Todd Haley walked into the public relations office at Chiefs headquarters on a Thursday in early December. Four days before he was fired as the team’s coach, he wanted to talk about what life was like inside this organization. But he didn’t know who else might be listening.
Looking up toward the ceiling, he darted into a back hallway before hesitating. Then he turned around, going back through a door and stopping again. Haley suspected that many rooms at the team facility were bugged so that team administrators could monitor employees’ conversations. Stopping finally in a conference room, Haley said he believed his personal cellphone, a line he used before being hired by the Chiefs in 2009, had been tampered with.
Paranoid? The Chiefs have adamantly denied that they tap phones or listen in on conversations. But as the team enters another period of transition after elevating defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel last week to head coach, interviews with more than two dozen current and former employees suggest that intimidation and secrecy are among the Chiefs’ principal management styles — and that Haley wasn’t the only one with paranoid thoughts.
“When you’re mentally abused, you eventually lose it, too,” one former longtime Chiefs executive said.
Since Scott Pioli was hired as general manager in January 2009, life for many inside the Chiefs’ front office has been marked by massive staff turnover, fear and insecurity about how closely they are watched. Numerous current and former staffers paint a picture of constant worry — and, in a few cases, of alleged age discrimination. Three former department heads sued the Chiefs in 2011, though the team has denied wrongdoing.
Clark Hunt, the team’s chairman and CEO, rejected the notion that Arrowhead is a difficult place to work, but he said there has been an emphasis placed on responsibility. Change, he said, is often uncomfortable.
“We needed a culture that pursued excellence,” he said. “One that valued honesty and integrity, one where the employees would be held accountable.”
Stability has been another matter. In the last three years, more than half the workforce has turned over, and the vast majority of senior staff members are no longer with the team. As dozens have left the organization, with some of the holdovers and new hires trying to adapt to what many described as a restrictive working environment, dread has permeated the franchise.
“The level of paranoia was probably the highest that I had ever seen it anywhere,” another former high-ranking staffer said. “ If you make the wrong step, you might not be able to pay your mortgage.”
• • •
Three years ago, Pioli began ushering in a new culture on Arrowhead Drive. It centered on secrecy, extreme attention to detail and putting an end to the way things had been under longtime general manager Carl Peterson.
“Part of it is not only changing the culture of your football team and your locker room,” Pioli told USA Today in August 2009. “It’s changing the culture of all the things that touch your football team and your locker room.”
Some of the first changes involved shutting off access and protecting information. Non-football employees, including those who had worked for the Chiefs for decades, were told that they weren’t allowed on certain floors, or in certain areas of the team facility. Business-side staffers with an office window facing the practice fields were made to keep their shades drawn during practices. The team president was no exception. A security guard made the rounds during practices, sometimes interrupting phone calls and meetings to lower shades.
Chiefs president Mark Donovan said his shade is drawn for the sake of consistency, to give the impression that no business-side employee is trusted more or less than another.
“This is making sure that everybody feels the same,” he said.
Pioli’s background was with the New England Patriots, a team known for its devotion to privacy and bending the rules. As he promised, the environment changed. Some said it changed too much.
“It’s not Lamar Hunt’s organization anymore,” said Steve Schneider, the former stadium operations director who spent 14 years with the Chiefs before being fired in 2010, he said, for being disorganized.
Pioli, who was not made available by the team for this story, has said in the past that the changes were about ending a period of entitlement and emphasizing accountability. Those were the things, he repeated often, that lead a team to victories and championships.
During his first year, Pioli noticed a candy wrapper in a back stairwell and waited to see how long it took to be picked up. About a week passed, and it remained in the stairwell. He placed the wrapper in an envelope, and during a meeting of department heads, Donovan, then the team’s chief operating officer, brandished the wrapper as evidence of the attention to detail that Chiefs employees had grown to ignore.
“A great coaching moment,” Donovan said.
Some thought the example was overblown. Pioli frequently came down hard on minutiae. Some emphases made sense, some staffers said; others, though, seemed over the top. One executive, who’s no longer with the team, was sent to human resources for casually referring to Pioli by his last name; the executive said, however, that first names were acceptable. Pioli also sent a memo with detailed instructions, including which stairway to use and which doorway to enter, when using the facility’s gym.
After a while, a saying was adopted by top administrators for behavior that didn’t fit the new standards: “That’s so 2-and-14,” they would say, referring to the Chiefs’ win-loss record in 2008. This pertained to matters large and small: Stephanie Melton, who worked 11 years on the team’s operations staff, recalled Pioli’s reaction after she and a coworker, after working past midnight on a weekend, had parked a courier van in the unmarked space usually occupied by Pioli’s car. The women had forgotten to move it, and Pioli was livid the next morning. Melton said she was made to feel for several days that she’d be fired.
