Steve Underwood Press Conference Transcript

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TITANS PRESIDENT/CEO STEVE UNDERWOOD PRESS CONFERENCE TRANSCRIPT - January 4, 2016

(opening statement)

Earlier today, at the request of our controlling owner, Amy Strunk, I relieved Ruston Webster of his duties as our general manager. I wanted to open the press conference by talking about that just briefly. I've had the privilege during my career of working with a lot of really fine men and women, but I know of no one finer in my experience than Ruston. It's a very difficult thing to do to part company with someone that you have known that long and worked with that well. I just thought it was important that he know, and that everyone else know, how much I think of him, how much our organization thinks of him, how much we appreciate the contributions that he made, and that we wish for him and his family the very best in their future endeavors. I have also agreed today to remain on permanently as president of the club. I think I can say without any hesitation that it is the greatest personal privilege of my career to have been asked to do that. I am so grateful and so humbled by being asked and I am very excited about continuing in that role. These days, to be with the same organization for 35 years is something that's kind of rare, and a rare privilege to get to work in our business. The NFL is a wonderful kind of industry and I feel exceedingly blessed and honored to accept the role of President and CEO of the Tennessee Titans and Nissan Stadium. Thank you all for being here to share it with me. We have started our head coach and general manager searches in earnest today. We have been working on the possibility of that prospect for a number of weeks. We have identified for our owners many candidates for both of these jobs. Nashville is a great city and we have great fans. We think, our owners and I, that the single most important thing that we can be doing is finding a way to reverse our club's fortunes and to win. We're going to work very hard on both searches going forward and we think that we will refine our list and have great candidates. We've sent a number of requests already for interviews and we're excited about getting the process kicked off and getting going.

(on when interviews will start for the two positions)

This week, probably in the next couple of days, just as soon as we can get people here. We've got already sort of a tentative process outlined for our interviews, but certainly in the next 48 hours we think we'll have our first interview scheduled.

(on if they will be hiring the two positions concurrently)

Yes, GMs (general managers) and head coaches, yes.  

(on if the general manager or head coach has to be hired first)

I don't think anything has to happen first. We have two openings, we're looking for two different people. We know the qualities, or we think we know the qualities that we want in both men. If one appears to be the candidate that is identified for a particular job first, then we'll do that. Teams have done both things. I think some people think that there are some limitations about all of that, but we have had, just since the announcement this morning of Ruston (Webster's) departure, we've had over a dozen candidates, names that all of you would know, ask about being in our queue for interviews. We don't think there is going to be any shortage of talent. As I said, we have identified extensive lists for both jobs and we are ready to get started.

(on if there are in-house candidates for the general manager position)

We do. We have in-house candidates on our list, both for general manager and for head coach. As you may know, our organization has a long history of at least looking inward first. We think that's an important thing for the people that are here, so yes. We identified categories of candidates early on and internal candidates were one in both of those categories. 

(on if there are in-house candidates for the general manager positon beyond Director of College Scouting Blake Beddingfield)

Well, we're not going to talk about individual names of candidates. There are multiple internal candidates for both jobs.

(on if Floyd Reese is someone they would like to talk to)

It's OK with me if you violate the rules (of talking about specific names of candidates). Floyd (Reese) is not on any of our candidate lists. Floyd is someone that I admire greatly. He is someone who I had the privilege of working with for many years, but we're not going to talk about individual candidates if that's OK.

(on if it is common for the first filled position to want to have a say in filling the second position)

You know, it just depends. Different teams do different things. To go back and look, some teams pick a head coach first, some teams pick a GM (general manager) first. My personal view is that isn't all that important as long as you have people that can work together. I think the worst thing that you can do is have two men that are at odds with each other, and we're not going to have that.

(on if they run the risk of the two new hires not being able to work well together if one doesn't help choose the other)

Well I suppose that is possible, but in the interview process, we'll identify whether or not those men are capable of working with each other.

(on if he envisions the traditional general manager and coach split of power)

We've always had the same system as long as I have been associated with our organization, which is genuine collaboration. We believe that's very doable, that both of those men can work together to achieve the same result. You don't want, contrary to popular belief, you don't really want two men who are in lock step about every decision that they make. What you want is people who are willing to work through their differences and come up with solutions that will make a team better. We think that's a very doable thing.

