The times they are a-changin’ in the National Football League.
The St. Louis Rams are moving to L.A.
Or so we’ve been told.
The San Diego Chargers also may be moving to Tinsel town.
Or they may not.
The Oakland Raiders may be moving to L.A., but only if the Chargers don’t. Or they may be moving to San Diego. Or to San Antonio. Or to Las Vegas. Or they may stay in Oakland (rumors are the city is going to make them a sweetheart offer on a new stadium). Or the Raiders, Rams, and Chargers may all wind up in Southern California in some fashion.
For better or worse, the Detroit Lions aren’t going anywhere.
The Chargers, understandably, are eager to move, since they play in one of the NFL’s worst stadiums. It has the great Southern California weather, but other than that, their facility is an outdated dump, and that is being kind.
Back in 1967, the Chargers hosted the Lions in the first sporting event ever played at what is today known as Qualcomm Stadium. At the time, it was known as San Diego Stadium. It was brand-spanking new, a state-of-the-art concrete palace in Mission Valley, straight out of the Brutalist school of architecture. And it cost only $28 million to build, which today won’t even pay to get Rams’ owner Stan Kroenke to kiss your behind.
The date was August 20. For the Lions, it was their third exhibition game (or “pre-season” game, according to the modern NFL marketing machine). All of them thus far were against American Football League opponents. Fifteen days prior, Detroit had lost to the Denver Broncos, 13-7, marking the first time an AFL team had defeated an NFL team. It is the answer to a great trivia question, and indicative of just where the Lions organization was headed. The Broncos, incidentally, had a rookie coach that year in Lou Saban, a distant cousin of Nick Saban, who today is a pretty fair coach himself for the University of Alabama.
The 1967 Lions also had a rookie head coach in 35-year-old Joe Schmidt. The former Lions Pro Bowl linebacker had been given the job in January of 1967, taking over for Harry Gilmer following a disappointing 4-9-1 record.
“What this team needs most,” Schmidt pointed out at his introductory press conference, “is a change of attitude and some more good football players. I’m looking for a positive attitude. We need that to win. If the players we have now don’t have it, I’m going to get rid of them. I’m going to make every effort to bring a winning team to Detroit—to bring Detroit back to where we used to be.”
Sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it, Lions fans?
Owner William Clay Ford, ever the optimist, gave Schmidt a five-year deal at a reported $50,000 per.
The Lions in 1967 also had a couple of promising rookies in running back Mel Farr and cornerback Lem Barney. So they had that going for them.
A crowd of 45,988 piled in to San Diego Stadium for that first game between the Chargers and Lions. Five-year vet John Hadl started at quarterback for the Bolts, while the Lions countered with Karl Sweetan, a Texas A&M and Wake Forest product in his sophomore season in the NFL.
Detroit opened the scoring in the first quarter on Tom Nowatzke’s four-yard touchdown run, and Garo Yepremian’s extra point.
In the second quarter, the Lions broke the game open when they put up 24 points, including an eight-yard touchdown run by Farr.
It was 31-3 at the half. The game was pretty much a yawner, although the Chargers did manage two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, including a 61-yard pass from Hadl to Gary Garrison. But it wasn’t a good game for Hadl, who threw four interceptions.
Sweetan, who played mostly in the first half, completed 16 of 23 passes for 183 yards and a touchdown. Milt Plum, on the downside of his career, took over in the second half.
The final was 38-17, a Lion victory.
It was just a meaningless exhibition game, but anytime a new sports facility opens up, it is a big deal. On hand was Pete Rozelle, commissioner of the combined leagues, who gushed, “It is the finest football stadium built.”
The strong showing by Detroit wasn’t a harbinger of things to come, as they finished 1967 with a record of 5-7-2.