DETROIT (AP) — William Clay Ford was born into a fortune and spent much of his life staying away from fame as he steered the family business and owned an NFL franchise.
The man reverently referred to as Mr. Ford, the last surviving grandchild of automotive pioneer Henry Ford and owner of the Detroit Lions, died Sunday. He was 88.
Ford Motor Co. said in a statement that Ford died of pneumonia at his home in Grosse Pointe. He worked for the company bearing his name for more than half of its 100-year history. He bought a business of his own, the Lions, a half-century ago.
Despite ample opportunity to boost his ego in either role, Ford chose to carry himself in a quiet way publicly.
"My father was a great business leader and humanitarian who dedicated his life to the company and the community," William Clay Ford Jr., executive chairman of Ford Motor Co. and Lions vice chairman, said in a statement. "He also was a wonderful family man, a loving husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather."
To the masses in the Motor City, Ford was simply the owner of the Lions who struggled to achieve success on the field despite showing his passion for winning by spending money on free agents, coaches, executives and facilities.
Privately, relatively few people got to know a humble and humorous guy with great stories to tell.
Funeral services will be private, fittingly for a man who didn't let the public get to know him.
"I wish people knew the Mr. Ford that I knew," former Lions general manager Matt Millen said Sunday in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "He was a very, very fascinating guy who played golf with President (Dwight) Eisenhower, ran with the Rat Pack, talked to President (John) Kennedy on the phone. As a kid who grew up sitting at the foot of a grandpa who invented everything, talking to him was a history lesson and I absolutely loved it every time."
Ford's first full season leading the Lions was in 1964, seven years after the franchise won the NFL title. The lone playoff victory he enjoyed was in 1992. The Lions are the only team to go 0-16 in a season, hitting rock bottom in 2008 after he finally fired Millen, a Super Bowl-winning linebacker and TV analyst he hired to lead the franchise without any front-office experience.
After an 11-year drought, the Lions improved enough to make the playoffs in 2011 only to lose a combined 21 games over the next two seasons.
From Ford's first season as team owner to his last, the Lions won 310 games, lost 441 and tied 13. His .441 winning percentage with the Lions was the NFL's worst among teams that existed in 1964, according to STATS LLC.
"I hate that we couldn't bring the Lombardi Trophy to Detroit for him," said former defensive end Robert Porcher, who played on the Barry Sanders-led team that won the franchise's only playoff game since 1957. "After I retired, I invited him and his wife to meet me at my restaurant. I didn't think he would come, but he did. He talked about his passion for the team and how much he hated that we weren't winning. Mr. Ford said to me what I think people wished he would've said publicly."
Ford moved the club from Tiger Stadium in Detroit to the Pontiac Silverdome in 1975 before bringing his team back downtown.
"No owner loved his team more than Mr. Ford loved the Lions," Lions President Tom Lewand said in a statement released by the team. "Those of us who had the opportunity to work for Mr. Ford knew of his unyielding passion for his family, the Lions and the city of Detroit. His leadership, integrity, kindness, humility and good humor were matched only by his desire to bring a Super Bowl championship to the Lions and to our community.
"Each of us in the organization will continue to relentlessly pursue that goal in his honor."
Ford Field — a spectacular 65,000-seat, $315 million indoor stadium — opened in 2002 that, coupled with a state-of-the-art team headquarters in nearby Allen Park, gave the Lions the best facilities money could buy.
But blueprints for consistently winning in the NFL are not for sale.
"Detroit is a football town with fans who want to win — bad — but what they miss is Mr. Ford wanted to win more than any of the fans did," Millen told the AP on Sunday. "For a variety of reasons, it didn't work out. It wasn't because he didn't want to. He was willing to try anything and he did."
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