“There was an incredible fear of saying and doing the wrong thing,” said a former business-side executive, who was among a group of sources who requested anonymity — in some cases because they still worked for the Chiefs, and in others because they believed their comments might hinder their chances of getting another job in sports.
Some, though, paid little attention to the changes. Mike Davidson, who left the team last year after 22 years as equipment manager, said the new policies never seemed overbearing to him.
“Everybody has a style,” he said, “and it’s your job to figure out that style. I didn’t have any problems.”
A few former employees, though they don’t deny that the working environment was tense, said they believed Pioli and Donovan simply carried out changes that Clark Hunt, a graduate of the results-oriented Goldman Sachs training program, had authorized.
“It’s professional football, and I do think that it can be a bit of a pressure cooker,” said Tammy Fruits, who resigned in October as the team’s vice president of sales and marketing. “To attribute that to Scott Pioli is unfair.”
Donovan said Hunt’s instructions were clear — and necessary.
“Really focus on integrity and accountability,” Donovan recalled Hunt suggesting. “He felt like we needed to take this place and focus on those two areas.”
But many saw Pioli as the face of the new way — and of overreaction. Melton said she frequently took the brunt of Pioli’s outbursts on such matters as the temperature in his office, the radio signal in the weight room, and how much the organization spent annually on coffee.
Ray Farmer, the Chiefs’ pro personnel director, said his boss is thorough — sometimes surprisingly so. He said that’s a good thing.
“In some instances,” Farmer said, “you could say that he’s a micromanager to a degree. I think he likes to know what information is and what you’re doing. Scott wants to know, like as a math teacher, ‘How did you get to your problem; how did you get to the answer of the problem?’ ”
“I believe that good leaders do bring an attention to detail to their leadership roles,” he said. “And something that I think we struggled with before both Mark and Scott got here was attention to detail. If you set an example with attention to detail, I think it spreads through the organization.”
Melton had a different opinion, saying Pioli’s fixation on trivial matters seemed misguided.
“He was so focused on what seemed like unimportant details for the general manager of a football team,” she said. “We all had to step to the beat of his drum, but we all kept questioning: ‘How is this building a better football team?’ ”
Nothing was emphasized like the commitment to secrecy. Pioli was with the Patriots in 2007, when that organization and its head coach, Bill Belichick, were disciplined for the “Spygate” controversy, in which one of the team’s video assistants secretly filmed signals by the New York Jets’ coaches. Belichick, Pioli’s mentor and a longtime friend, was fined $500,000 — the maximum-allowed fine by the NFL — for his role in the scandal.
When Pioli took over the Chiefs, he seemed determined to eliminate the chance of a competitor spying on his team. This past November, a security guard noticed a sedan stopped on Lancer Lane, a public road that runs adjacent to the Chiefs’ practice fields, as the team’s morning session was beginning. The driver took a photograph on his cell phone, and the guard ran toward him, standing there until the man deleted the picture. As the guard returned to his post, he told a Star reporter that, if the man hadn’t erased the photo, the guard would’ve confiscated the phone.
Donovan said the efforts to control team information have a purpose.
“You may think it’s harmless,” he said when asked about some of the measures, such as lowering window shades. “Other people may think it’s very harmful to our competitive advantage.”
Then he continued.
“It’s about winning.”
• • •
This past year, Haley stopped talking on the phone and repeatedly checked his office for listening devices. After being fired, Haley didn’t respond to interview requests; many former staffers said they signed confidentiality agreements upon being let go.
The Chiefs said there’s nothing to substantiate Haley’s fears, but some believed that anything was possible.
“I don’t think that anything would surprise anyone, really,” said a former employee who worked for the Chiefs for more than two decades. “That’s how Scott wants it.”
A common notion is that employees are constantly being watched. When they arrive and leave, where they’re going within the building and who they’re talking to. Indeed, the technology exists at the Chiefs’ offices, as it does in many corporate settings, to monitor phone calls and emails. But here, some staffers even hesitated before using their cell phones or speaking inside the building, because, like Haley, they suspected that conversations were monitored.
“The capability was definitely there for Big Brother to be watching,” said Schneider, whose job was to oversee maintenance at team facilities.
Added Pete Penland, who worked in operations before retiring: “I just know that some of our bosses had always told us: Be careful what we did, what we said and where we were at in certain parts of the building.”
