DREW SHARP: Detroit Lions are William Ford Jr.’s baby now

There was a morning in the fall of 2011 when Bill Ford Jr. beamed with delight. The previous day, Ford Motor Co. announced stronger than anticipated quarterly earnings. He got a coffee in Ann Arbor, and a gentleman approached him with an extended hand.

He congratulated Ford on the good news. The Ford Motor executive chairman thanked him. It was great that Ford sold more cars and grabbed more market share, offering more evidence of the overall domestic automobile industry rising from the economic abyss from three years earlier.

But the man wasn’t congratulating Ford for the carmaker’s dramatic upturn.

He congratulated him for the Lions’ undefeated start that season.

If he didn’t know it already, Ford realized then that regardless of his successes in the corporate world, some will define him primarily from a football perspective.

That’s especially true now following his father’s death.

Ford Jr. officially will remain vice chairman in the Lions’ ownership restructuring. The Lions announced Monday that his mother, Martha, would have controlling interest of the franchise that William Clay Ford ran for 50 years and four months. But it’s expected that Ford Jr. will nonetheless assume an even more visible role in the daily monitoring of Lions business.

And each strategy articulated and final decision rendered will draw a comparison between son and father.

Ford Jr., 56, adamantly protected William Clay Ford’s status as the final voice on all important team decisions, even though the public saw far more of the son in recent years and far less of his father because of his private nature and fragile health. Ford Jr. always respectfully deferred to his father when asked about his personal thoughts regarding the direction of the Lions — except in the final hours of Matt Millen’s tenure.

Ford Jr. learned plenty from his father. There likely won’t be any dramatic atmospheric changes within the overall workplace. Ford Jr. always spoke glowingly of how his father cultivated a family culture within the organization.

But the only change that matters to fans is whether Ford Jr. will be less tolerant of poor performance within the team’s executive branch. Is he more willing to listen to outside counsel? And perhaps most important, can Ford Jr. distinguish between good business and good friendships?

The latter was his father’s one significant ownership flaw. It was difficult for his father to play the bad guy. It’s not a coincidence that those eulogizing Ford often noted his unswerving loyalty to his employees and how he desired being “one of the guys” and not being thought of as a detached billionaire.

How deftly Ford Jr. navigates that balancing act may ultimately determine whether he can steer this franchise to destinations his father only dreamed of.

Martha Ford, though, is officially the new owner. Her title will be owner/chair.

“Pursuant to long-established succession plans,” read a team statement Monday, “Mr. Ford’s controlling interest in the Lions passes to Mrs. Martha Ford. She and her four children will continue to be involved in the ownership of the franchise, as they did during Mr. Ford’s tenure.”

Martha Ford, who like her late husband was born in 1925, joins the Chicago Bears’ Virginia Halas McCaskey as the only female principle owners of NFL teams. McCaskey gained controlling interest of the storied franchise after her father, George (Papa Bear) Halas, died in 1983. Women also have a share as a majority owner of the Oakland Raiders — Carol Davis, who owns the team with her son, Mark — and the Tennessee Titans — Susie Adams Smith and Amy Adams Hunt, who each own a third with the estate of their deceased brother, Kenneth Adams III.

Martha Ford appeared at Jim Caldwell’s introductory news conference in January. When reporters swarmed around Bill Jr. for his comments on the new hire and the coaching search, he joked that perhaps his mother should answer some questions. She smiled and walked away.

It’s the son’s show now. Bill Ford Jr. might not have the formal title of Lions owner, but he will have the responsibility of building the winning franchise that his father so desperately wanted the last half-century.


Posted by Tribune News Services

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