Recently, I wrote a speculative column about the role of Bill Ford Jr. in the day-to-day operations of the team. Given the usual reclusiveness of his father, William Clay Ford, the Lions’ owner, and the recent sweeping changes in both staff and attitude, I theorized that maybe the baton had already passed. Perhaps, the heir apparent had already ascended to the throne; the king abdicating in favor of the crown prince.
Apparently, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Big Willie Style rolled up on minicamp in dramatic fashion:
rashaun rucker – detroit free press
He proceeded to pimp slap his media bitches, making pronouncement after eyebrow-raising pronouncement, claim after jaw-dropping claim. Fans who have followed this team obsessively for years, fans who have postulated and speculated as to this man’s behind-the-scenes actions, fans who have presumed and assumed they knew this man’s motivations , were told point-blank that they have no idea what they’re talking about.
- “I feel so sorry for the fans in Detroit. I mean, I give them full marks for showing up. We didn't perform the way we should've performed or the way we could've. I felt worse for them than I did for myself. I thought it was horrible every time we'd lose. But the guys who stuck through it, I can't tell you how great that makes you feel. And for the ones that walked away, I couldn't blame them. It wasn't much fun to watch. It was pretty boring because you could about guess the outcome.”
- “People were getting fed up. And I don't blame them a bit. We didn't put up much of a show for them. And God knows what's gonna happen this year, more than anyone else does. But I think we'll give an honest day's effort and I think that's all they want. Of course they want us to win, and so do I, more than anything, but I think if they realize we're going down with our guns blazing, I think that'll be a very positive thing to have happen.”
- [did he take fans’ protests personally] “I mean, not that the yelling at the stadium does much for you. You get a couple of drunks and they can say anything. But you pay attention. If there's a noticeable decline in attendance and the comments are not favorable, you pay attention to it. The fans are really the people you want to please here. God, especially now in Detroit, the shape it's in, we gotta try twice as hard to give them their money's worth. The money is tough to come by for all of them, I understand that. But the least we can do is put on a good performance for them. I think we will. I certainly hope we will.”
- “No, I don't not, contrary to public opinion, interfere with the football side of it. I mean, if so-and-so plays lousy on Sunday, I think he's a bum (laughs). But no, I've never said, "Don't say play this guy or play that guy," uh-uh. These guys know more about the game than I do by 10 miles. So I'm not going to try and second-guess them. If something goes wrong, we'll talk about it.”
[on the hirings of Lewand, Mayhew, and—incredibly—Jim Schwartz] "Well, this is going to sound a little egotistical, and maybe it is, but because this was solely my decision. Rather than being influenced by a lot of other thoughts and people who -- I respected their opinions -- but they were not exactly the same as mine, which is fine. But they influenced the decisions that were finally made. If Jim Schwartz doesn't work out, you can blame me 100 percent. I just have confidence in him."
There’s a lot here to take in. I can’t possibly do a review of everything he’s done for the past thirty years, and marvel at the sharp relief cast by those actions in light of these statements. It’s easy to say, “well, this is all a bunch of mularkey from the mind of a senile old man with delusions of grandeur who happens to have more money than God and owns my favorite football team.” However, let’s ignore Blore’s Razor for a moment (Blore’s Razor being the maxim: “when presented with two possible theories, take the one that is funnier”), and work on the premise that absolutely every single word he said is true.
First of all, this is validation for both the “optimists” such as myself—the fans who espouse, you know, rooting for the team you say you root for—and the most virulent pessimists—the kind of worthless jerks who say stuff like “DIE FORD DIE” on message boards, or espouse boycotting the games. It’s validation for everyone who ever said that the Millen Man March, orange-out, walkouts, etc. don’t matter and won’t work--they didn’t, and they didn’t. Now, all the protests and chants didn’t fall on deaf ears, per se—they were willfully ignored by a man who pointed to his sold-out stadium and said “the real fans still care”. It wasn’t until those fans, too started turning their backs on the team that he knew he had a problem—and, in that sense, he was right. When the hardworking families of Michigan no longer find it worthwhile to spend a couple hundred bucks going to your team . . . you’ve hit the wall. Ford was asked, did he stick with Millen for too long?
“Well, maybe. I think circumstances and timing were important. You don't want to jump ship after two games or one game. When the fans were really getting fed up, it's like, 'OK, it's time to make a move.' I thought about it obviously. The timing just worked out the way it did.”
Profootballtalk.com mocked this quote by jesting that instead of jumping ship after one or two games, Ford stuck with Millen for three games . . . and seven seasons, har har. To me, however, that quote is quite telling. It means that he was going to keep Millen on until either he turned it around, or the fans found the performance of the team completely unacceptable. It apparently wasn’t even an option until the fans stopped coming. The obvious reaction to this is that it “hit him in the pocketbook”—but what does Ford care about money? The Lions could play to an empty stadium 16 weeks a year for the rest of his life, and he still wouldn’t lack for anything. I’m going to take the high road here and say that Ford really didn’t think he’d lost the fans until the fans stopped coming. I mean, they were losing 10+ games per season, raising prices, and still selling out! That doesn’t happen if fans are really fed up, right? I mean, from Ford’s box, what changed during that time? The writers were ripping him? They’d been doing that for forty years. There were boos and chants? Sure, from 50,000 paying customers. How could he know that throughout the city, state, nation—and yes, judging from my traffic, the world—Lions fans were giving up and tuning out?
To an extent, I am playing Devil’s advocate here; giving Ford the benefit of the doubt. In a world where Mark Cuban blogs and Tweets, an owner being so austere, aloof, even cloistered, seems antiquated. Yet, from Mr. Ford’s perspective, it’s entirely possible that he didn’t realize the extent to which his team’s fans had walked away. And yet . . . given how long it took for the fans to actually stop coming, and given how desperate everyone is to jump back on the bandwagon at the first sign of success--was he really wrong? How many of us really did walk away in ‘04, or ‘05, or ‘06 . . . Really, for all of the griping, whining, pissing, and moaning that Lions fans did, it took 0-16 for us to actually walk away. I can’t count how many times I have heard a fan say or read a fan type, “THAT’S IT! I am DONE with this team!!”, only to have them chat me up about the latest Lions stuff the next day, or log back on to that Lions message board.
It really does speak to the depth and breadth and passion of this Lions fanbase. The Jaguars are perennial contenders--and can’t sell out their stadium even if they cover up half the seats! Yet we kept coming and kept coming and kept coming, no matter how bad it got, for nearly a decade. We kept buying jerseys and shirts and footballs and concessions. We held on until the Lions hit absolute rock bottom. Now, maybe Ford really is a crazy old coot who walks around completely clueless of everything that happens in the world around him—or maybe, just maybe, Big Willie Style had us all in check.