Football

Hunt stays above the fray after 'disappointing' year

The story that best describes Lamar Hunt might be the Michael Jordan story. This is from a few years back. Hunt, you might know, is part-owner of the Chicago Bulls, and has been since the team's beginning. Hunt's reach in professional sports through the years is astounding. He is in six different sports halls of fame.

Anyway, a few years ago he took out a pad and pencil - Hunt loves to figure things - and determined that he had seen Michael Jordan play 108 times. And yet, when asked what Jordan was really like, he shook his head. "You know, I've never met Michael Jordan," he said. He looked out the window over Arrowhead Stadium, which he helped build. "Sometimes," he said, "beauty is better appreciated from afar." Lamar Hunt says he has no idea how people in Kansas City feel about him. He does not want to know. His connection to Kansas City is too deep for all that. It was 1963 when Hunt sneaked into town, carefully studied the place (all the while using the pseudonym "Mr. Lamar"), and then decided to move his football team, the AFL's Dallas Texans, from his hometown of Dallas to Kansas City. He loved that team; he desperately wanted to keep the name Texans. He was finally convinced to change the name to Chiefs, in part because "Chief" was the nickname of the city's mayor, H. Roe Bartle. More than 40 years have raced by since Hunt changed the sports landscape in the heartland. He did not know then, of course, that he would become a Kansas City icon, that his team would play in the first Super Bowl, win the fourth, fade off into oblivion for a while, and then become a regional phenomenon. He did not know that four decades later his name would be endlessly praised and ripped by sports fans, that he would be called a great man and a cheapskate, a city treasure and a man only interested in making a dime. He did not know then. He does not want to know now. "I really don't hear what people in Kansas City say about me," he says. "You probably hear a lot more of that because, of course, I don't live in Kansas City. So, I really don't hear much of anything along those lines. I think it's probably best that way." What do people in Kansas City think about Lamar Hunt? It's hard to say. You can listen to talk radio for a while (mixed reviews - most seem to think he's not committed to winning). You can scan the Internet chat boards (seems about the same as talk radio, though Hunt probably gets a little more credit on the World Wide Web for bringing the Chiefs to town). You can talk to people you know ("He seems like a class person," my friend Michael says. ... "He's a good owner, his problem is Carl Peterson," is the opinion of another friend, Steve). It's hard to get a complete picture. There can be no doubt, though, that Hunt's image has taken something of a hit in the last year or so. He was very much out front in the effort to pass Bistate II - a sales tax to improve the Truman Sports Complex and raise money for the arts. Across the Truman Complex parking lot, Royals owner David Glass was all but invisible during the campaign. Hunt, meanwhile, battled hard for the improvements. And then Bistate II went down in flames. Not long after, Hunt put the Kansas City Wizards up for sale and said the team was a financial drain. He said the Bistate II fiasco influenced his decision. Then, there was the disappointing Chiefs season that began with Super Bowl dreams and ended at 7-9, mostly because of a shabby defense that was not improved in the offseason. Hunt took much of the blame for that, of course, especially because ticket prices were raised dramatically before the season. The "Lamar Hunt is only interested in filling up the stadium" choir was filled this year. All in all, it wasn't a very good year for Lamar Hunt. "Yes, I would say the word to describe the year is `disappointing,' " Hunt says. "But if there's one thing I've learned, it's that in the sport business you just have to keep going and keep working. You can't let disappointments stop you, because there will always be more disappointments ahead." He paused. "I imagine," he says, "people don't like me nearly as much as they did when the Chiefs were 13-3 and going to the playoffs." Then, the question might not be: How do people in Kansas City feel about Lamar Hunt? The question might be: How does Lamar Hunt feel about Kansas City? Joe McGuff, the great columnist for The Star for many years, tells a story about the first time Hunt met Charlie Finley. At the time, Finley owned the Kansas City Athletics, and he was desperate to move the team anywhere - he would have moved the team to Peru if there had been an offer. Anyway, Atlanta was on his mind that day, and he decided to ask Hunt to move