Winless Lions' reclusive owner, 83, stays out of sight, earshot

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- William Clay Ford is regarded as a dignified man by the select few who seem to know the only surviving grandson of automotive pioneer Henry Ford.

To the masses in the Motor City, he's simply the owner of the Detroit Lions -- one of the worst teams in professional sports history -- who can't get it right.

Ford's first full season atop the franchise was in 1964, seven years after winning the NFL title. His winning percentage in the regular season is a paltry 41 percent and his 388 losses are surpassed only by the St. Louis/Arizona Cardinals by one.

The only playoff victory the 83-year-old Ford enjoyed was in 1992, and his last postseason defeat was in 2000.

After trying various ways to win, Ford's outside-the-box idea of luring Super Bowl-winning linebacker Matt Millen out of the broadcast booth to run his front office failed miserably. It has led to what might become the worst season in NFL history.

The Lions are the first team to start 0-14 since New Orleans in 1980 and are just the third ever, joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who finished their inaugural season 0-14 in 1976.

If Detroit loses Sunday at home to the Saints, it will be the first 0-15 record in NFL history. The Lions will close the season at Green Bay with a chance to seal an imperfect record that might be tough to, uh, top?

The public is only left to guess how Ford is coping with the embarrassment because he hasn't spoken to reporters in 14-plus months.

"A lot of people seem to have the opinion that he doesn't care, but he has taken the things that have happened to heart," said Joe Schmidt, who played and coached for Ford and was introduced by him at his Hall of Fame induction. "He's not in the sport to be seen on the sideline so that everybody can see him on TV or to have people hear what he has to say."

When Ford finally fired Millen two months ago with a 31-84 record over seven-plus seasons -- a reign of futility that was lengthened thanks to a contract extension -- he only released a statement.

The reclusive man is occasionally seen at Ford Field, a $500 million stadium he built without the public money most owners demand, and at the Lions' headquarters and practice facility, a $36 million complex he paid for.

"I know him a little bit from being here all the years," said kicker Jason Hanson, who has played for the Lions since they drafted him in 1992. "He's real nice. He's not outspoken.

"But when he has addressed the team in the past he was well-spoken and I was like, 'Hey, that was pretty good.' But I can't tell you definitively what Mr. Ford is like."

Detroit coach Rod Marinelli, who is 10-36 in three seasons, often meets with Ford on Mondays.

"He does a great job of listening, and I think that's a great sign of a leader," Marinelli said. "He knows the questions he wants to ask and he'll ask the question until he gets the answers he wants. I've been very impressed with that."

Fans have not been impressed by Ford's leadership, which has been marked by loyalty to unsuccessful leaders such as general managers Russ Thomas and Millen, and coaches Marinelli, Wayne Fontes and Darryl Rogers.

"What does a guy have to do to get fired around here?" Rogers asked a couple decades ago.

Ford failed to hire the right people to draft and coach talent to surround running back Barry Sanders during his Hall of Fame career.

Two seasons after Sanders' sudden retirement, Ford decided to essentially start over when Chicago's Paul Edinger made a winning kick in the 2000 finale to drop Detroit to 9-7 and out of the playoffs.

"That was the turning point because we were fighting for the playoffs and everything from then was changed," Hanson said.

Ford handed the keys to the franchise to Millen and he drove it into a ditch with mistakes such as drafting first-round busts quarterback Joey Harrington and receiver Charles Rogers.

"The change wasn't made because we were the most disgusting product in the NFL, but we were trying to get to the next level," said Hanson, referring to the hiring of Millen. "People forget that and somehow think the Fords are bumbling fools."

Hanson referenced the Fords because the owner's son, Bill, is involved with the team as vice chairman when he isn't busy as Ford Motor Co.'s executive chairman.

Bill Ford tries to stay out of the way when it comes to team matters, but he did speak up publicly in September and said he'd fire Millen if he could.

"If it were in my authority, which it's not, I'd make some significant changes," he told reporters.

Two days later, Millen was fired.

While the move was made much too late to fix the mess Millen left behind, Ford stood by his decision to hire Millen and to stick with him when things got ugly early in his tenure.

"I want him," Ford said late in the 2003 season. "I don't need any more reason than that."

What Ford might want to do with his team now is anyone's guess. He certainly isn't speaking out about it.

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.