Denny Thum went into work on a short night’s sleep after a long day’s work. He arrived at the Chiefs’ offices eight hours after he’d left, the joy and pride of a prime-time win in the 2010 season opener and unveiling of renovated Arrowhead Stadium pushing him forward.
Then he heard that chairman Clark Hunt needed to see him, along with someone from human resources.
Thum, then the club president, was always close with Lamar Hunt, Clark’s father and the Chiefs’ founder and longtime owner. Thum did not return messages for this column, but in 2013, as part of an age discrimination suit that was later settled out of court, he testified that after some small talk about the night before Hunt told Thum to quit on that morning in 2010.
“I want you to leave this organization as of today,” Hunt said, according to Thum’s testimony.
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Thum said he’d never quit anything in his life. Hunt explained that he wanted to take on a larger role within the organization, and handed Thum a quote that would be used in a news release that day. He advised Thum to have an attorney go over the severance package.
Hunt became Chiefs chairman 10 years ago this month, after his father passed away in December 2006.
Particularly in his first five years in charge, he fired, removed or watched leave many longtime employees, from general manager Carl Peterson to a host of stadium personnel. He replaced them with Andy Reid and a much bigger marketing department. Hunt’s leadership has been mostly behind-the-scenes, by both design and personality, details often best found through private conversations.
It has been marked by trial and error, low-lighted by the worst year in franchise history in 2012, and now highlighted by the franchise’s strongest position since the 1990s. Both extremes came on Hunt’s watch, and are his responsibility.
Hunt’s first decade of leadership is fairly well symbolized by that morning with Thum: at times clumsy, unnecessarily impersonal and starkly different from how his father would’ve likely operated.
But, and this is the most important part, Hunt’s leadership has also been ultimately productive during the Chiefs’ move into the world of the modern NFL.
Clark Hunt is around more than his father was.
Hearing that will probably surprise some people, but it comes from several Chiefs employees who worked for both Hunts, including some who preferred Lamar.
Clark spent some formative adult years with Goldman Sachs, and he doesn’t have his father’s everyman charisma, but the out-of-touch, Mr. Burns-from-The-Simpsons caricature of him is overdone.
He’s in the office more than Lamar was, for one. The invitation-only Christmas parties from his father’s era have been replaced with an all-company get-together, families included, that’s held each year at Arrowhead, with party favors for the children of linebackers and administrative assistants.
“From my perspective, and from my family’s perspective, we don’t think about it differently,” Hunt said. “We try to engender the same family spirit we always have.”
Hunt knows the opposite perception exists, however, and on some level he must know it’s not completely baseless. Maybe Clark is around more than his dad was, but Lamar’s visits created more smiles with more people.
The stories about Clark’s leadership from employees, heard on condition of anonymity, include cumbersome security measures that divide the offices into sections — you might have clearance to be on the first floor, but not portions of the second. Not as much laughter in the hallways, particularly when Clark walks through with an assistant close behind pulling his rolling suitcase.
But if some of Clark’s personal quirks feed into this perception, so do some undeniable and unavoidable changes in the football world he is trying to navigate.
Peterson was the Chiefs’ CEO, president and general manager for two decades. Now Hunt is the CEO, and he’s hired a president and GM, each with backgrounds specific to the very different job functions they perform.
The marketing, ticket sales and broadcasting departments are all much bigger. Again, that reflects differences between the NFL in the 21st century and the 20th as much as it does Clark and Lamar.
“I always hate to compare myself to my dad unless I’m putting myself in an unfavorable light, if you understand,” Clark said. “The qualities he brought in the role were qualities that were critical to the team and the AFL succeeding at the time. He was entrepreneur by personality, and a visionary by personality. He had incredible persistence, and I think those roles were very, very important to the league succeeding at that point.
“The scale of the business has grown. My dad was very much into the details, and I think that was really important to helping the organization and the AFL succeed at that time. But I wouldn’t say that he necessarily thought strategically, and, ‘What’s this going to look like 10 years down the road?’ I just think the way the business has grown, that quality is needed.”
That’s a point that’s backed up by others around the league. If Lamar were still in charge today — he would’ve turned 84 in August — he would have to operate much differently, or the Chiefs would be left behind in the NFL.
Clark lacks the personal touch of his father. He’s unlikely to disagree with that. One of the joys of tailgating at Arrowhead used to be seeing Lamar zipping around the parking lot in a golf cart thanking fans for coming.
Clark does that, too, occasionally. But it’s not the same.
He brings other strengths, though.
Thum started with the Chiefs the same year he graduated from what was then Rockhurst College, first as an accountant. He eventually worked his way up to club president. He was described as being so close to Lamar that he was like another son.
Clark eventually replaced him with Mark Donovan, a double-major Ivy League graduate, the captain and quarterback of his college football team and a man sometimes talked about as a possible future commissioner.
The difference in those men is a pretty good summation of the difference in Clark’s Chiefs and the past. The way he welcomed Donovan — first as COO and vice president, then later as president — is an example of the best way Clark bridges his father’s values with today’s NFL.
The welcome came in a letter, typed and signed by hand at the bottom. The first page was full of excitement, both praise for Donovan and gratefulness for him coming to Kansas City. Then the words transitioned to what Hunt wanted from Donovan, laid out in five specific points:
1. Operate the business with character and integrity.
2. Grow the brand.
3. Enhance the fan experience.
4. Assemble, manage, and motivate the best staff in the NFL.
5. Lead the Chiefs in being an integral part of the Kansas City community.
“I still have that letter,” Donovan said. “I use it with people in my department now, too.”
