The loss isn’t even three weeks old yet, but already Clark Hunt has lived the conversation enough to have it memorized. Truth is, if he had his way, he wouldn’t hear anything from anyone. Especially not about football.
But the Chiefs chairman knows where his influence rests and stops, so he’s learned to deal with the friends who call or see him and just can’t help but bring up the season, always with the same opening line: I know it didn’t end like you wanted it to, but ...
Hunt’s default setting is to suppress emotion. It gets in the way. This conversation tests his limits, though.
“Depends on how close the friend is,” he says. “If it’s a close friend, you slug him.”
Hunt laughs at the line, but in a way that makes you think there’s some truth to it, too. This is as good as the Chiefs have been since the 1990s — 43 wins and three postseasons in four years.
The ending was brutal, again. A home playoff loss — that’s five straight, dating back to January 1994 — because of too many drops and missed passes and missed tackles and missed opportunities.
Forty-seven consecutive seasons without a Super Bowl now.
“That’s too long, right?” Hunt says.
When and if the Chiefs again reach football’s final game, they will have gone longer between appearances than any team in league history. Hunt’s reserved nature, and reluctance to talk much publicly, means it’s often hard to know what motivates him. Hard to know what’s in his mind. So much of his leadership of the Chiefs is put in the context of his father, but I’ve long felt that misses at least one important point.
Hunt is relentlessly competitive, and proud. He loves his father, Lamar, the team’s founder and long-time owner, but I’ve always thought that part of his motivation with the Chiefs was to help guide them back to the game they haven’t played in since the very beginning of the league.
An owner can only do so much, particularly in the era of salary caps and floors. Clark has modernized the Chiefs in ways his father didn’t. But helping them get to the Super Bowl in the era of the NFL being our country’s biggest league would be a tangible accomplishment his father didn’t have — one final way to validate himself against an impossible standard.
Hunt dismisses this — “I don’t think of it in the context of my dad,” he said — but he does allow that the respect of other owners often follows a Super Bowl championship.
“I think so, specifically the year after they’ve won,” he said. “But also the people who are consistently successful. Those people are regarded differently than everybody else.”
Hunt’s view on how owners are respected aligns fully with his stated macro mission to make the Chiefs dependable winners. He knows that’s how the franchise built much of its reputation in the 1990s, and how it lost some of it in the 2000s and early part of this decade.
The most obvious way for Hunt to help with that is to make sure coach Andy Reid and general manager John Dorsey stay together. Both have contracts that run through next season, and Hunt expressed a clear desire to talk about an extension with them “over the course of the next year.”
Another subtle way that Hunt can help the Chiefs is the support he gives Reid and Dorsey. He is constantly complimentary of the working relationship between his coach and general manager. Some of that must come from the experience of Scott Pioli’s time in charge blowing up largely because of inner-office discord, but some of it too is illustrative of how Hunt thinks a franchise is best run.
In this way, that sometimes means giving up control. Hunt is always careful about publicly giving his football opinion (though it’s interesting he was much stronger in talking about bringing Eric Berry back than Dontari Poe), because that means crowding the space meant for Dorsey and Reid.
Some of this can be seen in the Chiefs drafting Tyreek Hill, who pled guilty to domestic abuse by strangulation. Hunt has always been clear he wants to prioritize so-called “high character” guys, but he also wants his football people to make the football decisions.
That put him in what must’ve been an uncomfortable position, even as the decision to select Hill has been as productive as could be imagined — Hill led the Chiefs in touchdowns, made the Pro Bowl and didn’t have any problems off the field.
“We’re only one year into Tyreek’s tenure with the Chiefs,” Hunt said. “So I don’t want to draw any conclusions.”
Hunt said that after bringing in Hill, the team reached out to various shelters and other organizations that work against domestic abuse. Some of them were upset, and Hunt said he understood, “and (doesn’t) disagree with that.” The pursuit of a championship in America’s most popular league requires compromise.
For now, Hunt is stuck in that middle ground between coping with the playoff loss and planning for next season. The Chiefs are strong, at least in the moment, but Kansas Citians know better than most that these times are fleeting. Eventually, the opportunities run out.
Owners are limited in what they can influence. Hunt, despite all the justified frustration from fans, can only do so much. That’s why he wants to make sure his two most important football men stay together, and is willing to support their decisions.
“I do think it’s a good enough team to win the Super Bowl,” Hunt said. “I absolutely think it’s capable of doing so. The trick is you need to keep building.”