By Ron Pesch
A contract with the Detroit Lions would more than double his current salary at Indiana University, where he served as the school’s football coach and athletic director. He still had seven years left on a 10-year contract he had signed with the university, and while confident IU’s board of trustees wouldn’t stand in the way of his move, he was torn. His Hoosiers had compiled the school’s first-ever undefeated season in 1945, ranked fourth in the nation, and had won the Big Nine Conference (as it was known then) with a 9-0-1 record. The lone blemish was a 7-7 tie with Northwestern in week two of the season.
“Leaving college football after all these years pulls at my heartstrings,” McMillin told the Associated Press. “Most of my friends down through the years have been college men. I can tell you truthfully I have been sweating blood for ten days now, making my decision to accept this position with the Lions.”
A college football legend, McMillin had spent 26 seasons as a college football coach, first at Centenary College in Louisiana, then at Geneva College in Pennsylvania, then at Kansas State. Beginning in 1934, he moved to Indiana, where he’d remain for 14 years. He had been a three-time All-American quarterback for the ‘Praying Colonels’ of tiny Centre College of Danville, Kentucky.
In 1921 as a senior, the 5-foot-9, 175-pound triple-threat guided his team to the unthinkable – a stunning 6-0 victory over a Harvard squad – unbeaten in 25 games since 1918. The upset, played out before 43,000 fans at Harvard Stadium – was spurred by McMillian’s 37-yard TD scamper in the third quarter. Over 100 years later, it’s still considered one of the greatest in college football history.
Detroit was in rebuild mode in 1948, although it wasn’t called that back in those days. Following a disastrous 0-11 season in 1942, the Lions had coaxed 51-year-old Charles E. ‘Gus’ Dorais away from the University of Detroit to become head coach, general manager, and a partial owner of the team. A former star at Notre Dame, Dorais had spent 18 seasons (1925-1942) at U of D as Director of Athletics and head football coach, compiling a solid 113-48-7 mark.
Dorais led Detroit to a 3-6-1 mark in 1943, followed, impressively, by a tie for second place in the NFL’s five-team Western Division in 1944 – the league’s 25th year – and an outright second place finish in 1945. But after back-to-back last-place seasons in ’46 and ‘47, he was ousted by majority owner Fred L. Mandel, Jr.
The move was costly, as Dorais had four years to go on a five-year contract. Owner of the team since 1940, Mandel sold the coach-less Lions to a syndicate of Detroit business owners, including W.O. ‘Spike’ Briggs, son of the owner of the Detroit Tigers, in January 1948. New ownership let it be known that they were looking to land a “big name” to coach and resurrect the franchise.
The ‘Bo’ before Schembechler
“Did you know that Bo McMillin is in the Book-Cadillac Hotel?” reported the Detroit Times, the city’s gossipy evening paper, in early February.
“I hope I’m not mentioned as a candidate,” McMillin said following the leak. “I’m giving my opinion of the coaches they are considering and also some general football advice that they may find useful in their new venture.”
IU had won just 27 league football games against 89 defeats (and 10 ties) in their 33 years of participation in what we know today as the Big Ten before McMillin’s arrival. The team was 34-34-6 in conference play during his 14 seasons in charge. The Hoosiers were 63-48-11 overall during the span, including an impressive 38-16-4 mark between 1942 and 1947.
Restoring the Lions to Hoped Prominence
Within days, McMillin went to work as the Lions new coach, bringing many of his staff at IU to Detroit. In April, he signed Indiana halfback Mel Groomes and University of Michigan end Bob Mann to contracts. Both were the first African Americans to play for Detroit. (At the time, only the Los Angeles Rams had previously integrated their team.)
In 1946, the Lions moved their training camp from Assumption College in Windsor, Ontario to Alma College. It would remain there through the 1948 season, shifting to Michigan State Normal College (today’s Eastern Michigan University) in 1949.
In June, Detroit announced plans to play four intra-squad contests around the state as part of a seven-game fund-raising exhibition schedule. The intra-squads would be played in August at Lansing’s Pattengill Stadium, Bay City High School Stadium, Alma College, and, finally, at Hackley Stadium in Muskegon. Three preseason charity games would then be played in September – against the Philadelphia Eagles at U of D Stadium, versus the New York Giants at Flint’s Atwood Stadium, and at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh with the Steelers.
The four intrasquad games would assist the coaching staff to cut down the roster from 55 players – featuring 31 veterans – to a league maximum of 35 before the season opened. McMillin cautioned followers against over-optimism, noting that he was still working much of the same personnel that won just three games a year ago. Among the newcomers was Arizona star Fred Enke, “the nation’s top ground gainer last year in collegiate circles.”
The nucleus of the team began nearly two months of preparation on August 1.
