DETROIT (AP) — Martha Ford will take over her late husband's controlling interest in the Detroit Lions, keeping the team within the family after a half-century under the leadership of William Clay Ford.
William Clay Ford died Sunday. The 88-year-old Ford was the last surviving grandchild of automotive pioneer Henry Ford. "Pursuant to long-established succession plans, Mr. Ford's controlling interest in the Lions passes to Mrs. Martha Ford," the Lions said Monday. "She and her four children will continue to be involved in the ownership of the franchise, as they have during Mr. Ford's tenure."
William Clay Ford Jr. remains in his role as vice chairman of the Lions. Jason Hanson was Detroit's kicker from 1992-2012 — the longest tenure for any NFL player under one owner. He spoke to reporters on a conference call Monday, shortly after the team announced its succession plan.
Hanson's comments reflected the regret some players have felt over the team's inability to sustain any sort of significant success under the Fords. William Clay 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.
"I truly believe they want to win, they'll do what it takes to win," Hanson said. "The people underneath them, frankly, from players up, have been disappointing for them." Ford Field — a spectacular 65,000-seat indoor stadium — opened in 2002 and, coupled with a state-of-the-art team headquarters in nearby Allen Park, gave the Lions sparkling facilities. But that didn't translate into success on the field. The Lions are the only team to go 0-16 in a season, hitting rock bottom in 2008.
The Lions were already in a period of transition before Ford's death, having fired coach Jim Schwartz and replaced him with Jim Caldwell. Team president Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew are still in place, but there's clearly pressure to win for a team that was able to draft standouts Calvin Johnson, Ndamukong Suh and Matthew Stafford in recent years.
Detroit faces a big week ahead, with free agency beginning Tuesday. 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.
"I've heard guys say this — that everyone that has played for the Lions for a significant amount of time, that has some investment with, has some guilt, and I share that," Hanson said. "That we were not able to be part of a team that brought him a championship. And I think every player feels that."
William Clay Ford married the former Martha Parke Firestone, an heiress to the Akron, Ohio, rubber fortune. Her grandfather, Harvey Firestone, was a close friend of Henry Ford. Martha Ford now takes over a position of greater leadership with the team, and Hanson shared some of his experiences with the family.
"I hope this is a compliment: They are real people," Hanson said. "For most of the people, these are names on a newspaper column, such a historic name. And again, these are influential and very important people to our city. Their philanthropy and how they've invested back into the community, I know for a fact that she's part of it."