“If my being more ‘public’ helps our success, sure, I’d do it. But I never felt that it would win a football game or help us catch a pass or score a touchdown.”
— William Clay Ford, 1997
In death, he found new life. There has been more praise of William Clay Ford this past week than he received in the last two decades. Normally the target of Lions fans’ grumbling, Ford, after his passing last Sunday at 88, was hailed as a good, a loyal man and a caring, devoted NFL team owner. Former coaches, players and colleagues stepped forward to say that Ford was not only smart, but he was funny, he was quick, he was knowledgeable about football and — a surprise to many — he was very involved.
I can’t tell you how much of this is polite and proper reaction to a venerable man’s passing and how much is fond remembering. As for his ownership legacy, few people can recall when the Ford family didn’t own the Lions, so what are we comparing him to?
But there will be comparisons now, because, for the first time since 1963, the question “Who is running this crazy football team?” isn’t just a rhetorical scream, it’s a legitimate question.
Tom Lewand, the Lions’ president, was quick to answer when I spoke to him last week during a radio interview.
“Mrs. Ford and her children,” he said. “They’re perfectly capable of doing that and will do that in a way that’s different than the way Mr. Ford did and, I think, in a way that will be very impactful.”
Lewand, Mayhew key figures
Now, to be clear, Lewand is talking about Martha Ford, William Clay’s 88-year-old widow who now has the title owner/chair, and — of her four children — chiefly Bill Ford Jr., who is executive chairman of the Ford Motor Co. (not a small job) in addition to being vice chairman of the Lions.
At first blush, this does not suggest an ownership that will steer the Lions in a new, winning direction. Bill Ford Jr. has long been juggling roles; there are limits to his wearing two hats. And Martha Ford, having just lost her husband of 66 years, likely has better things to do than weigh in on what defensive linemen to draft.
But Lewand insists that their involvement is deeper than fans think. And that such set-ups can work. “You see models around the NFL where there is a strong matriarch who’s taken the team over,” he said. “The Chicago Bears have operated that way for a long time.”
Lewand refers to Virginia Halas McCaskey, daughter of the legendary George Halas, who is indeed the owner of the Bears, having inherited them after Papa Bear died in 1983. But at 91, she is a hands-off owner. The team president largely calls the shots.
And, to be blunt, I envision that being the case in Detroit as well. Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew are given direction and a budget, but after that, things operate more like a car company than the Dallas Cowboys. Bill Ford Jr. doesn’t write on the board in the “war room” for the draft. Every marginal free agent won’t be run past Martha Ford for approval.
The Fords traditionally trust their people and measure them in annual evaluations. In other words, the Lions are most likely to continue the way they have been operating.
For better or worse.
Different models of success
Now, I can hear you moaning. Arms-length involvement — or even perceived arms-length involvement — does not inspire confidence in fans, who prefer the Jerry Jones/Robert Kraft approach: news conferences, stated sense of direction, vocal anger at losses, etc. And to be honest, I have been critical of Ford Sr. in the past for his low profile, his honorable but misplaced loyalty (Russ Thomas, Wayne Fontes, Matt Millen) and a seeming acceptance of long-term football mediocrity.
But there is no perfect model. The Washington Redskins have a highly active owner, Daniel Snyder, and they are a hot mess. The Green Bay Packers are owned by a public corporation, and they are one of the NFL’s most successful franchises.
The problem with Ford Sr.’s ownership wasn’t the model, it was the results. Ford admitted as much to me in a conversation 17 years ago. “Probably a lot of the criticism is justified,” he said. “If the results haven’t been there, and I can’t say they have, the results speak for themselves. I’m not happy with it, but I probably deserve criticism for that.”
That was a rare candid moment. But, as mentioned, it was 17 years ago. Most of the time, the ownership of the Lions has followed the credo of Henry Ford II, “never complain, never explain.”
Maybe you wish that was going to change. But based on what we’re seeing, why would it?
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show”5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).