William Clay Ford Sr., the primary shareholder of Ford Motor Company and majority owner of the Detroit Lions 50 years running, died Sunday, a little less than a week before his 89th birthday.
NFL Network's Albert Breer confirmed the news after speaking with team president Tom Lewand:
Lions owner William Clay Ford has passed away, per team president Tom Lewand. Sad day for the organization.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) March 9, 2014
The company also confirmed that Ford died due to pneumonia (via Kyle Meinke of MLive.com):
William Clay Ford died of pneumonia, according to the Ford Motor Company— Kyle Meinke (@kmeinke) March 9, 2014
Lions insider Tim Twentyman provided a statement from the team:
Statement from Tom Lewand: “It is with profound sadness that we mourn the loss of Mr. Ford and extend our deepest sympathies to Mrs. Ford..— Tim Twentyman (@ttwentyman) March 9, 2014
"and to the entire Ford family. No owner loved his team more than Mr. Ford loved the Lions...— Tim Twentyman (@ttwentyman) March 9, 2014
“Those of us who had the opportunity to work for Mr. Ford knew of his unyielding passion for his family, the Lions and the city of Detroit..— Tim Twentyman (@ttwentyman) March 9, 2014
“His leadership, integrity, kindness, humility and good humor were matched only by his desire to bring a Super Bowl championship..— Tim Twentyman (@ttwentyman) March 9, 2014
"to the Lions and to our community. Each of us in the organization will continue to relentlessly pursue that goal in his honor.”— Tim Twentyman (@ttwentyman) March 9, 2014
Ford, the last surviving grandchild of legendary automotive maven Henry Ford, was one of the more prominent faces of the family business during the 20th century. He controlled a majority share of the stocks, serving on the board of directors as Ford continued to stake its claim among the best American automotive makers.
Amid slower-than-expected economic recovery, Ford still managed to turn in an $8.5 billion profit last year, according to Forbes. The magazine also estimates he is the 409th-richest man in the United States with a net worth of $1.35 billion.
For sports fans, though, Ford will forever be remembered for his time shepherding professional football in Detroit. Ford purchased a controlling interest in the Lions in November 1963, officially closing the sale on Jan. 10, 1964. Only Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson, 95, has owned an NFL team longer than Ford. Wilson has been with Buffalo since its inception in 1959.
Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press noted Ford purchased sole control of the Lions for $45 million, adjusted for inflation. It would be nearly impossible for any NFL team to go for less than $1 billion if put on the open market in today's financial climate, with profits skyrocketing across major sports.
Ford's ownership style in Detroit can best be described as calm, patient and understanding. Then again, he probably had to be. The Lions won exactly one playoff game during Ford's time with the team, a 1991 divisional-round triumph against the Dallas Cowboys. Otherwise, Detroit has become arguably more synonymous with losing than any other NFL city.
In 2008, the Lions became the only team in league history to go 0-16. They have one playoff appearance this century, finishing above the .500 mark just twice.
Even as the Lions were losing, Ford believed that stability was the key to a successful organization. Each of Detroit's last 10 head coaches received at least two seasons to turn around the franchise, a rarity in today's NFL—and even more of a shock considering the Lions' longstanding struggles.
Former players and executives who worked under Ford noted his kindness above all else. Whereas other owners' interest in their teams came across as meddlesome, Ford's came from a passion for his city and the franchise's future.
“He’d just sit right down and just get all involved,” former Lions tight end Charlie Sanders told Birkett. “Never saw him angry, never saw him raise his voice, just like he was really interested in what you had to say. It was almost like sometimes he wanted someone to talk to.”
In 2007, Ford helped induct Sanders into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Ford is also a member of the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame's Class of 2005.
While Ford mostly ceded control of the franchise in his later years, even those within the NFL kept rooting for the Lions to succeed—after their own team, of course. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, himself one of the longest-tenured men in the sport, noted the sway Ford could have just with his presence in the room. New executives would fall over themselves trying to talk to him at meetings, with Jones noting former Vikings owner Red McCombs was even drawn to tears when describing what the Ford family and brand meant to his own.
“We don’t have anyone that can approach that stature in the NFL other than Mr. Ford," Jones said, via Birkett.
Ford's final year of Lions ownership was like many others. Equipped with a talent-laden roster and playoff expectations, Detroit started out hot only to fizzle to a 7-9 record. The offseason has seen the latest bit of turnovers within the organization, with Jim Caldwell taking over for the fired Jim Schwartz as head coach.
It's impossible to tell whether the new era will be any different than the last. History tells us it probably won't be. But Ford's faith, diligence and work within the Detroit community has made sure Lions fans will get to find out.
He is survived by his wife, Martha, and their four children.
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