Joe Schmidt wishes he could have had one more conversation, one more laugh – one more exchange of jokes with the man he knew as his boss and friend in a career that made Schmidt an icon in the history of the Lions’ franchise.
Schmidt was hit hard when he got the news Sunday at his winter home in Florida that owner William Clay Ford had died. Mr. Ford had battled with pneumonia before succumbing at his home in Grosse Pointe Shores. He was 88.
Schmidt and Ford had a long association that began in 1956, Schmidt’s fourth season with the Lions and Ford’s first as one of the franchise’s director.
Schmidt had no warning that Mr. Ford had been ill.
“It was a surprise when they called and told me,” Schmidt said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “I felt bad. I’ve been here (in Florida) a while. I didn’t have any means of finding that out (that Ford had been ill).”
Schmidt’s relationship with Ford spanned more than a half century, and it was on a level unlike any other former Lions player or head coach. Schmidt was a success in both roles. He was a Hall of Fame middle linebacker from 1953-65 and had four winning seasons in six years as head coach, from 1967-72.
Schmidt saw many sides of Ford, but the one the one that will endure is the way he treated people. That was clear when Schmidt became head coach. It was a vastly different dynamic than in his playing days, when he was responsible for leading the defense.
As head coach, the buck stopped at his desk – and so did the excuses.
“From what I see today from the owners, he was one of the best in the league,” Schmidt said. “He had good ideas. As far as an owner, he never really demanded anything in regard to what I should be doing or what I shouldn’t be doing.
“He was very kind to me – very kind to all of the players. Anything he could do, he’d do it to make it better.”
Ford joined the Lions as a director in 1956. He was 31 at the time and not much older than most of the players. Schmidt was 24 and already had established himself as an All-Pro, and he had played on the 1953 championship team.
It took a while for Schmidt to realize what it meant to have Henry Ford’s grandson in the franchise’s front office, and later as owner. It was not something that Ford pushed on people.
“After I got older and went into business – before I retired as a player -- then it dawned on me,” Schmidt said. “You’d have to walk around with a sack on your head not to know what the Ford name and the Ford logo meant.”
When Ford took over as sole owner in 1964, Schmidt was on the downside of his career. He played two more seasons and retired after the 1965 season, thinking he was through with football.
Ford talked him into joining Harry Gilmer’s staff as an assistant coach to help bring harmony and cohesiveness to a Lions team that was rebelling under Gilmer.
Schmidt had business interests in Detroit, including part ownership in the Golden Lion restaurant that was a popular haunt for many, including Ford.
When Ford fired Gilmer after the 1966 season, Schmidt was his first choice as next head coach. At first Schmidt declined. He hadn’t intended on being an assistant, and head coach was another step up a ladder that he didn’t want to climb.
Ultimately, Ford’s persistence won him over. After two losing seasons, Schmidt produced four straight winning seasons. The highlight was the 1970 season, when the Lions closed out the regular season with a five-game winning streak to make the playoffs as a wild card. They came up empty on offense against the Cowboys, losing 5-0.
Schmidt retired from coaching after the 1972 season to devote full time to his thriving business interests.
Schmidt and Ford remained friends over the years, and Schmidt has fond recollections of his days as a player and coach under Ford.
Years ago, the Lions would remain on the west coast between games when the played the Rams and 49ers in back-to-back games. Ford gave the players extra money for the week away from home.
“As we got off the plane, we got 200 bucks or whatever it was,” Schmidt said. “There was some walking-around money.”
Schmidt’s recollection of Ford was his generosity in spirit, not just money.
“A lot of things he did, to this day nobody would know what he did for ballplayers,” Schmidt said. “I never saw him in any manner being disrespectful to anybody or to one of his ballplayers.”
Ford’s desire to win was greater than the general public could ever know, Schmidt said.
“People don’t understand, don’t know his competitive spirit,” Schmidt said. “He had the ability to keep that within himself. He wanted to win as much, or more, than anybody else.”
Schmidt recalled one game where Ford’s competitive streak was tested – along with his sense of humor.
The Lions missed a game-winning field-goal attempt in a road game against Buffalo. After the game, Ford was so upset in the locker room that he kicked an empty bucket and sent it flying 15 feet through the air.
“I couldn’t help it,” Schmidt said. “I told him, ‘You should have been kicking. We could have won the game.’ He looked at me. He didn’t think it was funny.”
Ford’s mood changed the next day, when he and Schmidt sat through their regular Monday-night film review session.
“He said, ‘You’re lucky I didn’t fire you right then,’” Schmidt recalled. “Then he laughed about it.
“He’d get hot like everybody else – get upset. He had the ability to get it off his chest and go on to the next level.”