When he was on a football field, Buddy Parker was never scared of anything – with the possible exception of a black cat or the number 13.
Parker played several seasons in the National Football League, winning a title as a player, assistant coach, and two as head coach of the Detroit Lions in the 1950s, when he also devised one of the most exciting offensive strategies in football history.
In 1935, Parker was a fullback on the Lions when they won their first NFL title. He played one more season for the Lions before being traded to the Chicago Cardinals, where he was used more often and tasted the end zone a few times. As a runner, Parker was a ball of muscle – 6 foot and 195 pounds of rock solid flesh. As much as he tried to avoid being tackled, he tried to inflict a hit on the defensive player first. After his playing time diminished with the Cardinals, Parker transitioned into coaching duties, finding a role that was made for his personality.
Parker was a hard-nosed guy who loved to be around football and football players. He instinctively knew how to motivate players, whether they were stars or third-stringers. Later, his relationship with Detroit star quarterback Bobby Layne would be rocky but fruitful. “He’s a one-man team who goes against all the rules,” Parker said of his QB, “but by golly, it works.”
It was with Layne that Parker flashed his football genius. Recognizing Layne’s ability to throw the football and read defenses, Parker instituted the “two-minute offense” and utilized frequently as head coach of the Lions in the 1950s. Though Detroit did not play without huddle, Layne would rush his team to the line and quickly audible or run the set play, allowing the defense little time to react. The Lions won NFL titles in 1952 and 1953 under Parker. Over a three-year period of dominance from 1952-1954, the Lions won 28 of 36 games, reaching the championship game each season.
Parker was notoriously superstitious during his playing and coaching career. Whether it was rabbit’s feet, horseshoes, or black cats, Parker was wary of it. In 1949 when he was co-coach of the Cardinals, Parker ordered a trainer to retrieve scraps of paper that were blowing on the field and the sidelines during a practice, believing it to be bad luck. In his years at the helm of the Lions, Parker never allowed a player to wear #13.
He was only 43 years old and had just acquired Tobin Rote, a star back, when Buddy abruptly quit the Lions prior to the 1957 season. The team was on a press junket when Parker dropped the bombshell. George Wilson took over, but it was really Parker’s team who went on to a 8-4 record and another NFL title. Rote played a significant role, replacing the injured Layne in mid-season. Newspapers reported that Parker quit because he “couldn’t handle the players anymore”, but the real reason was more practical. Parker had been trying – and failing – for years to eke out a multi-year contract in Detroit without success. Despite his glory on the football field, the Lions had only given Parker a series of one-year contracts. Not soon after leaving the Lions, Parker signed a rich, five-year deal to be head coach of the Steelers.
The following year, Parker angered Detroit faithful when he traded for Layne in his new capacity as coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Though Bobby and Buddy promised to bring a title to the Steel City, they were never able to deliver. Both ended their careers after several near-miss seasons with the Steelers.
Parker had a reputation as an offensive coach, leading some of the most exciting, high-scoring teams of the era, but he also had great defenses, finishing in the top three in fewest points allowed five times in his 15 years as a head coach in the NFL. He won more than 67% of his games in Detroit and posted a 104-75-9 mark overall (.581) in the NFL.
One of Detroit’s most storied coaches, Parker died at the age of 68 in 1982.