A complicated legacy for Ford Sr.

March, 9, 2014
Mar 9
2:38
PM ET
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The legacy is complicated, one of both stability and ineptitude, of really wanting to win and being unable to come through on that desire.

William Clay Ford Sr., the only owner the Detroit Lions have had during the Super Bowl era, died Sunday at age 88. He had a passion for the Lions dating to his youth and had the money to own a franchise because of his family’s ownership of the Ford Motor Company, one of the most well-known names in the automotive industry.

This is the tricky part of how Ford will be remembered. He did a ton for the American automotive industry, including steering the direction of one of its most popular brands. He showed a loyalty to a city that had struggled by staying steadfast with his ownership of both his car company and his football franchise.

That loyalty, for good and bad, transferred to the Lions.

Throughout his tenure as the owner of the Lions, Ford -- and his family -- showed extreme patience with his employees, from the coaches to the general managers. That loyalty, while well meaning, also came with a fault.

Sometimes it felt like coaches, general managers and front-office personnel -- particularly Matt Millen -- were employed way past their effectiveness. He left Millen employed for seven seasons, and the team never had a winning record. He also kept Russ Thomas employed as the team's general manager for 22 years despite an overall losing record of 139-175.

In many ways, that loyalty hurt Detroit as a franchise.

In the 50-plus years of Ford’s ownership, the Lions won one playoff game, in 1991. The franchise had just 10 playoff appearances during his time as owner and only 14 winning seasons since 1964, his first full season owning the club.

His team employed arguably the greatest running back (Barry Sanders) and wide receiver (Calvin Johnson) in NFL history and has failed to reach a Super Bowl with either one, although they never played together.

These issues, though, were not lost on the Fords. They cared deeply about their product and franchise and had the respect of owners and general managers throughout the NFL. They were largely considered to be good people to work for, again because of their loyalty in a league and business where it is increasingly rare.

In recent seasons, Ford had less of a public presence. He would occasionally be spotted after games heading toward the Detroit locker room, but he was not in attendance on the day the team hired coach Jim Caldwell.

His son, Bill Ford Jr., took over much of the public persona of the Ford family the past few seasons, including meeting with Caldwell and other coaching candidates after the team fired Jim Schwartz in January.

The direction of the team will be in question now. Ford Jr., who is the vice chairman of the Lions and has been both the public face and a more public spokesman for the franchise in recent years, could end up taking over.

Though he would likely keep a lot of the same ideals as his father, he has appeared to be someone with more of a passion to win right away and to make decisive decisions to reach that point.

How the Ford family, which has owned the Lions for a half-century, handles the stewardship of the franchise in the next few months could end up bringing larger changes to the organization as a whole.

Michael Rothstein | email

ESPN Detroit Lions reporter

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