Donovan denied that conversations are monitored or that the building is bugged. He said that in cases of suspected policy breaches or criminal activity, phone logs have been requested.
“I’m not going to say that we’ve never done it, but it’s not something we do,” Donovan said. “It’s not how we operate this business.”
The capability was installed during Peterson’s tenure, one source said, for the Chiefs to monitor emails, web traffic and call logs. Willie Davis, a current Chiefs scout hired by Peterson, said a former colleague was reprimanded during the previous regime for emails sent to another team’s scout. But a former Chiefs executive, who was familiar with the team’s policies under Peterson, said calls and emails weren’t routinely monitored. The technology was used more for flagging inappropriate material, such as pornographic websites.
But in the last three years, another former staffer said, printouts of emails, some of them months old, were occasionally requested. The former employee said the belief was that the Chiefs were trying to discover who could be trusted and who couldn’t, who was loyal to the cause and who was a liability. Pioli pored over former president Denny Thum’s call log, a former high-ranking employee said, before Thum was asked to resign in September 2010 after 36 years with the team.
Thum declined comment when reached by telephone.
Kirsten Krug, the team’s human resources director, said that no current or former employee has shared uneasiness that conversations were monitored. Hunt said no employee, past or present, has broached this concern with him — including Haley.
But the suspicion was prevalent enough that, when some staffers wanted to speak candidly, they set appointments with coworkers to meet outside the building so they could talk face-to-face. Others, trying to skirt an impression that employees shouldn’t fraternize with those from different departments, occasionally left the facility at different times, in different cars, so that team administrators wouldn’t know they were having lunch together.
“I don’t think that’s ever been an issue for me. I know that people have done it,” Farmer said. “They don’t want to be seen going with this person or that person. I understand — I hate to say this — I understand the process that some people felt they needed to take, but again, I never kind of adhered to that behavior.”
Donovan said the widespread suspicions were unfounded.
“I can’t control their beliefs,” he said.
Hunt was more direct.
“It’s not true at all,” he said.
Still, other staffers were nervous that someone might report to administrators that they were at a place with people they weren’t supposed to associate with.
“Every day,” a former longtime staffer said, “you walked into the building like you were going to be put on the witness stand and be cross-examined, and you didn’t know who it was going to be coming from.”
For some, the pressure was more difficult to deal with than others.
“Whether it’s a licensed professional or somebody else,” the employee said, “hell yeah, you’d better talk to somebody. Because you’ll go crazy.”
• • •
In January 2010, the worry was amplified and legitimized by a series of staff cuts. When Pioli took over, there were 19 employees in director or vice president positions. Many of them had been with the Chiefs for decades. Three years later, only three — Farmer, video operations director Pat Brazil, and special-events director Gary Spani, a former Chiefs player — are still in executive positions.
“As they term it out there,” Schneider said, “I was the class of ’10.”
A year later, the “class of ’11” was let go. More senior staffers were shown the door, in the form of layoffs, firings and resignations. When the 2008 season began, before Pioli arrived, the staff roster in the team’s media guide listed 155 employees, not including coaches and players, working for the Chiefs. More than three years later, 82 of those staffers are gone, though most positions have been filled, in some cases with modified titles.
“Scott did give me a chance to kind of earn my job and do what I’m doing,” Farmer said. “He could’ve parted ways with me. Why he didn’t, I think that’s probably a better question for him. But I would like to think that it’s more based on my work product and what I’m able to accomplish.”
Donovan said the changes were aimed at improving the organization from top to bottom.
“Trying to be the best in the National Football League at what we do,” he said. “So that’s going to come with people who get on board and thrive, and it’s going to come with people who feel like it’s not something they want to participate in, or maybe can’t.”
Sure, the cuts have come during a down economy, and turnover is typical during an organizational change. Donovan said such change, even at the top, is common in sports. But when The Star examined the staff rosters of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos, teams that also overhauled their franchises in 2009, it found that those organizations left senior staff mostly untouched. Even the Atlanta Falcons, another team influenced by a former executive from the Patriots’ lineage, have made only a few changes to senior staff in the four years since Thomas Dimitroff became GM. The Broncos and Falcons reached the playoffs this season.
Any Chiefs employee who had once worked for Peterson was on alert.
“I just saw everybody else kind of disappearing,” said a former executive who had been hired by Peterson. “ When you’re on the outside, it’s pretty obvious you’re on the outside.”
The team has had a different public relations chief, the franchise’s conduit to media and fans, in each of Pioli’s three years.
