Sam Mellinger

How Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt became one of the most respected men in the NFL

Clark Hunt Has been atop the Chiefs’ power structure for nearly 10 years, and in that time he has made a respected name for himself among fellow NFL owners and players.
Clark Hunt Has been atop the Chiefs’ power structure for nearly 10 years, and in that time he has made a respected name for himself among fellow NFL owners and players. DAVID EULITT

The face of the next generation of power in the NFL is mostly anonymous among fans here, and that is part of the point. One of the leading voices of influence for the NFL’s future does not speak much, which is largely how he earned his sway.

There cannot be too many collections of bigger egos than the billionaires who own NFL teams. They are rich and they are powerful. They travel on private jets, receive police escorts on game days and do not have to look far to find someone to run an errand or tell them they’re right.

This is the context in which Clark Hunt, who became the Chiefs’ chairman when his father passed away 10 years ago this December, has emerged as a primary leader among some of the most powerful figures in sports. He is low-key enough that friends had to find out about his father’s passing from someone else, and unassuming enough that he didn’t tell his college soccer coach about a childhood accident that left him with lifelong foot pain.

In a room full of egos, Hunt stands out with subtlety. In a room full of bombast, he brings measured tones and carefully chosen words. In a room full of folks used to getting their way, he is described by many as chasing the collective good.

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“There’s some owners in that room who get up and speak all the time, and sometimes I think they just like to hear themselves speak,” says John Mara, president and co-owner of the Giants. “Clark doesn’t do that. When he gets up, he has something to say, and it’s usually something important and carefully thought out. As a result, people take him seriously.”

Hunt turns 51 this month, the second-youngest owner in a group whose average age is in the 70s. But his influence is among the strongest. He was on the labor committee and NFL management council executive committee during the last CBA negotiations, chairs the international committee as the NFL looks to expand opportunities abroad, and was on the Los Angeles relocation committee.

He was the only committee member to back the Rams’ Inglewood project, and though it was a winding road and his reasons differed from others’, the vote eventually swung his way.

This is a man whose voice carries weight, even as he’s careful about when to use it, and whose opinion and priorities will help shape the NFL’s future.

“I hate talking about myself,” Hunt says.

That’s true, and some of why his words are important. The story of how he grew this influence can be told without Hunt bragging about himself, too, because there are plenty of others around the league who will.

Hunt’s moment came five years ago this summer. He can say this now — he wasn’t sure he was ready for it. He was among the league’s newest owners, and at the time the youngest in the group.

Why would he join titans like Jerry Jones, Robert Kraft and Jerry Richardson on the league executive committee to lead negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement?

In the beginning, Hunt didn’t say much. Maybe some of that was because of where he ranked in tenure, but it also had something to do with what he had learned from his dad. Be a good listener. Don’t be quick to speak. Think first, and make sure your words have impact.

“It’s by personality how I operate,” Hunt says. “But also thinking back to how my dad conducted himself, he was certainly not someone who liked hearing himself speak. He would speak when he had a perspective he wanted to share, and I think the membership respected him for a whole lot of reasons, and wanted to hear what he had to say.”

Hunt wasn’t the only one unsure how he fit in. The players didn’t know much about him, either. Brian Waters was on the union’s executive committee and played 11 seasons for the Chiefs. Other players involved with the CBA talks asked a lot of questions about Hunt, and honestly, Waters didn’t know what to say. Before Lamar Hunt’s death, Clark was seen as the soccer guy. Waters didn’t deal with Clark much.

So Waters didn’t know what to expect, and in the early stages of the negotiations — when the executive committees of both the owners and players met — he didn’t think about Hunt much.

“Then all of a sudden, you could just see it change,” Waters says. “He started to speak up a little bit and you could see it, everybody in the room, on both sides of the table, owners and players were saying, ‘Man, this guy’s sharp.’”

To the players, Hunt represented a reasoned, level-headed approach. That was different, at least from their perspective. To the owners, Hunt was thoughtful, committed to the league’s best interests. With a background in finance — he was a star at Goldman Sachs, back when that was still a good thing — he was capable of quickly digesting numbers and coming up with creative solutions.

Many of the details are either in dispute or kept secret, but a union source said Hunt was critical in settling the biggest point of any negotiation — the money. The sides weren’t making any progress when Hunt articulated a new approach. Hunt — who is quick to clarify that NFL CFO Joe Siclare came up with the idea — figured out how to make it work.

The players saw TV money as the easiest to make, and in-stadium revenue as the chunk most influenced by the owners. So the idea was to divide the revenue accordingly — players get a bigger chunk of TV money (55 percent), and owners take the bulk of in-stadium dollars (60 percent). When Hunt presented this idea, it was the first time an agreement felt likely.

There were other things, too, like the late night with union lawyer Tom DePaso on how stadium investments would work against the salary cap, and another back-and-forth with union executive Domonique Foxworth on how franchise-tag numbers would work. Hunt, it seemed, was involved in most of the important points.

Richardson is a former player, but the Panthers owner is generally viewed by the union as one of the league’s most stubborn, so who could they work with?

Hunt, as it turned out.

“You’ve got a ton of older owners, and then there’s that younger group,” Waters says. “He’s representing that younger group, who has a better understanding of how to work with players and not just coming down with a harder hammer. He’s about the numbers, and being exact about details, and less about the rhetoric about, ‘This is our game and not your game.’

“He earned a ton of respect in that regard. He wasn’t wasting his words about whose game it was, or who’s more responsible about building the game. It was, ‘Let’s work together. We need each other.’”

The rest of the owners began to see the pattern. The more Hunt spoke, the more sense he made. And the more Hunt was directly involved in negotiations, the more progress was made.

