Top 10 People To Blame For 10 Years (Or More) Of Detroit Sports Failures

Written By Drew Ellis on July 18, 2022
Chris Ilitch and Tom Gores shaking hands

It’s no secret that Detroit’s professional sports teams have been a laughing stock around the country.

Nearly a decade has passed since the loyal Detroit fans have truly had something to celebrate.

With four franchises performing so poorly for so long, it’s hard to know just where to direct all the anger and frustration.

Good news is, we figured it out.

A panel of three has come together to put a list of the 10 people most to blame for the failures.

Just how bad have Detroit sports been?

Before getting into the countdown, let’s take a look at just how poorly Michigan’s four pro sports teams have performed.

  • Last Playoff Appearance: Detroit Pistons on April 22, 2019 (swept 4-0 by Milwaukee Bucks)
  • Last Playoff Victory: Detroit Red Wings on April 17, 2016 (2-0 over Tampa Bay as part of a 4-1 series loss)
  • Last Playoff Series Win: Detroit Tigers on Oct. 10, 2013 (3-2 over Oakland in ALDS)
  • Last Championship: Detroit Red Wings in 2008 (4-2 over Pittsburgh)

That doesn’t even take into account the Lions never reaching a Super Bowl.

It has been more than 3,200 days since a Detroit team won a playoff series and more than 5,100 days since the city last celebrated a championship.

Who is to blame for the past 10 years of Detroit sports?

Our panel voted on a top 10 with the top spot earning 10 points, second earning nine, all the way to the last spot earning 1. The total points earned through the three voters determined our top 10. Let’s get into it.

The voting panel consists of Drew Ellis (Lead Writer of PlayMichigan), Paul Costanzo (Managing Editor of PlayMichigan), and Matt Schoch (Senior Content Manager for Catena Media).

10. Dave Dombrowski

Joining the Tigers in 2002, Dombrowski wasn’t shy to be aggressive. He had the blessing of owner Mike Ilitch to go for a World Series, and he did that.

Dombrowski signed big names to Detroit for the first time in many years. He brought in the likes of Ivan Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez, while also hiring Jim Leyland as manager.

That led to a World Series appearance in 2006, only to fall in five games to the St. Louis Cardinals.

Dombrowski then got active with trades, bringing in the likes of Gary Sheffield, Miguel Cabrera and Max Scherzer. The franchise developed Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello and made for a standout rotation. He would also sign the likes of Victor Martinez and Prince Fielder to big deals. All-in-all, it led to another World Series appearance in 2012. That was another flop, being swept by the San Francisco Giants.

Following the 2012 loss, the wheels began to fall off. After a loss in the ALCS in 2013, Jim Leyland retired. Dombrowski hired Brad Ausmus, who made one playoff appearance in four seasons.

The Tigers began trading off assets for prospects, many of which didn’t pan out. In March of 2014, he signed Cabrera to an 8-year, $248 million extension. While keeping one of the greats in Detroit, Cabrera’s declining play and health have made the contract a great albatross for the franchise in recent years.

Dombrowski was released in August of 2015, only to go to Boston weeks later and win a World Series in 2018. While Dombrowski manufactured some great moments in Tigers’ history, his objective was to win a World Series. Despite endless talent, Detroit didn’t get the job done. His aggressive moves for no titles ended up leading to many awful years of baseball after his departure.

9. Stan Van Gundy

Stan Van Gundy was hired in May of 2014 as head coach and president of the Pistons, ending the convoluted run of Joe Dumars. After a 32-50 first season, Van Gundy did coach the Pistons to the playoffs in 2015-16 with a 44-38 record. They were then swept by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Pistons failed to win 40 games the next two seasons. Feeling the heat, Van Gundy traded multiple draft picks, Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley to the L.A. Clippers for Blake Griffin. Griffin was well past his prime in terms of athleticism and explosiveness. Even worse, he was just one year into a $171 million max deal at the time of the trade. His physical decline and cap hit left the Pistons in a big hole well past Van Gundy’s firing in May of 2018.

SVG’s draft history wasn’t great either. He took Stanley Johnson No. 8 overall in 2015, passing up Devin Booker, who went No. 13 to Phoenix. In 2017, Van Gundy selected Luke Kennard at No. 12 overall. He would be followed by Donovan Mitchell at 13 and Bam Adebayo at 14.

8. Joe Dumars

Dumars was a god in Detroit for many, many years.

A two-time NBA champ as a player for the Pistons in 1989 and 1990, Dumars was hired as the team’s president in 2000. He would go on to construct the band of misfits that made up the 2004 NBA Championship squad. He also produced a roster that reached six consecutive conference finals from 2003-08.

