Professional sports and the word “patience” have long been adversaries.
Coaches are considered deans of their leagues if they’ve been with their current team for three years. Roster churn rivals that of the colleges, where the players are booted out after a max of five years.
You don’t get the job done, they get rid of you and look for someone else.
Pro sports is a results-oriented business. You don’t produce, you’re out—even if it’s really not your fault.
Every Monday morning, fans in 16 NFL cities want the coach fired, the quarterback changed and the playbook revised. Then the following Monday, the other 16 cities’ fans want the same thing—excluding the good people of New England, of course.
Their team loses in Week 1 and when asked if they expected their guys to go 16-0, the fans will say, “Well, yeah!”
Fans are impatient. Team owners are impatient. Everybody wants to win. Right now. And nobody thinks it isn’t doable.
Except in Allen Park, or Dearborn, or Detroit, or Grosse Pointe—or wherever the Ford family happens to be holed up at the time.
The Lions’ ownership has taken its share of slings and arrows over the years—some of it warranted, some of it simply mean-spirited and unreasonable.
The refrain from the fanbase is that the Ford family doesn’t want to win.
As long as the turnstiles turn and the tickets are sold and the beers are bought at $12 a pop, all is fine and dandy in the Ford household—right?
It’s not that the Fords don’t want to win. They just don’t know how to win.
For whatever reason, it’s taken the Fords over 50 years to realize that pro sports is a cutthroat business. I’m still not sure that this postulate has sunk in.
Nationally, by the outsiders, Bill Ford Sr., who died in March 2014, was lauded for his character and his being a gentleman and one of the bedrocks upon which the NFL grew when the league firmly took its toehold in the 1960s.
The NFL will forever be indebted to the Ford family for its unwavering financial support of the league, mainly in the form of television advertising.
Not that you can tell by the officiating, but that’s another column.
But you can’t win in pro sports simply by being a nice—and patient—guy. And both of those attributes have been tied to Ford over the years, ad nauseam.
I think we’re about to see if Ford’s widow, Martha—who’s running the show now—is equally nice and patient.
But more on Mrs. Ford in a moment, I promise.
It may be shocking to the young whippersnapper fans out there, but there really was a time when Bill Ford was an impatient man.
One year into his Lions ownership, Ford—then a young man of 39 years old—boldly gave then-coach George Wilson an ultimatum after the 1964 season.
Fire your assistants, Ford said, or I’ll do it for you.
Wilson was—and still is—the last coach to lead the Lions to a championship. Alex Karras once called Wilson the finest man he’d known in football.
The Lions were two years removed from an 11-3 season when Ford, who took control the day that President Kennedy was killed in 1963, sprung the ultimatum on Wilson.
The 1963 Lions had sunk to 5-8-1, quite a come down from 11-2. But they rebounded to 7-5-2 in 1964.
Not good enough.
Ford wanted accountability. He demanded it.
The way Ford went about it was clumsy, but it was bold nonetheless.
Wilson refused his young owner’s demand. He fought for his assistants. But Ford fired them anyway.
Less than 48 hours after the assistants’ bloodletting, George Wilson resigned as coach.
Ford hired Harry Gilmer, a bad hire indeed. Ford cut bait with Gilmer after two awful seasons.
After some stability and improvement with Joe Schmidt as coach, Ford made a key mistake.
It was after the 1972 season. Schmidt was coming off four years in which his teams’ records were, in order, 9-4-1, 10-4, 7-6-1 and 8-5-1. Not bad.
The 1970 squad might have gone to the Super Bowl—and won the damn thing—if it wasn’t for a bizarre and maddening 5-0 loss to Dallas in the playoffs.
But Ford had a love affair with general manager Russ Thomas that to this day is open to speculation as to its source.
After ’72, Schmidt had had enough of Thomas’ meddling. The coach—and Lions legend—was tired of the Monday morning sit downs with Ford and Thomas as the two of them dissected and nitpicked Schmidt about the prior day’s game.
Ford, who gave George Wilson an ultimatum in 1964, was given one of his own.
Either Russ Thomas goes, Schmidt told Ford, or I do.
You know the decision.
That, I believe, is where Bill Ford went off the rails with the Lions.
He kept Thomas, who wasn’t much, and let his coach walk away.
Ford’s loyalty to Russ Thomas was perplexing at best and derelict at worst.
Yet Ford kept being impatient with his coaches.
