Sometimes the outcomes of seasons don't matter as much as the seasons themselves.
William Clay Ford, who purchased the Detroit Lions on the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, died Sunday at his home. He lived to see his team win only one playoff game under his ownership.
There were many Lions fans, young and old, who wished at one time or another that Ford had never bought the team. That wish, however, was short-sighted if not foolish.
Only 10 NFL franchises since 1964 have survived in the cities in which they originally existed. It's hard to imagine many owners beside Ford having the clout and devotion to keep the Lions in the vicinity of a spiraling city like Detroit during that time.
The Motor City has not enjoyed many blessings over the last half-century, cascading from a national economic leader to bankruptcy, but stable sports ownership is certainly one of them. Bill Davidson brought three NBA titles to Detroit, and the precipitous fall of the Pistons since his passing is not likely a coincidence. Mike Ilitch has been nothing less than a savior for the Red Wings and Tigers, with four Stanley Cups and two AL pennants. Ford belongs in that group, despite the lack of winning, because of his love of his team and his city. Those who disagree should speak to football fans in Baltimore and Cleveland, who watched their teams vanish and win championships elsewhere.
It's disheartening that an owner like Ford will always elicit mixed feelings in the Detroit community. His obituary on the Ford website doesn't mention the Lions until the eighth paragraph, and his non-football biography is a snapshot of the life of one of America's great brands. He was the last surviving grandchild of Henry Ford, serving as director of a company that has employed hundreds of thousands of Detroiters. He helped develop the Continental Mark II, whose design evokes images of a revitalized post-war America. Owners of the Mark included Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley.
Ford also contributed to other beloved American organizations as a philanthropist, including the United Way and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. He was chaperoned on his first flight by Charles Lindbergh, and he enlisted in the Navy after studying at Yale. Ford stood for Detroit even at times when some fans in Detroit couldn't stand him.
Granted, there isn't much good to say about the Lions under his stewardship. The team's decisions ranged from unfortunate to baffling to downright maddening. It's beyond regrettable that the Lions had one of the greatest running backs of the modern era in Barry Sanders and never went to a Super Bowl with him. It may trend in a similar direction with arguably the greatest receiver in the modern era in Calvin Johnson. It's hard to be terrible in the NFL for decades on end, yet the Lions have done it. Fans can't be blamed for expecting better any more than car buyers expected better when the Ford Motor Company languished. The nation Henry Ford helped build rose to greatness because of its high standards, not because of its complacency.
Yet the long list of errors made under Ford's football watch can mostly be traced to his loyalty. He loved the team and its employees like an ardent fan, and that was at times a curse. The most frustrating decision he made was a non-decision: hanging on to general manager Matt Millen long after the team became a laughingstock. The Lions were 31-84 under Millen's leadership, a string of losing that includes the only 0-16 season in NFL history (Millen was fired three games into that winless campaign). "Fire Millen" became a citywide refrain, even at Tigers playoff games.
Those games, however, happened in downtown Detroit, in the shadow of one of the grandest football buildings in America. The Lions' football home is a huge part of Ford's legacy, not only because Ford Field was modern enough to bring a second Super Bowl to Michigan in 2006, but because it signified the return of the NFL to downtown after decades in Pontiac. It is a delight to come to the city to watch NFL games, which is something that couldn't be said for generations. The results haven't been anything memorable, but the experience has. And it's no small thing for a city mired in struggle that the NFL experience continues in Detroit, even and especially on Thanksgiving Day every year. More than a few civic leaders have betrayed Detroit over the years; William Clay Ford never did.
The poignant truth is that this Lions team, despite another crushing season in 2013, is perhaps the most talented group assembled in Detroit since Ford bought the franchise. Millions of dollars have been invested in Johnson and quarterback Matthew Stafford, and millions more are likely to go to defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. That's Ford's money at work, and it will bring Detroit a contender – perhaps even a banner.
If that championship day comes next season, it will not come in some warm-weather city filled with strip malls and McMansions. It will come in the Motor City – the city William Clay Ford loved his whole life.