3. Joe Schmidt, LB, 1953-1965 (Head Coach – 1967-1972)
Joe Schmidt is the greatest defender to ever play for the Detroit Lions. His hard-nosed leadership abilities lead to two stints in Detroit. One as defensive captain, and later as head coach.
Schmidt grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the borough of Brentwood and attended the University of Pittsburgh, playing on the school’s football team for three years from 1950–1952.
Schmidt’s size (6 ft, 195 lbs) worked against him in the NFL draft, when the Lions waited until the seventh round to select him. It was not until his arrival at the 1953 College All-Star Game that the Lion coaches, who were opposing him in the contest, saw his talent on display.
Schmidt worked his way into the lineup, helping Detroit to its second straight NFL title as a rookie. By 1956, Schmidt was named a team captain, a designation he would hold for the next nine years, with his defensive skills resulting in his calling signals for the team. Schmidt was named the top defensive player in the NFL, when he made roughly half of the team’s tackles on the season. The award was the first of four times that he would receive the honor, with his outstanding play an important part of the Lions’ third title in six years.
However, Schmidt’s 1957 salary of $11,000 became a sticking point before the start of the next season, and after six months of military service during the off-season, Schmidt was a holdout as training camp began. He later signed and finished the year with six interceptions, while also establishing a new NFL record that year by recovering eight fumbles.
Schmidt’s physical toughness was put on greater display as injuries began to strike in 1960. He would go on to win the league MVP that year.
After a 1965 season in which he intercepted four passes, he announced his retirement on March 10, 1966, and was soon named as a Detroit assistant coach. After two years of continued conflict with players, Lions’ head coach Harry Gilmer was let go and Schmidt was hired to replace him for 1967.
Schmidt resigned on January 12, 1973, saying that, “coaching isn’t fun anymore.” His mood brightened somewhat three weeks later when he was elected to the Hall of Fame, but Schmidt never again coached and spent the next three decades as a manufacturer’s representative.
Joe Schmidt’s career mark as a coach was 43-35-7. With the exception of Gary Moeller (who coached just seven games, winning four), he is the most recent Lions coach with a winning record.
Schmidt’s personality was that of a perfectionist, perhaps one reason why his coaching was not as successful as his playing. He once stated,
“I expect everyone to be like me. I guess that’s a mistake.”
It’s hard to quantify how good Schmidt was with stats, since tackles, sacks and pass defenses were not recorded in his era.
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