O'HARA: A tribute to the legacy of William Clay Ford

Posted Mar 9, 2014

Mr. Ford cared about the people who worked for his franchise, his willingness to remain in the wings and let them do their jobs, and his passion for the game

William Clay Ford never wanted to take away as much as one milli-watt of the spotlight that shone on the Detroit Lions team that he owned for more than a half century.

Win or lose, good times or bad, in whatever direction the rollercoaster that is the NFL season took his coaches and players, Mr. Ford was content to let them enjoy the ride. He might have been the owner and ultimate boss, but they were the stars.

Bill Ford(Photo: Gavin Smith)

As I write this column, it is a tribute to Mr. Ford’s decency and caring for his team and the people who worked for him that smiles, and warm feelings share company with the sadness over the passing of a man whom the public would have been well served to have known better as a human being.

Mr. Ford died Sunday of pneumonia, as reported by the Lions and the Ford Motor Co. He was 88. He became a director of the Lions in 1956 and became sole owner in 1963 when he bought out a group of local businessmen for a reported $4.5 million. He assumed ownership in 1964.

As owner, he had a long ride – 50 full seasons and the beginning of an offseason of a 51st – and sometimes a rough ride. The game changed in so many ways. Passing offenses took over on the field. Marketing and advertising sent revenues skyrocketing. Along with that, free-agency changed how teams were built and how much players were paid.

What never changed was how deeply Mr. Ford cared about the people who worked for his franchise, his willingness to remain in the wings and let them do their jobs, and his passion for the game.

I have covered the Lions since 1977, when I was assigned to the beat by The Detroit News, and as a columnist since 2012 for the team’s website, Detroitlions.com. In that span, I have been privileged, along with some colleagues of the past, to have had numerous conversations and interviews with Mr. Ford.

And before being assigned to cover the Lions, as a reporter at The News I heard stories about Mr. Ford that gave insight to his personality. What follows are stories from those experiences – anecdotes, humor and incidents that portray Mr. Ford as owner and human being:

Quiet highlight: It was the final minutes of the Lions’ 38-6 win over the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional playoffs of the 1991 season, and the Pontiac Silverdome was a giant party pit. Barry Sanders had put an exclamation point on the victory with a 47-yard stop-start run through the Cowboys’ defense for the game’s final touchdown.

Head coach Wayne Fontes and his players were exchanging high fives and hugs in front of the bench when Fontes noticed one person standing just beyond the end zone, taking in the scene with a small smile of satisfaction.

It was Mr. Ford, and Fontes sent an assistant over to bring the owner over to share in the celebration. After all, it was his team – but he didn’t want to intrude on his players’ party.

Mr. Ford’s association with people was underscored by Fontes’ appearance at the press conference after the 1996 season, when Mr. Ford announced that Fontes had been fired.

Fontes attended, and when Ford was done making the announcement, Fontes stepped to the podium – dressed in a leather Lions team jacket.

“Fired?” Fontes said with a smile. “What do you mean fired?”

And with that, Fontes spoke passionately about how great it was working for Ford.

Influence: Mr. Ford had it from his name alone – a grandson of Henry Ford – and his position with the Ford Motor Co.

He used it to better the NFL, and the occasional franchise that needed help.

He was part of a small group of owners who, along with NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, spent many long nights hammering out the details of the merger between the NFL and AFL. Much further behind the scenes, he helped franchises that were struggling financially.

During his tenure a decade ago as head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, coach Dick Vermeil interrupted the question-answer session to volunteer a role Ford played with the Eagles when Vermeil was head coach (1976-82).

There were times, Vermeil said that day, when he didn’t know if the franchise would remain financially viable until Ford used his connections to help finance its debt.

Vermeil also echoed that day what many coaches and NFL executives have said – most recently former Bucs and Colts coach Tony Dungy. If you get a chance to work for the Lions, take it, because of the way Ford treats employees and allows them to do their jobs without meddling.

Caring touch: Although he was not a meddlesome owner, Mr. Ford kept in close touch with everything that happened with his staff. That included their families.

He underwent several heart procedures over the years, and he used his experience when he got wind that an assistant coach’s son was about to undergo a heart procedure.

Mr. Ford called the young man at the hospital and explained to him what he was about to go through, and that he shouldn’t be alarmed by any soreness he felt when he awoke from the operation. Any pain was from muscles and other tissue affected by the operation. His heart would be fine. And it was.

The quotes: He didn’t seek out the media, but he didn’t mince words when he had something to say. And his zingers hit the target.

For example:

After a bad loss at old Tiger Stadium: “We weren’t only out-played. We were outcoached.”

To wide receiver Brett Perriman, who shouted over to him during practice about wanting a raise: “Wrong pants,” Mr. Ford shot back, pulling an empty hand out of his pocket. No one laughed harder than Perriman.

On what he told former coach Daryl Rogers after a late-night meeting: “We’re losing and we’re boring.”

On the officiating in a game in which several bad calls went against the Lions: “No comment. The officiating was so bad that I’m afraid I might say something I’ll regret.” OK, we got the drift.

Calling agent Jerry Argovitz a “Machiavellian leech of the highest rank” during a contract holdout by Billy Sims.

He broke the ice in his greeting to Barry Sanders when the two met for the first time a few years after Sanders’ retired on the eve of the 1999 season. Sanders was going to attend the Lions’ home game that week.

“Are you doing anything Sunday?” Ford said to Barry.

Life with the stars: Mr. Ford’s public profile was as low as possible for a man of his position and family name, but he was close friends with people such as President John F. Kennedy, Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra and his “rat pack.”

On a visit to Detroit in the 1990s, Sinatra called Mr. Ford for a dinner recommendation. Barbara and Frank wound up hosting a dinner together with Mr. Ford and his wife, Martha. The restaurant still boasts the event on its website.

A personal view: I got to spend most of a day with Mr. Ford in his office at Ford Motor Co. World Headquarters in Dearborn for a long profile that appeared in The Detroit News in the 1970s.

It was a fascinating experience. He spoke about visiting his grandfather, Henry, at his Fairlane estate and driving miniature cars that were built for when the grandkids visited.

He talked about his passion for music and playing the drums to records. His favorite genre at the time was Country and Western.

He drove a Jaguar long before the British automaker was bought by the Ford Motor Co. When I asked him about it, he smiled and said he liked to see what the competition was making. What he really meant was, he liked driving a Jaguar.

In short, Mr. Ford was an easy man to talk to.

Many years after that day, I informed him one day at a training-camp practice that I had decided to leave The News. Later that day, he walked by when I was talking on my cellphone.

“Phoning it in already?” he needled.

Charity behind the scenes: The Ford family name is associated with just about every major philanthropic institution in Southeast Michigan, but they are far from the only groups that have benefitted from Mr. Ford’s charity.

He reportedly once paid all costs to have the Detroit Public School League’s basketball games televised for a full season. There was one stipulation, and it had nothing to do with having his name mentioned prominently. Just the opposite.

He asked that his name not be mentioned. He didn’t want to take any credit for it.

So now you know, if you hadn't already, about this example of charity and many others from a man who let the light shine on others.