March 9, 2014 at 1:00 am

Jerry Green

William Clay Ford hated firing Lions coaches, but he had to do it

Jim Schwartz was the last Lions head coach to be fired under the William Clay Ford regime. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)

Back in the early years, William Clay Ford would sit up among us in the press box when his Lions played on the road on pro football Sundays. His moods and his reactions were plainly visible. You could watch him fret and mumble as the Lions frittered away a game they might have won.

On this particular Sunday in September 1966, the Lions were favored to win a game in Pittsburgh. Down the front row off to my right at Pitt Stadium, Bill fumed as his team stumbled and botched up an otherwise pleasant Sunday afternoon. The Steelers — this was a decade before they established themselves as Super Bowl dominant — defeated the Lions, 17-3.

I walked by his seat en route to the locker room for the postmortems and asked quickly for his opinion.

“We weren’t only outplayed,” Mr. Ford told me. “We were outcoached.”

Whoops! I was carrying a box of dynamite and I knew it.

It was just the second game of that ’66 season. The affable Harry Gilmer was the coach in question. And even though Bill Ford moderated his comments when he reached the locker room, Gilmer was obviously doomed.

That one-liner would exist for me through the next 48 years as the key to Bill Ford’s personality. He was bright. He was quick with a quip. He was a man who cared very much for his football team, much more than the frequently cranky public could ever know. He was honest, forthright, decent, honorable.

And Bill Ford, who died Sunday at his home in Grosse Pointe Shores five days before what would have been his 89th birthday, was a private person — his absolute right in keeping with his heritage.

Yet Bill Ford carried a wonderful charm with him.

He helped to build the career of a learning sports journalist. His quips became pungent quotes.

He was standing outside the Lions’ locker room one Sunday in 1972 in the War Memorial Stadium, a cold relic in Buffalo. The Lions had been restricted to a 21-21 tie against the downtrodden Bills in a game which was not one of Greg Landry’s best as Lions quarterback.

“He couldn’t hit the ground without the force of gravity,” was Bill’s postmortem.

Then there was another time when he was asked what he actually wanted to see in his precious Lions.

“Roman candles shooting over the sidelines,” he said.

Sadly, Bill Ford seldom saw Roman candles shooting over the sidelines when his Lions were on offense.

The bitter tragedy in Mr. Ford’s death was he never saw his team win a championship, he never saw the Lions play in a Super Bowl.

Next autumn, the 2014 NFL season, would have been an anniversary season for William Clay Ford — the 50th anniversary of his outright ownership.

Now the Lions should make it a dedication season.

Firings hurt

Through the years we kept score of his coaching changes — the coaches he hired and then fired. From George Wilson through Jim Schwartz, fired after the 2013 season, to new hire Jim Caldwell. The total is 17 head coaches.

So many seasons there were so many whispers that the present coach was doomed — as Harry Gilmer had been — and Bill Ford would drop the guillotine once again. The pro football fans of Detroit would sizzle in anger and hope — soon to repeat the cycle.

All the firings hurt one man, I believe, more than anybody.

Bill Ford was a man of compassion. He hated to fire a coach.

One day I was checking out a rumor of a probable firing. We were one-on-one inside the Lions’ locker room at Tiger Stadium.

“Do you know what it’s like to fire a man?” Mr. Ford asked me. A few simple words revealed the man’s character.

It was my good fortune in my career often to have special access to Bill Ford. I don’t believe that I ever wrote about the old school tie. William Clay Ford was a graduate of Hotchkiss, a preparatory school in Lakeville, Conn.

Bill Jr. and the daughters also were graduates of The Hotchkiss School. It happened so was I; that connection helped. But not always.

It did help before the Lions’ hosted Super Bowl XL at Ford Field in 2006.

The Ford family

Bill previously had not spoken much about his upbringing as the grandson of Henry Ford and the son of Edsel Ford. But he spoke effusively to me for an interview to be used in that Super Bowl program. An excerpt:

“Edsel introduced his nine-year-old son Bill to the professional football, the then young game that would become the sport of the common folk. The Lions were to play the Chicago Bears at the University of Detroit Stadium. Interest in the NFL had been developing, and the game would be recalled historically as the first game covered on a national radio broadcast, play-by-play with Graham McNamee.

“The first year they were in town, ’34,” said William Clay Ford. “I went to the Thanksgiving Day game with my father. You got to start some place.”

The lad was smitten with the sport ...

Another excerpt about bonding with his grandfather, Henry:

... It was Henry, who arranged to take Ford on his first plane flight in the mid-1930s.

“I can’t tell you how old I was, probably not more than 8 or 9,” said Ford senior. “And what is now the Dearborn Test Track was then an airport. And my grandfather asked me if I wanted to go flying. And I sure did, I couldn’t wait.

“So we went to the airport and we got into the Ford Tri-motor and I thought we were just going to kind of taxi around . . . The next thing I know we were up in the air. And we flew around 10 or 15 minutes and then came back. And he said, ‘you know who was flying this?’ I said, ‘no.’

“He said, ‘I’d like you to meet Charles Lindbergh.’

“I was very impressed.”

Ford’s toys had wheels, miniature vehicles.

“They were battery-driven electric cars, we used to ride around in,” said Ford senior. “I was 5, 6.

“When I was 14, you could get a legitimate, full-blown drivers’ license, when I was growing up. I did have a midget race car that would go 120. And I did take that out to the test track in Dearborn when I was 14.”

In pro football, Bill Ford was an owner in the era of Art Rooney and George Halas and his Grosse Pointe neighbor, Ralph Wilson. William Clay Ford was old-time NFL, in my mind a clever, honorable legend. A man of true character lambasted too often by zealots who lack character themselves.

Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News columnist

More Jerry Green