Wojo: Martha Ford sets bold tone with firings

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Martha Ford did what had to be done, what her husband always was reluctant to do, what Lions fans long have craved. She pushed the plunger and blew it up, a dramatic, watershed move in the history of a forlorn franchise.

It’s only a start, with many critical moves ahead, so Lions fans might want to temper their buoyant emotions. But nothing could change until this happened, until the remnants of a failed regime were eliminated. Ford fired GM Martin Mayhew and president Tom Lewand Thursday, announced the team would conduct a national search for “the best leadership,” and then strode purposely from the podium without taking questions.

If there was a microphone, she could’ve dropped it for emphasis. It was a surreal scene, and not because it was executed by a soft-spoken, diminutive woman who happens to be 90. This has little to do with gender or age. This is about an organization that has needed someone to make a bold, smart decision without remorse or hesitation.

Who knew the Lions’ new blood would come from familiar blue bloodlines? It was staggering and refreshing, and you only hope Ford gets intelligent, unfiltered advice on who to hire next, because that’s the hardest part, by far. The coach, Jim Caldwell, remains for now, but the Lions’ failings almost always have been tied to an inept front office, and an owner that stuck with them too long.

Martha Ford has been part of the franchise since her husband, William Clay Ford Sr., bought it in 1963, and if she suffered from the losing, she mostly suffered in silence. In the year-and-a-half since Ford Sr. passed, her wrath has been real, and revealing. Understand that Lewand was here 21 years, tight with the family, and wasn’t spared. Understand too, the Lions are only eight games removed from an 11-5 season.

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Patience and loyalty were Ford Sr.’s virtue and curse, and if Martha Ford truly is different, it was imperative she showed it quickly. I’m convinced the only reason the house-cleaning wasn’t deeper was because someone has to finish the season.

Of course it would’ve been better if Ford had answered questions about the timing and her vision of the future. For an NFL owner not to explain such an important move is bothersome, but in this case, somewhat understandable. Despite her age, she’s a novice owner, just starting to make the rounds at league meetings. I doubt she’s ready to map out a plan — there are no known candidates prepared to take over — although it didn’t take her long to recognize this wasn’t working.

The Lions are 1-7, still muddling along seven years after Mayhew replaced Matt Millen, who somehow survived nearly eight seasons. Lewand and Mayhew were in the organization a combined 36 years, and are far more culpable than Caldwell, here less than two years. Depending on who takes over as president and GM, the coach’s tenure remains shaky, at best.

Last week, Caldwell fired three assistants, the first sign ownership was angry and demanding change. More upheaval seemed inevitable after the Lions went to London and got blasted by the Chiefs 45-10. Martha and other family members made the trip, and surely were embarrassed. She acted decisively with the Lions in their bye week, but I don’t think she acted impetuously. The media and public may not know her well, but she witnessed the mistakes of the past 50-plus years, and wasn’t interested in waiting around or messing around.

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So there she stood Thursday, reading from a piece of paper, betraying no emotion. She appointed Sheldon White, in the organization 19 years, as acting GM, and Allison Maki as interim chief operating officer, and pointedly noted they “will report directly to me.”

Plenty of questions remain, and if Ford had taken any, there would’ve been some difficult ones.

How will she find a strong, respected leader to take over such a dysfunctional team, and who will advise her? NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has the means to guide franchises, and he spoke fondly of Martha Ford just last week. There are search firms to identify candidates as well. At the risk of sounding simplistic, I’d suggest calling the Baltimore Ravens, where John Harbaugh (yes, brother of Jim) is the coach and Ozzie Newsome runs a stellar front office.

Next question: Where is the rest of the family in all of this? Bill Ford Jr., chairman of Ford Motor Co., was long expected to take over, but has said he has no role now. His sister, Sheila Ford Hamp, is more involved, and there are family issues that are difficult to decipher. Martha Ford was the only family member at the brief announcement Thursday.

Huge question: How does Martha Ford expect to succeed in two years when her husband mostly failed in 50? Tough question, and it wouldn’t be fair to demand an answer. But in the absence of verbal explanation, we can judge Martha Ford on her strong actions.

“Our fans deserve a winning football team and we will do everything possible to make it a reality,” she said in her statement. “I also want to make it clear that we have no intention of giving up on this season. We expect our team to compete, improve and win.”

We’ve heard it before, from others. But we haven’t seen this before, swift, unblinking retribution for poor performance. Someone who can identify and draft good football players still must be hired, and it won’t be easy. But in her first forceful statement, Martha Ford at least set a bold new tone.