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VOL. 40 | NO. 8 | Friday, February 19, 2016

Underwood’s drive: Restore the ‘euphoria’ of winning

‘I want that back for our employees, our owners and our fans’

By David Climer

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Marcus Mariota may be the face of the Tennessee Titans, but Steve Underwood is the voice. As president/CEO of the franchise, his is the final word at Saint Thomas Sports Park.

During the process that resulted in the hiring of Jon Robinson as general manager and Mike Mularkey as coach, Underwood was present for every interview, sitting with controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk and part-owner Kenneth Adams IV.

“I was there as an adjunct because Amy and Kenneth were most involved in the question-asking process,” Underwood says. “They took the leadership role. … I’m there to maybe fill in blanks in the interview process, to make sure they get answers to their questions.”

Who is the man in charge of the day-to-day operations of a professional sports enterprise that is valued at upward of $1.5 billion?

Why does the public know so little about someone who is arguably the most powerful figure in sports in the state of Tennessee?

That’s largely by design. Underwood prefers to keep a low profile. It is his nature. He has been affiliated with the organization for almost four decades but most of his work has been behind the scenes.

Friendly and accommodating, Underwood is not the mysterious sort. It’s just that he has chosen to avoid the spotlight. He doesn’t want this to be about him.

“Helping our people do their jobs and be successful is what I consider my biggest job,” he said during a lengthy interview with The Ledger.

“We hire good people, put them in positions of responsibility and then we need to do everything we can to help them succeed. Micromanaging good people is a waste of time. It’s not very efficient.”

Make no mistake: Underwood is in it to win it.

In March 2015, he was talked out of retirement to rejoin the Titans franchise as interim president/CEO. Less than two months ago, it was announced that Underwood would remain in that role on a permanent basis.

The man that helped broker the deal to transport the then-Houston Oilers to Tennessee turf in 1997 is now a central figure in attempting to reclaim lost glory.

“I was here when we were successful early on,” Underwood recalls. “The euphoria you would feel at the end of those games is something I haven’t forgotten. I want that back for our employees, our owners and our fans.”

Those who know him speak of Underwood’s intelligence, commitment and loyalty.

“Steve is very, very bright and meticulous,” says Floyd Reese, who worked for the franchise for 21 years, first as an assistant coach and later as general manager (1994-2006).

“When I took over as general manager, he wrote all the contracts and was great at it. He understood the salary cap and how to manage it.”

At age 64, Underwood now occupies a large office on the second floor of Titans headquarters. His window looks out at three practice fields. His chair swivels to provide quick access to a computer. His desk is covered with legal pads and print-outs. Somehow, though, there is a sense of order amid the chaos.

“Over the years, I’ve figured out a way to stack things so I can find what I need,” he explains.

Being the chief executive of an NFL franchise is a far cry from what he envisioned as the son of a plant foreman for a newspaper in Baytown, Texas. Underwood recalls being “an average Little Leaguer” whose only experience on the football field was as a player on his dormitory’s intramural team at the University of Texas.

“I sat on the bench most of the time,” he explains. “I only played when everybody else got too tired. But I loved the sport.”

He graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in journalism with an emphasis on advertising. But when a recession hit and advertising sales dipped, he chose a different career path.

“I already had decided to look into going to law school,” he says. “I didn’t have enough money to start law school at the University of Texas so I worked that summer and started at the University of Houston that fall.”

He got his law degree and passed the bar in 1977 and joined a Houston firm whose principal client was Kenneth S. “Bud” Adams, Jr. Thus began an association that lasted more than three decades.

In those days, Adams’ NFL team was a minor part of his business empire. He was far more involved in the oil and gas business, as well as overseeing what was then the largest Lincoln/Mercury auto dealership in the world.

“The lawyers in the firm introduced me to him and I got to know him,” Underwood says. “Over time, I did more and more work for him although the football business was kind of a sideline. The football team just did not generate that much work for the law firm.”

That changed with the NFL work stoppage of 1982. After two games, the players went on strike for 57 days, and the season was reduced from 16 games to nine.

Suddenly, labor relations became a big part of the NFL, and Underwood’s role with the Oilers expanded exponentially.

“There were a lot of headaches,” he explains. “Those were things we were unaccustomed to because it had never happened before. How players were compensated became more challenging because there was a new labor contract.

Tennessee Titans President/CEO Steve Underwood on the sidelines in 2010 with then-Mayor Karl Dean and team owner Bud Adams. Underwood retired in 2011 and returned in 2015.

-- Submitted Photo By Donn Jones Courtesy Of The Titans

“The NFL really came into its own as a media business somewhere during that time period. When numbers get that big, there are always going to be repercussions for lawyers and accountants.”

