the rites of succession

>> 5.26.2009

Michael Rosenberg's latest article really stirred up somethoughts.  He examined the Chicago Blackhawks, and their long slumber under their late owner Bill Wirtz--and their dramatic resurgence under his son, Rocky.  Rosenberg then wonders if the same thing is in the cards for the Lions when Bill Jr. takes the reigns from Big Willie Style.

This makes three critical assumptions:

1) the Lions' decades-long malaise is primarily the fault of William Clay Ford

2) when Big Willie Style passes on, Bill Ford, Jr. will grab the steering wheel and put the pedal to the metal

3) when Junior does step into the driver's seat, he will be a "better" owner than his father

The problem with 1) is that while it's impossible to deny the conicidence of Ford's ownership and the Lions' track record of futility, Ford meets all the criteria of a great owner: he has nearly infinite resources, he never hesitates reinvest them in his team, he built a gorgeous facility, downtown, with his own money, he's resolutely committed to Detroit, he hires football men to do the football stuff and gets out of their way, and he's loyal to a fault.  The only problem is that he's apparently not very good at hiring football men.

Brian VanOchten of the Grand Rapids Press has been amongst the most vocal and persistent Ford detractors; earlier this year he told Bill Simonson on The Huge Show that Ford is more concerned with hosting socialite cocktail parties in the secret rooms of Ford Field than winning football games.  Of course, being "committed to winning"--that is to say, making a show of being heavily involved in all aspects of the business--doesn't necessarily translate into actual wins.  Al Davis, Jerry Jones, and Daniel Snyder have wasted, literally, billions of dollars over the past decade trying franticallly to win Super Bowls--and, outside of the Gruden's Revenge Bowl, haven't even come close.  In fact, one could compellingly argue that these franchises would be much better off if their owners focussed more on fêtes than football . . .

As for 2), it's widely assumed that Bill Ford, Jr. would relish the opportunity to take control of the Lions away from his father, "clean house", and run the team the right way.  Many point to his fateful statement to the media that he'd fire Matt Millen if he could as evidence of this.  However, when directly asked if he's anticipating taking over the Lions, he hasn't responded in the affirmative:

My first obligation is to Ford [Motor Company], and that's still the case. ... I love the team. I'm a huge fan and always will be. But I don't know at this point what I could really contribute at the team level." [Detroit Free Press, 4/2/2008]

Given everything that's been going on in the auto industry lately, even though Bill Ford holds the title of "Vice Chairman" of the Lions, he can't possibly have much spare time or energy to invest in the day-to-day operations of a football team.  I don't think that Bill could become a vocal, involved, hands-on, micromanaging NFL owner.  That's not his managerial style, and that's not where his priorities or passions lie--he's too busy getting FoMoCo back on top.

Finally, 3) just because Bill Ford Jr. is a better businessman than his father was (see: having the wisdom to step down as CEO in lieu of a more experienced turnaround man, Ford beating most of the rest of the industry in Q1 2009, etc.), doesn't mean his management style is going to vastly differ from his father.  It's true that he might hire better 'football men', or have a shorter leash on those that are clearly failing; who knows?  Maybe that will be the difference.  But the idea that the entire organization is somehow rotting from the top down because WCF is inherently evil, and once someone, anyone, else is in charge, the curse will be broken . . . well, it's simply not true.  Yes, the Steelers have a wonderful ownership family and have been consistently succesful.  However, they just faced off against the Cardinals in the Super Bowl--and the Bidwells have been consistently ranked among the worst owners in sports.  The Rams' Greatest Show on Turf era came under Georgia Frontiere, who was hardly a football maven or a businesswoman.  She inherited the team when her sixth husband died, and within a few years, moved the team to her hometown of St. Louis.  Even so, the Rams won one Super Bowl, reached another, and spent years terrorizing the NFL, all with her atop the organization.  If Bill Ford Jr. does nothing more than write the checks and watch the games, he'll be, on paper, no different than his father.  Finally, it's been reported that if Junior'd had his way, he'd have promoted Tom Lewand a long time ago--so no, I do not see any Rocky Wirtz-style house cleaning taking place.  

So what does this all mean?  I think it means that Bill's already at the helm.  Let's add up all the evidence: Junior says he'd fire Millen if he could; three days later Millen is fired.  The day after the season is over, Junior's favored candidates are given the keys to the franchise.  Last year in 2006, he stepped down as CEO of Ford in the prime of his career.  He's a self-proclaimed passionate fan of the team, and he knows that the franchise will be his as soon as his octogenerian father passes.  It only makes sense to put the "affairs in order" first.  Of course, I have no first- (or second-, or third-)hand knowledge of this, just my suspicions.  But when William Clay Ford drives off this mortal coil, I suspect that nothing will change except the signature on the checks.

So does this end all Lions fans' hope for a Blackhawks-style renaissance?  No--it means that renaissance, if it's coming, has already started.


Imperical Evidence,  May 26, 2009 at 7:09 PM  

Ford Jr. is the one that originally pushed for Matt Millen to get the job of GM. It will be very interesting to see how this year plays out , and I know you will have an eye on Jr.

Ty,  May 26, 2009 at 9:42 PM  

You know, that's an excellent point. I remember now reading about when the Lions missed out on the '99 playoffs by a field goal, and the elder Ford turned to the younger and said, "You still got Millen's number?" Still though, you'd expect Junior to have the ear of Big Willie Style; the past several years of Millen should have proven to everyone that Junior wasn't in control at that time. Still, I think that with Lewand in charge, Ford Field established as a wonderful venue, the Allen Park facilities rebiult, the new coaching staff in place, the logo makeover complete, the franchise quarterback drafted, and everything pretty much stable for the next three years . . . now is the PERFECT time for an an ownership transition.


David M,  May 27, 2009 at 1:10 AM  

Quite a fresh take on the events of the last 6 months or so. I must admit that despite your logical argument, I cannot help but deduce that the problems of this organization stem from the top (Ford). It may be overly simplistic of me, but his inability to choose the right personnel is a major flaw.
As we discussed the other day regarding millen, who drafted the right positions oftentimes, failed at selecting the right players at those positions. Ford seems to have the same issues. He may follow conventional wisdom, but ultimately fails to choose quality individuals to run the team.

But those feelings aside, you've given some great food for thought. You could be right about Ford Jr being more influential as of late in the decision making process. I just hope that whoever is running this ship is finally turning it in the right direction!

Ty,  May 27, 2009 at 11:34 AM  


Thanks man! You know, I don't entirely dismiss the idea that the problems start at the top. It's just that the Lions have turned over nearly everyone in the front office, coaching staff, and roster two or three or four times over in the past fifteen years--and by all accounts, Ford is a "hands-off" kind of guy. I don't know why winning has run through his fingers like sand--but when you remove emotion from it, his track record as an owner is exactly what it's supposed to be (especially post-Russ Thomas).

Maybe it's just the annual optimism, but I really think whatever bilnd squirrel or squirrels are running things found a couple of acorns in Lewand and Mayhew. I have loved the heck out of almost every move they've made, and they seem like classy, quality guys.


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