Three of the Chiefs’ former high-ranking staffers — former community-relations director Brenda Sniezek, former controller Larry Clemmons and former maintenance manager Steve Cox — have sued the organization for age discrimination. In Sniezek’s suit, filed in December, she alleged that she overheard Pioli telling a coworker that he planned to “get rid of everyone who was with Carl Peterson, especially anyone over the age of 40.”
Sniezek, 52, alleged that she asked the team’s PR staff to remove all references to her age on her biography. Reached by The Star late last month, Sniezek said that because of the suit, which sought damages of at least $25,000, she wouldn’t discuss her nearly 29-year tenure with the Chiefs, and how it changed after Hunt put Pioli in charge.
“There will be a time, and all of this will come out,” said Sniezek, who was let go last January.
Clemmons’ petition, filed in November, alleged that he was informed upon being asked to retire that, “You’re the last.”
Because of legal restrictions, Donovan said he couldn’t discuss the suits, other than referring to a statement in which he said the claims “are both baseless and ridiculous.”
“The plaintiff’s claims are completely false,” the statement read, “and we intend to vigorously defend ourselves.”
In the Chiefs’ answer to Cox’s petition, the team denied his allegations. Cox’s attorney, Lewis Galloway, said depositions will begin this week.
• • •
Before Christmas, a group of about 20 gathered at a cafe in Independence. They were mostly former Chiefs staffers, although some current employees also attended, and they came together to reminisce. They called it a reunion.
“It didn’t matter which department you were in,” said Cox, who is Melton’s father, “everybody would pull together. It was amazing.”
Now, Schneider said, most employees simply keep to themselves. He said staffers used to volunteer to help coworkers out of a jam. If there was snow in the stadium, colleagues from other departments ran down to help shovel it out. Those days, he said, are gone.
“It got to a point where people just kept their heads down, didn’t want to go outside the box and jeopardize getting in trouble,” Schneider said.
He went on.
“I still get calls from people who are still there,” he said. “All I can say is, ‘I feel for you.’ ”
Several former staffers admitted that it’s difficult being without a job, particularly one in sports. But some said leaving the new Chiefs was more about relief than regret.
“I sleep a hell of a lot better at night,” a former employee said.
The Chiefs said they’re happy now with the team’s direction. But there hasn’t been a significant improvement in the one area that Donovan said the changes were intended to support — the team’s win-loss record. The Chiefs finished 7-9 in Pioli’s third season, the team’s second losing season since the changes began. Still, Donovan said the organization is in better shape compared to three years ago.
“There are a lot of people who have been here longer than I’ve been here,” he said, “who will sit there and tell you that it’s a much better place to work today.”
In addition to the more than two dozen independent interviews conducted by The Star, the Chiefs arranged phone interviews with eight current employees. Farmer and Davis were among those, and their interviews were the only two conducted without a Chiefs PR staffer present. Each of the employees spoke favorably about the working environment and the team’s direction. The team emphasized that the employees were not coached on what to say.
One of those was Allen Wright, the team’s equipment manager, who was with the Chiefs when Peterson took over in 1988. Back then, the Chiefs also overhauled the staff: Three years later, 62 percent of the staff had been retained, but seven of 10 department heads had been replaced. The organization was smaller then, but Wright recalled a similar reaction to the changes.
“I remember the same feelings and people saying the same things,” he said. “I was a young kid working in the equipment department, and everybody was talking about how everybody was worried about getting fired. Any time there’s change, that’s just the feeling that people have.”
• • •
On that Thursday in December, when Haley’s suspicions peaked, the former Chiefs coach said he would be in touch to discuss the working environment — but that it would be from a number you didn’t recognize. Haley’s call never came, but in the time since, others have questioned how productive he could have been if he was so preoccupied with who might be watching him.
“No one could be successful in that environment,” a former director-level employee said.
Melton left the Chiefs in 2010 after arriving at a similar conclusion. More than a year later, she was asked if she could see any benefit from the changes. After a long pause, she answered.
“I’m sure there’s some good that has come out of it,” she said. “I would be hard-pressed to be able to identify that right now, without really thinking about it. I don’t think our football team is any better; I don’t think our fans are being any more well-served.”
She paused again.
“I couldn’t tell you,” she said. “I’m sorry. I’m not very helpful in that regard.”
Melton was at the reunion last month. She said they talked about how much they missed working together. She said they tried not to dwell on stressful times, but there were plenty of things that former staffers said they wouldn’t miss about working for the Chiefs.
“I don’t miss being scared to go in every day,” one former staffer said. “Thinking, ‘Who’s going to yell at me now?’ It’s so sad, because it was a great job. There was a time that it was a great place.”