During that process, Underwood became Bud Adams’ right-hand man. They spent hours together discussing legal matters.

Clearly, Adams respected Underwood, and it was mutual.

“I was very impressed with the different businesses he had and how he had been, in large part, a self-made businessman,” Underwood adds.

“He didn’t think like other clients I had. Mr. Adams thought in bigger terms. He was always thinking down the road and what we could do to improve this business or that business.”

Over the years, Underwood has experienced the highs and lows of life in the NFL. He was there for the Titans’ surge to Super Bowl XXXIV in the 1999 postseason.

He moved to Nashville to run the franchise as senior executive vice president in 2006 and saw the team make back-to-back playoff appearances in 2007 and 2008.

Underwood retired in 2011, retreating to a ranch near Houston with his wife Frances and their two daughters.

Months earlier, he had announced his retirement plans in media appearances related to Jeff Fisher’s exit as coach.

At the time, Underwood mentioned the declining health of his son Dennis as one of the reasons for his retirement.

Dennis Underwood died on Feb. 15, 2011, at the age of 19.

As a successful attorney who has navigated challenging legal issues for almost 40 years, there aren’t many things that leave Steve Underwood momentarily disarmed. But the mention of his son does.

“Dennis was mine and Frances’ first child,” he said. “We were both stunned the night that he was born because we were not expecting everything.”

Dennis Underwood was born with Cornelia de Lange Syndrome, leaving him severely developmentally challenged physically and mentally.

“It made us sit back as mature adults and realize we were going to have a full-time job to take care of him,” he says. “The entire experience with Dennis has taught Frances, our daughters and me incredibly valuable life lessons that we would not have learned otherwise.

“My wife has spent much of our married life engaged in his day-to-day, hour-to-hour care. Watching her take care of him in terms of compassion and devotion to duty is the single-most valuable experience of my life.

“She took care of everything, nights and days. I don’t know how she did it. I feel so much admiration for her.”

In dealing with the loss of a son, Underwood found that retirement suited him. Instead of getting up at 5 a.m., he sometimes slept in until 8:30. He helped friends and church members with legal matters. He went on vacations to Europe and Alaska.

“We went all over and saw things as a family, which was not something we did when I was working,” he says. “I cherish the time I spent retired.”

But duty called. Or, rather, Amy Adams Strunk called.

In March 2015, Tommy Smith retired as president/CEO of the Titans due to health concerns and his desire to focus on running the family’s publicly-traded business, Adams Resources, in Houston.

Smith’s wife, Susie Adams Smith, one of Bud Adams’ two daughters, stepped down as controlling owner. Amy Adams Strunk took over that role.

One of her first acts as controlling owner was to ask Underwood to come out of retirement and run the franchise – again.

“I was happy and comfortable not working, but to have someone call and ask for your help is a very gratifying thing,” Underwood explains.

“It’s something not everybody gets to experience. As long as she wants my help, I’m going to try to make myself available.”

Now comes the hard part.

The Titans have won only five games in the last two seasons.

They own the No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft.

They have a franchise quarterback in Mariota but otherwise the roster is lacking.

It’s up to Robinson, the new general manager, to upgrade the roster. Then Mularkey needs to do a better job coaching the team than he did in nine games as interim head coach last season.

And Underwood must make sure everything comes together. It’s a challenge.

“Steve is an attorney. He’s been around a lot of football but he’s not really a football guy,” says Reese, one-time general manager of the Titans.

“The key is having the right people around who can make football decisions in terms of personnel and how to handle that side of the business.”

Reese endorses the hiring of Robinson. The two worked together in the personnel office of the New England Patriots in 2009-12.

“With their situation, it was hard to get the right group in to interview for that job,” Reese adds. “If you talk to 10 people around the NFL, they’ll give you 10 different people that they say you should hire, whether it’s a legitimate recommendation or it’s somebody they’re trying to get rid of.

“But I think they made a great hire with Jon.”

Now comes the harder part: turning around a franchise.

“To me, three things have to come together for teams to be successful – coaching, a quarterback and management of the salary cap,” Underwood says.

“Great quarterbacks are a scarce commodity, and everyone recognizes the talent we have at quarterback with Marcus. We have to figure out ways to spread our money out so we can have enough weapons, a good offensive line and talent on defense.

“All those factors have to work. If we can do that, we’ll leave the desert and get back to being successful. I’m confident we can do that.”

He sounds like a man who isn’t in a rush to re-retire.

Reach David Climer on Twitter @DavidClimer and at dclimer1018@yahoo.com.

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