The meeting that brought Andy Reid to Kansas City and changed the Chiefs’ fortunes

Andy Reid not holding anything back as Chiefs prepare for Colts

Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid isn't looking back at past playoff losses against the Indianapolis Colts, and doesn't plan on holding anything back in his scheming for Saturday's January 12, 2019 playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium.
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Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid isn't looking back at past playoff losses against the Indianapolis Colts, and doesn't plan on holding anything back in his scheming for Saturday's January 12, 2019 playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium.

The week that changed the Kansas City Chiefs forever began with a Hail Mary phone call to Andy Reid’s cell phone six years ago this month. He’d just been fired as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles and was walking out of his going-away party when he saw a number he didn’t recognize.

Clark Hunt, the Chiefs’ billionaire chairman in need of a coach after firing Romeo Crennel, expected to leave a message.

“I didn’t expect you to answer,” Hunt told Reid, according to someone familiar with the conversation.

“This is the first call I’ve answered,” Reid replied.

The two had little relationship beyond seeing each other at an annual meeting between coaches and owners. But they did have a long-distance mutual admiration. Reid has always loved history and football, and few families are more entwined with the history of football than the Hunts. As the chairman of the family business, Clark had long craved stability for the Chiefs.

The pairing made sense, with a few contingencies.

Hunt needed to know if Reid wanted to work again. Reid had just gone through an unthinkably difficult year — his son Garrett died of an accidental overdose, and 14 seasons with the Eagles ended with a 4-12 record in 2012.

Reid needed to know if Hunt had a plan. The Chiefs had experienced their own tragedy wrapped in the worst year of their franchise history — a 2-14 season low-lighted by starting linebacker Jovan Belcher’s murder-suicide.

They met on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013, in a conference room at the Philadelphia airport. Within a few hours, a plane from the Cardinals landed to take Reid to an interview in Arizona. He never boarded. He also had an interview scheduled with the Chargers. He canceled it.

They ordered Chickie & Pete’s — an Eagles partner, and the host of his radio show with the Eagles — but Reid didn’t eat a bite. This was business. Before he left he made a decision that would change the league and set forth the path of one of the sport’s longest head-coaching careers.

In the following years, the Chiefs went from dysfunction to stability, from 2-14 to the AFC’s No. 1 seed with Reid. The coach went from fired to wanted, from a situation that had become unrepairable to a place so excited for his credibility that a news helicopter followed his first drive to the stadium.

2013 File Video -- The Chiefs new head coach Andy Reid referenced the quality of the fans in Kansas City several times during his press conference. The Star asked him why fans should have reason to hope again.

This is the place where Reid has bolstered a Hall of Fame case, and now holds the franchise’s best chance of reaching a Super Bowl in at least 15 years. All of it started in that conference room six years ago, a relationship forged over crab fries, the coach who had his pick of jobs choosing the Chiefs for reasons that ran from personal to professional.

Eight teams hired new coaches that cycle. The Chiefs moved first, and best. Reid is the only coach hired that offseason still with his team, and only the Patriots have won more games. Chiefs executives considered themselves lucky that Reid was available, the perfect man at the perfect time.

“Just how thorough Clark was,” Reid said this week when asked what he remembered about that meeting. “He wants to win a championship. That’s what he wants to do. He gave you every indicator that’s what he wanted. As a coach, that’s all you can ask for. Then he went into details from there.”

Help from Vermeil

The game was rigged all along. Reid had already made enough money in Philadelphia and has a house on the beach in Southern California where he could’ve spent a year processing both his personal tragedy and professional future. Would’ve made sense, too. Wait for the perfect job. No rush.

Turns out, the perfect job was open. And the perfect man was there to lobby Reid, even before he met with Hunt’s group.

“Very easy conversation for me,” said Dick Vermeil, the former Chiefs and Eagles coach. “I said, ‘Andy, take the job. There isn’t a better organization with better people in the National Football League. There are no negatives.’

“’I said, ‘The city’s a great city. The fans are passionate, but they don’t enter the mean side of passion.’ There was just no reason to lay out a year and see if he could get a better job the next year. I don’t think there’s a better job in the league.”

Kansas City Chiefs center Mitch Morse understands that the Indianapolis Colts defense is physical and strong, but he thinks that whoever competes the hardest will come out winners.

Vermeil had a unique perspective on this. Reid is a close friend, but Vermeil also wants the best for the Chiefs. He’s said that his greatest professional disappointment was not being able to win the Lamar Hunt trophy for its namesake, Clark’s father, a man who Vermeil told Reid is the best person he ever worked for.

So Vermeil wasn’t just looking out for his friend. He saw a fit with the Chiefs, who were in a precarious spot — a roster with some stars and a lot of holes and organizational self-esteem that needed a boost.

“It was not time to start out with another rookie head coach to try to get it going again,” Vermeil said. “I don’t think they could afford a real long transition period.”

The part about the fans may seem gratuitous, or even patronizing. But according to another source close to Reid, it was critical.

