This is a tough one. I heard about the passing of William Clay Ford Sr. yesterday afternoon, and since then all I’ve thought about is, how do you pay tribute to one hell of a man, but one the worst owners in sports history. If this article was written for the front page of one of the local Detroit papers, it would state that Mr. Ford loved this city and moved mountains to help it through the Ford Motor Company. It would note his military service and the endless charities that he founded and supported throughout his life. However, this is about the Detroit Lions, and by them, he failed. One playoff win in over fifty years is all you need to know.
The saddest thing is that it probably hurt him more than it did any of us, we just didn’t see him display his dismay publicly. When Lion president Tom Lewand said “No owner loved his team more than Mr. Ford loved the Lions”, I think he REALLY meant “No one loved the Detroit Lions more than Mr. Ford”. By all accounts, Mr. Ford lived for the Detroit Lions, after being passed over for the leadership role in the Ford Motor Company. Later, he even turned down the chairmanship of the company because it meant he would have to give up ownership of his beloved Lions. “No dice” he told “The Deuce”. Now we’ve all made certain sacrifices to be called Lions fans, but I doubt any of us did something like that.
It’s ironic that his biggest fault was something which we cherish in other people, one of our most admirable traits as human beings: loyalty. Everybody liked working for the Ford family over at the Lions headquarters. Mr. Ford was about as good a boss as you could hope for. He was compassionate, and he knew their names; not a small thing for a man of his stature. I’m sure he was that way at Ford Motor Company also. Sports, on the other hand, is a ruthless business that has little place for loyalty. Like a tragic Shakespearean play, we watched helplessly as Mr. Ford seemed to be under some spell when it came time to fire someone. He wouldn’t do it.
From a fan’s standpoint, it appeared that when you got to be really tight with Mr. Ford, you could keep your job a lot longer than you should have, much to our chagrin. I think you have to also mix in a little stubbornness into the equation in his unwillingness to fire certain people. How else can you explain Russ Thomas keeping his job for 22 seasons and only making the playoffs once, or Matt Millen getting a contract extension? Mr. Ford just couldn’t bring himself to fire people he believed in, even when that belief seemed unfounded. His son Bill Ford Jr. had to step in and do away with Millen.
Personally, I was rooting for him to win one before it was too late in the same way Tigers fans root for Mr. I to get a World Series soon. In the sports world, he should have been regarded in the same light as the Rooney family in Pittsburgh, for all he helped the league. I guess it just wasn’t in the cards. The Ford family is going to own the Lions for a very long time, and when the time comes when they finally get to raise that Super Bowl trophy, you can bet William Clay Ford Sr. will finally get his due.