along with him. "This is a (lousy) town, and no one will ever do any good here," Finley told Hunt. More than 40 years later, Hunt remembers that. "Yes, Charlie Finley did not think much of Kansas City," he says. "He told me I was foolish to move a team to Kansas City, the town would never support it. Well, obviously, he was wrong. The fans of Kansas City have been very good to us through the years." Still, just as it seems obvious that Hunt's image has taken a hit around here, it's just as obvious that Kansas City has taken a bit of a hit in Lamar Hunt's mind. He does not want to talk about his decision to sell the Wizards ("All I will say about that is there is a lot of interest," he says), but the sale seems a pretty clear message: He has some real concerns about Kansas City as a sports town. "After all these years, I've become a believer that sports facilities are a very big part of what make a good sports market," Hunt says. "And there is no doubt that we need improvements at Arrowhead Stadium. It's a wonderful stadium, but it's more than 30 years old. In order to compete in the NFL in Kansas City for the next 25 or 30 years we must do something. "I know people are talking, for instance, about a new baseball stadium downtown. But I wonder if people are thinking about having an empty baseball stadium at the Truman Complex. What do you do there? Tear it down? The Truman Complex is unique throughout America. Do you just throw that away?" Hunt says he is involved in meetings to discuss the future of the complex. He's still optimistic that things will work out, that the Chiefs will thrive in Kansas City for a long time. But there's no doubt that the Bistate II rejection has left him cold. "I know that there were a lot of factors involved in why bistate failed," he says. "It had a lot of parts, and I'm sure there were many reasons people voted against it. But of course we were disappointed. We wanted to make the Truman Sports Complex state of the art for the next 30 years, so the Chiefs and Royals could be a part of the community for that time. Now, I suppose, we'll have to find another way." Hunt believes that one interception changed the entire Chiefs season. The Chiefs were at the 2-yard line against Houston and seemed ready to go up 21-6 and put the game away. In the backfield, they had Priest Holmes, who had just the year before scored more touchdowns in a season than any player ever. Instead, a pass was called, Trent Green badly underthrew Tony Gonzalez, and the ball was intercepted, returned 102 yards for a touchdown, and the Chiefs lost the game, which made their record 0-3. They were never quite able to dig out of that hole. "I really do believe, looking back on it, that the interception changed the whole season," Hunt says. "If we had won that game, I think we would have gained some confidence and the whole season could have been different." "But," he says, "the sports world is filled with ifs and should-haves." Hunt says that this was one of the more disheartening seasons he's had in his years as a football owner. He honestly hoped that the addition of Gunther Cunningham as defensive coordinator, along with a couple of subtle player moves, would help the struggling Chiefs defense move into the middle of the pack statistically. Instead, the defense gave up 103 more points than the year before, and it gave up more passing yards than any team in the NFL. As soon as the Chiefs' season ended, there seemed to be a sense of urgency about 2005. Coach Dick Vermeil announced it would be his last year. The Chiefs announced they would not raise ticket prices. Chiefs president and general manager Carl Peterson talked about how the team would have some money to spend on free agency. Everyone made it clear they know the window of opportunity for this team is closing. "I do believe that we can improve our defense this offseason and be very competitive next year," Hunt says. "I definitely believe that. If we can get our defense into the top 15 or so, I think we'd have an excellent chance to make the playoffs and then a chance for the Super Bowl." You do not often hear Hunt talk about the Super Bowl, the game he named many years ago after his daughter's toy. You do now hear him mention how much he would like to hold the trophy named for him, the Lamar Hunt Trophy that is given to the champion of the AFC. You do not hear him talk about his own battle with cancer. "I do not like to be the center of attention," he says. "To me, it's about the Kansas City Chiefs. We have so many great fans who care so much about this team. Really, in many ways, I'm just one of those fans." To reach Joe Posnanski, call (816) 234-4361 or send e-mail to

jposnanski@kcstar.com

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