by | Jan 10, 2001 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

NOW WHAT are you going to say? You, the suffering Lions fan, who for years has been chanting the same moaning mantra, “Aw, the Ford family, they never do anything different — and they’ll never change.”

Like the voice in those NFL playoff commercials: Guess who just shooowed you somethin’?

And make no mistake. The Fords are the news today. You can talk about Matt Millen’s fitness as The Fresh Prince of Detroit Football, or coach Gary Moeller’s suddenly shadowed future. But the big explosion, the bold type — the bullets in this story — are the men who pulled the trigger.

William Clay Ford Jr., and particularly his father, William Clay Sr., whom many believed was the only guy left in Detroit who wasn’t fed up with the Lions — finally got fed up.

And handed over the keys.

“Initially, this was my idea,” admitted Ford Jr. after the Lions announced Millen, a former player with no front office experience, as their new president and CEO. “But the final decision was Dad’s.

“After we lost that Chicago game, Dad called me up. He said, ‘You still have Millen’s number?’ “

Now Millen has theirs.

President? Chief executive officer? This is historic, if not hysteric. Never in history has an NFL franchise so completely handed the reins to a man who never once sat in an administrative saddle. It’s beyond fresh. It’s closer to radical. Millen played 12 seasons in the NFL, then went to the broadcast booth, where he was initially tagged a poor man’s John Madden.

Now, just nine years after taking off his helmet, he gets the big whip for one of the oldest franchises in the NFL– with the Fords’ blessing! Wow! Whodathunk? Remember, this is the ownership that made cement look flexible. For years, William Clay Ford Sr. has been portrayed as a foolishly grinning sea captain who keeps spinning the wheel, insisting the boat is on course, even as an iceberg is ripping it in two. Now he has reversed course 180 degrees and handed the compass to a burly guy from steerage. On top of that, Millen — with a package reportedly worth $15 million over five years — is getting paid like a seasoned executive with championships under his belt, instead of a guy who, until a few days ago, was sticking one of those little IFB things in his ear.

The Fords’ big gamble

“It’s a roll of the dice,” admitted Ford Jr. on Tuesday, as his new man was making the rounds of press interviews, “but I’m really impressed with Matt.

“I first became aware of him at the league meetings. It seems like every time something new was being discussed, people said, ‘What does Millen think? What does Millen think?’

“Finally, I said, ‘Who’s Millen? And why does anybody care what he thinks?’

“When they told me how smart he was, and how many people he knew, I figured this was someone I should get to know.”

The more he knew, the more he was impressed. Millen, a broadcaster for Fox-TV and CBS Radio, was quick and smart, two qualities often ascribed to the younger Ford.

“Beneath Matt’s gruff middle linebacker exterior,” Ford said, “is an impressive intellect.”

Wow! Most guys just wear underwear.

But Millen will need more than brains on his new job. He’ll need a calculator, a high-speed computer and a crystal ball. Running a football operation is not just about wanting to win, never giving up or “working as hard as I can,” something Millen promised Tuesday.

Everyone does that stuff. A winning football operation means you see talent other guys don’t see, you sign contracts others aren’t wise enough to sign and avoid contracts others are dumb enough to bite on, you move faster than everyone else, you gather information better than everyone else, and you hire top staff away from other teams that are wooing them.

It’s marketing, finance, personnel. And in most cases, it’s experience, experience, experience.

“You’re right,” Ford Jr. admitted, “there are some real risks here. But one thing about Matt is he’s a very quick study. He admits what he doesn’t know. He has a tremendous contact list where he can go for advice.

“Besides, we’ve had good people in the organization here. But what we didn’t have is someone to lead.”

Or, as some cynics would put it, someone to get out of the way.

That’s not an issue anymore.

Remember the Bears loss

By hiring Millen, and letting him make all the decisions, the Fords are getting out of the blame game for the moment. The next little mistake, medium mistake or fairly large mistake the Lions make will be on Millen’s head. The only mistake attributable to the Fords here on in is the giant one — putting Millen in charge in the first place.

Otherwise this is Millen’s show, to shine or to flop. He can fire Moeller — don’t be surprised if he does — he can hire a general manager who will answer to him, he can hire scouting people, assistants, you name it. The keys to the kingdom.

“The Fords have installed their faith in me,” Millen said, “and I will work as hard as I can to earn it.

“I’m all about work.”

And this is all about change. The way I see it, the younger Ford has been slowly trying to nudge his father away from the old way of doing things. He almost hired Millen two years ago, until his dad nixed the idea. But with the embarrassing Christmas Eve loss to the Bears — and that truly was an unforgivable collapse — the older Ford decided that does it, no more, no mas, let’s tear down the old house and build a new one on the lot.

And Millen is the man behind the wrecking ball, the crane, the cement mixer and the lumber truck.

Would any of this have happened if the Lions had beaten the Bears and made the playoffs?

“That’s hard to say,” Ford Jr. answered.

Not for me. The answer is no. For if the Fords were really going to press the button, they needed something so awful, so disgusting, so blatantly familiarly pathetic that only a radical change could wash away the bad taste.

The team, as usual, delivered.

The button was pressed.

And with that, the Fords go from one of the stodgiest owners in football to one of the most unpredictable, from “Masterpiece Theatre” to MTV.

Will it work? Will Millen live up to this challenge? Can he really take this franchise where it has never gone before?

“There are no guarantees,” Millen said.

You can say that again. The Fords just proved it.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or Catch Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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