America at Large: Martha Firestone Ford driving Detroit Lions to higher ground

Remarkable 91-year-old owner has overseen a transformation in NFL team’s fortunes

Martha Firestone Ford: Detroit Lions have come a long way since the owner called the players together and told them she was sick of losing. Photo:  Diane Weiss/Getty Images

Martha Firestone Ford: Detroit Lions have come a long way since the owner called the players together and told them she was sick of losing. Photo: Diane Weiss/Getty Images

 

The owner of the Detroit Lions graduated from the exclusively female Vassar College in 1946 and then sailed to Europe to embark on a continental tour that was a rite of passage for every wealthy debutante of that era.

Her marriage to Henry Ford’s grandson the following year was such a society event in America and beyond that it was captured in all its sepia-tinted glory by Pathe Newsreel.

Standing a couple of inches under five feet tall, she boasts an estimated net worth of around $1.4 billion, almost always wears sunglasses in public, and in just two seasons at the helm, has earned a reputation in the NFL for not suffering fools.

The remarkable Martha Firestone Ford turned 91 last September but when the Lions take on the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC wildcard game this Saturday night, she will be present. As she has been for almost every game since her husband William Clay Ford purchased the team for $6m back in 1963.

After his death in 2014, it was assumed she’d simply hand the reins to her son Bill Jnr. More surprising even than her subsequent decision to retain personal control has been her commitment to being a hands-on owner, involved in every major personnel decision especially the controversial ones.

When the Lions won just one of their first eight games last season, Ford fired the team president and the general manager. Midway through the campaign, this was a bold statement of intent.

If two long-serving men charged with hiring and firing coaches and players could be let go, nobody was considered safe. To underline the growing impression that here was a nonagenarian in a bit of a hurry, Ford, who usually eschews all interviews, outlined her rationale to the press.

“Our fans deserve a winning football team and we will do everything possible to make it a reality,” she said. “I also want to make it clear that we have no intention of giving up on this season. We expect our team to compete, improve and win.”

Boldest move

A similar message of urgency was delivered at a meeting she held with the players who, obviously put on notice, went on to win six of their remaining eight fixtures.

Perhaps her boldest move of all though was not caving in to public pressure and firing beleaguered coach Jim Caldwell. In his debut season with the club the previous year, Caldwell had steered the Lions to the play-offs and Ford believed he was capable of doing so again.

That show of faith has been rewarded and the whole organisation has lived up to her assurance to season ticket-holders during last season’s crisis that they “deserve better”.

In her deft handling of that debacle, her determination to move swiftly when things were going awry, and the surefootedness of her decision-making, Ford has, ironically, proven to be the antithesis of her sometimes dithering husband.

For decades, he presided over a team that was often a laughing stock, infamously slumping to a record-setting 0 and 16 season as recently as 2008, and winning just a single play-off game during his five decades in charge.

While his wife was at his side throughout this undistinguished reign, she appears to have been keeping a keener eye on proceedings than people imagined (railing against them playing indoors for instance!), and, crucially, to have learned from his mistakes.

The couple met when she was a college student and he was a naval cadet during the second World War. Their mothers were in New York City at the same time and arranged a chaperoned lunch after which the pair, unbeknownst to their parents, became romantic correspondents.

When Martha returned from her jaunt around Europe on the RMS Queen Elizabeth, her suitor was waiting at the dock in Manhattan. The moment was captured by paparazzi because, aside from him being a scion of the Ford family, Martha’s grandfather was Harvey Firestone who amassed a similar fortune in the tyre and rubber industry.

Empire builders

“The grandchildren of two of the world’s most fabulous empire builders were man and wife,” gushed one newspaper about their nuptials.

To give a flavour of the proceedings and the time period, FBI director J Edgar Hoover gifted the couple a ruby cut glass bowl while Thomas Edison’s widow Mina’s present was an antique table.

If her public persona for much of the marriage was that of a wealthy philanthropist signing cheques for those less well-off than herself, Ford’s approach to owning the Lions has been much more day to day.

During last year’s draft, she was in the war room high-fiving her coach. She turned up at pre-season camp in the sweltering heat of high summer and was a surprise visitor to training too on Christmas morning. Not to mention that at meetings with the league’s top brass, she has taken them to task for dodgy umpiring decisions that went against her team.

One of only four teams who have never appeared in a Super Bowl, the way in which the Lions backed into these play-offs, losing their last three matches, suggests this might not be their year either.

Still, whatever happens in Seattle, they are a lot closer now than they used to be. And they have come a long way since the day 14 months ago when a diminutive, impeccably-mannered old lady called these very players together and told them she was sick of losing.

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