired players like quarterback Bobby Layne, lineman Lou Creekmur, and halfback/kicker Doak Walker (all future Hall of Famers), the team won back-to-back league championships in 1952 and 1953 and then won again in 1957, each time defeating the Cleveland Browns for top honors. The 1957 championship, a lopsided 59-14 victory, was won under coach George Wilson, who had succeeded Parker just before the season began. Other stars of this era included defensive lineman Les Bingaman, receiver Cloyce Box, halfback Bob Hoernschemeyer, and future Hall of Fame linebacker Joe Schmidt. By now attendance figures were at an all-time high, with season ticket sales topping 40,000. The franchise had finally become profitable, having gone into the black for the first time in 1951.
In 1961, a fight for control of the Lions erupted between Fife and Anderson, which resulted in the latter relinquishing the job of president to director William Clay Ford, though he stayed on as general manager. More trouble came in 1963 when the Lions organization and six players were reprimanded by football commissioner Pete Rozelle for gambling on NFL games; the team was fined $4,000 and five of the players $2,000 each. A sixth player, star lineman Alex Karras, was suspended for a year.
On January 10, 1964, William Clay Ford became the Lions' sole owner when he purchased all outstanding shares of the team's stock for $4.5 million. Ford, the son of Ford Motor Company head Edsel Ford and chairman of the automaker's design committee, took the titles of president and chairman. The following year he appointed Harry Gilmer to replace George Wilson as head coach. Gilmer's tenure was brief, however, and recently retired star Joe Schmidt was named to the post in 1967, the same year that Edwin Anderson was replaced by Russ Thomas as general manager. That year also saw the NFL and rival organization the American Football League (AFL) agree to play a new championship game, the Super Bowl. The two leagues later joined forces in a reconfigured NFL, with the AFL becoming known as the American Football Conference (AFC) and the NFL the National Football Conference (NFC). Detroit would henceforth be a member of the Central Division of the NFC.
In 1970, the Lions returned to the playoffs for the first time since 1957, though they lost in the opening round to Dallas. Two years later, coach Schmidt resigned and was replaced by Don McCafferty. After McCafferty died of a heart attack during the summer of 1974, the job went to Rick Forzano. Stars of this era included cornerback Lem Barney (later inducted into the Hall of Fame), quarterback Greg Landry, and running back Mel Farr.
Move to Pontiac Silverdome in 1975
As far back as the 1950s, the Lions had begun seeking a larger stadium to accommodate their growing legion of fans, and the effort continued throughout the 1960s. After plans for several Detroit locations fell through, a deal was reached with the city of Pontiac to build a $55.7 million domed stadium there. In August 1975, the Lions' new home, a half-hour north of Detroit, was dedicated. The 80,000 seat Pontiac Silverdome was the largest stadium in the world with an inflatable domed fiberglass roof. The venue also featured more than 100 VIP suites and other modern amenities.
Seeking to improve the team's performance, in 1978 the Lions named yet another new head coach, Monte Clark. Bouncing back from an embarrassing 2-14 record in 1979, Clark led the team to the playoffs in the strike-shortened year of 1982 and again in 1983, though the Lions failed to make the Super Bowl each time. The front office let Clark and his entire coaching staff go at the end of the 1984 season, replacing them with a group headed by Darryl Rogers. In November 1988, Rogers too was fired and replaced by defensive coordinator Wayne Fontes.
Under Fontes, the Lions had their best season in franchise history, winning 12 of 16 games in 1991. The team's efforts to "restore the roar" had been spurred on by a tragedy in November when guard Mike Utley suffered a neck injury and was paralyzed from the chest down during a game with Los Angeles. The Lions won their first post-season contest but were denied entry into the Super Bowl with a loss in the second. The year 1991 also saw the team establish Detroit Lions Charities, a non-profit organization which donated funds for a variety of civic and educational purposes in Michigan.
After a 5-11 year in 1992, the Lions made it to the playoffs in 1993, 1994, and 1995, helped by the stellar play of running back Barry Sanders. Each time, however, they were frustrated in their goal of reaching the Super Bowl. At the end of a disappointing 1996 season, Fontes was dismissed and replaced by Bobby Ross. Under Ross, the Lions again made the playoffs in 1997 and 1999, though they lost in the first round each time. The team's success in the latter year had come despite the absence of Sanders, who retired just before the season began. Ross himself was sacked part way through the 2000 season, and interim coach Gary Moeller finished out the year.
Construction of Ford Field in the Late 1990s
During the latter half of the 1990s, the organization had once again begun thinking about finding a new stadium. The Silverdome was losing its luster, and the ravaged city of Detroit was now beginning to rebound, with new economic development taking place in its partially abandoned downtown area. With the Tigers already planning to build an elaborate new stadium there, a deal was worked out to fund construction of one for the Lions. The projected cost of $315 million would be paid with city and county contributions of $115 million, a $100 million interest-free loan from the NFL, $40 million from the Ford Motor Co. for naming rights, $10 million from other corporations, and $50 million from the Ford family. By this time William Clay Ford, Jr., the owner's son, had joined the organization and was serving as its vice-chairman.
Once the funding was set, construction of the enclosed 65,000 seat Ford Field began in November of 1999. The stadium, which featured 140 luxury boxes, incorporated part of the historic Hudson Co. warehouse into its design, and stores, restaurants, offices, and locker rooms would be located there. Season tickets for eight games in the new field cost between $300 and $650. The move did not sit well with the city of Pontiac, however, which asserted that the Lions should not only pay for breaking their lease on the Silverdome, good through 2005, but also for loss of income and prestige to Pontiac and its business community. Construction bonds amounting to $14 million had yet to be paid off as well. After a lawsuit was filed, in 2001 the Lions agreed to settle the claims for $26 million.
Meanwhile, determined to bring home another long sought-after championship, in January of 2001 Ford named former player and sportscaster Matt Millen to the newly created posts of president and CEO. He replaced executive vice-president and chief operating officer Chuck Schmidt, who had headed the organization since Russ Thomas's retirement in 1989. Two weeks after taking charge, Millen chose San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg for the job of head coach. Despite the renewed focus on fielding a winning team, the 2001 season proved to be one of the Lions' worst ever. After losing their first 12 games, the team finished 2-14 for the year.
Hoping that the new stadium would inspire a return to form, in 2002 the Lions began playing at Ford Field, whose cost had ultimately mushroomed to $500 million. The team had also recently begun using a new $20 million headquarters and training facility in suburban Allen Park. The Lions, now members of the newly-created North division of the NFL, unfortunately showed scant improvement for the year, posting just three wins against 13 losses. In January 2003, Mornhinweg was dismissed and replaced by former boss Steve Mariucci, who had himself just been fired as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Former Michigander Mariucci had a strong track record, and once again the Lions and their fans expressed hope that the team's fortunes would turn around under a new leader.
After nearly three-quarters of a century operating as a professional football team, the Detroit Lions were struggling with several years of disappointing results and fan apathy. The move to new Ford Field in downtown Detroit had improved morale, but the team's unimpressive performance on the field remained the cause of much hand-wringing both in and out of the organization. Professional sports is a cyclical business, however, and with time the Lions' fortunes were sure to improve, just as the city of Detroit itself was rebounding from decades of decay.
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