In the afterglow of his team’s 28-2 thrashing of Jacksonville and anticipating a rejuvenated fan base for today’s game against Dallas, Clark Hunt exuded what might be called a cautious buoyancy.
By VAHE GREGORIAN
The Kansas City Star
The Chiefs chairman and CEO was delighted, of course, by a victory that seemed to affirm the wisdom of monumental offseason changes. And in part because the Cowboys are today’s foe, appropriately enough exactly 50 years after Lamar Hunt moved his team here from Dallas, Hunt considers this home opener “probably as big as it’s ever been.”
But he also remains cognizant of how it was only out of chaos that a sense of order was restored, how the makeover was necessitated by a grim 2012 season in which the darkness extended well beyond a mere playing field.
“No two ways about it,” Hunt said Friday in his office at One Arrowhead Drive. “The Belcher tragedy just compounded what already had been the toughest professional year of my life.”
His actions in the weeks following the murder-suicide involving Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher would be critical for a franchise at a crossroads. They go a long way toward defining Hunt’s leadership and reflect a studied but emboldened approach to the role.
“He was kind of feeling his way before, but, boy, in the last year, he’s really grown into the job,” said Jack Steadman, the former Chiefs GM who was entwined with the Hunt family even before the move from Dallas and urged Lamar Hunt on his deathbed to appoint Clark the future leader of the franchise. “He made the changes that needed to be made in a correct way.”
Entering December, the fallout of the bizarre Scott Pioli era had permeated the franchise most visibly on the field, where the Chiefs were 1-10 and a heritage seemed to be unraveling.
The sheer incompetence had inspired such protests as the saveourchiefs.com movement, banners being flown over half-empty Arrowhead Stadium demanding change, and a call to wear black and make a funeral of a game.
Until real funerals were necessary.
Hunt was at home in Texas on the morning of Dec. 1 when then-general manager Pioli called, shaken after witnessing Belcher’s suicide just outside the Chiefs’ front office. Moments before taking his own life, Belcher admitted that he had murdered his girlfriend.
That jarring call seemed “a little bit surreal” to Hunt, 48, who has run the Chiefs since his father’s death in late 2006.
“You can’t believe what you’re really hearing,” he said. “There’s nothing, at least in my life, that had prepared me for that.
“It was just hard to sort through: ‘OK, what comes next here?’”
Being a compassionate human being turned out to be first, starting with his approach to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in phone conversations that morning.
Goodell told Hunt that “the league’s stance was that generally in these circumstances we go ahead and play the game,” Hunt recalled. “And I told (him) that I understood that, but I felt that it was important for the players and the coaching staff to make that decision as opposed to me making it.
“(Then-coach) Romeo Crennel had been involved in what happened that morning, and I certainly would have understood if he had said, ‘I can’t do this.’”
Hunt spent the evening extending himself to players and staff at the downtown hotel where the Chiefs stay the night before home games.
“I felt that it was important that they knew I was there for them, I was hurting with them, that I understood what they were going through and that I wanted to do whatever I could to support them,” Hunt said.
The Chiefs would opt to play, and they somehow beat the Carolina Panthers.
But by season’s end, supporting his players and the future of the organization meant it was time for Hunt to make changes.
“First of all, we as a family and I as a leader are in this business to win championships. And that’s it,” Hunt said. “We’re not in the business to go through motions; we’re not in the business just to be part of the NFL. It is to win championships.
“So anytime we don’t win a championship, we’re disappointed. Now when you have a hard year like we did last year, it’s particularly difficult. Certainly, the fan base, the football team, the coaching staff, everyone who works for the Chiefs was very, very disappointed.”
But who could be more disappointed and have more to lose, really, than Hunt, the guardian of what he must consider a sacred trust?
Low-key as he might seem, this matters to him in deep, personal ways that few others can appreciate.
Hunt is unassuming, polite and understated, Chiefs president Mark Donovan said. “But don’t misperceive that.”
He is driven, as evidenced by being valedictorian of his class at Southern Methodist, among other indications.
And week by week, Donovan said, last season was tormenting Hunt.
