Why Martha Ford, 90, has been exactly the owner the Lions need

Martha Ford has been running the Lions her way since taking over the team after her husband died in March 2014. AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

When 90-year-old Detroit Lions chairman and majority owner Martha Firestone Ford announced the dismissal of team president Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew in early November, an awestruck fan tweeted that Ford forgot to drop the mic like a performer might after a show of awesomeness before she walked off without taking a single question from reporters. But Detroit being Detroit -- which is to say, a music city as well as the Motor City -- a rap-style video did drop within days along with other hurrahs from win-starved fans such as "Martha Clay don't play."

Few people in any walk of life embark on a new career around their 90th birthday, but Ford, in fewer than two years on the job, has provided a blast of cold-eyed decision-making and blunt leadership for the Lions that is a dramatic departure from the management style of her late husband, William Clay Ford Sr., who presided over one playoff win in the 50 years he owned the club. Martha, whom he married in 1947, was there the whole time. When Bill Sr. died at 88 in March 2014, control of the team was passed to her.

Every significant move Ford has made so far, as well as her early reviews from other NFL owners, has been a riposte to those who reflexively underestimated her ability to handle the job.

Despite an uptick since the firings, which occurred when the Lions were 1-7, Detroit is 6-9 and assured of its 13th losing season in the past 15 years. And Ford -- a tiny, narrow-shouldered woman with an elegant bearing, impeccably coiffed hair and affection for her signature, saucer-sized sunglasses -- has left people fascinated to see what surprises she might spring next.

Will second-year head coach Jim Caldwell be gone after dipping from 11-5 a year ago? Will the team's next general manager be a familiar name, or will Ford roll the dice on a brilliant, up-and-coming talent instead?

Ford herself isn't saying publicly. But unlike when she first took over, few question her daring or personal engagement with the job anymore. Just a week before the front-office shakeup, Caldwell fired his offensive coordinator and offensive line coaches with Ford's blessing. Now she is being commended for her boldness and pitch-perfect acknowledgment of the frustration Lions followers have been feeling for decades.

"You deserve better," she wrote in a letter to season-ticket holders after she cleaned house.

Ford made a point to meet with the Lions players when they returned from their bye-week break. She stood before them to take questions. She said she wasn't giving up on the season, and she basically called out the team by re-setting expectations even higher.

"As I told the media last week and our players and coaches on Monday, we expect our team to improve, compete and win," Ford's letter said.

"Any time something like [this] happens, you're surprised -- not shocked, but surprised," Lions kicker Matt Prater said of the firings. "But I think it just shows she's willing to do whatever it takes to win, which is what you want from your owner. ... I've got a lot of respect for her."

Ford has remained highly averse to granting interviews, keeping her persona somewhat shrouded in mystery. But if she succeeds in finally turning around the Lions by making the right hires this offseason -- and the Lions do have some pieces to rally around, starting with quarterback Matthew Stafford -- then Ford just may become as much of a football folk hero in Detroit as Barry Sanders and Billy Sims, Night Train Lane and Bobby Layne.

She would also be the most unlikely one.

"All I know is she wants to win -- now," said Ernie Accorsi, the former Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns and New York Giants general manager who was hired by the Lions in November to help Ford with her GM search. "She wants this so badly. She really does. She's tired of losing."

"She is impatient, and she should be," Giants co-owner and team president John Mara said. "I know she has strong opinions about things, too."

Accorsi compared Ford with the other great matriarchs in league history, Bears principal owner Virginia Halas McCaskey and the late Ann Mara, John's mother. "All of them are elegant, tough-minded, smart, in-control women," he said. "And feisty."

The first time Accorsi met with Ford at her home last month to discuss the Lions' GM search, their conversation drifted toward how the club has played indoors dating to its days at the Pontiac Silverdome.

"I told her I think it tends to make teams soft when they don't play in the elements all the time," Accorsi said, "and Mrs. Ford shot back, 'I couldn't agree with you more. I've always thought the same thing.' "

Ford's official bio on the Lions' website is only six paragraphs long, underplaying a full, fascinating life. Her husband was Ford Motor Co. founder Henry Ford's last surviving grandson, and her grandfather was Harvey Firestone, founder of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company and a close friend of Henry Ford's.

Ford graduated from Vassar in 1946, a time when many women's college ambitions weren't supported. Afterward, like many young ladies of her social standing, she set off for a grand tour of Europe and returned on the RMS Queen Elizabeth to New York City, where Bill met her at the dock as photographers snapped pictures. When they married soon afterward, the society pages covered the wedding as a merger of two giant American industrial concerns as much as two iconic families.

Martha's work life went beyond accompanying her husband to games after his deal to buy the Lions was approved Nov. 22, 1963 -- a celebration that turned sour when President Kennedy was assassinated later that day. She has sat on the boards of numerous businesses and charities over the years as a serious-minded, hands-on contributor. Not just a figurehead.

Still, some local sports columnists have acted as if running the Lions was too big for her. She has been implored to let son William Clay Ford Jr., executive chairman of the Ford Motor Co. and vice chairman of the Lions, run the franchise -- or, better yet, just sell the team outright.

Martha Firestone Ford had other thoughts.