(on if the organization would consider a coach who also wants to be a general manager)

No, two different people. We're going to have it as a traditional general manager and a traditional head coach. They will be expected to collaborate on personnel decisions.

(on if he will be the lead voice in the interview processes and report to Amy Adams Strunk)

No, Mrs. (Amy Adams) Strunk will be participating in the interview process as will Kenneth (Adams IV). I have also asked (Vice President of Football Administration) Vin Marino to be part of the interview process. Vin, as you know, has many years of experience both here and at the league level. He knows many of the people who are candidates for both jobs, so I think it's important that we have him in the process as well. I may very well ask questions along with everyone else, but we will look to our owners for the leadership in the interview process. They're going to be directly involved, hands-on in the interview process.

(on if Amy Adams Strunk will be in Nashville for the interview processes)

Either here or on the phone, one way or the other during the interview process. I don't make her decisions for her about whether or not she appears.

(on if the organization could have relieved Ruston Webster of his duties earlier to get a head start on the search for a new general manager)

Let me answer your question two different ways. We could have, but then we wouldn't have been able to complete an evaluation of him through the end of the season if we had made the decision early. At the same time though, we were already conducting a serious research on potential general manager candidates because except for people who were out of work, you have to wait until today to ask for permission anyways. I think you can do those two things on different tracks, different parallel tracks, continue the evaluation of whoever you have that's an incumbent, and at the same time be doing research for a replacement should that be the decision.

(on what changed in his assessment of Ruston Webster as the last time he spoke publically he said positive things about the job he was doing)

I think at the end of the day, as I mentioned at the same press conference that you're quoting me from, in our business, the only barometer really for success is wins and losses. Your success in our industry is measured by how many games you win and lose. Does that mean that the fact that we only won five games in the last two years, all of that is on Ruston (Webster)? No. But he was the general manager then. Our talent was acquired then. I think in making in her decision, Amy (Adams Strunk) looked first to what is the principle measurement that is used in our business, and that's wins and losses.

(on why Mike Mularkey is still being considered as a candidate if success is determined by wins and losses and the team went 2-7 under his leadership)

Well, I think there are a lot of considerations in determining the success or failure of an interim coaching candidate. Let's take for example, Jeff Fisher. Jeff was our interim head coach before he became our permanent head coach. He won, I think, one game during that stint, yet he went on to become a highly successful coach for us. So how you do (in regards to) wins and losses as an interim head coach is not the only measurement tool, but that also doesn't mean Mike (Mularkey) is going to be the final selection. It means that he is a candidate. When he agreed to become our interim head coach, we told Mike that he was being evaluated as a permanent head coach candidate. You look at the wins and losses, you look at his relationship with the centerpiece of our franchise, our young quarterback. You look at how our players see him and view him as a head coach, how he interacts with his staff, how he interacted with Ruston (Webster), what obstacles he faced in trying to use a system that was someone else's design that he then had to work with in game planning and so forth, what adjustments he made that could make in that system to try and be successful. I think there are so many things that need to be looked at in evaluating him and other interim head coaches so that you don't short yourself by eliminating someone just because they were an interim and just because they didn't have huge success as an interim in terms of wins and losses.

(on if Mike Mularkey is under contract going forward)

You know, we never discuss our contracts with our employees. I will tell you that I told Mike (Mularkey) that as long as he's working here as our head coach that we are going to pay him.

(on how he evaluates Mike Mularkey based on what he had to work with when taking over the head coaching role)

Well, I think that you have to look again at what he had to work with. Our starting quarterback was injured a good bit of that time, missed a number of games due to injury. Mike (Mularkey) apparently did make adjustments that made it easier to protect Marcus (Mariota). We did have some success here and there. I think all of those things though have to be weighed against the fact that he was working in someone else's schemes. We're going to interview a number of head coach candidates. There hasn't been a decision made about head coach, but in the same way, we haven't eliminated Mike as a contender, either.

