With the Hall open to coaches, it's time to get on the Buddy Parker bandwagon
With last week’s change in its by-laws, the Pro Football Hall of Fame has made it easier than ever for coaches to be inducted. For the next four years, they have their own category, which means you’re going to hear a lot now about why Tom Flores and Don Coryell should be enshrined.
And you should. Both have been multiple finalists for Canton, with Coryell making the cut six times (including the Centennial Class) and once making it to the final 10, and Flores told he was “almost a shoo-in” for this year’s Centennial Class prior to the vote.
Except he wasn’t. Jimmy Johnson and Bill Cowher were.
So consider Coryell and Flores early favorites for 2021, the first of four years that coaches will be named. But there’s another individual who’s Hall-of-Fame worthy but who doesn’t have the momentum of Flores or Coryell.
And that’s Buddy Parker.
He coached the Detroit Lions and Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1950s and ‘60s, and there are two things you should know about him: 1) The last time the Lions were dominant -- yes, I said dominant -- he had them winning two consecutive league championships (1952-53), and 2) he got there by twice beating Hall-of-Famer Paul Brown, considered by some as the greatest coach in NFL history, in title games.
Parker reached the league championship game three straight times (1952-54), and that’s more than rare in the NFL; it’s unheard of in Detroit. In fact, the Lions won three NFL championships in seven years, the last in 1957 with the team Parker built. It was the last time the Lions were in a title game, and more on that in just a minute.
In five of Parker’s six seasons with Detroit, the Lions finished no worse than second in a six-team Western Conference that included the L.A. Rams and Chicago. Furthermore, he was 47-23-2 there, winning at least nine games in four of his six years there.
If that sounds modest, it wasn’t. The Lions played 12-game seasons.
All I know is that when Motown had its Mojo, it was when Buddy Parker was in town. And when he left? That happened prior to the 1957 season, when a frazzled Parker abruptly quit because, as he put it, “this is the worst team I’ve seen in training camp.”
Yet that team went on to win the NFL championship, mostly because of a backup quarterback Parker acquired prior to the season – Tobin Rote.
So he won two league championships and built a third winner, and tell me where you’ve heard that before. If you said, “Jimmy Johnson,” go to the head of the class. That put him in the Centennial Class. But Buddy Parker? He hadn’t even been a Hall-of-Fame finalist until the Centennial Class chose him, and I’ll be honest: I thought he was a cinch for one of the two spots reserved for coaches.
I was wrong.
However, with the Hall creating a separate coaches’ category for the next four years (2021-24), one candidate per year, you'd think he'd be a cinch for one of four spots. But I'm not so sure because you barely hear his name. Most of the push is for modern-era coaches like Flores, Coryell, Dick Vermeil, Dan Reeves and Mike Holmgren.
It seldom includes Parker.
And, OK, I get it. He last coached over 50 years ago. So there’s little familiarity. There’s also the knock on his record. After leaving Detroit he had only three winning seasons in eight years with Pittsburgh. Of course, he had only three losing seasons, too.
But let’s put that into context. Parker was 51-47-6 with the Steelers and never reached the playoffs. We know that. What you may not know, though, is that in the seven years before his arrival, Pittsburgh was 35-48-1 and never had a winning year. And in the seven years that followed Parker, the Steelers were 25-70-3 and never had a winning year.
Like Johnson, when Parker was in Detroit he assembled one of the NFL’s premier teams. His Detroit Lions were so talented that seven players who worked for Parker – including Bobby Layne and Joe Schmidt -- are in Canton.
Like Johnson and Flores, he won two league championships, too.
And, like Coryell, he was an innovator, teaming up with Layne to popularize the two-minute offense. Granted, it wasn’t Air Coryell, but it was good enough to put Layne, Dick Stanfel, Lou Creekmur and Doak Walker into the Hall.
It hasn’t, however, been enough to put Buddy Parker on the map.
“I can honestly say he was an innovator in secondary play in the 1950s, too, with his ‘Chris’s Crew’, “said historian John Turney of Pro Football Journal. “He and Weeb (Ewbank, Hall-of-Fame coach) are true innovators of the ‘halftime defense,’ now called the 3-3-5 nickel and the 4-2-5 nickel.
“Weeb may have gotten there first, but Parker used schemes of his own invention, with positions he called ‘star’ and ‘port’ – allowing Jack Christiansen to lead, which gave his team an advantage.”
Oh, by the way, Christiansen is in the Hall, too. So are safety Yale Lary and Schmidt.
One last item: I know Parker ranks a modest 42nd in career victories with 104, but that’s more than Flores (97), more than Johnson (80) and seven shy of Coryell. I also know that his .581 winning percentage ranks 22nd among coaches with 50 or more victories. But that’s higher than Coryell (.576), higher than Johnson (.556) and higher than Flores (.527).
What I don’t know is why he’s not already in Canton.
The Hall has an opportunity the next four years to open its doors to coaches like Tom Flores and Don Coryell. It would be wise not to close them before Buddy Parker is invited.