William Clay Ford Sr. was many things in his nearly nine decades: he was a curious grandson of the genius Henry Ford; he was the quiet, but favorite son of his mother Ethel, a member of that Hudson family of Detroit; he was a volunteer teenage soldier in World War II; he was a skilled athlete at Yale, where he earned a degree in economics; he was a gifted negotiator who helped broker deals for the Ford Motor Company with organized labor; he was a philanthropist who gave tens of millions of dollars to charities in Michigan; and he was the owner of the Detroit Lions.
He was a father and grandfather, too, but for most readers, it’s Ford’s ownership of the Lions that matters most. Fair enough. But Ford’s legacy as a football man will not be a favorable one, unlike his overall contribution to Detroit, the state of Michigan, and his family, which were immense.
Sure, there are those who have already piled on Ford before his proper retirement to the great beyond. That’s too sickening for my tastes, even though I’ve certainly been accused (quite accurately) of being insensitive and cynical at times. No, I don’t wish to criticize Ford for his stewardship of our football Lions. I prefer to see him as a man who lived a full life, much of it in service to Detroit and the state he loved. That’s worthy of recognition and appreciation.
In 1943, before he was 18 years old, Ford tried to get himself into the United States Navy. The Grosse Pointe enlistment officer refused, in fact he even offered an exemption to Ford, based on his value as a member of the Ford family, which he figured made him more important as a wartime worker in his granddad’s factory building tanks and planes. A month later, Ford tried once again to slip past the officer to get his sailor’s cap, but was rebuffed again. Finally, when he was 18, “Billy” joined the Navy. He was waiting to be shipped to the Pacific two years later when the war ended. Never asking or accepting any favors, Ford served his country honorably. He should be remembered for that.
This year marks the 80th anniversary of Detroit’s entry into the National Football League. For more than 50 of those years, the Lions were owned by Ford, who bought them for $6 million on November 22, 1963, the same day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Ironically, though Ford was the most thoughtful and levelheaded son of Edsel Ford, he never attained leadership of Ford Motor Company. He was passed over and the job was presented to his younger brother, Henry II. “Henry the Deuce” was a maverick, a playboy, and impetuous. Bill was none of these things, which helped him maintain a steady arc of success as a businessman, but didn’t always translate well to his pro sports career.
Much has been written, muttered, and even screamed about Ford Sr. and his ownership of the Detroit football team. But it’s important to note that Ford’s steady hand helped secure the Lions in Detroit, it helped guide them through the skyrocketing growth of the sport, and it built the franchise into one that is now worth nearly a billion dollars. That’s not to excuse his failings, which mostly stem from that steadfast loyalty and conservative blandness that also cost him a chance to be the head of Ford Motor Company. Yes, Ford Sr. was much too loyal to the football men he hired. It’s an oversimplification, but basically when Ford shook a man’s hand and got his name on a contract, he believed in having that man finish the job to completion. He’d rather stick with the horse that was laboring than switch horses in mid-stream. That’s why Chuck Schmidt and Wayne Fontes and Matt Millen all overstayed their welcome, especially Millen. It’s the last 15 years that will most stain the reputation of Ford as an NFL man, and he deserves that poor grade.
Unlike his famous grandfather, who was judgmental and distant from his family, and unlike his father, who worked so much that he had strained relationships with his children, Ford Sr. was a good family man, a trait he extended to his football players. He had a special fondness for Dick Lane and Billy Sims. He loved Barry Sanders, even after the running back spurned the final years of a mega-million dollar contract to retire in his prime. Ford would criticize his team when they were bad, but it was rare for him to issue any public condemnations. Fans certainly didn’t like that, but Ford Sr. was from an era when it wasn’t polite to air dirty laundry in the press. He was chiefly a man of honor, and he extended that honor to the automobile company that shared his name: in his various roles he worked hard to be fair to his workers. He continually fought for jobs in Detroit and Michigan, and he was progressive enough to break with family tradition and publicly support the Democrat Eugene McCarthy in the presidential primaries in 1968. He was especially proud when he returned the Lions to downtown Detroit in 2002, reversing his own decision to relocate them to the suburbs. He was far from a “Mr. Burns” character, he could be flexible, and he was generous, though much of his giving was done out of sight and without fanfare.
Ford could be criticized for many things as owner of the Lions, but effort was not one. He was as actively involved in league affairs as almost any other owner, and his Lions routinely had one of the highest payrolls in the NFL.
Ford did not live to see his beloved Lions win a championship, though he owned them for more than five decades and wanted nothing more. His son, William Jr., is vice-chairman of the team, and will most likely succeed his father at the head of the Lions. Where the franchise will go now (they enter the 2014 season with a new coaching staff as well), is anyone’s guess. It’s not that important right now. What is important is to remember William Clay Ford Sr. in his entirety, as a Michigan Man, a Detroit Man, and yes, as a Football Man.