Lions fans love to hate ownership, but the Ford family does care

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William Clay Ford Sr. is a billionaire who has lived in the same metropolitan area for virtually his entire life. He is part of the family that built the Ford Motor Company, and it would be hard to find a company anywhere that meant more to a state than Ford has meant to Michigan. He owns the most popular sports team in his state. He is widely considered a nice man, a quiet man, and a generous man. And he is hated.

That is not too strong a word: Hated. Let's put it this way: Former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick lied under oath, used city money to hide it, resigned in disgrace, went to jail, and is now in danger of going to jail again for even worse corruption. More venom has been directed at Ford Sr.

To be fair, Ford got a big head start. Kilpatrick did not become mayor until 2002. Ford bought the Detroit Lions in 1963. Since then, the Lions have won one playoff game.

The losing alone does not explain the anger. No, what really has really driven people in Detroit crazy over the years is that Ford didn't seem to care as much as they did. Sometimes the Lions won, more often they lost, but either way Ford would wake up rich.

Fans said if Ford cared more, he would make big changes. If he cared more, he would fire Wayne Fontes, he would hire Bill Parcells, he would get rid of Matt Millen, he would do this, he would do that ...

Why doesn't he care? He obviously doesn't care ...

"I remember as a little boy I'd be in bed at 1 or 2 in the morning," Bill Ford Jr. says, "and I'd hear my father pacing back and forth because he was so restless about the upcoming game."


Last week, I talked to Ford Jr. for a story that appears in this week's NFL preview issue, about Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson. Stafford and Johnson could become one of the best pass-catch tandems in the NFL -- not just now, but ever -- and the cool thing for the Lions is that they are low-maintenance guys who love Detroit. Johnson has every physical gift of the great wide receivers except the diva bone. Stafford is like the most popular kid in school who still gets along with the unpopular kids. He is completely comfortable in his skin.

They have the values and priorities that pro franchises try to instill in their athletes, only to find that it is too late. The Lions did not have to teach Stafford and Johnson to care about winning and the city. They arrived pre-grounded.

"That was kind of the first thing I noticed about both of them," Ford said. "Then I got to meet their families and you can start to see why."

Calvin Johnson Jr. just signed a $132-million contract. His father still works as a railroad conductor, and his mother works in the Atlanta school system. Stafford's parents seem to have helped their son achieve greatness without making him think he is the center of the human race.

Ford seems to identify with that. He once told the Detroit Free Press that his father told him: "I don't care if you get straight A's. I don't care if you score three goals. But I do care that you give your best effort every day, and in everything you do."

That is a beautiful thing for a father to tell his son. It also explains why so many fans hate William Clay Ford Sr.


The public does not see much of Ford Sr. -- less, it seems, with every passing year. Sometimes he shows up when he fires or hires a prominent employee. Sometimes he doesn't. Sometimes he goes to Lions practice, but he rarely talks to the media. The absence just feeds the suspicion that he doesn't care.

Fans mostly hear stories from the people who work for him. My favorite came from former Lions coach Rod Marinelli, a good man who was well-liked by his players but was not meant to be a head coach.

Marinelli explained his weekly meetings with Ford Sr. like this: "We meet, I tell him everything that went wrong, and I explain, 'This is what we did poorly this week. This is what I did poorly as a football coach.'"

Not: "This is what we did well and what we did poorly." Just: "This is what we did poorly." The Lions went 0-16 that year, and it seemed like Ford Sr. just wanted an explanation from the people who were messing up.

Why doesn't he care?

"We had some pretty quiet Thanksgiving dinners," Ford Jr. says. "We also had some great ones. The mood around my house growing up on a Sunday was completely dependent on how we did that day."


William Clay Ford Sr. cares about winning. But he also cares about things that don't matter to sports fans. He cares about people and loyalty and friendships. He grew to like Millen so much that he couldn't bring himself to fire him -- he only did it when Ford Jr. came out and publicly said Millen had to go. And while the nation was baffled, Detroit was not surprised.

In 1967, Ford hired a man named Russ Thomas to be the Lions' general manager. His teams never won a playoff game. Thomas remained general manager until 1989, when he retired.