So, how could a man with this level of success fit on this list? Four words: Charlie Villanueva, Ben Gordon.

After a first-round exit in the NBA playoffs in 2009 and money to spend, Dumars gave Charlie V. a 5-year, $40 million deal, while Gordon received 5 years, $55 million.

Gordon would last three seasons in Detroit and didn’t average more than 13.8 points in any of them. Villanueva lasted all five years, but averaged double figures in scoring just twice and never more than 4.7 rebounds per game.

Those two contracts, along with a rotating group of failed coaches, led to Dumars’ demise in 2014. Getting big name free agents to Detroit hasn’t been an option since.

Side note: Trading Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson in the 2008-09 season didn’t help either. Nor did his draft history. Just two picks Dumars made were All-Stars for Detroit. Andre Drummond (No. 9 overall in 2012) and Mehmet Okur (No. 37 overall in 2001).

7. Tom Gores

The run on Pistons continues.

Their current owner is as known for his attire and somewhat erratic behavior as he is success as an owner. Do yourself a favor and type “Tom Gores” on YouTube and the first option will be “drunk.” There’s some quality entertainment to come.

Following the death of long-time Pistons owner Bill Davidson in 2009, Gores eventually became a co-owner with Platinum Equity in 2011 and became sole owner in 2015.

In his time as owner, Gores has seen his team reach the playoffs twice, both first-round sweeps. Detroit is 339-480 in the 10 seasons with Gores as owner.

Gores inherited the tail end of Joe Dumars’ run as president, but then hired Stan Van Gundy as head coach and president for a tumultuous 4-year run.

The hiring of Troy Weaver as general manager in June of 2020 has allowed the franchise to quickly turn around the roster construction and get rid of a lot of lingering contracts. Time will tell if the Pistons can finally get back to winning because of that.

6. Ken Holland

Ken Holland had quite a first-half run as GM of the Red Wings, but the second half sent the franchise on a downward spiral.

Following the 1997 Stanley Cup, Holland was promoted from assistant GM to general manager. He guided the Wings to three Stanley Cups in 1998, 2002 and 2008.

But, the established team he inherited started to finally crumble following a finals appearance in 2009. Holland refused to shake up the Wings’ aging roster and begin planting seeds for the future. That seemed like a bad idea at the time, and has proven disastrous since.

Detroit would still make the playoffs from 2010-16, but failed to get out of the first round after 2013. In his final four seasons as GM, Detroit averaged just over 66 points.

The hiring of Jeff Blashill as head coach led to little success despite Blashill’s strong run with the Grand Rapids Griffins.

Of his roster decisions, electing to sign Johan Franzen to an 11-year, $43.5 million contract extension in 2009 looms large. Injuries impacted Franzen’s play for years. He tore his ACL in October of 2009. In 2015, a blindside check would essentially end his playing career due to concussion symptoms. Franzen had 104 goals over the life of the contract, which expired in 2020.

Holland was replaced by Steve Yzerman in April of 2019.

5. Matt Patricia

The blame ranking can be argued, but not sure anyone is as hated as Patricia.

Hired by Bob Quinn as head coach in Feb. 2018, the Bill Belichick disciple came into Detroit with a load of arrogance and that stupid pencil behind his ear. Patricia believed he was every bit the coach Belichick was, but he was far from it.

Early reports had Patricia alienating the team’s veterans and losing a majority of the locker room from the start. His debut game was a 48-17 embarrassment at home to the New York Jets on Monday Night Football. It didn’t get much better from there.

Patricia’s ways forced talented players like Golden Tate, Quandre Diggs and Darius Slay out of the franchise. He often relied on bringing in former Patriots that couldn’t cut the mustard. He spent press conferences lecturing writers on body posture while still thinking he was smarter than everyone else.

Worst off, he wasted some prime years of Matthew Stafford, who would go on to win a Super Bowl elsewhere.

A merciful firing of Quinn and Patricia came on Nov. 28, 2020. It’s now been up to Brad Holmes and Dan Campbell to pick up the pieces.

4. Al Avila

Few last as long with a pro sports team without any form of success quite like Avila has.

An assistant GM with the franchise starting in 2002, Avila was promoted to GM and executive VP of baseball in August of 2015 after Dombrowski was released.

After amassing 86 wins in his first full season in 2016, the Tigers have averaged just 63 wins in the four full seasons since (23-35 in COVID 2020 season). This year, the Tigers are 19 games below .500 at the All-Star Break.

