Column: Bill Ford Sr.’s Legacy of Loyalty

Owner of Detroit Lions endured decades of losses, but engineered a culture of caring that earned respect and affection
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Editor’s note: A shorter version of this column was published in the March 12, 2014 edition of the Wall Street Journal.

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.

The Anti-Henry

It is impossible to understand the Lions organization without first understanding the man who owned them. The sibling rivalries within the Ford family shaped the psyche of William Clay Ford Sr., which in turn determined his selection of coaches, his generous treatment of them, and his inability to win a Super Bowl before his time was done.

The decisions that seemed so mysterious to the average fan aren’t so mysterious when you understood the man who made them. Bill Ford Sr.’s family history suggests it was because he was determined to be the opposite of his cantankerous older brother, Henry II.

“Hank the Deuce” was an autocratic leader who traded on his family loyalties when convenient, drank too much, married three times and often behaved in a cold, calculating fashion.

Bill Sr. was the antithesis of all that, by design.

Much the way Henry I manipulated, humiliated and dominated his only son Edsel, Henry II tried to do the same to brothers Benson and Bill. For a time it looked as though Henry II’s blind ambition would grind up Bill the same way it had chewed up Benson.

In 1954, Henry II put his 29-year-old brother Bill in charge of the Continental Mark II, the second coming of their father’s trademark car, the Mark I. Henry II gave Bill all the tools he needed to succeed, including a generous budget, a good team and complete creative autonomy. Bill, a graduate of Yale’s engineering school, had the same knack for design that Edsel I did. He and his staff worked incredible hours to create a new standard in luxury driving.

As the landmark car was nearing completion, however, Henry II took Ford Motor Company’s stock public. Henry II feared telling potential stockholders their newest model would lose money, so they hiked the price, stripped Bill’s car of its best features and pirated them for the new Thunderbird – which was a great success.

After Henry II sabotaged the Mark II, Bill was demoralized. He took to calling his oldest brother “Lard Ass” and drinking hot gin at noon. “The trouble is,” Bill observed, “there is only room for one Ford at a time.”

According to Peter Collier’s classic book, “The Fords,” Bill’s drinking continued from 1955 to 1965, resulting in a “a ten year lost weekend.”

“What I needed most of all,” Bill said later, “was something to do.” For $4.5 million, he found it: buy the Detroit Lions. “I always wanted something that was all mine and mine to do. This was it.”

Bill Ford entered a clinic, quit drinking cold turkey, and devoted himself to his wife, his four children and his new football team. By the late ’60s, it was clear Bill Sr. had triumphed where Edsel and Benson had failed. He had managed to get off the fast track with his sanity and family intact, and soon earned a reputation around Detroit and the NFL as a sincere, humble and loyal man.

The contrast between the two brothers came into sharp focus on Thursday, March 13, 1980. According to Robert Lacey’s book, “Ford: the Men and the Machine,” Bill Sr. sat in his office at Ford World Headquarters, waiting to be named chairman by his oldest brother. Without any warning, however, Henry II came in to tell Bill that Philip Caldwell, not he, was about to be named chairman.

Bill finally let him have it. “You treat your staff like that, you treat your wives like that, and your children like that,” he spat, “and now you treat your brother in the same way.”

“I made a choice,” Henry II later acknowledged. “I married the company.”

Bill Sr. didn’t. He remained happily married to his wife, and headed the only close-knit Ford household since the turn of the century.

Two Myths

The only place where Bill Sr. kept failing was on the football field – but it wasn’t because he was an out-of-touch snob who cared more about cash than competition.

Quite the opposite. For a man born into the greatest business dynasty in U.S. history, you wouldn’t know it if you worked for him.

“Let me tell you something: he’s very down to earth,” former head coach Rick Forzano told me, echoing the comments of a dozen people interviewed on the subject. “Mr. Ford always used to get upset with me because I would never call him Bill – but he finally he gave up. He isn’t a snob by ANY stretch of the imagination.”

When Bill Ford came home from Yale 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. In contrast, while Anne McDonnell married Henry II because he was a Ford, Martha Firestone married Bill in spite of it. They were genuinely crazy about each other.

“She is so unpretentious it’s scary,” Forzano said of Martha Ford, who is now in charge of the Lions franchise. “My wife used to say, ‘The way she treats me, I think I’m the one who has all the money.’”

The couple worked hard to raise their children as normally 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.

Bill Sr. found the perfect blend of informality and meritocracy in competitive athletics. As he said, “I always liked sports because they involved a democracy of talent.”

Nowhere was that more true than in Naval pre-flight school during World War II. As part of their training, 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 ago. “I did it on my own.” To the day he died, it was one of his proudest achievements.

