These are Detroit’s greatest coaches

Scotty Bowman’s arrival in Detroit in the early 1990s revived Hockeytown and led to three Stanley Cup titles.

It’s easy for Detroit sports fans to develop a complex when it comes to comparing themselves to other cities, like New York for example. But the fact is that Detroit has fielded some of the greatest players and teams in sports history. Even though we haven’t won as often as some other cities, we have had our share of greatness.

Hey, at least we’re not Cleveland, right?

In each of the four major sports, Detroit has seen great field generals: head coaches, managers, and so on. Yes, even for the Detroit Lions.

Below I select the five best coaches in Detroit sports history. My criteria is:

  • Success – how much did he win in Detroit and did he win championships?
  • Leadership – was he considered a strong leader and was he attributed with a large amount of the credit for his team’s success? Did he serve as a player/coach?
  • Longevity – how long did he hold his position in Detroit?
  • Integrity – what sort of man was he? Was he looked up to in his sport and in the city of Detroit?
  • Greatness – is he considered to be one of the best in his sport? Is he in the Hall of Fame?

Tell me what you think of my choices in the comments section below.

5. Buddy Parker (Lions 1950-1956) 

The first practitioner of what became known as the “two-minute offense”, Parker recognized early on the talents of young quarterback Bobby Layne, and built an offensive attack around him. In three straight season the Lions won conference titles under Parker, earning NFL Championships in 1952 and 1953. Previously, as a player, Parker was part of the 1935 NFL title team for the Lions. Parker worked under tough circumstances for as long as he could and as well as he could. He was given one-year contracts and had to deal with Layne, Doak Walker, Jack Christiensen, and other raucous players. He resigned suddenly prior to the ’57 season, but the team he built went on to win another tile that year.

4. Chuck Daly (Pistons 1983-1992)

When Daly arrived in Motown in 1983, the Pistons had never recorded back-to-back winning seasons in franchise history. Under his guidance, the team became a force to rival the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers for NBA dominance. Aided by the superb draft picks of GM Jack McCloskey, Daly arranged an ensemble cast from stars Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer, and Mark Aguirre, and formed a rotation that included Dennis Rodman, John Salley, James Edwards, Vinnie Johnson, and John Salley. The team won a franchise best 63 games in 1988-1989 when they roared to their first NBA title. They repeated in 1990, having become the first team other than the Celtics and Lakers to win consecutive titles. Daly was famous for his expensive suits, neatly-coiffed hair, and distinguished demeanor on the sidelines. He was so respected in the game that he was chosen to coach the Dream Team in the 1992 Olympics. He’s a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame and the only coach to capture both an NBA title and an Olympic Gold Medal.

3. Jack Adams (Red Wings 1927-1947)

If anyone established the Red Wings tradition it was Jack Adams. In more than two decades as head coach of the team, Adams won three Stanley Cup titles, in 1936, 1937, and 1943. In each of those seasons, Adams also served as general manager of the team. As GM and director of scouting, Adams used his eye for talent to fill the Detroit organization with talent in the 1940s and 1950s. Among the players he cultivated were Sid Abel, Gordie Howe, and Alex Delvecchio. He stepped down as coach in 1948 but remained as GM until 1963 when he was forced from the job after some controversial contract negotiations and questionable dealings. As GM he won four more Stanley Cup titles and his 36 years as GM are an NHL record. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1959 as a coach, and in 1974 the league unveiled the Jack Adams Trophy, which is presented annually to the NHL’s best coach.

2. Sparky Anderson (Tigers 1979-1995)

When Sparky came to Detroit in 1979 he quickly stated, “It’s my way or the highway.” Within a few short years he swept players away who didn’t fit into his mold and replaced them with mostly homegrown talent. In 1984 his Tigers won the World Series and he became the first manager in baseball history to win 100 games and to win a World Championship in both leagues. He twice won Manager of the Year honors as a Tiger (1984, 1987) and was respected as the elder statesman of skippers in baseball for much of his tenure in Detroit. In 1994 and 1995 he sealed his fate – but revealed his solid character – when he stood up to baseball owners and declared his opposition to the use of replacement players during the labor strife of that era. He was the 7th manager to win 2,000 games and retired as third all-time in victories. In his 17 seasons in Detroit he guided the team to a top three finish nine times and won at a .516 clip. His legacy in Detroit continues in the charity he started to help children afflicted by disease. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000.

1.  Scotty Bowman (Red Wings 1993-2002)

In nine seasons as the head coach of the Red Wings, Bowman led the team to the Stanley Cup finals four times, winning three times. He oversaw the revival of Hockeytown, leading the team to a NHL record 62 wins in 1995-1996, and topping 100 points six times. He was twice honored with the Jack Adams Trophy as the NHL’s best coach during his time in Detroit. In 2002 he skated on the ice after the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in his final game as head coach, bringing an end to his legendary career which included nine Stanley Cup titles with Montreal, Pittsburgh, and Detroit. He won nearly 60% of his games as head coach of the Wings, and was 86-48 in the Stanley Cup playoffs. After his coaching career with Detroit, Bowman stayed on in the front office, winning another Cup in that capacity.

Other notables who missed this list: Tommy Ivan, Joe Schmidt, Hughey Jennings, Mickey Cochrane, Jim Leyland, Mike Babcock.

5 replies on “These are Detroit’s greatest coaches

  • Chris

    I think you should consider what they did with the tools they had. Seems to me a great coach finds a way to win one game against the Devils

  • Gary Steinke

    Well Dan I went to Detroit Public School and even they taught me how to count up to 10. I only saw 5 coaches. Is 6-10 coming next week or soon after? I don’t know much about Buddy Parker or Jack Adams being as I wasn’t born until 1956, and haven’t read much about them. The other 3 on your list DO belong (I’m sure Parker & Adams belong too). I don’t think anyone can argue with you that Scotty Bowman was the greatest coach in Detroit sports, he’s probably the greatest hockey coach of all time. I can’t think of anyone whose better. Where do you think Mike Babcock will end up as a Wing coach? Third? Even though I was on the band wagon to say good-bye to Leyland, I’ve got to admit he’s a good manager. 3 playoffs in 7 years, and AL Champs twice isn’t bad at all. If he gets that World Series ring he could be right there with Sparky. If your list was Detroit AREA teams would Bo and Lloyd Carr have been on it? Is Wayne Fonte the best Lions coach since Parker? Another good one Dan, keep up the good work.

  • Tom

    Chuck Daly has to be ranked above Sparky. He accomplished more for his organization during his time in Detroit. The Pistons won more championships, went to more championships, went deeper in the playoffs on a consistent basis, and Daly revolutionized Defense in the NBA. Sparky was awesome, but not unless you include his Cincinnati years, his resume doesn’t compare to Daly’s when looking at their Detroit stints.

  • Dan Holmes

    Woops – made the change to the article, should be FIVE not 10.

    Tom – Daly was great, but remember it was harder to get to the playoffs in baseball when Sparky was manager. Only two teams in the league go in, you had to finish first. In the NBA, eight teams get in, so giving Daly credit for multiple playoff teams is a little but unfair.

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