Lions enter era of collaboration under principal owner Sheila Ford Hamp

Detroit News

Allen Park — Sheila Ford Hamp’s office is located in the heart of the Detroit Lions practice facility, just feet away from coach Dan Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes and across the hall from senior vice president of football and business administration Mike Disner.

It wasn’t always set up this way. When she took over as the principal owner of the franchise, after mother Martha Firestone Ford stepped down in June, 2020, Hamp was tucked away in the building’s corner. The area had served as the longtime hub for the Ford family in the building.

To be fair, that corner offered one of the facility’s best views with a windowed wall that opens to a second-story balcony overlooking the team’s two practice fields. Still, that didn’t offset the feelings of isolation spawned while working in that wing.

“It was like the Hinterlands,” Hamp told The Detroit News in a sit-down interview this week. “I sat in that office for a half of a day and I felt like I was in an isolation booth.”

Coincidentally, that isolation reflected a problem Hamp uncovered throughout the organization during a months-long evaluation and one she’s sought to correct, centered around the hiring of Holmes and Campbell.

More: Lions offense preview: Will Jared Goff have staying power or give way to draft choice?

This is a dawn of a new era for the long downtrodden franchise; the era of collaboration.

A shift from secrecy

In a media session the day she assumed power, Hamp vowed to be a more hands-on owner than her parents, eager to gain a better understanding of some of the organization’s under-appreciated departments. And in the following months, first virtually, then in person, she took the time to meet with as many staff members as possible, both on the football side and business side at Ford Field, where she also has a centralized office.

What quickly became clear to Hamp during those meetings was a disconnect, between the two sides. The football staff, headed by former New England Patriots leadership attempting to emulate that franchise’s culture in Detroit, had built a moat around themselves, treating any morsel of information like a state secret.

And to Hamp’s surprise, she found that many Ford Field staffers had never been to the Allen Park facility. In fact, they had been discouraged from doing so.

“The whole idea that football is secret and we’re not going to tell anybody what we’re doing, it was like, ‘What?'” Hamp said. “Obviously, you don’t want to tell your opponents what your game plan is, but you want the fans to know what you’re doing. I felt like with this organization, I want everyone to feel like they’re a part of it, that their piece is important, because it is. We can’t do this alone. You can’t.”

While she wasn’t calling the shots at the time, Hamp had certainty been part of the decision-making process to bring back former general manager Bob Quinn and coach Matt Patricia for the 2020 season. That came with a public, although somewhat vague ultimatum the team return to playoff contention.

It didn’t take another full season to realize the mistake. Now in position to have final say, Hamp pulled the plug after the team was embarrassed by the Houston Texans in Detroit’s annual Thanksgiving Day game, dropping the Lions to 4-7 on the year.

While not without culpability for that regime’s failures, the next hires would represent Hamp’s first opportunity to stamp her vision on the franchise. And by making the decision to part with Quinn and Patricia with more than a month remaining in the season, it gave her a head start formulating what the vision would look like.

Identifying new leadership

In a press conference after the firings, Hamp acknowledged she wasn’t going to have answers to many of the questions reporters had. In the immediate aftermath, it was too early to say what the search process for replacements would look like, what traits she would seek in new leadership and how power would be balanced between the new coach and GM.

Ultimately, Hamp and team president Rod Wood quickly decided against using a search firm. The Lions had previously worked with outside advisers and it had failed to net the desired results. But recognizing a weakness in football expertise, they convinced Chris Spielman, the popular former linebacker and current Fox Sports analyst, to come on board as an adviser capable of bridging that gap.

Spielman was sold on Hamp’s vision for opening up the organization’s lines of communication and building a culture where every employee felt invested in the team’s success. Together, he, Hamp, Wood and Disner — who handled contract negotiations among other duties under Quinn —would spearhead the search for new football leadership.

The walls in Hamp’s office are modestly decorated, but in one corner is a framed piece of paper, with some seemingly hastily written notes. It’s Spielman’s writing, outlining the traits they collectively decided the next leaders of the team must possess.

That sheet of paper is signed and dated by each member of the search team. It’s not a revelatory list — the Lions were looking for leaders, ones who could fit the culture, not be the culture, while having a clear vision for the staff they would assemble — but after every interview, they’d go back to it and assess the candidates against the criteria.

