In this last but most edition of 100 Days, 100 Detroit Lions, we pay tribute to the man known simply as Mr. Lion. This Hall of Fame player, captain and world champion, defined, revolutionized, and set the standard for the then-new position of middle linebacker during the 1950s.
You can read and share the entire list, 100 through Schmidt, HERE.
1. Joe Schmidt
Linebacker. 1953-65 Detroit
When it comes to Detroit linebackers, there is Joe Schmidt, and then there’s everyone else. During his thirteen-year career, the 6-foot, 222-pounder was named all-pro eight times, and was selected to play in nine consecutive Pro Bowls from 1954-62. He was also selected by his teammates as their MVP four times (1955, ‘57, ‘58, and ‘61). Schmidt arrived in Detroit as an unheralded, injury prone, seventh-round draft choice out of the University of Pittsburgh. Despite those odds, he was an opening day starter and by mid-season he was calling the team’s defensive signals from his left linebacker spot. By the end of his rookie year, Schmidt had become a defensive force. His forced fumble on Cleveland Browns’ quarterback Otto Graham during the opening quarter of the 1953 championship set up the Lions’ first touchdown, on their way to a 17-16 triumph, and back-to-back NFL titles.
NFL strategy on both sides of the ball underwent tremendous change during the 1950’s. As offenses began to put the ball in the air more than ever before, defenses began to move away from their traditional run-stopping, five-man defensive lines. The hulking middle guard, who normally lined up across from the offensive center, was replaced by a faster, more agile middle linebacker. The result was the 4-3 defense which still remains, fifty-years later, the most popular base defense in the National Football League. When the Lions’ all-pro middle guard Les Bingaman retired after the 1955 season, it was Schmidt who moved into the middle in the Lions’ new 4-3. In a sense, Joe had come home. He had played middle linebacker in a 5-3 alignment while in college at Pittsburgh, and it was from that position where Schmidt would stake his claim for NFL immortality. In the years before Dick Butkus, Joe Schmidt was the NFL middle linebacker against whom all others were judged.
“He was the best at his position,” Lion head coach Buddy Parker once said of his former star, “he had an instinct for defense that few players ever acquire.” Sports Illustrated’s Paul Zimmerman recently described Joe as “a precise tackler. . . . He wasn’t a big hitter. He wasn’t a guy who punished people, but he was a low tackler with terrific timing and coordination. . . . a great diagnostician who was very good at picking through the trash and getting to the point.”
When Schmidt ended his playing days due to chronic shoulder problems after the 1965 season, he moved into a new job as Detroit’s linebacker coach under Harry Gilmer. It was a short stay, because just one-year later, in January of 1966, Lion owner William Clay Ford promoted the Schmidt to the head coach’s position. Under Joe’s leadership, the Lions earned a record of 43-35-7 in six difficult, often memorable, sometimes turbulent seasons. A variety of non-coaching issues prompted Schmidt to resign from the job on January 12, 1973. He remains the only non-interim head coach ever hired by Lion owner William Clay Ford to leave with a winning record.