According to the late Bill Talbert, a professional tennis star, “He was an excellent [tennis] player.”

Ford’s Yale teammates elected him captain of both the tennis and soccer teams, and he was also a fearless skier, occasionally courting serious injury. After he snapped his Achilles tendon twice in the mid-1950s, he turned his attention to the links, where he soon became a scratch golfer, scoring over a half-dozen hole-in-ones.

When Ford bought the Lions in 1964, his competitive fires were easily transferred to their Sunday games. Joe Schmidt, the Hall of Fame linebacker who coached the Lions from 1967-72, recalled a December game in Buffalo.

“It was a nasty day, rainy and muddy and cold,” he said. “We dropped two balls in the end zone, and our kicker missed three field goals within 20 yards.

“Well, Ford came walking in the dressing room and kicked a water bucket clear across the room. I said, ‘Too bad you weren’t kicking for us today.’ He shot me a look, but a few seconds later he had a little twinkle in his eye. That shows his sense of humor, but also his competitiveness.”

Those who knew Ford well said the same thing: he was a pleasant, unassuming man with a fierce desire to win.

“I’ve told people Mr. Ford would give up a lot of the monies he has to win,” Forzano said. “When we won up at Minnesota [in 1974] for the first time in eight years, we gave him the game ball. He’ll probably deny it, but this guy was crying. It excited me to no end, because I like emotional people, and Mr. Ford is an emotional person. If he’s not a competitor, then I’m a laundryman.”

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

The Lions

It leads to the question: If Ford wanted to win as badly as the fans, and was willing to spend his money to do it, why did the Lombardi Trophy elude him?

In a nutshell, Ford was attracted to nice guys who finished third – or worse. And the reason for that was just as simple: he saw himself as one of them.

Since 1964, 17 different coaches have guided the Lions. Only five of them had been NFL head coaches prior, and only Dick Jauron was hired as an NFL head coach afterward. Most of those 17 coaches were Lions assistants who took over when the head coach was fired or resigned. In other words, serious national searches for proven talent rarely happened under Ford.

The former Lions head coaches have more in common than just a lack of experience and success. In a business where egos run rampant, conflict is constant and obsessiveness is the norm, the coaches Ford hired were generally likable, admirable men with bedrock values and a sense of perspective — with the notable exceptions of longtime right-hand man Russ Thomas and former president Matt Millen.

The chorus of respect for Ford within the organization and around the league is as uniform as the complete lack of praise for Thomas and Millen. Not one person interviewed offered a single kind word.

Thomas was as meddlesome as he was underqualified – sort of like Henry II, without the smarts. When Thomas retired after 43 years with the Lions, he was sufficiently disliked that the organization didn’t even attempt to hold his retirement ceremony at the Silverdome. Instead, they waited for their last away game in Atlanta, where Thomas was given an official send-off before 10,000 puzzled Georgians.

The most common theory is that, during Ford’s ten-year battle with alcoholism, Russ Thomas was the guy who made sure Ford got back safely to his home or office without incident. When Ford bought the Lions in 1964, his legendary loyalty prompted him to pledge to Thomas he would always have a job with the team.

As for Millen’s seven-year reign as president and CEO of the organization, the Lions posted a record of 31 wins against 84 losses – an average of 12 a year – the very worst in the league.

Millen wasn’t a nice guy who finished last. He was an utterly incompetent office bully who said so many stupid things he spawned websites devoted to his dumb quotes. He was so mean-spirited that even the secretaries, who never say boo to the press, felt compelled to complain to reporters about what an unbelievable jerk Millen was.

But those two exceptions prove the rule of the hundreds of genuinely nice people Bill Ford Sr. hired over his five decades at the helm, including the vast majority of his coaches. Bill Sr. tried to give men like Monte Clark, Wayne Fontes and Marty Mornhinweg the chance Henry II never gave him.

Bill Sr. has also been able to foster the kind of trusting, caring atmosphere with the Lions organization that Henry II could only dream of. Even those coaches and administrators who were let go by Ford speak very highly of him.

“Mr. Ford is as honest and generous a man as you can find anywhere,” Forzano said. “I feel so strongly about him, I’d go back and coach tomorrow for Mr. Ford if he asked me.”

“He is a very loyal and honest person,” Joe Schmidt said. “I think he gives you the opportunity to do your job, he doesn’t interfere, and he lets you follow through with your philosophy and what you think needs to be done – which is very unusual in the NFL these days.”

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, they successfully fought to keep their traditional Thanksgiving Day game, and they’ve done it all very quietly.

Bill Sr.’s determination to be the anti-Henry II came with a price. Hiring and retaining 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.

About the writer: Ann Arbor resident John U. Bacon is the author of the national bestsellers Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at

The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our publication of columnists like John U. Bacon. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!