(on what qualities he is looking for in a general manager)

It's a long list. We want someone who is steeped in the evaluation of football talent. We think it would be important that that person has been a scout or a talent evaluator for many years. We provided our owners with a list of over 80 candidates and none of them had less than 15 years of experience in talent evaluation either as a scout, pro personnel director, or player personnel director. They had those kinds of titles and those kinds of duties. We also think that general management is a big enough job that they need to have some background and experience, for example, in the salary-cap management, in the collective bargaining agreement. They need to know and understand how those things work. We don't think about it because we only look at one tiny part of the spectrum of what general managers do and that's, sort of, to acquire talent. That's what you look for them to do, but the truth is, our general managers here supervise seven or eight different departments. They have to prepare and administer departmental budgets for those departments. They have to have regular meetings with our coaches and assistant coaches, with our head coach. They have to develop those relationships, they have to meet with their own staff and supervise their own staff, schedule what they do, prepare for the draft. It's a long, long list and we're looking for them to have experience in all of those various areas. First and foremost, they need to be talent evaluators, but they also need to have a wide range of other skills. We think that those things are important. When you get a list of people, of 80 people to look at, some of them are going to be better at some of those areas than others. That will be weighed also, but I think talent evaluation first, experience, wherever they've had it with NFL teams, second, and then all of the other items that I just mentioned. That's a lot of skill sets.

(on if the list is still at 80 candidates)

No, no. We've significantly trimmed the list down by now.

(on how many finalists there are for the general manager position)

We have 14 people who we consider to be finalists. I didn't say we would interview them all, those are the people who we would interview if we were able.

(on how many finalists there are for the head coaching position)

We provided our ownership with a list of 155 candidates for a head coach after Coach (Ken) Whisenhunt was dismissed and we have been working steadily on trying to prioritize that list over the last month. We spent a good bit of time on that process.

(on if a candidate could come from outside the list of finalists)

You bet, absolutely, yes. In fact, our owners came up with a name and added it to the list today. It was a name that we had overlooked, so our owners are fully engaged in the process of trying to find the two men that will lead our franchise into the future.

(on how soon he is expecting the franchise to be a playoff contender again)

Well, we think that we have some of the pieces that are needed to get that done, including our young quarterback, but obviously, we need more weapons. Sometimes, that can take a little time, but I would look for real progress to be made in the next season. It's just impossible, really, to put a timeline on being back in the playoffs. There are so many things that can go wrong that are not within a coach or general manager's control. Injuries, for example, are one of those things. So I hate to try and tell someone it's going to take this long and then if that doesn't happen, we're going to re-load and start over. I see from time to time franchises make changes after one year or two years, I don't think our ownership group thinks that's the way to go on a long-term basis. We'll make good choices, stick with those people and help them succeed.

(on if there is anything the organization learned from the hiring of Ken Whisenhunt that they can avoid this time)

Well, I wasn't around for the Ken Whisenhunt hiring. Ken was someone that I worked with and I don't want to use him or anyone else as an example of something gone wrong. I don't know how Ken was selected. I do think that how you go about the selection process makes a huge difference in the end product. We're going to use a traditional method of selecting people that is, trying to get a broad list, narrowing the list overtime, interviewing people who are highly-qualified candidates, or who we hope are highly-qualified candidates, bringing more people into the process as you continue the interview process and then trying to end up with someone who is going to be able to work with the general manager and help us build the kind of franchise that Nashville deserves.

(on if a college coach will be considered for the head coaching position)

On the original list of the 155 (candidates), yes there were many head football coaches from college.

(on if the organization is open to a college head coach)

Yes.

(on what makes a highly qualified candidate for the head coaching position)

Well certainly needs to be someone who has been coaching at a high level in the NFL for many years.  We would like to find someone who understands and knows what are business is about and who can prove it if you will.  'I have been successful as a coach in the NFL somewhere else.  I have been successful as an NFL head coach here.'  I think the biggest calling-card all of us have is our past experience and how successful we have been in that experience.

(on having been involved in other searches for the organization)

Well I was involved in the search for Mike Munchak, but he was actually hired by Mr. Adams.

(on how himself and ownership know the right questions to ask to find the right hire with this being their first time)

Well as I say this is not the first time I have been through the process.  It is funny you ask that question because I went back and found my interview and selection notes from 2007 and 2011 which for some reason they preserved here electronically.  So I have those as guideposts and I have my other 35 years of experience in the NFL as some indication.  I think the three most difficult things that NFL owners do is select a head coach, a general manager and a club president, and it is sort of in that order.  It is historically a kind of hit-or-miss thing.  You can just look around today at how many head coaches are being fired and really you can look here at our own franchise and see what has happened to head coaches over the last five years.  It is a very difficult undertaking and it is a very difficult thing for them to do.  Sometimes it is a difficult thing to have success at, but it is so important and so vital that you have a quarterback, a head coach, a GM and somebody to sort of help you navigate the waters of our business.  We already have one of those pieces or at least we strongly believe we do in Marcus (Mariota).  We need to find people to surround him with that will help him mature as an NFL quarterback and lead our franchise to the next success.  We have a wealth of experience here, including in the process of hunting for head coaches.