The first sign things were going to be different was when she elevated her three daughters to equal footing as Lions vice chairmen alongside Bill Jr., who had been attending NFL owners meetings in his father's stead for years. According to league sources, Martha relied heavily on a recommendation from Sheila Ford Hamp, her second-eldest child, to end Lewand's two-decade run as team president last month and replace him with Rod Wood, a longtime family financial advisor.

Any doubts about who was really running the show were put to rest in October when Bill Jr. appeared on Detroit radio station WJR. In his only public comments to date about his mother's new role, 58-year-old Bill Jr. didn't dispute he'd been sidelined, saying, "Since my dad died, I've been less involved with the Lions and the NFL. She is very much in charge, and she's got the decision-making role."

Said Mara: "I think her moves so far are her way of demonstrating to the fans she was not afraid to make those changes that she did, and she wants a new approach."

Now it is Martha who attends the league meetings; it is Martha to whom Accorsi will present his short list of GM candidates; and it is Martha who calls the league office and commissioner Roger Goodell to protest blown calls, which she did when a Seahawks player batted a loose ball out of the end zone -- an illegal maneuver the refs missed -- to secure Seattle's Week 4 victory over the Lions.

"She gave them a piece of her mind," Caldwell told reporters.

To longtime Lions observers, the shift in tone is dramatic. While her husband was widely eulogized last year as a lovely guy -- genial, generous, admirably devoted to the community during Detroit's long struggle for an economic recovery -- this was also noted: When it came to running the Lions, Bill Sr. was patient to a fault.

Over the years, he stuck with a succession of underperforming executives and coaches. Despite only 31 wins during his seven-plus seasons as team president, Matt Millen wasn't removed until the Lions were three games into what would be the NFL's only 0-16 season. And while regularly drafting high as a result of all the losing, the Lions struggled to rebuild. There have been a few hits in recent drafts -- cornerback Darius Slay and defensive end Ezekiel Ansah are rising stars from the 2013 class -- but far too many misses. Not a single pick from Mayhew's 2010 and '11 drafts remains on the roster.

With the Lions, it's always something.

Even Sanders, the franchise's greatest modern icon, rocked them by retiring via a fax to his hometown newspaper, the Wichita Eagle, at age 30. A few years later, the Hall of Fame running back admitted the Lions' culture of losing accelerated his decision to call it quits.

So perhaps you can see why Ford's decision to ax her underperforming front office and insist on quicker results after the Lions had just suffered a 45-10 spanking by Kansas City in London was met with such joy.

"I might go buy a Ford today to celebrate," tweeted ex-Lions defensive end Lawrence Jackson.

"They are definitely going to hold everybody accountable," Lions receiver Lance Moore said. "She's not scared to make tough decisions or tough personnel moves with anybody, obviously. They've done it from the top down."

Other NFL owners have the same take. Ford's fearlessness and refusal to dither has their attention.

"It's a much, much more pressing responsibility to undertake when you become managing owner, and honestly, it's hard for anyone not to feel a little intimidated to be in such a large room with mostly men who have been there -- most of them -- a long time," Mara said.

"We all sit in the same seats every time at this big conference table. She walked in there seamlessly and sat in the same spot the Lions have always sat, and it kind of seemed like she's been there for years. I was impressed by that. Everyone else was as well. She made a great first impression. Since then, she's been very engaged, asks a lot of questions and has showed she knows what is going on."

Pittsburgh Steelers co-owner and chairman Dan Rooney, via email, said his fellow owners' admiring takes on Ford's moves "have nothing to do with her being a woman. She's doing the job. She was always interested in football. But now she's involved."

Players say Ford has proven she can make tough decisions, but she also throws off the feeling she's fighting right there with them. Many players have noted how Ford greets each of them by sight and name, how she attends every game home and away, how she stands on the sidelines during warm-ups with her extended family, wishing the players luck and chatting them up. For the past two seasons, she has shown up at training camp, too, on a regular basis.

"She's out there braving the heat like all the fans are," Moore said. "It's a cool thing to see. And as a player, you definitely appreciate that."

Veteran defensive end Darryl Tapp, who played in Seattle, Philadelphia and Washington before Detroit, says Ford is a welcome departure from other NFL bosses he has had. "She's visible, [and] not just when times are good but when times are less-than-good," he said. "Most times I've seen owners is only when things are good."

Over the years, Ford and her husband became known around the league for other down-to-earth personal touches such as sending handwritten Christmas cards to their players and a large circle of colleagues, a tradition Martha has continued.

"I got the Christmas card in the mail already. It's dope, man, how she embraces us," Lions tight end Eric Ebron said. "It's a dope card. ... Words from her. She loves us to death."

Maybe the spiked-up atmosphere and Ford's changes will translate into more wins. Maybe not. Ford's next big call will be hand-picking the Lions' new GM.

Accorsi asked her at the outset of the search what she was looking for. He says the takeaway Ford left him with was typically ambitious: "Don't think the person has to be experienced or safe or respectable and that's it. No. You hire someone you think has greatness in them."

Martha Ford is impatient, all right. Perhaps the genius of taking such a task is one of the few things the Lions haven't tried.

ESPN.com's Michael Rothstein contributed to this story.