Clark learned the value of writing letters from his father, who was famously prolific in notes and letters. And much of Clark’s message to Donovan could’ve been taken directly from Lamar in the 1990s. Nobody in the NFL valued community involvement, or the fan experience, more than Lamar.
But it’s hard to imagine him ever saying, “enhance the brand.” That is a 21st century sports business buzzphrase, and those words are coming from a 21st century sports businessman.
Clark’s approach has taken on different forms, adjusted over the years through failures and successes, but he can be generally described as a modern CEO — somewhere between a delegator and a meddler.
“He’s going to use logic and intellect, so when you present your positions with him, you better have your facts and intellect together,” general manager John Dorsey said. “Everything I’ve ever asked for, after he listens, he agrees.”
He listens. That’s what you hear over and over, even from some who don’t particularly like him. He asks questions. Pointed questions. Donovan describes Hunt’s decision-making process as “organic,” in that he likes consistent communication with those who work for him, and even if he begins with an opinion, he keeps it to himself until he hears enough information to make a final decision.
Hunt talks with Reid a few times every week during the season. Always after games, and then a time or two during the week. He asks how Reid plans on attacking the opponent, and what the Chiefs need to guard against, but he never offers his own game-plan advice to the man he’s hired to handle the game plans.
“That’s not his deal,” Reid said. “He’s going to let you do your job, and you appreciate that. He doesn’t bite back on things. He wants to get the information. I think he enjoys seeing it develop, and then we talk about the results after.”
Hunt has taken to meeting once a month with various departments of the organization, even when nothing is urgent. The idea, in football parlance, is to do a regular “self-scout” about what’s going well and what could be improved. Hunt heard the idea from someone else and liked it so much he adopted it with the Chiefs immediately.
The comparisons with his father are inevitable and impossible to live up to. He seems to have come to peace with that. Lamar is one of most beloved figures in Kansas City history, and being the one of his four kids to take over the family business comes with an enormous amount of pressure.
“Nobody is what his father was,” said Dick Vermeil, the former Chiefs coach.
Maybe that’s part of why Clark is most comfortable behind the scenes. In most ways, he can never be his father. But in the way he believes might matter most, maybe he can lead his father’s team through a changing world the old man probably envisioned but did not yet have to face.
“It’s personal to him,” Donovan said. “This matters in a bigger way to him, for all of us to represent the Chiefs and do the best we can for the franchise his father created and built.”
What matters most to people are results. The NFL has been a foolproof business model for decades, and despite concerns about TV ratings and over-saturation and head injuries, it figures to be a giant for decades to come.
So, Hunt can make the right hires and the right decisions to build the Chiefs as a “brand” and revenue producer, but what he’ll always be judged on is whether he can build the Chiefs as a winner.
The franchise has a proud history, but most of it is in grainy video. To this day, Peterson says his biggest regret is not being able to win the AFC championship trophy with Lamar’s name on it.
The Chiefs made the playoffs for just the second time in nine years in 2006, when Lamar passed. Under Clark’s chairmanship, the Chiefs dropped to 2-14 in 2008; Peterson resigned, replaced by the disastrous partnership of general manager Scott Pioli and coach Todd Haley, and sunk to one of the ugliest 2-14 seasons in NFL history in 2012.
Hunt’s first six seasons as chairman are the worst in Chiefs history when judged by win percentage, and the same could probably be said when judged by public perception. The organization had become a disaster. Much of that has been laid at Pioli’s feet, but Hunt wears more blame than he’s typically given for allowing the dysfunction to reach that point.
He admits feeling discouraged, and down, during that time. This was the job he’d prepared his entire life to do, and he was failing.
But Hunt is also tough. It’s easy to think of him as a spoiled rich kid, but he was an academic All-America soccer player in college, even with lifelong foot pain after a childhood accident that was so bad it left him in a wheelchair for two months.
Hunt did a few important things after 2012. First, and most obviously, he fired Pioli. He also rewrote the franchise power structure, so that the head coach and general manager each reported directly to him, a safeguard against the conflict that brewed with Pioli.
And perhaps most importantly, he hired the best men available in Reid as coach and Dorsey as general manager, comforted by the fact that the two had a long-standing relationship built on trust and respect.
Hunt lacked the street smarts to see that Pioli and Haley could never succeed together, but he responded with the self-awareness, humility and conviction to change so much of how the organization had been run for decades — how his father had run it for decades.
Hunt’s first 10 years as chairman have brought more drama than necessary, starting with Thum’s awkward departure and rising with Pioli’s disastrous reign. But his first decade also finishes with the organization stronger than at any point since the 1990s, both on the field and off. He shares in the blame for the troubles, but also in the credit for the repairs.
We talked for this column before the Raiders game. I asked if he regretted any of his mistakes.
“So, I’ve thought that issue in anticipation that you might ask,” Hunt said. “I would say there are obviously decisions you would do over with the benefit of hindsight, and there are decisions that are good decisions.
“But I’m glad it’s turned out like it has, because I don’t think we’d be where we are today without some of the struggles we’ve had. It’s like everything in life. It’s a journey, and we wouldn’t be where we are today without some things not going our way over that 10-year period.
“I really thought about that: ‘Would I take that back?’ And the answer is no, even though there may have been a lot of difficulty at the time.”