Thursday, May 17, 2012
Clark Hunt forging his own path
By Jeffri Chadiha ESPN.com
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Kansas City Chiefs chairman and CEO Clark Hunt seems to be getting it. He can't step out of his father's shadow by being consistently invisible. He can't be the owner he's capable of being if he's always letting others be the face of the franchise. At some point, Hunt had to steal a few moves from the more progressive owners in pro sports. That he's doing so now shows how far he has come in a relatively short time.
At 47 years old, Hunt is one of the youngest men running any major professional sports franchise. His father -- the legendary Lamar Hunt -- built the Chiefs into one of the NFL's most beloved franchises while also being clever enough to think of the name "Super Bowl" when the AFL and NFL were debating what to call their new championship game in 1966. The father was affable, crafty and visionary. The son is still finding ways to distinguish himself so substantially.
Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt says he wants to carve his own path while upholding the values of his father, the late Lamar Hunt.
Clark Hunt took over the Chiefs following his father's death in 2006, and he made a huge splash by hiring Scott Pioli, formerly of the New England Patriots, to run the franchise three years later. By last season, Pioli was openly feuding with his head coach, Todd Haley, and the Chiefs were wasting all the good vibes that had been generated by an AFC West championship in 2010. When the Indianapolis Colts released Peyton Manning earlier this offseason, Hunt publicly said he wanted the future Hall of Fame quarterback on his roster. Manning responded in the same way pretty girls treat adoring nerds: He failed to even acknowledge the Chiefs' existence, making the franchise appear irrelevant.
It's hard to know how much some of these issues factored into what Hunt was doing at a podium in downtown Kansas City on Tuesday afternoon, but you'd assume they played some role. Hunt was there to show his appreciation for season-ticket holders and to celebrate the 50th year for the Chiefs in Kansas City (the franchise, formerly known as the Dallas Texans, moved to Missouri in 1963). The idea was to give back to longtime fans and also announce similar upcoming events in Kansas and Missouri. The underlying goal, at least from this perspective, was to get Hunt into the public eye more consistently.
This is a man who already is well-respected among league owners and clearly intent on not resting on the laurels his father established. It wouldn't hurt to see him in the spotlight more often, even though he has never wanted to give the impression that he's trying to be something he's not.
"My dad's footsteps are too big for me to step into," Hunt said when asked about running the franchise his father built. "It's important for me to forge my own path while upholding his values."
That's an admirable message for a son who's never going to be confused with the NFL's equivalent of "Tommy Boy." It's also important that the younger Hunt remember some of the most important lessons on leadership from his father's playbook. Though Lamar let general manager Carl Peterson be the face of the Chiefs for the last 20 years of the owner's life -- in much the same way Pioli is for Clark today -- Lamar also stayed grounded. He didn't like the word owner (he preferred to be known as the Chiefs' founder), kept his phone number listed, and was even known to personally sell advertising for his pro soccer team in Kansas City.
Clark doesn't have to go that far, but he could take some notes from his peers. Colts owner Jim Irsay spends more time on Twitter than a 14-year-old kid and is redefining how owners interact with fans. At first, he seemed attention-starved when he was firing off tweets about Manning's future, but there also was something cool about a wealthy man doing the same things as an average person. Just by exploiting the medium, Irsay was showing his peers a different way of doing business.
You have to think that Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, a natural salesman, might have been just as willing to go that route when he was boldly reinventing the franchise in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The same probably holds true for 79-year-old Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, a man who used to walk to home games when he was a wee bit younger. Hunt has openly said he'd like his franchise to mimic the steadiness that has been the Steelers' trademark. If Hunt revealed more of the same easy personality he displayed Tuesday, that would be a big boost to the organization, as well.
Hunt spent most of the event talking about his appreciation for the fans and the city. One story he told related back to his childhood, when his father, a former college kicker, brought him into Arrowhead Stadium to teach the boy a few tips on kicking fundamentals. The best part of the story wasn't only that Lamar had invited future Hall of Fame kicker Jan Stenerud to join them. It was the way Clark beamed while recalling a memory that clearly was close to his heart.
Such moments do not happen if people only see you flying in from Dallas for games (Hunt lives in Texas) and chatting with owners at league meetings. They also don't happen if you aren't willing to step out of character and show a little authenticity. Like a savvy leader, Hunt took ample time to answer reporters' questions individually and give some sense of his vision for the team. "I want to win today and tomorrow," he said. "But I've also been around this business long enough to know you need patience."
What you also need is foresight, and Hunt revealed a little of that in downtown Kansas City. You saw the potential that has other owners thinking he could be one of the league's strongest voices in the future. You saw a man clearly trying to steer his team's image in a better direction. That same approach to selling himself helped his father build his legacy. If Hunt is visible enough, that's exactly how he can enhance his own.