William Clay Ford Sr. celebrates the Lions' playoff win over the Cowboys with Wayne Fontes and players in January 1992. (Detroit News Photo Archive)
For William Clay Ford to keep trying, year after year, tribulation after tribulation, it took deep doses of an admirable trait, a trait rare in sports. Some called it loyalty, even blind loyalty, but it was deeper than that.
Ford had an unbendable faith that served him well in life, if not always in the football realm. He had faith in the people he hired, faith in his ability to provide the resources, faith that next season would always be better. Evidence to the contrary did not shake his principles, that faith engenders loyalty, and loyalty should engender success.
It’s a solid way to live but a difficult way to win, part of the conflicted perceptions of Ford, who owned the Lions for 50 years. The record will show loyalty didn’t prevail, as the Lions lost more than they won. The numbers define the franchise, but they don’t fully define the man.
A genuinely nice person with a classic throaty laugh, Ford had a personality that made it hard for him to admit mistakes, because an admission would require the firing of someone he trusted. Coaches, general managers, players and so many others were sincere in their warmth for Ford. If such kindness is inextricably linked to the Lions’ struggles — one playoff victory since 1957 — well, Ford didn’t know any other way to do business.
The team will remain in the family with Ford’s wife, Martha. The expectation is Bill Ford Jr. will assume more and more of a leadership role. If his success at the auto company is an indicator, he possesses some of his father’s best qualities, with perhaps more of the tough qualities.
In a business as brutal as pro football, tough decisions are made daily, and careers can end quickly. Ford understood that, probably too well. He kept Russ Thomas as his GM for 22 years, and Matt Millen for eight. The combined 30 years were mostly disappointing, but it goes back to that faith issue. If Thomas or Millen or Wayne Fontes told him the next batch of rookies was better than the last, Ford desperately wanted to believe it and see it.
Did he want to get his Lions to the Super Bowl? Of course he did. But reaching the top in the NFL requires manic persistence and ruthlessness, qualities not always evident in nice people. Ford wanted to win but wasn’t interested in destroying relationships to do it. If loyalty to a fault meant he didn’t want to win as badly as others, it was a badge he was willing to wear.
“Detroit is a football town with fans who want to win — bad — but what they miss is Mr. Ford wanted to win more than any of the fans did,” Millen told the Associated Press. “For a variety of reasons, it didn’t work out. It wasn’t because he didn’t want to. He was willing to try anything and he did.”
Loved the camaraderie
Ford spent whatever it took in his later years, and listened to those who said the big payoff was just around the bend. I think as time went on, he became more inclined to hear what he wanted to hear, that the team was getting better.
When he hired Jim Schwartz in 2009, Ford seemed to know this might be his last shot at it. Asked why this hire would be different than all the others, he made a stark admission.
“This is going to sound a little egotistical, maybe it is,” Ford said. “Because this was solely my decision, rather than being influenced by a lot of other thoughts and people. If Jim Schwartz doesn’t work out, you can blame me 100 percent.”
He generally took his hits without flinching, understanding the fans’ frustration but not sure how to fix it. Ford loved the camaraderie of a team, and before health pushed him from the spotlight, he often popped into the locker room after a victory, his laugh echoing around the room. If you wonder why he would own the team so long and withstand so much criticism, those were the moments he craved.
“He was just a guy that wanted to be treated like one of the guys, more so than who he was and the name that went along with it,” said Hall of Fame Lions tight end Charlie Sanders, who played for the Lions from 1968 to 1977.
In defeat, Ford appeared to fans to be detached and passive. In victory, I think they would’ve loved him, because he had a lively personality. When interviewed, Ford didn’t hide from his record, and often joked he didn’t have a crystal ball but would keep trying to get it right.
Appreciation for fans
He did return the team to its roots downtown at Ford Field, a beautiful building that has hosted a Super Bowl and would be a tremendous place to host a playoff game one of these seasons. Loyalty begets loyalty and the Lions have a deep, loyal fan base, perhaps as deep as any in sports, based on the root-reward disparity.
The Lions don’t win regularly but they do entertain regularly, and might end up with the best running back (Barry Sanders) and best receiver (Calvin Johnson) of a generation. They’ve always had some pieces, just not all of them, and even after the 0-16 season and the depth of the economic collapse, the fans kept coming back.
“Money’s tough to come by for all of them, I understand that,” Ford said five years ago. “But the least we can do is put on a good performance for them, and I think we will. I certainly hope we will.”
As everyone knows, hope isn’t a strategy in sports, although it’s a positive trait in life. You could say William Clay Ford believed in the right things, just not always in the right people. He never came close to selling the team, never got into public spats and rarely made cryptic statements about anyone’s job security. He had faith in the people he hired and the players he signed, misguided at times but genuine to the core, to the very end.