Martha Firestone Ford on owning Lions: 'Wonderful'

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News
Martha Firestone Ford leaves Lions mini-camp Tuesday in Allen Park.

Allen Park — Martha Firestone Ford took over as Lions owner last March, and in her first public interview since her husband died, she expressed delight about the recent experience of being in charge.

"Wonderful," she said of what the past year has been like. "I've loved it. I've made every away game along with the ones here, and I really enjoy it."

Ford, 89, became the owner and chairwoman last year after her husband William Clay Ford Sr. died of pneumonia at 88. Though she and her children, who are all vice chairpersons, haven't addressed the media since her husband died, Ford has been a visible and active owner at team headquarters in Allen Park and at the team's road games.

She frequently attends practice, and during minicamp on Tuesday, she spoke with president Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew throughout the two-hour practice. Lions coach Jim Caldwell said he speaks with the owner "periodically."

"One of the things you'll find out very, very quickly is that she knows football," Caldwell said. "She reads it, she studies, she knows what's going on, she knows the team and so most often it's questions about maybe a player that we've discussed. She does a great job, and she's on top of everything."

And after seeing the moves the Lions made this offseason, Ford is optimistic that the team can measure up to last year's team, which went 11-5 with her as owner.

"We had such a good year last year that I'm hoping that we can do the same," she said. "I'm sure we can. We have a lot of good players. We've lost a few, but we've made up for it with having a few more that are good."

One of those players the Lions lost, of course, was All Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who signed with the Miami Dolphins in March. Ford called Suh shortly after the Lions decided not to use the franchise tag on him for the exorbitant price of $26.9 million.

"I was disappointed because he was such a nice person and such a good player," she said. "And I did talk to him and … I told him that I was his fan and I would like to have him back, and about two weeks later, he left."

Ford's interaction with Suh was just one of many with the Lions' players, and past players often praised her husband for talking to them after games or practices. Wide receiver Golden Tate said she sent him a letter last year after he made his first Pro Bowl.

"I know every time I see her I go give her a big hug — one of my favorite ladies," Tate said. "She's part of the reason I'm here, so I'm definitely appreciative of her."

Tate described Ford as "upbeat" and "sweet," and he remembers her nearly breaking down into tears when Caldwell gave the Ford Family the game ball after Week 1 last year.

"She's almost out here every other day, and to see her and the support that she has for us and being able to even know us by name and have conversations with her, it's awesome," safety James Ihedigbo said. "And that's what you want. You want an owner that cares about her guys and her team and that's what you get in Mrs. Ford."

Since Ford's husband died, there was some question about how the family would handle ownership duties. William Clay Ford Jr. had been active in the previous few years, and while there was an expectation that he would take on an even bigger role, he's focused more on Ford Motor Company.

Ford Jr. remains a vice chairman and his sisters — Martha Ford Morse, Sheila Ford Hamp and Elizabeth Ford Kontulis — are vice chairwoman, and Martha Firestone Ford said she listens to their input with regards to the team with "quite a few meetings."

And even though she's around more than when her husband was in charge, Ford said she doesn't feel like much has changed.

"I feel it's just more of the same," she said. "I just maybe haven't been as visible, but I've been there and involved and loving it."

Although she enjoyed traveling to all the road games in 2014, Ford admitted doing the same next year might be difficult with some games on the West Coast, including San Diego and Seattle.

Ford also said she's been impressed so far with Caldwell, whom the Lions hired last January. She said she thought highly of all the coaches her husband hired in his 50 years as owner, but that Caldwell has not disappointed.

"I think so highly of him," she said. "I think he's absolutely the most wonderful coach and done such a great job."

And since Ford took over last year, the Lions have done well to add players, whether as free agents or in the draft, who aren't liabilities off the field.

"I just trust that we pick players that don't have a problem," she said. "There's always that risk, but hopefully we have a good solid team because I think that means a lot."