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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 83

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This is the grave of William Clay Ford.

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William Clay Ford was born into American royalty in 1925, the son of Edsel Ford and grandson of Henry Ford. He was rich, did some rich person things, was very active in the family business, blah blah blah.

The real reason to discuss Ford is his ownership of the Detroit Lions. Under his ownership, the Lions reached an astounding level of ineptitude that never ended until his death, if it has since then. Ford bought the Lions in 1963. In 50 years of owning the club before his death in 2014, the Lions won 1 playoff game. 1!!! Here is a list of 5 defining moments of Ford’s ownership tenure, mostly terrible. I guess it’s fitting that he bought the team on the day JFK was shot; for the people of Detroit, the president’s assassination was only the second worst event that day. Even Barry Sanders couldn’t take it anymore, quitting while he was at the height of his powers, realizing that he would destroy his body for a franchise that would never win.

The real highlight of course was Ford hiring Matt Millen to be General Manager in 2001. In fact, Ford only hired 3 GMs in his 50 years, putting up with endless losing for all of them. The first guy lasted 22 years and never won a playoff game! Millen and Ford’s combined idiocy sent the team to a 0-16 record, the only time that feat has been achieved in NFL history. Millen’s fine 1st round picks included Charles Rogers, Mike Williams, and, yes, Joey Harrington, although I maintain that Harrington could have been a decent QB in a different system, even if he would never really fit into an NFL locker room. At least one Millen knew his dad couldn’t draft his way out of box, but it wasn’t Matt. Ford kept Millen around forever. Why? Because he felt his GM was a good Christian! Now that’s a way to run a franchise. It’s really too bad Millen was fired too, as the way he was talking up Christian Hackenberg could have led to another era of greatness in the Motor City! The only reason Ford finally dumped Millen is that Ford’s own son publicly announced that he would do it if he was in charge. You really have to love how Millen took it with class too, calling himself a martyr for the entire problems of the city of Detroit. Really, only Al Davis was a worse owner over the last 20 years and at least Davis did this on a lived history of success. Ford even managed to make Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill look competent. Dan Snyder may see Ford as a model of how to ruin a franchise.

Anyway, Henry Clay Ford lived a long life that I’m sure was successful in some other way before dying in 2014 at the age of 88. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Detroit, Michigan.

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  • Joseph Slater

    Sigh.

    • I should have just dedicated this post to you.

      • Joseph Slater

        /sobs/

  • Bitter Scribe

    Even Barry Sanders couldn’t take it anymore, quitting while he was at the height of his powers, realizing that he would destroy his body for a franchise that would never win.

    I’ll never understand why Sanders didn’t become a free agent.

    • LosGatosCA

      Barry was an enigma –

      Could have run the rushing title by going back into a game late – but didn’t

    • NYD3030

      I remember there being some talk of him coming out of retirement to play for the Redskins. Obviously nothing ever came of it.

    • cpinva

      “I’ll never understand why Sanders didn’t become a free agent.”

      I think (totally speculation mind you) that Mr. Sanders felt some measure of loyalty to the Lions’ organization. He wouldn’t play for them, but he also wouldn’t play against them. hence, his retirement.

    • swiftfox2

      I vaguely remember Sanders’ first sport of choice was basketball but he was a few inches short. Have to wonder how much he really wanted to be a football player.

    • CrunchyFrog

      It seems so anachronistic today, but when Sanders opted to go into the NFL after his junior year it was highly controversial. The press rained down on him for doing so. Sports Illustrated published an interview with his father regarding the decision – the father was looking forward to retirement as soon as the rookie contract was signed – and portrayed him in a negative light.

      Sanders himself said little about it, but the topic is directly related to Scott’s ongoing (and correct) fight against the NCAA cartel’s use of athletes as free labor on this blog. What little was said by Sanders and others suggested that part of the reason for the decision was that Sanders had been run ragged by his coach in his junior year (he’d been used for kick returns and as a backup to Thurman Thomas his first two years) with 344 carries while also being the punt and kick returner. He’d had a great season, but such overuse had a good chance of ending his for-pay career before it started. It made a ton of sense to get the pro contract that year.

      Given that context you can certainly understand Sanders retiring early and reducing the collective damage to his body and (as we now know, but was suspected then) his brain. He was very conscious of the injury factor. Sure, it makes sense that if Detroit had a realistic shot at a championship he probably would have stayed. His agent tried to negotiate his release afterwards, offering to pay the lump sum of the pro-rated signing bonus he owed, instead of in yearly installments, if he was given a release from the team, but the Lions refused. His agent also pushed for a trade. This suggests that he would have played for the right team. But he wasn’t willing to play for a losing team just for the millions on his contract.

