A few minutes after a stuffed suit gave the annual out-of-touch commissioner’s address in which he talked of being humbled, one of the owners he works for gave a much more genuine example of humility.
Clark Hunt, if we’re just being honest, has had a disappointing run as the Chiefs’ owner. He has now been in charge for eight years and is on his third general manager and fourth head coach. His teams have lost 30 more games than they’ve won in the regular season. That doesn’t include two more playoff losses, stretching the franchise’s drought of playoff victories from 13 to 21 years.
The Chiefs may or may not be on the brink of a breakthrough. I tend to think they’re close — with the right additions, of course — but credit Hunt for admitting his shortcomings.
“It’s definitely been slower than I wanted it to be,” he says. “... I really thought we could do it in three or four years.”
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This is a man growing up with, and into, the most important sports job in Kansas City. His father, Lamar, the team’s founder, passed away in December 2006. That makes eight full years for Clark in charge, a time that’s covered some of the club’s darkest moments — many of them in 2012.
His first hand-picked leadership group was an enormous failure, but even so it’s always worth remembering that Scott Pioli was the top GM candidate in 2007.
Hunt hired him, which is what a good owner should do. The mistake was in letting Pioli run the organization effectively unchecked, and in not seeing an unavoidable personality conflict between Pioli and new coach Todd Haley.
“In terms of the people, from a leadership standpoint,” Hunt began, when asked what mistakes he’d made and tried to learn from, “in ’07, I probably knew what I was looking for. But I didn’t necessarily know how to identify it. Having been through a few cycles on the GM side and the coaching side both, I have a better sense for what kind of leaders I want in the organization.”
It’s interesting when Hunt, who turns 50 in February, talks specifically about the head coach, and what’s important to him.
“You need somebody’s who’s positive but will also hold the players accountable,” Hunt says. “Andy fits that to a ‘T.’ I think you need somebody who’s really, really bright in that position. I’m not sure I knew how to identify that, or maybe how important that relationship aspect is, and that’s something I’ve learned through the process.”
Hunt has this job because he’s smart and ambitious and his father founded the team. All of that is true. He probably wouldn’t ever say this out loud, but he wasn’t ready for it in 2007.
He came in as one of the youngest owners in the league, seen not as Clark Hunt but as Lamar Hunt’s son, and it takes some time to grow up.
Hunt’s biggest mistakes have been in personnel. A more perceptive or experienced owner would’ve seen that the Pioli-Haley relationship was doomed from the start, and failing that, at least ended it sooner.
Hunt kept Pioli a year too long but appears to have played effective catch-up in pairing Andy Reid with John Dorsey.
These mistakes set the franchise back a few years, and have further separated the Chiefs from the kinds of organizations they chase. The playoff futility started long before Clark Hunt took over, of course, but the Chiefs have continued to fall behind in his time.
Just counting the last seven years, the list of franchises to have won playoff games is 21 deep and includes the Jaguars, Jets and Vikings. The other three franchises to go 0-2 in the playoffs over the last seven years: Washington, Detroit and Tennessee.
“I want that very, very badly,” Hunt says of playoff success. “I haven’t thought about how the perception of us would change. It probably would if we could go three, four, five, six years where we had playoff success. I think that really changes the perception of the team, the coaches and the players who are part of that era.”
There is some suit-and-tie stiffness in the way that Hunt talks, but a real sense of humility and open-mindedness in his words. This is him admitting mistakes, and that his franchise isn’t viewed the way he would like.
His most consistent point since taking over has been to create continuity, and he has his fingers crossed that he’s finally found it with Reid and Dorsey.
The journey took more years and bumps than it needed, but Hunt’s lessons learned have turned into action, with both coach and general manager reporting directly to the owner. Hunt talks with Reid “a couple times a week,” mostly to understand the thought process so that he can later judge the decision.
Hunt’s job right now as it relates to football (as opposed to business) is like that — involved but mostly in the background.
“The important thing is having the (coach and GM) and helping them continue to work together,” he says. “One of the great things about Andy and John is how well they work together. It’s as good as I’ve ever seen, both internally and the teams I’m familiar with externally.”
All of that is fine, but Hunt knows his time in charge will ultimately be judged on wins and losses, and that so far the Chiefs have underachieved.
He talks with a sort of guarded optimism, noting that “in 2010 I thought we were on our way,” but with a particular confidence in his franchise’s two most important employees.
“You can point to the quarterback position and the head coach,” Hunt says. “Andy has certainly shown he can win in the playoffs. Alex (Smith) has had some playoff success, and I believe he’s good enough to take us to the Super Bowl and ultimately let us hoist that trophy.”
Hunt talks of a consensus with Reid and Dorsey that the Chiefs have a team capable of winning the Super Bowl, but only with the right additions. Those moves will be mostly driven by Reid and Dorsey, but reflect heavily on Hunt.
Eight years in, it’s past time for that reflection to shine bright.