History will remember William Clay Ford as the NFL owner who could not win. His Lions employees will remember William Clay Ford as the NFL owner who ran his team the way they would if they ever got the chance.
After Lions head coach Jim Schwartz was fired in late December, Tony Dungy and many others spoke about how working for the Lions would be a dream. The Lions long have been considered one of the most desirable organizations to work for because of Ford, who passed away on Sunday at 88. Ford might have had more patience and loyalty than the sport's other 31 owners combined. In a hair-trigger league, that could be a very good thing at times. And at other times, he could be a little like a parent who loved his child too much for his own good.
Ford purchased the Lions in 1964 for the sum of $4.5 million. That's $895.5 million less than they are worth today, as per Forbes. In the subsequent half-century after his purchase, the Lions have won a total of one playoff game, and only 41 percent of their regular-season games. He kept Russ Thomas as general manager for 22 years while Thomas' teams went 138-175. The Matt Millen era went on for more than seven years with nary a winning record.
When Millen knew the ax was coming, his thought was to make it easy on Ford. Even after Millen's firing, he and Ford remained friends. Ford called when Millen lost his mother. They would speak on the phone and Millen would send him notes. "I will never have a negative thing to say about Mr. Ford," Millen said on Sunday. "I thought the world of that guy. Mr. Ford was one of the last of the old school owners. He loved his team. He loved the players. He was interested in the coaching staff. He was a big fan, and he just wanted to win. He was not interested in the business of football one bit. He wanted nothing to do with league dealings."
Ford did not hobnob with other team owners. He would talk with Bills owner Ralph Wilson a bit, and he and Al Davis had a mutual respect. He helped the Eagles when they were struggling financially. But he rarely would even show his face at league meetings. And that was significant because he did not do business the way most of his counterparts did.
Ford mostly was a hands-off owner. He was involved in the Lions' moves from Detroit to Pontiac and back, and the general manager and head coach hirings and firings. And when he tired of a head coach's act, he would step in and insist on change. But his wick was longer than a big cat's tail. He put people in place and let them do their jobs. Ford wanted to be apprised of why things were done, but he rarely told people what to do.
Some of his management style could be attributed to learning at the foot, literally, of Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company. William Clay Ford was Henry Ford's last surviving grandchild, and also was considered a confidante. In a sense, he was American royalty. He married Martha Parke Firestone, granddaughter of tire king Harvey Firestone. Of course he did. He would regale employees with stories about dinner with Frank Sinatra, about phone calls from John F. Kennedy, and about his first plane ride, which was aviated by Charles Lindbergh.
Yet, the vice chairman of Ford Motor Company was a man of the people. "I remember playing at Tiger Stadium," said Greg Landry, who quarterbacked the Lions for 11 years. "After every game, he'd be there with his family waiting just outside the locker room. There's Bill Jr. There's Elizabeth. Sheila. Martha. The whole family was standing there in a huddle. The players would come out and they'd just say hello and talk to them. They loved the Lions. You think the Ford family should be elitist. But they were just fans, and a warm family."
Ford was a billionaire, but he did not act like one. When he was in college, he worked on the assembly line in the family business. He could blend into the background as if he were a man who was paid to wash cars, not design them. He loved a good bologna sandwich. "He always had a smile," said Larry Lee, who was a Lions offensive lineman for five years and a front office executive for nine. "He had this smoky, cough-laugh. Great man. He was fun loving. But he had a tough side to him too."
Despite popular belief, Lee said the Lions' struggles never were the result of a parsimonious budget. "They treated us with a lot of respect in the front office," he said. "When we traveled and scouted, we could stay at the best hotels. It was very classy. He was not a penny pincher. Some of these teams they go on the road and they have to rent the smallest car. Not us."
Many of the people who worked for Ford have obvious affection for him. When former tight end Charlie Sanders went into the Pro Football Hall of fame, he chose Ford to induct him. He also has referred to Ford as a father figure. Landry said that back when player salaries weren't very high, Ford would help his players get offseason jobs. In fact, Ford offered to give Landry a job at Ford Motor Company. "A lot of the older players I've talked with wish we could have won a championship for him," Landry said.
Ford did not win a Super Bowl. But he won respect. He won admiration. He won loyalty.
Ford should never be remembered as a loser. "To me," said Millen, "he is what every owner should aspire to be."