Jack Leroy Christiansen (December 20, 1928 – June 29, 1986) was an American football player and coach and is perhaps most recognized for his eight-year Hall of Fame playing career with the Detroit Lions in the National Football League (NFL). Following his retirement in Detroit, he also served as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers for nearly five seasons, then later served in the same capacity at Stanford University.
Born in Sublette, Kansas, Christiansen's humble beginnings included being raised in an orphanage in Cañon City, Colorado. He played three seasons of college football at Colorado State University, and was a sixth round selection of the Lions in the 1951 NFL Draft. In his first year with the team, he became an integral part of the defensive backfield, a unit that would become known as "Chris's Crew", in tribute to his leadership. As strong as his defense was, Christiansen also developed a well-deserved reputation as the most dangerous return man in the game, returning eight punts for touchdowns during his career. In both situations, opponents changed their strategy to avoid either throwing near or kicking toward him.
In both 1952 and 1953, Christiansen helped the Lions to an NFL championship, leading the league in interceptions with 12 during the latter season. He continued this high standard of play, tying for the interception lead with 10 pickoffs in 1957 to help the Lions win their third title in six years, then retired after the conclusion of the 1958 NFL season.
His 46 career interceptions ranks fourth on the Lions' all-time list. As a punt returner, he had 85 returns for 1,084 yards, and his 12.8 average still stands as a Detroit record and is third all-time in NFL history. His 21.5 average for the 1952 season (15 for 322) is second all-time to Herb Rich's 1950 mark of 23.0 yards for the Baltimore Colts.
He is tied with Lem Barney at 11 for the most return touchdowns in Detroit history. Christiansen still has the team record with eight punt return touchdowns. He was the first player in NFL history to record two punt return touchdowns in the same game. In fact, he returned two punts for touchdowns in the same game twice in his career (vs. Los Angeles October 14, 1951 and vs. Green Bay November 22, 1951), and is still just one of three players in league history to accomplish this feat.
After winning All-Pro six consecutive years from (1952–1957) and playing in five consecutive Pro Bowls beginning in 1954, Christiansen was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1970. He was recognized in the 1972 Football Digest as one of the top 25 players ever to play in the NFL. He was an All-NFL defensive back for six-straight years, played in five Pro Bowls (opening the 1956 game with a 103-yard kickoff return) and led the league in interceptions twice. He was a member of the All-Decade Team of the 1950s. In 1999, he was ranked number 86 on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Football Players.
Christiansen stayed in the game, accepting an assistant coaching position with the 49ers under Red Hickey on January 22, 1959. After just over four years of inconsistent play, Hickey resigned on September 30, 1963, with Christiansen receiving the promotion to head coach. In that season's final 11 games, the 49ers won only twice, but held the distinction of being the only team to defeat the eventual NFL champion Chicago Bears.
Over the succeeding four years, San Francisco continued to struggle, with Christiansen's best season coming in 1965 when the team was 7–6–1. The 49ers began the 1967 NFL season with five wins in their first six games, but won only two more games the remainder of the campaign, resulting in Christiansen's dismissal on December 20, 1967, while ending his tenure with a record of 26–38–3.
After briefly serving as a consultant to the Colorado State athletic program, Christiansen returned to coaching as an assistant under John Ralston at Stanford in April 1968. During this period, Stanford pulled off consecutive Rose Bowl upsets of Ohio State and Michigan. When Ralston left to coach the NFL's Denver Broncos, Christiansen first considered following him back to Colorado, but instead was hired as Stanford's head coach on January 21, 1972, after fellow assistant Mike White turned the job down.
Christiansen would spend five years as Stanford's head coach, and was fired on November 19, 1976 after compiling a 30–22–3 record. Some of the reasons for the dismissal were Christiansen's troubles in recruiting players to the school, known for its top academics, his more player-friendly approach that brought criticism about a lack of discipline, and his blunt approach to dealing with a vocal alumni group.
Following his dismissal, Christiansen returned to the professional ranks, working