The interview lists for both coach and general manager were comprehensive. Hamp admits she felt most of the candidates were qualified to lead an NFL franchise, but Campbell and Holmes stood out. They checked every box, but more than any, Hamp and company saw leaders who were strong communicators, capable of embodying the culture of collaboration needed to work cohesively and unite the whole organization.

Building bridges

Remember, when Hamp dug into the various departments, she often found a disconnect, a sense of isolation from the primary product, the football team. Since their hires, Campbell and Holmes are helping build bridges, not moats.

It starts with their on-going line of communication with Hamp. The current location of her office certainly doesn’t hurt, but Holmes and Campbell have embraced keeping her in the loop on happenings with the roster, going as far as to invite her to sit in free agency and draft meetings.

“I think it’s kind of what I expected and hoped for, that we could all feel like we can talk and communicate,” she said. “And we do. I see them a lot, we talk a lot, we text a lot. It’s great.

“I’ve said it before and I really mean it, I would never meddle,” Hamp continued. “That’s their job and I think my job is up here, to watch and understand what’s going on. That’s really why I want to know all aspects and get to know the people. We have some really talented people in this organization and I think some of them feel like they haven’t been appreciated.”

Holmes and Campbell are doing their best to improve that mentality, as well.  After the draft, the duo, along with several members of the coaching staff and front office, held a company-wide Zoom to talk about the players they selected and why they were fits for the organization.

This week, they’ll host a similar meeting to share their thoughts and answer questions about the 53-man roster they’ll take into the regular-season opener this Sunday against San Francisco.

Meanwhile, Hamp has started a culture task force that incorporates staffers from every department. And her office door, whether she’s in Allen Park or at Ford Field, is always open, a continued sign of the inclusiveness she’s trying to foster.

Improved atmosphere

As a regular guest at both the practice facility and stadium, it’s impossible not to notice the improved morale. The aura of oppressiveness that hung over the organization in recent years has dissipated. It’s been replaced with a lightness of being that extends from the roster to the media relations staff to security. Everyone appears happier, regardless of their roles.

Understandably, fans will only care if this movement results in wins. Hamp is hopeful the positive vibes carry to the field.

“Nobody wants to feel downtrodden or beaten down,” she said. “I don’t care what you’re trying to do. I watch Dan and his assistants coach and they’re amazing teachers. That’s what they are, they’re teachers. And, as you know, in life there are good teachers and bad teachers. A good teacher can turn a lightbulb on and turn things around. I think it will go a long way. It’s not like they don’t call people out, but it’s done in a positive way. It’s not like, ‘You stink’ or ‘You’re going to get cut.’ I don’t know exactly what was said to players before, but it’s completely different.”

Hamp knows the recent hiring process didn’t follow conventional wisdom. Usually a team will have a GM or coach in place, relying heavily on input from one to hire the other. The Lions opted for something more of an arranged marriage.

The power structure is also unique. From the start, Holmes and Campbell had been presented as equals in the decision-making process. It all goes back to communication and collaboration. No roster decision is expected to be made without both agreeing to it.

Though the first offseason, everything has been going as well as could be imagined. Of course, this is the honeymoon period. Before a regular season game is played, before the first losing streak occurs, their world is still being viewed through Honolulu blue glasses.

That said, Holmes is convinced it’s built to last when the inevitable adversity hits.

“I do think the culture we have in place, from a collaboration standpoint, the people that we have in this building, from the entire coaching staff, to the leadership atop the personnel department, we have the right people that will be able to withstand that,” Holmes said. “It is coming, but I don’t have any hesitation that it’s going to be able to derail our ship, in terms of where we’re trying to get to.”

Realistically, it might be a couple years before we can assess whether the cultural changes implemented by Hamp will pay off. As the franchise navigates a roster rebuild, outside expectations for the Lions are low this year, although the owner insists no one is looking at this season as a hall pass.

Hamp is excited about the foundation being built by her hires. She’s particularly pleased with the additional draft picks Holmes picked up when he traded quarterback Matthew Stafford this offseason. But she’s too smart to put a specific timetable on when she anticipates a turnaround.

“Hopefully sooner than later, but if it takes a couple years, that’s what it takes,” she said. “My goal for the football team and the whole organization, I want this to be an organization people really want to work for, to feel good and excited. And I want our football team to be one of the best. I feel like we have a path and hopefully we’ll get there. There’s just so many things, so many moving parts, it’s just hard to predict. If we’re lucky, stay healthy, you don’t know. I think we’re going to surprise people, for sure.”

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