Sports
3:10 pm
Fri March 14, 2014

Remembering William Clay Ford

The broadcast version of this commentary.

In the course of his 88 years, William Clay Ford, who died Sunday, captained Yale’s tennis team, earned an engineering degree and chaired Ford Motor Co.’s finance committee, which is enough for any lifetime.

But he will likely be remembered mainly as the owner of the Detroit Lions, during five woefully unsuccessful decades. Since he took over the franchise in 1964, the Lions have won exactly one playoff game, and remain the only NFL team to miss out on all 48 Super Bowls.

Ford’s critics claim he was a snob who didn't care about the average fan, a fat cat who was more focused on profits than the playoffs. False, and false.  To understand the franchise, you have to understand the family behind it.

In 1954, Henry Ford II put his 29-year-old younger brother Bill in charge of the new Continental Mark II. Bill worked incredible hours to create a masterpiece, but as he neared completion, Henry II took Ford's stock public. He feared telling potential stockholders their newest model would lose money, so they hiked the price and cannibalized the best features of Bill's car for the new Thunderbird—which became a classic.

Demoralized, Bill took to calling his oldest brother "lard a--" and drinking hot gin at noon.     "What I needed most of all," Bill said later, "was something to do." In 1964, he found it in the Lions, which he purchased for $4.5 million. 

Bill Ford entered a clinic, quit drinking cold-turkey and devoted himself to his wife, his four children and his new football team, earning a reputation as a sincere, humble and loyal man. The only place where he kept failing was on the football field. When Bill Ford Sr. came home from Yale to Detroit for the summers, he worked on the River Rouge assembly line—and loved it. He married Martha Firestone, a Vassar student and heiress to the tire fortune, who was initially against "dynastic marriages" but couldn't help falling for Bill.

The couple worked hard to raise their children as normal as possible, and by all accounts they succeeded. Bill Ford Jr., for example, sent his two boys to Ann Arbor Huron, a public high school.  "I always liked sports,” Bill Ford Sr. once said, “because they involved a democracy of talent."

In his World War II Naval pre-flight school, hundreds of cadets -- identified only by a number slapped on their backs -- raced through a rigorous obstacle course designed by former heavyweight Gene Tuney. Bill Ford finished first.

"Without anyone knowing my name or who I was or whether I had a dime," he recalled years later. "I did it on my own."

It was one of his proudest achievements.   Ford's Yale teammates elected him captain of both the tennis and soccer teams, and he later became a scratch golfer.  “If he's not a competitor,” Forzano told me, “then I am a laundryman."

"Mr. Ford can have anything he wants," said Bill Keenist, the longtime Lions’ PR man, years ago.  "And what he wants is a Super Bowl." 

So why did the Lombardi Trophy elude him?]

The coaches Ford hired were generally likable, respectable men with bedrock values and a sense of perspective.  He tried to give men them the chance Henry II never gave him, but they usually lacked experience – and, apparently, enough talent to get the job done.  The Fords have never threatened to move the team, nor hijacked the taxpayers for a new stadium.

They paid most of the bill for Ford Field themselves.  Bill Sr.'s determination to be the anti-Henry II came with a price. Hiring nice guys who finished last was part of it.  But in the end, the abiding respect and affection for Bill Ford Sr. might have been worth more than the Lombardi Trophy.