Fans were wrong about Ford

Detroit Lions owner died Sunday at age 88


DETROIT – It's sad, but true.

Some Lions' fans won't shed a tear over the death of longtime owner William Clay Ford Sr.

Ford - the Lions' sole owner since 1964 - died at 88 on Sunday.


For years, fans blamed Ford for his team's inability to be a consistent winner. After all, he was the lone constant in a franchise that has won only one playoff game since 1957. His team also never played in a Super Bowl.

For decades, fans called sports-talk radio shows and said Ford didn't care about winning. Worse, some said the Lions would never win a thing until Ford either sold the team or died.

It truly became a tired radio bit after every terrible Lions' loss. So much so, some radio host stopped taking those irrational calls.

Not only were some fans mean to Ford, but wrong about him, too.

Ford wanted to win. No matter who he hired - both good or bad personnel - it just never happened for him. It was simply a mission unfulfilled.

Most who really knew Ford balked at the notion that all he cared about was filling his stadium on Sundays and making money.

"Yes, he wanted to win," said former Lions' safety Ron Rice on Sunday. "He wanted to win just as much as we wanted to win.

"People confused his style of ownership as lock of interest. He hired managers that were responsible for implementing a plan, plans that didn't pan out but nonetheless, the intent was there."

And Ford hired any and everybody to try to bring Motown a championship in football. Granted, many where the wrong choice. Still, there were some big names that fans embraced when Ford hired them, including Bobby Ross, Matt Millen, Steve Mariucci.

Those three were accomplished and came with credentials.

But there was also the head-scratchers the frustrated fans, especially the too-soft coach Wayne Fontes and over-his-head coach Rod Marinelli, who went 0-16 in 2008.

If Ford was to be blamed for anything, it was that he was loyal to a fault, giving people who weren't getting the job done new contracts despite failing to win.

You saw that early with Fontes, who won Ford's only postseason game in 1991 against the Dallas Cowboys.

That Lions' team had a ton of talent and probably would have gone to the Super Bowl had they had a better coach.

But Ford loved Fontes and kept him around years too long. That was a mistake.

So was letting Millen, who became the teams GM without previous experience, sticking around eight years. Millen finished with the worst eight-year record in modern NFL history (31-84, a .270 winning percentage).

It was clear after the first few seasons that Millen was in over his head. And with the fan base calling for Millen to be axed after his five-year contract, Ford gave him a five-year extension.

Fans were mad. And rightly so.

Still, it wasn't like Ford didn't spend money on players or didn't try to hired top-notched, front-office people because he did.

They just couldn't get the job done for the quiet, out-of-public-view owner. Hence, it was easy to bash Ford.

It was unfortunate. But if the owner is going to get praise for winning, he's going to get blame for losing.

That's a big difference, however, to fans believing Ford didn't care. That wasn't true. You don't own a professional sports team and not want to win. It's the reason you play the games.

"For five decades, Mr. Ford's passion for the Lions, Detroit, and the NFL was the foundation of one of the NFL's historic franchises," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said.

In Ford's 50-year tenure as owner, the Lions had just 14 winnings seasons and had only 10 playoff appearances.

For sure, paltry numbers by any standards, especially in a league that brags about its parity.

"He was never visible to the public like Dan Snyder, Jerry Jones or even Robert Kraft, it wasn't his style," Rice said. "He was an asset to the league, Detroit and made the childhood dreams of hundreds of players come true."

In the end, most fans will view Ford as that owner who couldn't win. But let's make one thing clear, he wanted to win.