To the masses in Detroit, 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.
"In so many NFL locker rooms, if the owner is around, players put their heads down and hope not to get noticed," former Lions, Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers receiver Johnnie Morton said Sunday in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "In Detroit, I noticed right away that players would go up to him to say hello. One time, I hollered, 'Big Willie is in the house,' when he walked in the locker room. Some guys were looking at me like I was about to get cut, but then Mr. Ford later came over and cracked up about it.
"It became my pregame ritual to call him 'Big Willie,' and sometimes I'd tell him, 'If we win today, the postgame was going to be at your house tonight.' He was just a genuine, down-to-earth, cool dude — the epitome of people from Michigan — that just happened to own a car company and the Lions."
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 general manager Matt 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.
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 a blueprint for consistently winning was elusive. 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.
"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."
Born into an automotive fortune in 1925 bearing what was already a household name, Ford was 23 when he joined the Ford Motor Co. board of directors in 1948, one year after the death of his grandfather, Henry Ford.
Ford remained a company director until 2005, later taking the title of director emeritus.
"Mr. Ford had a profound impact on Ford Motor Company," Ford CEO Alan Mulally said in a statement.