Reid grew up as an NFL coach in Green Bay, then spent more than a decade in Philadelphia. Football is important in those places in a way that simply doesn’t exist in every market.

Groundskeepers were busy painting the field at Arrowhead Stadium on Thursday in preparation for the Chiefs NFL divisional playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts.

The shorthand for this is “college atmosphere,” and you hear people in league circles use it to describe certain cities.

“He wanted to be somewhere that football was a special part of the community,” a friend said. “Not just something to do.”

Reid kept a tight circle that week. At one point, ESPN reported a 95 percent chance that Reid would go to Arizona. But two who spoke to Reid that week described the conversations similarly. He liked the Cardinals and Chargers. Respected both owners. Philip Rivers was a draw to the Chargers, and some thought Reid would want to be closer to Los Angeles, where he grew up. But the opposite might have been true.

Reid told friends that if he worked back home, he’d have nowhere to go in the offseason. Maybe he was joking, but the point was still made, and he kept a rotten poker face.

The last time the Kansas City Chiefs won a home playoff game was in January 1994. What else happened that year?

Asked about the Cardinals, his answer would be quick. Asked about the Chargers, same thing. But asked about the Chiefs, he’d go on about the city, about Lamar Hunt, the history, the rosters, even how he might get a new quarterback.

The Chiefs needed Reid to say yes. They were a franchise in rocky transition. The organization was making some progress in modernizing its business side, but football was a tangled web of distrust.

At least a few players were skeptical of the motives of their coaches, convinced that playing time and scheme were being influenced from above in the name of contract leverage. There were good players on the roster, but not enough of them, and not with enough belief or cohesion.

That stopped almost immediately after Reid was hired. Punter Dustin Colquitt was at the Chiefs facility, working out in preparation for the Pro Bowl, when someone mentioned the new coach was there and wanted to meet with him.

Colquitt, the longest-tenured Chiefs player now, knew of Reid’s reputation from 14 years in Philadelphia, but you never truly know until you meet a man. That season had been brutal on everyone involved in the Chiefs organization. But if Colquitt had any reservations, they disappeared quickly.

“I know you love Kansas City,” Colquitt remembered Reid saying. “If you want to stay, we want you here.”

What the Chiefs needed in that moment was leadership, accountability and credibility. It was perfect timing.

The Kansas City Chiefs could see some pick plays in this weekends playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts, and defensive coordinator Bob Sutton has some thoughts on defending against them.

“We’d experienced the ups and downs, and then you have someone like him that kind of puts everything on his shoulders,” Colquitt said. “He says, ‘This is how the culture’s going to be.’ Everybody buys in. You see it work, you know it works, so you buy in.”

Reid had a similar impression. Not just with Colquitt, but other players, too. Guys like Justin Houston, Derrick Johnson, Eric Berry and Tamba Hali.

“The players — remember I mentioned that?” Reid said. “That was unique. Very unique. Some of the leaders said, ‘Hey listen, you just tell us what to do and we’re going to do it and make sure everybody comes with us.’ They’ve been unbelievable. That’s not how every locker room is. You know that.”

Winning the room

Much of what was said in that airport conference room has stayed with the men who were there: Reid, Hunt, Chiefs president Mark Donovan, then-GM Scott Pioli, vice president of communications Ted Crews, Hunt Sports Group communications VP Ryan Petkoff and a few others.

They guard their secrets well enough that we can’t give you the icebreaker, or a funny line, let alone the moment that both sides knew they would be partners.

In general terms, though, Hunt won the meeting. Reid was going to have a job if he wanted it, somewhere, and the next candidate on Hunt’s list was believed to be a significant step down. So this was Hunt’s moment.

After interviewing for head coaching jobs last week, Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy is grateful for the opportunities and says he's focused on this weekends playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts at Arrowhead Stadium.

“It was Clark,” a source said. “That’s what it was.”

Reid said he needed to know what the “grit” of the organization was. He wanted to know about the priorities, structure and people. Hunt’s emphasis on stability was believed to be a top selling point. Reid is one of a few people in the NFL who’d lived that sort of stability — just two organizations in 21 years — and he wanted to recreate it in Kansas City.

Meetings like this typically run three to six hours. This one went nine. Everyone had a chance to talk. Donovan had worked with Reid in Philadelphia. Pioli and Reid knew each other. The vibe was described as respectful, friendly, positive and productive. When the Cardinals’ plane left without Reid, the message was clear.

“I just wanted to see the direction that Clark was thinking of going,” Reid said.

By the end of the meeting — late afternoon or early evening — everyone knew how this would go. Reid wanted to bring his wife to Kansas City on Thursday before signing a contract and spending the next day at the facility.

That next week, on Monday, the Chiefs introduced Reid at a news conference. He wore a red tie, which back then looked a little strange after he’d spent so many years in green.

“I’ve got to find the next Len Dawson, doggone it,” he told the crowd.

And the Chiefs would never be the same.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.