Lions Owner Ford's Eulogy Will Need Some PR Work

Greg Eno@@GregEnoSenior Analyst IMarch 18, 2009

They eulogized Bill Davidson yesterday. The place was filled with a who’s who of Detroit and national sports. As it should have been.

There’s no riddle when it comes to the legacy of Davidson, Mr. D, who passed away last Friday at age 86. There’s no need for a spin master or a cadre of P.R. types to punch up his bio and his legacy.

It’s all there: championships, the resuscitation of a moribund franchise, a star-studded player roll, an entertainment empire that reaches beyond sports.

You don’t have to be clubbed over the head to “get” why Davidson’s legacy will land among the greatest of those in Detroit sports history.

I wonder what Bill Ford Sr. is thinking today.

It’s ghoulish and morbid, but whenever one in a small clique passes, the other surviving members are looked at cross-eyed.

Ford is on the clock. So is Mike Ilitch—in the legacy department. Unseemly, but true.

Ilitch is going to be 80 this summer, but by all accounts he seems to be in pretty good physical condition.

Besides, he’s a four-time Stanley Cup champ with the Red Wings, and a World Series participant with the Tigers. He’s won enough to keep even the vermin-like fans among us from wishing his obituary to be printed.

But Ford? You don’t want to know what they’re wishing about his health. It’s not very nice.

That’s what happens when you take a franchise and drive it into the muck, repeatedly, for 45 years.

Davidson, actually, was much like Ford—in the beginning.

He, too, emerged from a group of potential owners and bought out the syndicate so that he could run a team all by his lonesome. Davidson did it in 1974, 10 years after Ford did it.

One of the folks who Ford bought out was Ralph Wilson, the longtime owner of the Buffalo Bills. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking.

As I read of Davidson’s funeral, and all of the A-list folks who attended and spoke on his behalf, it was hard not to think of what they might say about Ford, who turned 84 last Saturday, when it’s his time.

What will the legacy be?

The sports broadcasting heads like to say, “If the playoffs started today…” as an excuse to talk, today, about things that are better talked about in the future—like when they actually happen.

So I’ll borrow from that and say, “If Bill Ford’s funeral was today…”

Morbid? Maybe. But it’s a question worth asking: Just what WILL Ford’s legacy be, should they lay him to rest before another pro football season is in the books?

Let me see…

Well, I suppose they could speak of his integrity and his family’s car company contributing greatly to the NFL’s success in the 1960s and ’70s, courtesy of advertising dollars.

They could talk about how nice of a man he was. They could say that he wasn’t a loud-mouthed buffoon, like so many of his contemporaries.

They could talk about his loyalty to his employees and how he was, by what we’ve read and heard, simply wonderful to work for.

They will not, however, be able to say that he was a winner. Like Bill Davidson. Like Mike Ilitch. That part will have to be left out.

Ford’s failure to field a championship-caliber football team won’t, I maintain, determine the size of his funeral or the stature of folks who’ll fly in for the event. He’ll still draw the A-listers, mainly because of his longevity. The NFL will throw tons of bouquets at his memory.

You really can’t blame them; Ford has been, indeed, one of the league’s classiest owners when it comes right down to it.

None of that nice guy, classy, loyal stuff means much to the hard-working, blue collar football fans in Detroit, however.

It’s not like you can have one and not the other; we’ve seen how Davidson operated (and how Ilitch still does), and Mr. D was all those things that they’ll say about Ford, plus he was a winner. So it can be done.

It just wasn’t done with the Lions like it was done with the Pistons.

Davidson took over a team that was in far worse shape than the Lions, in terms of fan support and tradition, bought out his partners, and went to work.

He stumbled along the way (see Vitale, Dick) but then corrected himself in short order (see McCloskey, Jack).

Davidson was bold, unwavering, and generous. Ford, sadly, has been only the last of those three.

I have no idea when the need will come to eulogize Bill Ford. I’m not one of those hoping for his demise.

But time is running out to fashion a legacy of success that won’t need to be camouflaged with flowery talk of how nice of a man he was.

All they had to do at Davidson’s funeral was recite his resume. It’ll take more than that to celebrate the Ford Ownership, when that time comes.

A lot more.


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