When Thomas died, Ford Sr. said, "He gave most of his life to the Lions and left an indelible mark on our organization. Aside from our business relationship, Russ was a very dear personal friend."

In many ways, Ford has been the opposite of George Steinbrenner, who belittled employees and held people to unrealistic expectations for decades, all in the name of winning. As a young man, Steinbrenner was an assistant football coach at Northwestern, and he always seemed to think of himself as an old-time football coach, a militarist leader in a capitalist world. He rode people relentlessly. He made them work on holidays just because he could, fired them for trivial sins and berated them for their failures while ignoring their achievements.

Ford Sr. seems more like a Little League coach. "I don't care if you score three goals. But I do care that you give your best effort every day, and in everything you do." Under his watch, the Lions have been a 50-year disaster, but like most losing sports franchises, they have had just enough success to give hope to those who are naturally hopeful. In 1969 and 1970 they went 19-8-1. In 1982 and 1983 they made the playoffs. In 1991 they went 12-4 under Fontes, and they built one of the most talented teams in the league. They made the playoffs six times in nine years. They were lacking in the two most important positions: quarterback and head coach. A tougher man would have made the tough decisions to turn occasional promise into true success.


William Clay Ford Sr. could have focused on charity work. He could have focused on business. He could have sold the Lions years ago and kept his season tickets. Instead he exists in the public consciousness as part punchline, part punching bag. He graduated from Yale, but people openly call him stupid. He never threatened to move the team, but fans have said they wished he would. He has been booed and mocked because his players kept losing.

He kept his team.

He loves his team.

"My interest has never peaked or waned with how we've done," Ford Jr. says. "I've been a diehard fan since the day I was born. My dad just literally loves the game of football. At the dinner table, that is pretty much all we talked about."

Hey, you would expect Ford Jr. to care no matter what the scoreboard says. But what's amazing is that his fan base feels the exact same way.

The Red Wings like to say Detroit is Hockeytown -- they are probably the best franchise in any sport over the last 20 years. The Pistons won a championship in 2004 and contended for a six-year stretch. The Tigers made the World Series in 2006 and almost made it last year. But in Michigan, everybody knows: The Lions are the biggest show in town.

From 2001 to 2008, Matt Millen put together one of the worst executive performances in American sports history. And in that time, local interest in the Lions grew exponentially. That isn't reflected in ticket sales -- the economy crumbled, and a lot of passionate fans refused to buy tickets because they hated management. (I know people often SAY they won't buy tickets because they hate the owner, but in Detroit this was actually an organized movement. People didn't just rip the owner -- they ripped people who bought tickets.)

Ford Jr. is the face of Ford Motor Company to most of the world. But he says, "When I go around town and talk to people, it's kind of funny. When I'm outside of Detroit, when people stop me, it's 95 percent autos. In Detroit, it's about 50-50. And of course, between cars and football, everyone's an expert."

We don't hear much from William Clay Ford Sr. these days, and I doubt there will be a memoir. He may be an enigma long after he is gone. We do know that Russ Thomas gave his best effort. Matt Millen gave his best effort. Wayne Fontes and Rod Marinelli and all those other coaches gave their best effort.

We want to believe that our best effort is enough. Ford Sr. is not the only one who tells his kids that -- most of us do. But the older you get, and the more you experience professional life, the more you realize: Some people's best effort still is not enough. Some people are not meant to lead. Some simply don't have the talent to rise to the top of their field. It is a hard truth, and we don't always like hard truths.

The Lions are coming off a playoff berth, and with Stafford and Johnson, they have a chance to contend for the next several years.

There is still a chance for a happy ending to this unfulfilling story. There is still a chance at greatness for a good man who has been an awful owner, for a man who is beloved by those who know him and reviled by those who don't.

William Clay Ford Sr. is 87. Lions fans would like him if they didn't hate him so much. I don't know if public sentiment can ever change, even with a Super Bowl win. It is embedded in the city's sporting soul. But I like to imagine Ford Sr. at one or two o'clock in the morning, unable to sleep, thinking, We did it. We finally did it.