      • Denverite

        I saw Sanders at OSU early in the 1988 season. I was 12. My grandparents were huge fans of the opposing team and would go to any game within driving distance (and all home games — they had season tickets up until my grandfather’s death, to the point that all of the by-then-grown grandkids had to take turns flying back and taking my grandmother to the games the season after he died), and if that took them by where we lived, they’d pick me up on the way.

        It was like 30-7 or somesuch after the first half. I remember we were all like “who the hell is this little dude?”. He was untouchable but seemed so small.

  • Ah yes, Matt Millen.

    Controversies
    Calling Johnnie Morton “faggot”

    In December 2003, following a Lions 45–17 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium, Millen once again came under fire, after a postgame incident with former Lions and then-Chiefs wide receiver Johnnie Morton. Millen tried to congratulate some of the Chiefs players near the Chiefs locker room, when he confronted Morton, who claimed that he wasn’t going to say anything to Millen. When he walked by him, Millen said “Hey Johnnie”, Morton ignored him, and then Millen replied “Nice talking to you”, and Morton replied “Kiss my ass.” That’s when Millen shouted “You faggot! Yeah, you heard me. You faggot!” at Morton, which was heard by a member of the Chiefs public-relations staff and a Kansas City Star columnist. Millen apologized for the incident, and after he was informed of Millen’s remarks, Morton replied “I apologize for what I said, but I never expected anything like that. What he said is demeaning and bigoted.”[33] There had been bad blood between the two since Morton was released by the Lions after the 2001 season, and Morton felt like Millen “tossed him aside.”
    Ethnic slur at 2010 NFL Draft

    On April 24, 2010, at the 2010 NFL Draft, Millen apparently referred to fellow ESPN commentator Ron Jaworski as a “Polack”, after which he made an on-air apology, stating that he “didn’t mean anything” by the remark.[34][35]
    Punching Patrick Sullivan in the face

    On January 5, 1986, at Los Angeles Coliseum, after losing the AFC divisional playoff game to the New England Patriots, Millen intervened in an on-field dispute between Raiders player Howie Long and Patriots GM, and son of owner Billy Sullivan, Patrick Sullivan, by punching Sullivan in the face. Sullivan said the punch made him “see stars” and that he required stitches. Millen later called the incident “a good hit”.[36]

    • LosGatosCA

      Matt Millen played for Davis but misinterpreted Davis’ tag line-

      ‘Just suck, baby!’

    • No Longer Middle Aged Man

      son of owner Billy Sullivan, Patrick Sullivan, by punching Sullivan in the face.

      Living in Boston at the time, I seem to recall that this provoked more sympathy than outrage from Patriots fans. Billy Sullivan was a terrible owner and while Patrick Sullivan came across as very probably a nice decent guy, he in no way was qualified to be an NFL general manager.

      • Well that’s kind of illogical since Billy Sullivan founded the team. Maybe he was a terrible owner but the Patriots would not exist without him.

        • efgoldman

          Maybe he was a terrible owner but the Patriots would not exist without him.

          They were awful owners. Unlike today, the AFL/AFC was not a money-printing machine for ownership.
          When the Pats were successful on-field in the 70s, the Sullivans weren’t running it; they had lost control in court; unfortunately they won, either on appeal or a different suit, and got the team back.

      • efgoldman

        Billy Sullivan was a terrible owner and while Patrick Sullivan came across as very probably a nice decent guy, he in no way was qualified to be an NFL general manager.

        And Patrick’s older brother, Charley, nearly put the team out of business by underwriting a Michael Jackson tour, losing the whole families’ shirts.

    • efgoldman

      Millen intervened in an on-field dispute between Raiders player Howie Long and Patriots GM, and son of owner Billy Sullivan, Patrick Sullivan, by punching Sullivan in the face.

      See, he DID accomplish something positive!

    • cpinva

      what, he didn’t think Howie Long could stick up for himself?

  • Ellie1789

    How nice of him to reserve a place for his wife, Martha Firestone Ford, of the Firestone Tire Co. family and now, following her husband’s death, majority owner of the Detroit Lions where she has presided over their continuing ineptitude. This makes her one of the few female owners in the NFL. Equally interesting (although not that surprising), if her Wikipedia page is to be believed, all of those women came into ownership/co-ownership through marriage or inheritance.

    • Dilan Esper

      Many male owners do too. NFL franchises are fairly rarely sold.

