The Detroit Lions are changing principal owners. Don’t expect a radical shift to come with it.
Sheila Ford Hamp, the daughter of Martha Firestone Ford, is taking control of the Lions from her mother. Hamp has been intimately involved with the organization for a half-decade and became her mother’s right-hand person when it came to decisions made by the club. Her mother took control of the team in 2014.
It was often Hamp who accompanied her mother to road games and was a visible presence on the sidelines, talking with team president Rod Wood before home games at Ford Field the past few seasons. Hamp sat in an exclusive meeting with a group of five reporters to explain the decision to retain head coach Matt Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn for this season. In that meeting, Hamp did a lot of the talking and a lot of the explaining.
It was Hamp, actually, who said she understood that the decision they were making would not necessarily be the one that went over best with the fans, who were calling for Quinn and Patricia to be let go.
“That would have been the popular choice, the popular decision, and we knew that,” Hamp said in December. “But as I say, we’re doing what is right for the organization.”
All along, though, it felt like Hamp was being set up for this moment. She had been preparing for this for the past three seasons, which is why none of this should come as a surprise. She’s on the NFL’s Super Bowl and Major Events Committee. As her mother pushed for urgency in the organization, Hamp was with her every step of the way.
It’s also why those hoping for a massive change might be thinking a little bit too hard. Yes, there were changes when Ford took over for her late husband. She showed less patience than her late husband, William Clay Ford Sr., and often made it clear she was committed to winning – or at least decisions that showed she was trying. Those moves didn’t always work out, but they were steps – including the hiring of Quinn, the first general manager the club had ever hired directly from another team. In Patricia, the team secured the coach who was the hot commodity that offseason.
And make no mistake, there will be similarities in Hamp's approach to her mother's. She made it clear she expects the Lions to win this season and understands the fans' frustration from six decades of the team failing to reach a Super Bowl.
This isn’t to say there will be no changes. Hamp said multiple times during her introductory conference call she wants to be hands-on and meet with departments she doesn’t know much about to have a fuller understanding of the entire organization.
“I think that how I develop as a leader is going to evolve. My mother is wonderful, gracious, as is my dad. Maybe I’ll be a little more hands-on,” Hamp said. “Maybe I’ll be a little bit more involved with some of the younger staff and I’d like to learn way more about our analytics team, for instance. I know they are excellent but I want to get briefed on what they do.
“So I think there will be things I may dive into a little bit more deeply than my mother or my father would have. But, you know, we’ll see how the leadership develops from there.”
As far as big, overarching changes – those might come in time but not immediately. She plans on still seeking the counsel of her siblings and her mother on bigger decisions. That could end up taking time, but Hamp made it seem Tuesday like she’s up for any decisions that she might have to make down the road.
“I want to take a deeper dive into the organization, as I said, so I can know and understand. I don’t have a particular agenda in mind of changes,” Hamp said. “I just want to understand and know better and then be able to make better and more informed decisions on my own about if things need to be done or changed.
“But I don’t have a hit list or anything right now. I want to be a learner to begin with.”
She will lean on that experience in making decisions for the franchise because of the Lions' long culture of mediocrity. She has spent most of her life watching her parents steward an organization with one playoff win in the Super Bowl era and two-plus decades without a divisional title.
But Hamp also understands how to win and what it means to break through. She participated in national junior tennis tournaments growing up and won a Michigan state championship at 17. She played tennis at Yale and was among the first group of women to graduate from the Ivy League university. In the town she lives in, Ann Arbor, she’s spent time as a youth soccer coach for a bunch of neighborhood kids.
It’s on her now to turn the Lions into something they haven’t been since well before the Ford family owned the franchise: a winner.