“There was an angst,” says Jones, the Cowboys’ owner. “Not between owners, but angst there when you spend a lot of time together in a situation like that. Clark was serious, yet he had a light way of taking a serious issue and spinning it so that it got good discussion among the owners. I think that’s a talent of his.”

This was a turning point, not just for the league and union to avoid an ugly lockout, but for Hunt in gaining the respect of both his fellow owners and the players who often see them as opposition.

“Clark is very smart, very creative, very tough, and quickly wins the trust and respect of people on every issue he tackles,” commissioner Roger Goodell said through a league spokesman. “He is an important asset to the league and will certainly continue to be a strong voice in league affairs well into the future.”

As much as Hunt is influencing the league with his own ideas and work, he will always be his father’s son.

Lamar Hunt is a legendary figure in football circles, of course — a founder of the AFL and Chiefs, the man credited with naming the Super Bowl, and with so many other innovations: from camera technology to names on jerseys to the two-point conversion.

The first word used by Jones in response to the first question about Clark was “Lamar.” Mara talked of knowing Clark since he was a teenager, and the kinship felt with another man taking over for his father in the family business. Art Rooney II, the Steelers’ president and co-owner, first spoke of watching and learning from Lamar before talking about Clark.

“When someone like Clark comes in, and this is similar to my experience, people tend to judge you by your family name,” Rooney says. “Sometimes it takes a while to have people get to know you as a person, as an individual. I think Clark went through that whole process.”

Hunt officially took over the Chiefs when his father passed away in December 2006. He had been heavily involved before that, so it was more of a continuation than a transformation, but he cites at least two major differences — going from being next to the guy in the spotlight to actually being the guy in the spotlight, and the amount of work required at the league level.

Hunt needed, by his estimation, four or five years to become completely comfortable in that role. Some of that involves the transition issues any of us have as we settle into new jobs, some was amplified by taking over for his father, and all of it was complicated by a simultaneous reverence for, and the need to not just be a flimsy imitation of, the old man.

“I don’t think I ever tried to fill his shoes, because that’s not possible,” Clark says. “I had to be me. What I found was, if I just use my strengths, a lot of times I can be a positive influence on how things turn out. But I knew I would not be successful trying to be my dad.

“The vision, the perseverance, all the core qualities he had that allowed him to do what he did in forming the league and getting the AFL to actually survive and then merge, I don’t have some of those character qualities, and maybe I have some others that are different and can be helpful as well.”

Whether out of respect for his father, distaste for talking of himself, a genuine inability to pinpoint something, or perhaps a combination of all three, Hunt did not specify the traits he has that differ from his father and are helpful to the league.

But he is very much a believer in action over words, so perhaps it’s more instructive to look at what he has done during his tenure.

He is a consensus builder, as evidenced by his part in the CBA negotiation. He is also willing to break away from the group, proved by his being the “one” in the committee’s 5-1 vote on LA relocation.

He is cautious, as seen in his desire to limit LA relocation to one team, but he is also a big thinker — as chair of the international committee, he has pushed the league’s globalization, and says the league could one day have an entire division in Europe.

If we look closer to home, we also see a man willing to admit mistakes. His hiring of Scott Pioli as general manager in 2009 was his first major move as chairman, a miscalculation compounded by pairing him with coach Todd Haley.

Hunt is in Kansas City far more than many fans realize — staying in what is essentially a condo at Arrowhead Stadium — but didn’t provide the necessarily oversight to keep football operations productive during that time. With effectively nobody to answer to, Pioli wrecked the culture.

That changed once Hunt fired Romeo Crennel, hired Andy Reid, fired Pioli and hired John Dorsey — in that order, in a span of two weeks in 2013. Hunt changed the organization’s power structure. Instead of having everything in football operations funnel up through the general manager, now the GM and coach are at the same hierarchical level, and each reports to Hunt. It’s a setup that’s become popular around the league in the last few years.

Players who were around in 2012 also sometimes talk of Hunt’s handling of the Jovan Belcher tragedy. Hunt navigated a difficult line: Belcher was a well-liked teammate who committed a monstrous act. Hunt did not allow any public tributes to Belcher after the linebacker killed the mother of his baby and then himself. Instead, before their next game, the Chiefs held a moment of silence for domestic-violence victims.

Hunt let the players grieve in their own way. Generally speaking, they saw Hunt as genuine through a difficult time.

“He has an air of confidence about him that is impactful,” Jones says. “I’m going to call it a unique respect.”

Hunt is the NFL’s second-youngest owner, and one thing that comes through when talking with people on all sides of the league is that he will continue to be among its most important voices for decades.

There is an old guard of sorts that has long steered the league — Jones, Richardson, Kraft and the Houston Texans’ Bob McNair among them. Each is at least 22 years older than Hunt.

If it’s true that the LA committee was a collection of the league’s most respected owners, it’s also worth noting that Hunt was at least 10 years younger than each of his peers, and an average of 20 years younger the rest of the group.

So this is not just a man who’s helped shape the NFL today with his work on the CBA and other projects. He is a man who will continue to help guide the league into the future.

On these points, Hunt is perhaps intentionally vague. Asked what the league’s top priorities should be going forward, he mentions the international market (and that he expects a decision on whether a team is placed in London within 10 years), player safety and personal conduct.

There are some of us who hope Hunt uses his influence to guide the NFL to a more honest place on player safety, particularly head injuries. This is one of many challenges he and the rest of the league’s power brokers will continue to face in years to come.

Hunt does hate talking about himself, and that’s fine. What he’s said to others has always been much more important anyway, and his reluctance to claim credit for the league’s successes is precisely why there’s hope and expectation he’ll be able to create some more going forward.

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