There was a time, believe it or not, when Bill Ford wasn’t a very patient man.
There was a time when coaches of his football team were held accountable for their records, for their incompetence. There was a time when he showed some urgency to win.
There was a time when he acted as if he was in his 80s.
It was when he was in his 40s.
Ford, the Lions owner, used to know a bad pony when he saw one.
And he saw one, big time, in the form of Harry Gilmer, the cowboy hat-wearing former quarterback from Alabama who Ford hired as Lions coach for the 1965 season.
The job became available because the coach for 1964, and for seven years before that, George Wilson, was the first to fall victim to Ford’s long ago impetuousness.
Not long after Ford bought out his partners to become Lions sole owner in 1964, he rolled up his sleeves and went after Wilson, ordering the coach to fire some of his assistants. Wilson told the owner to shove it and resigned.
Enter Gilmer, and after two lousy seasons, Ford had seen enough, rendering the dreaded ziggy.
Gilmer’s records in those two seasons were 6-7-1 and 4-9-1. You have records like that now, and you get a contract extension.
When last seen in Detroit, Gilmer and his cowboy hat were the targets of snowballs being heaved by the fans at Tiger Stadium after a loss to the Minnesota Vikings, his last home game as Lions coach.
After Gilmer came Joe Schmidt, who coached the Lions for six seasons before becoming mystified and frustrated, the loser in a power struggle with GM Russ Thomas.
Enter Don McCafferty, and in his only season as Lions coach (1973), he felt the wrath of Ford’s impatience. There were public grumblings from the owner after an embarrassing home loss to the putrid Baltimore Colts, in which Ford questioned the players' will to win.
Ford was 48 years old when he levied that disgusted review of his football team.
That was a long time ago.
McCafferty died the following summer. Assistant Rick Forzano became the head coach. Ford, still showing a tendency to be impatient, fired Forzano after a little more than two full seasons.
Tommy Hudspeth was next. Ford gave Tommy a season-and-a-half before canning him and bringing in Monte Clark.
It was then that Ford, for whatever reason, seemed to lose his zeal to hold his coaches’ feet to the fire.
Clark stayed on for seven seasons, perhaps one year too long. Darryl Rogers—the hires were starting to become really inexplicable at this point—was brought in. Rogers was so bad that he openly asked reporters, “What does a guy have to do to get fired around here?”
Rogers stayed on too long. His defensive coordinator, Wayne Fontes, replaced Rogers in 1988. Fontes coached for eight full seasons, which was also too long.
Bobby Ross, brought in to replace Fontes, committed a self-ziggy in 2000, in his fourth season as Lions coach. Had he not canned himself, who knows how much more rope he would have been given.
Then there’s Matt Millen, perhaps the most hated man in Detroit sports. Ever.
Look what it took for Ford to fire Millen, after nearly eight years of slapstick.
The older Bill Ford has gotten, the more passive he’s become.
Now compare this to Mike Ilitch.
Ilitch is 83. You could make a case that he looks physically gaunt—frail, even. His appearance at the trophy ceremony when the Tigers captured the 2012 American League pennant caused some stage whispers about the owner’s health. At times, it looked as if Ilitch was being propped up, literally, by GM Dave Dombrowski on the mini-stage as the league trophy was being presented.
Yet as the autumn of his life is upon him, Mike Ilitch—owner of two teams, a pizza empire and other holdings—seems to be just getting started.
There’s urgency with his baseball team. It envelopes the organization.
“Win one for Mr. I” seems to be the mantra.
There’s always urgency with his hockey team. The Red Wings have been a Stanley Cup contender for about 20 years and don’t show any proclivity to being tired of that stature.
There’s urgency with Ilitch’s city, too. Just this week, grandiose plans were revealed for a new hockey arena for the Red Wings surrounded by an entertainment district, reportedly not far from Ilitch’s Fox Theatre.
Ilitch’s hockey brain trust of VP Jimmy Devellano, GM Kenny Holland, assistant GM Jim Nill and coach Mike Babcock have been together forever, but it’s a good forever. There’s been no real reason to change, so why do so?
Dombrowski and manager Jim Leyland have been Tigers since 2001 and 2006, respectively, but there is a feeling of urgency. There’s a feeling of accountability. Their still being with the Tigers doesn’t smack of complacency, nor of passivity.
Win one for Mr. I—that’s the marching order, up and down the Tigers organization. And it’s not a phony, Knute Rockne kind of thing.
Ilitch, at 83, frail or not, burns with the desire to slay his white whale—a World Series championship. Just ask new Tiger Torii Hunter, signed last month.
Hunter spoke of meeting Ilitch and shaking his hand and seeing a fire in the old man’s eyes. The fire to win a World Series, an accomplishment that has also eluded the 37-year-old outfielder.
Hunter couldn’t wait to sign on the dotted line after seeing that fire in Ilitch’s eyes.
The two octogenarian owners in town, Bill Ford and Mike Ilitch, each have white whales. One is bereft of a Super Bowl, the other a World Series.
Both are proud, loyal and considered to be very nice men who are respected within their respective circles.
But when compared, side by side, it just isn’t close when it comes to rendering a verdict as to which man has the stronger sense of urgency to win.
Does Bill Ford want to win a Super Bowl before he dies? Of course he does.
Mike Ilitch just seems to want to win a World Series more.