Rick Forzano was threatened with a “win or else” week in 1976 and Rick did win, but he lost the next week so he was canned—just four games into his third season.
Tommy Hudspeth, another strange hire, was given less than two seasons.
Then Ford settled into a state of inertia. Age no doubt played a part.
The owner mellowed and the leash grew longer.
Monte Clark was given seven years, with not much to show for it.
Darryl Rogers, perhaps the worst hire of them all, was given almost four years.
The drafts were mostly bad. The trades weren’t much better. Contract negotiations with players—even the team’s best—were almost always contentious.
The constant during all this, beside Ford, was GM Thomas.
Ford’s unwillingness to fire Thomas, despite years of bad drafting and questionable acquisitions of personnel and miserly ways, doomed the Lions.
But then it got worse.
After Thomas retired following the 1989 season, Ford didn’t have a true football man run his franchise.
The GM was Chuck Schmidt, an accountant by trade. It was a Mickey Mouse way to run an NFL franchise.
Yet inertia remained firmly in place.
Wayne Fontes, whose era is now fondly looked on as the salad days of Lions football (four playoff appearances in eight years!), rode Ford’s loyalty from 1988-96. Fontes did OK, but to get eight years as a head coach in the NFL with one playoff win to show for it, was yet another example of the Ford ownership’s Job-like patience.
Nowhere else in the NFL besides Detroit could you coach for eight years with a .500 record and go 1-4 in the playoffs.
Ford’s show of patience and loyalty in his golden years reached another nadir with his stubborn refusal to fire President and GM Matt Millen. Not only was Millen not canned until almost eight years on the job, Ford actually gave Matt a contract extension after five years of ineptitude.
Bill Ford is gone now and his widow is in charge. And again the Lions are at a crossroads.
I believe that Bill Ford’s decision to keep Russ Thomas and let Joe Schmidt resign in 1973 set the franchise back years—maybe decades.
Now Martha Ford has a chance to do something bold. She has a chance to show that loyalty and patience shouldn’t trump the lack of on-field success.
There’s little doubt in my mind that if her husband was alive now, coach Jim Caldwell, GM Marty Mayhew and President Tom Lewand would have absolutely nothing to worry about.
Despite the 0-5 start. Despite the realization that draft picks are, once again, not playing to the value of their selections. Despite the utter disorganized product on the field. Despite a so-called franchise quarterback melting down before our very eyes. Despite players loafing it on the field. Despite the feckless response of the coach to a robbery in Seattle. Despite the Lions again being looked at as a joke nationally.
None of that would matter, thanks to the loyalty and patience of one Bill Ford.
Ironically, the only sign of disloyalty and impatience has come from Golden Tate, toward the fans.
But Martha Ford can change all that.
According to Caldwell, Mrs. Ford “gave the league a piece of her mind” following the debacle a week ago Monday in Seattle, when a non-call stripped the Lions of almost certain victory.
Fine. But she must do more than that.
Lewand and Mayhew have had almost eight years running the team from a football perspective. The duo has been able to fire and hire two coaches. Dozens of draft picks have been made.
Yet the Lions are no closer now to putting a championship product on the field than they were when Lewand and Mayhew were named to replace Millen in 2008.
Yes, the Lions’ schedule to start this season has been brutal. Yes, few believed that the team could win 11 games, as it did in 2014. Many thought .500 might be the ceiling.
Professional sports is supposedly about winning, no matter what. Nobody wants to hear excuses or see anything used as a crutch.
Lewand and Mayhew haven’t gotten the job done. In eight years, the Lions have played in two playoff games. Naturally, they are 0-2.
Caldwell isn’t the real problem here, though he’s certainly culpable. The players’ body language and effort in Sunday’s blowout loss to the Cardinals were disturbing—especially from some of the so-called stalwarts, such as, ironically, Golden Tate.
Martha Ford needs to do more than give the NFL a piece of her mind.
She has a chance to run for governor of Michigan and win.
All she has to do is fire Lewand and Mayhew, for starters.
She has a chance to prove that despite her last name, it’s a new day with the Lions—a day when losing and being a league laughingstock are no longer acceptable.
She has a chance to shed the albatross that is her husband’s ownership and create a red letter day for the Detroit Lions as an organization.
For 31 teams in the NFL, the mantra is produce or we’ll get someone who will.
Martha Ford needs to, finally, add the Lions to that list.