In 1964 William Clay Ford became the owner of the Detroit Lions. The franchise he purchased had already existed for 34 years and compiled a regular season mark of 207-179-5, or a winning percentage of 0.532. The team had some post-season success, winning championships in 1932, 1952, 1953, and 1957. In 1962, just two years before Ford became owner, the team finished with a record of 11-3, a mark only bettered by the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants. In sum, the Lions were – prior to Ford – one of the better organizations in the NFL.
Under the Ford family, though, life has been quite different. In 42 seasons the Lions have accumulated a regular season record of 271-352-13, for a winning percentage of 0.436. For only 13 seasons have the Lions managed to win more games than the team lost. Only Joe Schmidt, who coached the team from 1967 to 1973, and Gary Moeller, who coached the team for seven games in 2000, has finished their coaching tenure with the Lions with a winning record.
The failure of the coaches is of course linked to the poor performances of the players. The man who appears most responsible for yet another Lions loss – Joe Harrington — is ranked sixth in Lions history in yards passing. Only four quarterbacks in team history have thrown more touchdown passes than Harrington. Harrington may be turning his career around in Miami, but he was hardly a great quarterback in Detroit. So if he is one of your top quarterbacks of all-time, you have not had a vast number of great signal callers.
Given the failure of the players and coaches, it is not surprising that a team that won four championships before the Fords arrived has only won a single playoff game since. Yes, in 1991 the Lions defeated the Cowboys in the playoffs, and that remains the only time the Fords saw their team victorious in the playoffs.
Although the Lions only managed that one playoff victory in 1991, the decade of the 1990s was not a bad time to be a fan of Detroit. From 1991 to 2000 the team won 82 games and lost 78, for a modest winning percentage of 0.513. In these ten years the team made the playoffs six times. Granted, the playoffs never lasted long, but at least the Lions managed to reach the NFL’s grandest stage.
In 2000, though, the team finished 9-7; missing out on the playoffs after Paul Edinger, the kicker for the Chicago Bears, sent the Lions down to defeat with a 54 yard field goal on the last play of the last game of the season. In response, the Fords cleaned house and brought in Matt Millen. Let me repeat that point. In response to a kicker making a 54 yard field goal the Lions fired everyone and put Matt Millen in charge. This is obviously not an example of decision-making destined to make the management literature.
Millen came to the Lions after a career as an NFL player and broadcaster. He had never coached at any level. He had never served in the front office of any team. Despite this lack of experience, Millen was placed in charge of the entire Lions operation.
We are now 86 games into the Millen regime. With the loss on Thanksgiving, the Lions have now dropped 64 games. If the team loses one more game this year it will have posted double digits in losses in every year Millen has called the shots.
The disaster that is Millen is not the point of this story. William Clay Ford and his son are the people responsible for bringing in Millen, and for all the other decisions that have led to more than 40 years of failure. And why did the Fords get to own this team? The Fords own this team because they had the fortune of being born into a family with a fortune. This point bears repeating. It is not that the Fords built their wealth due to their abilities. No, they were lucky enough to be descended from a person who built his wealth due to his abilities.
Consequently, William Clay got to use inherited wealth to own a football team. And this could have potentially brought much joy to fans in Detroit. But because the Fords do not know how to run a football team– and we have forty years of evidence to convince us of that point – the team has only brought fans of this team year after year of misery.
Although building social policy on a single observation is a bad idea, I think the Fords are great example of why a very high inheritance tax is a great idea. In essence, proponents of the inheritance tax should point to the Fords as Exhibit A. If you love capitalism you should love a policy that forces the children of the rich to compete like everyone else.
If that was our social policy it seems unlikely that the children of Ford would fare so well. It is also likely that someone else would own the Lions and Matt Millen would have stayed in the broadcast booth. And perhaps the highlight of the Lions season could occur sometime between September and January, as opposed to April when we get the joy of wondering which player the Lions will take with yet another high draft choice.