(on when he hopes to have the searches wrapped up)

We haven't set a deadline.  My answer to that question is as long as it takes to get the right people.

(on what changed for him from retirement to becoming the permanent CEO/president)

I have a legacy here.  I had the honor of working for their father and grandfather for all those years and when I was called initially I was a little surprised.  I had been as you say retired for three and a half years, but when someone calls you and wants your help and thinks that you're the right person for a job that they have for you to do, you know that is a very redeeming kind of phone call.  You want me, you could search all over or hire a search firm or get help locating someone and you're coming back to someone who worked there and is retired, that meant something to me that his children and heirs were interested in having me come back and help them.  That legacy is something that is really very fulfilling if you are me and I didn't come here thinking I would be the permanent CEO by the way.  They said would you just help us for two or three months.  Well after two or three months, they asked if I would stay until the end of the season.  Then this morning she asked if I would stay on a permanent basis.  It is hard to turn someone down who has been that much a part of your career for that many years.  They did a lot for my family and I would feel, I don't know, ungrateful or unappreciated to tell them no I won't help or I can't do that.

(on if the team is in compliance with the NFL guidelines for ownership structure)

Those are things we are working through with the league.  Since I came back to work here we have made progress in trying to work through our issues with the league.  I think we have made good progress.  We expect to continue working with the league to help get there, but we have never discussed any of those things publicly and we are not going to start this afternoon.

(on if the team hired an antitrust lawyer)

We are not going to discuss those kind of things.

(on if it is important that these searches go efficiently to impress the league)

I think that the league expects teams to do the things that are required to come up with good head coaches.  I have already described how difficult a process that can be and how often people fail at it.  I don't think they are watching us any more closely along those lines then they are watching any other club.  I think they want everyone to do a good job with their searches.  That is the nature of our business is trying to put a high quality of product on the field that includes having a good general manager and a good head coach.  They very well may be keeping an eye on us, but I don't think any more so than they are watching any other team.

(on if anything has changed in regards for the team being for sale)

The team has never been for sale and it is not for sale now.

(on why that rumor will not die on a national level with the media)

To me what is kind of comical about it is the people who write those stories never source them.  All you hear is them and undisclosed sources.  Maybe it is because we had an owner who passed away a couple of years ago, sometimes that causes an ownership change.  If I was in your shoes, I would always be looking at who does the writer of the story say is the source for those remarks, and when you see no source, you don't see anyone identified, nothing attributed to anyone, then you need to remember what I tell you now.  The team is not for sale and it has never been for sale.

(on if the NFL would like the family to sell the team)

I don't have any idea.  They have never said that.

(on if he will be more of a figurehead for the organization with the interim tag removed)

Well I hope so.  I hope it is viewed as being a stabilizing function for our franchise.  I think for our own employees it is important.  You know we have a lot of great employees here and they mean the world to me.  One of the reasons I felt so good about being asked to stay permanently is how much the people we have mean to me.  I've known a lot of these people for two and three decades and I feel very comfortable working with them and helping them restore our franchise to greatness which I think we are going to do by the way.  I think it is that stability that you see maybe missing at other places, I think that is something I can provide here.

(on whether Amy Adams Strunk being a more public figure would help)

I don't make her decisions for her.  She is the controlling owner.  I think that Amy (Adams Strunk) can do any of that that she wants to do, but those are decisions that are left entirely to her.  You know, Amy has been at every game that we have played, even the preseason games this year.  She and I talk on the phone every day, sometimes for two and three hours.  She is directly involved in the day-to-day operations of our business—not some days, every day.   She is enjoying her role as controlling owner.  She demands constant updates about what's going on with various things.  I think that's one of the roles that I feel comfortable filling for her and for the rest of our ownership.  But I don't think there's anything missing from her dedication to making our franchise what it needs to be.

