Detroit — Just like her father and mother, Sheila Ford Hamp seems pleasant and likable. She laughs freely, and on her first day as the principal owner of the Detroit Lions, she apologized to media for interrupting vacations.
These are nice qualities, and frankly, for 57 years, defining qualities of the Lions under the Ford ownership. Decent people who’d like to win games, sure, but not get messy in the attempt. In the competitive fires of the NFL, where graciousness and patience seldom are rewarded, the Fords have flailed and failed spectacularly. Hopefully, that’s where the likenesses between Ford Hamp and her parents end.
Martha Ford, 94, announced Tuesday she was stepping aside and handing control of the team to her second-oldest child, a move that was long expected but still came unexpectedly. The timing had nothing to with any health issues, according to Ford Hamp, which is good news. But I’m guessing the transition wasn’t greeted warmly by long-suffering fans who often beg the Fords to sell. Frustration and anger fester when a family owns a team for more than a half-century and doesn’t win a single championship and only one playoff game.
People hunger for a change, and to be honest, they deserve one. And Ford Hamp deserves a chance to prove she’s different. The leadership group will consist of Ford Hamp, her mother, her brother and two sisters, but there will be one face on the biggest decisions.
“The buck has to stop somewhere,” Ford Hamp said, “so I guess it’s me.”
She said it without arrogance or emphasis, almost unassuming, as if she’s always been ready in the line of succession. The hope is, she evolves into a more forceful, demanding presence than her parents, less likely to lean on loyalty, more willing to make tough, bold calls.
In the Ford way of things, this is a youth movement, and Ford Hamp, 68, hopefully brings an energy and impatience we rarely see in this franchise. When Martha Ford assumed control after William Clay Ford Sr., died in 2014, she showed hints of aggressiveness, but fortunes didn’t change after she dismissed the front office and coach Jim Caldwell. When the Lions went 3-12-1 last season, Martha Ford, Ford Hamp and team president Rod Wood collaborated on a statement announcing GM Bob Quinn and coach Matt Patricia would be retained, despite a 9-22-1 record in two seasons.
They also issued a mandate for playoff contention, but stopped short of calling this a win-or-else season. Now, as the pandemic threatens the length and legitimacy of the schedule, Ford Hamp is simply reaffirming the expectations.
“This is gonna be kind of a weird year, so I don’t want to say anything about wins and losses,” she said. “The over-arching thing is, we want to see major improvement. At this point, I can’t really say what those specific measures are going to be because I don’t know what the season is gonna be like yet, but believe me, major improvement is the goal.”
No one is firing coaches or general managers right now, so if she plans to raise the level of accountability, this isn’t the ideal time to talk about it. But please, if a season is played and Lions don’t win, Quinn and Patricia don’t get off the hook because of the circumstances. If anything, the abnormal setting gives them a unique chance to prove their ability to adjust.
In fact, the timing of the transition was somewhat tied to the virus-related break, giving her a chance to assimilate into a larger role.
“The last 6½ years by my mother’s side, I’ve learned a ton,” said Ford Hamp, who’s been going to Lions games since she was a child. “She’s an incredible role model, and I intend to emulate a lot of those things, and hopefully put my own stamp. … My mother is wonderful and gracious, and so was my dad. Maybe I’ll be a little more hands-on, a bit more involved with the younger staff. There may be things I dive into a little more deeply than my mother and father would.”
We’ll have to see it, of course, but Ford Hamp has operated in competitive circles. In 1973, she was a member of the first class of women to graduate from Yale. She was a high-ranking amateur tennis player. She has been attending NFL meetings and working on committees since her mother took over.
Finding her voice
The transition from mother to daughter is highly unusual in professional sports, although there are six female owners in the NFL. Ford Hamp is proud of it, even emboldened by it. She told a story of reaching out to then-commissioner Pete Rozelle years ago to inquire about a job in pro football.
“When I graduated from college, all I wanted to do was work for the NFL,” she said. “I went to see (Rozelle) and he literally couldn’t think of anything for a female to do way back then. Things have changed a lot, and I think it’s terrific. … At the NFL meetings, you walk into those big rooms with those big black leather chairs, and they’re kind of daunting. But you get over it, and my mother showed me how to do it and not be intimidated.”
The analogy is not just about the size of the chair or the size of the room, but the size of the responsibility. As one of only 32 owners in the most-powerful league in America, her voice matters. As she learns more, she said she plans to use it, and speaks with good-natured confidence.
She was asked about the social issues strafing the country and was forthright. If players want to kneel during the national anthem, she said she supports their right to do so. If Quinn and Lions coaches were interested in signing Colin Kaepernick, she’d be completely supportive.
I asked her, as a first-hand witness to all the losing and failed regimes and poor coaching, what she has gleaned, and what she can change.
“For one thing, in a winning organization, there’s a lot of consistency,” she said. “You’ve got to get the right mix of people and then stay with it. Look at the Patriots, that’s what they’ve got. There’s been a lot of changes over the years with the Lions, we haven’t been able to — yet — reach that magic formula. I’m hoping this year, with Coach Patricia in his third year, hopefully things will start to gel. I do feel we’ve made progress in the offseason.”
It’s not necessarily about a magic formula, but about strong, competent leaders. It always starts at the top, which is why the Ford ownership has been so maligned, and why you’re certainly entitled to inspect the lineage and assume little will change.
At one point, Bill Ford Jr. appeared to be the successor, but as he became more involved with the auto company, Ford Hamp became more visible alongside her mother. This was not an accidental apprenticeship, as it goes back to her ambitions out of college. Although she had significant say the past few seasons, the consequences are greater now.
“I guess that’s my message to the fans, that I’ll hate to lose as much as they do, and I’ll try not to,” she said. “I don’t plan to meddle. I plan to be informed enough so I can make good decisions at the top.”
Cynicism is fair, and I think she knows it. At least Ford Hamp is intimately aware what hasn’t worked. When she figures out how to change it, you hope she’s strong enough, and different enough, to somehow pull it off.