Maybe Bill Ford wasn’t cutthroat enough.
Pro sports ownership is unlike any other business. Some of the basic tenets of corporate life just don’t apply. Improving the bottom line often isn’t as simple as cutting costs if you can’t increase revenue. Pro sports is a crazy business, truthfully. That’s part of why some of our wackiest public figures have been team owners.
Bill Veeck. Charlie O. Finley. George Steinbrenner. Al Davis. Mark Cuban.
Only in pro sports could men of this bombastic nature have been successful.
Bill Ford, the Lions owner who passed away today at age 88, subscribed to behavior that is just fine and dandy in the conventional business world, but not always so good in the competitiveness of pro sports.
Two L-words come to mind when I think of Ford and his Lions ownership, which spanned an even 50 years.
Loyalty is one. Losing is the other.
The two are not mutually exclusive, except that Ford was never able to strike a healthy balance between loyalty and the cutthroat nature needed to be successful in the NFL.
Ford employed two of the most hated men in Detroit sports—Russ Thomas and Matt Millen—for a combined 30 years between them. Thomas served as GM from 1967-89, and Millen was team president and de facto GM from 2001-08.
Thomas was a miserly curmudgeon who was maybe just as reviled by some of the players as he was by the fan base. Millen had no real issues with the players, but was toxic among the fans.
Neither Thomas or Millen would have survived with any other NFL team for nearly as long as they did with the Lions. Their woeful won/loss records simply would not have been tolerated for that many years by other team owners.
Losing branded the Ford ownership. This is true. But let it never be said that Bill Ford didn’t want to win. He just didn’t know how.
Part of that not knowing was exhibited in his nearly blind faith and trust in Thomas and Millen.
Ford didn’t have the hardened heart of a Davis, who ran the Oakland Raiders with swagger and a mentality that matched his team’s nickname and logo.
Ford didn’t have the creativity and outside the box thinking as an Edward DeBartolo, who took the San Francisco 49ers in his ownership from losers to Super Bowl champs within five years.
Ford didn’t have the daring of a Robert Kraft, who has been winning with the New England Patriots almost from the moment he bought the Pats in 1995.
And, in his defense, Ford didn’t have the luck of an Art Rooney, who as Pittsburgh Steelers owner hired a rookie coach named Chuck Noll in 1969, watched him suffer through a 1-13 first season, and then also watched as Noll drafted incredibly well in building a four-time Super Bowl champion.
What Ford did have, was an almost fatherly kindness and unwavering faith in those he hired, for better or for worse.
That’s fine in the “normal” business world, but as has been noted, pro sports isn’t normal.
Lions fans had a problem with Ford because they felt that he put his loyalty in the wrong people and places.
Where was the loyalty to the fans, for example?
In pro sports, tough decisions need to be made—decisions that affect families, tarnish careers and leave people scrambling. But America doesn’t tolerate losing, so these decisions are necessary, more often than the decision maker would prefer. And those decisions are decisions that are made in loyalty to the paying customers, not necessarily to those on the payroll.
Bill Ford never truly understood that. Or, at the very least, he didn’t want to face it. So he didn’t, more often than not.
You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who worked for Ford who would have anything bad to say about him. A cynic would scoff and say, “Of course you wouldn’t. There wasn’t any accountability.”
I don’t think that lack of accountability was the issue. It was too many second chances.
Ford’s lineage was to a time when the auto industry was in its heyday—when a worker for the Big Three put in his 40 hours, stayed with the company for 30 years, and got his gold watch. The worker was loyal to the company—even after the advent of unions—and the company was loyal to the employee.
But that isn’t pro sports.
In Thomas’s era as GM, with Ford’s blessing, the Lions traditionally went cheap with the coach. The results weren’t good, with the exception of Joe Schmidt’s six years. To make matters worse, several assistants who worked for the Lions during Thomas’s time ended up finding success elsewhere as head coach.
Don Shula, Chuck Knox, Jerry Glanville and Bill Belichick were four assistants who used the Lions as springboards, which made Ford’s ownership look even worse.
The same thing went for players, particularly in the AFL-NFL bidding wars of the 1960s.
Fred Biletnikoff, John Hadl, Gerry Philbin and Johnny Robinson were four AFL stars who were drafted by the Lions but, because of money, opted to sign with the “other” league instead. It’s mind-boggling to think of how different the Lions’ fate would have been with those players on the roster.
As it was, the Lions fielded some pretty decent rosters in the 1960s and ’70s, but tended to underachieve, big time.
The gaping hole during Bill Ford’s ownership of the Lions was the lack of a strong, proven football man at the top. As a mostly hands-off owner (though he did talk to his head coaches every week), Ford needed that brilliant football mind to run the show on a day-to-day basis. He never found that mind, wasting 30 years on Thomas and Millen instead.
Ford took his team north to Pontiac in 1975, but returned it to Detroit proper in 2002. Both were the right moves at the time.
The Lions organization, under Ford, was first class. The facilities, the generosity and loyalty, were all regarded as top drawer by those within the NFL. The Ford family’s support of the league by way of TV advertising in the 1960s helped stabilize the league in its early days of TV contracts.
But little of that mattered to a fan base that hasn’t known a championship for 57 years now and counting.
The only bottom line that fans pay attention to is the won/loss record. They couldn’t care less if the team owner is a mean, heartless son of a bitch, as long as their guys win.
I believe Lions president Tom Lewand, who said in a prepared statement in the wake of Ford’s death this morning that “No owner loved his team more than Mr. Ford loved the Lions.”
I also don’t doubt for a moment that Ford wanted to win a Super Bowl.
But his being tone deaf to his fan base yet at the same time being loyal to the incompetent, chafed Lions followers, and with good reason.
Bill Ford was a decent, kind man in a business where that wasn’t a prerequisite for success. He lacked the meanness and dog-eat-dog mentality necessary to end up on top in February.
There is no crime in that. It just didn’t work.