(on if it would be wise for her to deliver a message directly to the fan base)

To me, having an owner here is good, and we have one, by the way.  Kenneth (Adams IV) has been working fulltime here for over eight years and is also heavily involved in what our franchise does.  Just as Mr. (Bud) Adams never lived here, was not here all the time, Amy (Adams Strunk) isn't here all the time, and I don't really see the downside to that.  What would be the upside of her being here on the ground every day, other than people seeing that she happens to be here in Nashville?

(on Amy Adams Strunk coming in for one day and giving the fan base her message in her words)

She has come here a number of times.  She was here for the draft this past year after having only been the controlling owner for a matter of a month or so.  She was here during training camp.  She's been here some during the season, at every game.  My answer is she is here a good bit more than people give her credit for.

(on Amy Adams Strunk's response to the desires of fans to get to know her, especially while ownership maintains the team is not for sale)

I'll pass it on to her.  I'll make sure that she understands that you feel that way.

(on if Steve Underwood senses that many people do want Amy Adams Strunk to be more visible to the public)

You know, I see different things about all of that.  I think what people want is an owner who is engaged in the management day to day of the club.  And maybe what's happened here is that we haven't done a good job making that clear, that Amy (Adams Strunk) is on the job every day, all day, is at our games, is at many of our functions.  You know, just because she doesn't take a high profile doesn't mean that she's not involved.  So maybe what we need to do is a better job getting across that Amy is involved on a day-to-day basis with everything that our company and our club is doing.

(on if there has been talk with Mularkey about making changes on the coaching staff if he is retained as head coach)

No.

(on if the coaching staff is the same as of today)

Yes, all of those people are still under contract to us. 

(on if any of the coaches are under contract through 2016)

We don't talk about that.

(on possibly having Marcus Mariota meet with the head coaching finalists)

I think it would be a good idea for him to know who we have, sort of, narrowed the search to when we get to that point, yes.

(on what the problems with the team are, especially with regard to player personnel)

You know, that's a difficult question to answer.  That's why we need a general manager and a head coach who can understand what we're lacking.  I think one of the things that everyone has observed is that we didn't have quite enough weapons to complement Marcus (Mariota).  Another one of those things—you have to keep in mind, we had so many folks injured during the season—but we also did not do as good a job as we needed to protecting him during the season.  That's a difficult thing to do for any quarterback.  I'm not calling anyone out or singling anyone out.  We had a lot of injuries on our offensive line as well.  Those are things and diagnoses that we're going to need from the men that we hire.  Incidentally, those are all good interview questions for both of those jobs.  What are our strengths and weaknesses?  What holes do we need to fill?  How would you go about doing that?  Those are all areas that we want both of the men who ultimately get this job to be able to answer for us.

(on how the perception about Titans ownership might affect the interest of potential candidates)

We've had over a dozen inquiries from highly qualified head coaches and general manager candidates since word got out this morning that Ruston (Webster) had been dismissed.  So my answer to your question is no.  In three hours, we've been kind of overrun with requests—'Can we be on your interview list?'—both from individual candidates and from their agents and representatives. So my answer to your question is no. 

(on any surprises among those who have reached out to the team)

Yeah, we have had a couple of surprises. 

(on who was involved with putting together the list of candidates)

Well, for example, with our head coach list, Ruston was very involved in that process.  We had a couple of other staff people that were involved in helping us whittle down the process, but it was more than just the people that I was working with.  We also did a good bit of research on people as they moved forward into the winnowing process.  Once it got to a certain point, we started doing research on their records, hunting around for people that knew them and what they thought about them and so forth.

(on if he views it as a positive that Ruston Webster helped develop the list of coaching candidates)

You know, Ruston (Webster) has been working as a talent evaluator for many years, and so he was just another voice, if you will, in the process.  But yes, I thought it was a positive, sure.  

(on Marcus Mariota's opinion on the candidates being sought)

Like with anything else, I think we would at least like for him to know and have his view of those people.  I think that would be important.  It doesn't necessarily mean that we'd be guided by one person's opinion, just as more than one person helped assemble our list.  But I think that having his general view of someone, yes, I think that would be important.  

(on how long he is expected to occupy his role as president and CEO considering how much he enjoyed retirement)

I did enjoy being retired.  A while, an extended period of time.  I don't know. Amy (Adams Strunk) and I have not talked about that, but something longer rather than something shorter.

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