Early on, Muskegon Chronicle sports editor, Jimmy Henderson, summed up the task at hand prior to the team’s visit to town.
“(McMillin’s) specialty of doctoring sick football teams must be continued if he is to bring the faltering Detroit Lions back to winning ways.”
For the intrasquad matches, the coach had his teams divided into “Blues” and “Grays,” (an interesting choice because, in July, McMillin and the new owners unveiled a new color scheme for the Lions that season. Uniforms resembling those used by his Hoosier squads – Scarlet and White and, alternately, all black with a thin scarlet stripe on the pants for special contests – were worn by Detroit for games that year. It was the “first color change since the Lions’ entry into the National Football League in 1934.” (The colors would completely disappear before the 1950 season.)
While the intrasquads had no meaning, Enke impressed fans and staff, tossing two touchdowns and running for a third leading the “Gray” squad to a 21-7 victory before a near-capacity crowd of 5,720 in Lansing on Aug. 14. Five days later, he led the “Grays” to a 28-7 win in Bay City where veteran lineman Merv Pregulman, doubling as the team’s kicker, was accurate on all four “Gray” extra-point kicks.
By the Alma exhibition, played before 2,300 local fans on the 23rd, McMillin had cut the roster to 46. The “Grays,” now mostly comprised of the 1947 regulars, again won, 23-0. The focus was on running the ball, as McMillin announced he was satisfied with the team’s passing attack.
Brutal 92-degree temperatures greeted the Lions in Muskegon on Friday, Aug. 27. The game, a fundraiser for the Muskegon’s ‘M’ Club which supported athletics at the high school, was scheduled for an 8:30 kickoff and brought out a crowd of 6,842 despite the heat. Included in the stands were “football players of four Greater Muskegon high schools who this fall will entertain local audiences” – all guests of the ‘M’ Men. Countless others listened to a live broadcast of the contest on the city’s ‘pioneer FM station,’ WMUS.
Mann, who had competed in the College All-Star game in Chicago on Aug. 22, had returned and was added to the “Gray” team roster for the game in Muskegon.
The fans were treated to a show during the full-length contest, according to Henderson, as “McMillin didn’t spare his star players while giving everyone on the bench at least a short period on the field.”
“Mann was in the game for just one play in the first period,” snagging an Enke pass from 14-yards out, then sidestepping two defenders to open the scoring.
The “Blues” rallied in the second quarter, threatened, but unable to score. Enke and Mann again connected for a score, this time from 21 yards away near the end of the third. Pregulman again booted the extra point and the “Greys” were up 14-0.
“Mann set up the final touchdown by intercepting a pass and running it back to the opposing 30-yard line,” wrote Henderson. “Three plays later, (veteran, Captain ‘Bullet Bill’) Dudley cracked the Blue line for the final touchdown and Pregulman converted,” for the 21-0 final score.
“The Muskegon High School band added to the color of the mid-summer night’s football game. It played the National Anthem before the game, directed by William Stewart, and at the half time period, played several selections.”
Adding to the festivities, former football coach at Muskegon and the University of Illinois, Robert C. Zuppke was introduced from the field. Zuppke had just returned to Muskegon from Brooklyn, where he had been advising Branch Rickey’s football Dodgers on gridiron tactics. (The Dodgers competed in the All-American Football Conference, a rival league to the NFL.)
A crowd of 14,501 saw the Lions drop a 37-35 preseason game to the Eagles at U of D on Thursday, Sept. 2. Detroit jumped out to a 21-0 lead, before an estimated 12,000 at Atwood Stadium in Flint, then held on for a thrilling 23-20 victory over the Giants on Tuesday the 7th. Detroit completely outclassed the Steelers 38-10 on Sunday the 12th before 23,398 in Pittsburgh.
“Lions Ooze Confidence as They Head for Opener”
The successful preseason had raised hopes.
“A confident squad of 34 Detroit Lions boarded the Super Chief (in Chicago) on Sunday afternoon and headed for Los Angeles” for their Wednesday (Sept. 22) night season opener with the Rams, according to the Detroit Free Press. The visit to LA on the renowned “Train of the Stars” would bring the team – and fans quickly back to earth. McMillin’s Lions, favored to win, were delivered a harsh dose of reality, thumped 44-7 by their division opponents.
McMillin’s Lions won only two games in 1948, racking up 10 losses, and again landed in the Western Division cellar. The team won four games in 1949 and improved to 6-6 in 1950. But that was enough for McMillin, who resigned – many said with management’s encouragement – following the season. With 2 years remaining on his contract, an “amicable settlement” was reached.
The Lions in Muskegon? It’s hard to fathom some 75 years later, considering a single NFL team’s multi-billion-dollar valuation today.
Though, considering the team’s unending attempt to reconstruct the program, one might ask, has anything truly changed?