      • Robert Kraft bought the Patriots. Maybe that says something.

        • etherizedonatable

          Didn’t Snyder buy Washington?

        • jeer9

          Yeah, but Kraft and Belichick and Brady are buddies with Trump. I’d rather have the incompetence and losing.

          • efgoldman

            I’d rather have the incompetence and losing.

            Thanks, anyway, but I lived thru that. I kind of like where the team is now.
            As we’ve discussed many times, if you root (or don’t root) for off-field reasons you’re not going to find many teams above high school to root for.

            • And probably not at the high school level either, given the frequent indifference to safety, the cultures of sexual assault football teams too often have, etc.

            • jeer9

              But I really, really, really hate Kraft and Belichick and Brady for their friendship with Trumpelthinskin. I just can’t root for them any longer. I’m done with football.

          • cpinva

            “I’d rather have the incompetence and losing.”

            the way they’ve treated Kirk Cousins is just classic Snyder ineptitude, compounded by Allen arrogance. what a pair! they should be doing silent movie comedy duo classics together.

            • Ellie1789

              An interesting coincidence that Kim & Terry Pegula did buy the Buffalo Bills when Ralph Wilson died and the Wilson kids put the team up for sale. And who did they beat out in the bidding? One Donald J. Dump, among others! But then the Pegulas hired Rex Ryan, who not only failed to pull the Bills out of the doldrums but also endorsed Rumple Trumpkin for president, to the great dismay of some of the team’s black players.

              Why do we like football again?

  • It’s pretty common today for gravestones to be carved with the name of living spouses. It’s not actually uncommon for the gravestone to go up with both spouses still alive, which I think is a little weird but whatever.

    She seems to be less incompetent than her husband, low bar as that may be.

  • Nobdy

    I wouldn’t really care about sports team ineptitude if it weren’t for the public financing, which is directly undercut by terrible ownership who puts forth a bad product.

    It’s like your city paying to revitalize a historic movie theater and then the owner decides the only film he’ll show is Pluto Nash.

    I’m also not against the idea of retaining a GM who isn’t a football genius but is a good person, though Millen clearly wasn’t. I’d rather root for a mediocre team that treats its employees well than a very good team with a good but sociopathic coach. As a Giants fan I always felt like the Coughlin Superbowls were somewhat tainted by his reputation as a horrible person. Apparently he had mellowed somewhat with the Giants and become more player friendly but I remember reading an article about how he forced players to play injured and possibly concussed in Jacksonville and it always turned my stomach a bit to see him on the sideline after that.

    I guess I feel like we should evaluate sports ownership and coaches in a more holistic way because the “win at any costs” view most people have has a LOT of costs, and even though labor is paid very well at the NFL level it still ruins a lot of lives with permanent physical injuries.

    I honestly haven’t been able to think about the NFL since 2012 without thinking about Junior Seau. And even when evaluating owners with bad records that is, I think, an important element.

    Of course for all I know William Clay Ford was as rotten at taking care of his players as he was at fielding a competitive team, but in some ways the former seems like a more important legacy.

    • Linnaeus

      Thing is, I’m not sure that Ford cared all that much about taking care of his players. If the GMs and coaches did, it was probably incidental. Ford valued loyalty and cheapness in his coaching staff and front office.

      The Lions weren’t a business or a team in Ford’s eyes. They were a fiefdom.

      • Nobdy

        I’m not saying that Ford was good at those things, I guess what I’m saying is that I think that any evaluation of a team owner should include 1) How much public money they sucked up and pocketed (a lot in Ford’s case) and 2) Whether they gave a fuck about their players health or were willing to let hundreds of young men sacrifice their bodies in pursuit of glory for the owner.

        I also understand that those elements are much harder to research than the sportsball performance, which is reported in its own section of the newspaper, on the TV, and on numerous websites. I’m certainly not blaming Erik at all for focusing on that, I guess I’m just expressing my own perspective that focusing on team performance and lets owners off the hook a little bit for the externalities their teams cause, which are, in many ways, more under their control than the actual performance, much of which comes down to various types of luck (We credit Robert Kraft and Belichick for Tom Brady, but they certainly didn’t know he was going to be an all-time great superstar when they let him slide to the fifth round, for example.)

        • Dilan Esper

          There’s a saying that in Hollywood nobody knows anything. It isn’t totally true, of course, but it’s a reminder that a lot of “genius” is just luck. Same is true in sports.

          • LosGatosCA

            Not really all that familiar with sports are you?