Lamar Hunt “had a lot of success on and off the field, and he did things that many people felt were not possible, so I do take it very seriously to remember and think about and enhance his legacy,” Clark Hunt said. “On the other hand, I know I have to be me.”
That meant taking a rational, measured approach.
“He doesn’t just go off doing crazy things,” said Steadman, who has known him from infancy. “Clark is a good thinker, and he’s a good planner.”
Said Donovan: “He’s the reason we are where we are right now.”
Obvious as it might have seemed from the outside for months — as much pressure as there might have been from the furious fan base — Hunt insists that he didn’t make the decision to turn over the front office until the end of the 2-14 season because he didn’t want to “prejudge” from an emotional place within.
“When you relieve somebody of their duties, it’s very difficult because you know that the action has a big impact on them professionally, emotionally, from a family standpoint. I don’t ever take that lightly,” he said. “But it’s also part of the business. Change is one of the constants of the National Football League and the sporting business in general, so it’s something that I’ve come to accept.”
The way he went about the change reflected an evolution in Hunt.
“I think like anything that you spend time doing, you become more experienced and you have a deeper well of knowledge from which to draw on in making decisions,” he said. “Life’s experiences are probably the greatest teacher, and that’s certainly true in one’s profession.”
Hunt overhauled the fundamental structure of the Chiefs’ management flow chart, which now features Donovan, new general manager John Dorsey and new coach Andy Reid on the same line reporting directly to Hunt, a structure that Donovan says both reflects Hunt’s trust in each and fosters trust among them all.
The tactful Hunt didn’t say it was because the lines of communication had gone haywire under Pioli’s watch as general manager.
But it might be inferred that this is what he means by life’s experiences being the greatest teacher.
“I decided to change the reporting structure so that I could have more input and involvement with the head coach and hear his perspective directly, as opposed to hearing it through the general manager,” Hunt said.
Also reflecting his ongoing education: This time he chose the coach before he picked a GM.
“Probably a lesson that I had learned from the coaching search that we had gone through in 2009 was that the window to hire a talented head coach in the National Football League is very short,” he said.
In this case, Hunt identified that it was crucial to bring in an experienced head coach. Reid had won 130 regular-season games in 14 seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles.
“We needed somebody who could walk in the locker room and the players would immediately respect him; Andy certainly fits that bill,” said Hunt, who has spent much more time speaking with Reid than any of Reid’s predecessors. “We needed somebody who was a good teacher, a strong on-the-field presence, somebody who could build relationships with players and yet demand their respect. Andy Reid is all of that.”
He added: “You don’t regularly have an opportunity to hire a coach like Andy Reid. … You can say the stars aligned.”
Perhaps they did too in terms of the availability of Dorsey, with whom Reid had grown close during the 1990s with the Green Bay Packers.
It’s far too soon to know if they are aligning in any broader way for the Chiefs, but Hunt is energized and encouraged by what he’s learned of Dorsey and Reid and what he’s seen in offseason and preseason preparation.
And he’s eager to see the next chapter unfold, starting with a historically symmetrical game today against Dallas.
In one sense, the Cowboys prevailed in a “this town ain’t big enough for the both of us” relationship when Hunt’s father moved. But the spirit of the rivalry is a little different now, right down to the whimsical winner’s trophy commissioned in 1998 by Lamar Hunt in light of the fact that both he and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones once lived on Dallas’ Preston Road.
“The Preston Road Trophy (is) about a foot tall, and I’ve heard Jerry describe it as looking like a bird feeder,” Clark Hunt said, laughing and adding, “One of my dad’s requirements when he put it together was that it cost less than $100. And I think he achieved that easily.”
Achieving the Chiefs’ legacy didn’t come easily to Lamar, and restoring its luster won’t come any easier for Clark.
That’s something he knows as well as anyone, especially after enduring the most painful year of his professional life as he grows into the job.
But that growth is obvious from the choices he’s made.
“Following Lamar was a pretty drastic change for Clark,” Steadman said. “But he’s making his mark more and more.”