Avila’s trades of stars like J.D. Martinez and Justin Verlander led to no reliable starters. His signings have been lackluster. Most notably was Javier Baez for the 2022 season at six years, $140 million. Baez is hitting .213 with 76 strikeouts this season.

In the MLB Draft, Avila has had four in the top 5, including two No. 1 picks. 2018 top pick Casey Mize is currently in early stages of recovery from Tommy John surgery. Top pick in 2020, Spencer Tokelson, looks overwhelmed at the plate in his rookie year with 76 strikeouts and a .197 average. He was just optioned to Triple-A Toledo on Sunday.

3. Bob Quinn

When the Fords hired Bob Quinn to be the new general manager in 2016, it felt like a game changer. An executive from the New England Patriots coming to Detroit, what could go wrong? The answer: everything.

Quinn fired Jim Caldwell a year later because “nine wins wasn’t good enough.” He proceeded to hire Patriot pal Matt Patricia, who went 13-29-1 in less than three seasons while alienating most of the locker room.

Then there were the personnel decisions. Quinn signed former Patriot Trey Flowers for $90 million over 5 years in 2019. He also signed nickel corner Justin Coleman to $36 million over 4 years, most-ever for the position. Flowers has 10.5 sacks in three years for Detroit. Coleman lasted two years in Detroit with one interception.

Quinn also traded Quandre Diggs to Seattle for a fifth-round draft pick. He ultimately used that pick to trade for safety Duron Harmon. Would you be surprised to know that was a trade with the Patriots? Harmon lasted one year with Detroit. Diggs has 13 interceptions with Seattle and has made the Pro Bowl the last two seasons.

What Quinn did do is forever etch the names of some failed draft picks into the heads of Lions fans. How about Teez Tabor in the second round of 2017? Or maybe Jahlani Tavai in the second round of 2019? What may haunt the Lions forever was Quinn’s selection of Jeff Okudah at No. 3 overall in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Detroit is attempting to do its part to clean up the mess Quinn left behind, but it’s going to be a long process.

2. The Ford Family

It’s hard to just pinpoint one Ford member, so the collective family comes in at No. 2. The owners of the Detroit Lions certainly have set a high bar when it comes to failure as a franchise.

The Lions remain one of four teams to never make a Super Bowl and their last playoff win was in 1992.

Repeatedly bad management hires and a loyalty to mediocrity have made Detroit arguably the worst franchise in football. Just in the last decade, the hiring of Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia derailed any momentum the franchise had.

While the personnel themselves could take some of the blame, the Ford Family has been the one constant through decades of failure.

1. Chris Ilitch

Earning the top spot is the one facing the most heat recently, the CEO and President of Ilitch Holdings (thus the owner of the Red Wings and Tigers). Chris’ father, Mike Ilitch, died in 2017 after being owner of the Red Wings for their Stanley Cup championships in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008. While the Detroit Tigers never won the World Series, they did appear in 2006 and 2012.

Since Mike passed, the Red Wings have finished in the bottom half of their division each year. Same for the Tigers. While the Wings may be taking a turn with the hiring of Yzerman as general manager, the Tigers continue to struggle.

Following a 77-win season in 2021, hopes of a turnaround have been dashed this year. Detroit is 37-56 at the All-Star Break and a lack of spending this previous offseason is looming large. Mike wasn’t afraid to spend in hopes of winning. Chris hasn’t shown that. Detroit ranks 18th in highest-paid rosters in MLB.

It took Ilitch too long to recognize Holland was no longer the answer for the Red Wings, and it’s taking him far too long to recognize Avila never has been the answer for the Tigers.

Honorable Mentions

Though these didn’t crack the top 10, they still loom large in our minds.

April in The D: Those songs never should have been associated with Detroit.

The Picked Up PI Flag: The Detroit Lions may have added a playoff win in 2015 if not for this head-scratching decision. It arguably could have changed the franchise trajectory and career of Matthew Stafford forever.

The Boston Cop: Instead of helping poor Torii Hunter, who flipped over the wall trying to catch David Ortiz’ grand slam, he celebrated instead. It was like a kiss of death for the franchise.

Bill Belichick: He knows what he’s given us.

The Mario Impempa/Rod Allen Booth Fight: It ended a long run and truly spelled the end of the Tigers’ era. Plus, it ended our chance to see Rod Allen’s local commercials.

Photo by All Photos Associated Press File
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Drew Ellis

Drew Ellis has lived in Michigan his whole life, and has been writing professionally for the last 21 years. Ellis has covered anything from youth baseball in mid-Michigan, a top-25 college football program, and pro sports in the Detroit area. Always keeping busy, Ellis also has over 10 years of experience in covering sports betting, handling all major sports.

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