Niyo: Lions' GM hire is the one that really matters

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit — It’s a family business.

If you understood that — truly understood that — then Thursday’s news about the local pro football team probably came as little surprise.

If not, well, where have you been the last half-century or so?

The decision to hire Rod Wood as the Lions’ new team president — a move announced by owner Martha Firestone Ford in a statement released by the team — certainly didn’t come as a shock to many inside the organization.

The president and CEO of Ford Estates had been around the team’s Allen Park headquarters often in recent months. He’s a family adviser with close ties to Ford’s second-oldest daughter, Sheila Ford Hamp, and her husband, Steve Hamp, both of whom have taken a more active and influential role as Martha Ford assumed control of the organization following William Clay Ford Sr.’s passing in March 2014.

And once Martha Ford cut loose Wood’s predecessor, Tom Lewand, along with general manager Martin Mayhew, a couple of weeks ago, with the team off to a disastrous 1-7 start, this seemed like a natural move.

Natural for the Fords, that is, as they replaced one trusted family friend with another and called it “an ideal choice.” Last week, they promised the fans a “thorough and exhaustive national search for the best people to lead our organization” and Thursday they hired a guy who already has an office — Suite 440, I believe — at Ford Field.

Familiar face

In the statement, the Lions’ owner cited “Wood’s familiarity with our organization in his role as President and CEO of Ford Estates and his accomplishments in the business world” as the chief reason for this move. Ford added that Wood’s hiring “will also help ensure a smooth and positive transition for our organization.”

“It was critical to me and my family to fill the President’s position as soon as possible, provided we identified the right person,” Ford continued. “I am confident Rod is the right person. I also believe Rod’s appointment now gives us the ability to move more decisively with respect to our search for a general manager.”

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And for all the hand-wringing about Thursday’s announcement, that’s really where the concern lies here. They still have the ability to do the right thing now. But will they? Can they?

Wood, 55, knows plenty about money, with a background in banking and wealth management. But among the questions he’ll be asked when he meets with the media for the first time this afternoon is what he knows about football. Or more the point, to what extent does he expect to be involved in football decisions, whether it’s managing the salary cap or weighing in on personnel matters.

Hopefully, he doesn’t, unlike Lewand. Because that’s going to be among the first things any potential GM candidate will ask, as well. And the wrong answer will eliminate the best of them.

Outside help

Likewise, beyond the obvious questions about ownership succession plans, there are other concerns that Thursday’s presidential decree again raises. The family in-fighting — specifically Sheila Ford Hamp’s power play at the expense of her brother, Bill Ford Jr. — undoubtedly will be a red flag for some. Just as Thursday’s press release was for the fans, specifically the part about the GM search advisory board consisting of Ford’s four children and the new president.

The truth is, though, they’ll conduct this search for the new GM — the job that really, truly matters — with the help of the NFL’s Career Development Advisory Panel. That group includes former front-office executives and coaches, successful folks like Ron Wolf and Ernie Accorsi and Charley Casserly and Tony Dungy.

And if the Lions are smart — I know, I know — they’ll go ahead and hire one or two of those men to lead their search, something ownership in Chicago and Carolina and New York and Atlanta has done in recent years.

That’s something Ford Sr. didn’t do the last time around, way back in 2008, when he finally fired president/GM Matt Millen and promoted Mayhew and Lewand — fresh off that 0-16 season — rather than bringing in an outsider to rebuild his condemned property.

“Yeah, I talked to a lot of people, including the commissioner, and I got a lot of input,” Ford Sr. told us then. “And I was happy with, really, what we had.”

What they have now is better than what they had then, obviously. The Lions’ front-office vacancy might not be the most desirable in the NFL this winter, but with decent talent on the current roster and ample cap space and high draft picks to reshape it, it’s hardly the least.

But it’s what comes next that will decide this franchise’s fate, and considering the Ford family’s past — and their present — there’s every reason to be skeptical.