        • NYD3030

          As far as public financing of stadiums goes, Ford was practically a saint. I was actually under the impression that he took no public money for Ford Field but I was wrong. The Lions ponied up 75% of the cost of the stadium, with the rest coming form local and county government and various quasi-governmental development authorities.

          Of course it helps that the land upon which the stadium now stands was a conglomeration of parking lots and abandoned buildings at the time, and could be had for very little.

          In any case he seemed like a decent man and I harbor no ill will towards him, though he has ruined virtually every fall of my entire life.

  • Dilan Esper

    I love how Erik is too much of an Oregon honk to just flatly concede that Harrington sucked.

    The Ducks were rediculously arrogant on Harrington. They even leased a billboard in LA to promote him. The rest of the football world mocked Oregon for all of this.

    • You mean the rest of the football world copied Oregon on this, as Oregon would ride that marketing move into 15 years of tremendous success.

      • Dilan Esper

        I have news for you. With all due respect to Oregon’s achievements, everyone else still mocks you. You never won a title despite all of Knight’s money, your uniforms look like a toddler’s desperate plea for attention, the whole athletic program is a promotional vehicle for Nike, and yes, you guys spent a ton of money promoting Harrington, who sucked.

        Most football fans definitely mock the Ducks.

        Your track program is legitimately great, though (and gave birth to the Nike shoe).

        • Mock all you will. Barring you being a USC fan, your Pac-12 team hasn’t done squat compared to Oregon in the last 20 years.

          • LosGatosCA

            There were a few Stanford wins in there.

    • etherizedonatable

      The billboard wasn’t the first ridiculous Heisman campaign. Joe Theismann let the Notre Dame athletic director changed the way he pronounced his name so it rhymed with “Heismann” (but still finished second).

      And as a (sigh) Detroit fan I have to defend Harrington–to the extent that I can. No, he was not successful as an NFL starter. He did play well enough to tease Detroit fans into thinking he was about to turn the corner. But he never did.

      If he’d been a second round pick (like the immortal Drew Stanton a few years later) I wouldn’t have complained about the career he had. I agree with Eric that under a better coaching staff he might have become a second-tier NFL starter. Two teams did see enough to give him a try after the Lions were done with him.

      • NYD3030

        I remember vividly sitting in a bar in Kalamazoo, many beers deep, arguing passionately that this was the year, Joey Harrington was going to throw 3,500 yards and 28 touchdowns…

      • LosGatosCA

        I lived in Oakland County during the QB development periods for Chuck Long & Andre Ware.

        It’s a storied history.

    • NYD3030

      Complaints about Oregon’s football program just sound like ‘Kids these days!!’ whining to my ears.

    • solidcitizen

      The billboard was in Times Square and Harrington finished fourth in voting, so I am not sure how ridiculously arrogant they could have been.

      The whole Oregon thing is a promotional vehicle for Oregon, and it has worked. The uniforms, the hype, the swagger are all about creating a reason to play sports in Eugene when there are none. Aside from track, Oregon has no tradition of excellence. They embraced that. They embraced reinventing yourself every day and not relying on past glory. It may all be hype, but it has worked, because they went from the basement is most sports, especailly football, to the top of the PAC in almost everything. A shit ton of Knight money doesn’t hurt, don’t get me wrong.

      How does Oregon “promote” Nike? Does the multi-billion dollar corporation need the visibility that comes with being associated with a rinky-dink school in a nowhere state? Has anyone bought Nike gear because of Oregon? How does this work if everyone is mocking the Ducks? Odd marketing strategy.

      • Dilan Esper

        Actually, Nike benefits a ton from owning a college athletic program. Gets their stuff a bunch of additional attention.

        I am sure they would have loved to own a better one, but, alas, only a rinky-dink program was willing to engage in the required acts of prostitution.

        • solidcitizen

          Actually there were many “Nike” teams before Oregon. When Kenny Wheaton made “The Pick,” only one team had a swoosh on their jerseies.

          So Nike’s “stuff” gets a ton of attention. How does this work? People out there see the Ducks’ uniforms, hate them, then go out and buy Nike running shoes? Basketball tank-tops? Football jerseys? Help me out here.

    • witlesschum

      Harrington would have been much more okay in a different offense. His strengths, to the extent he had them, were downfield passing. Millen forced him onto coaches who wanted to run the offenses that focused on precise short passing and didn’t force them to change their offense.

  • Scott Lemieux

    the way he was talking up Christian Hackenberg

    LOL that’s hilarious.

  • Jake the antisoshul soshulist

    My A. M. has whored itself out to the swoosh. But, somehow, I don’t think Phil Knight will be taking their calls.

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