NASHVILLE – Steve Underwood has just about seen it all during his long career in the National Football League.
A self-described problem solver, the respected Titans executive has worked in a number of roles with the franchise, and to hear him tell it, he's loved every minute of it.
Now Underwood, who'll turn 69 in October, is ready to step away from his full-time role as President/CEO of the Titans. He's excited about what's ahead in his life, and about the man who will step in to replace him.
Burke Nihill, in his fifth season with the team, is being elevated to President/CEO of the Titans. Back in February, Nihill was promoted to Senior Vice President/Business Operations & Chief Legal Officer with the franchise.
"When I am asked what's the most important thing that I'll remember from the time I've spent in the National Football League, it will be all the great people that I have gotten to work with," said Underwood, who will remain with the team as a Senior Counselor. "Stepping away from something you love is never easy. But sooner or later, even something this good has to come to an end.
"I think Burke is a great choice for us to make. He's going to do a fantastic job. I really think he'll be just perfect."
Titans controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk, whose father "Bud," first hired Underwood to work for the franchise back in 1991, thanked Underwood for his commitment, loyalty, and professionalism. Underwood initially began working with Mr. Adams back in 1977, when he did legal work for him in Houston. Adams eventually convinced Underwood to join the franchise.
Strunk also expressed great confidence in Nihill, who held the title of Vice President and General Counsel for the team before his promotion earlier this year. Underwood informed Strunk last month he'd be retiring from a full-time role.
"Steve's remarkable 40-year Oilers/Titans career places him among the titans of professional sports executives. His dedication to our franchise is unmatched and I am glad he will remain with us as a Senior Counselor," Strunk said of Underwood.
"When Steve informed me that he was ready to step away from a full-time role, it was immediately clear to me that Burke was the best choice for the job. Since starting with the club as the General Counsel, Burke has continued to take on additional responsibilities to the point that he has become an invaluable resource and an absolute superstar for our organization. I have great confidence in him and his leadership, and I know that the future is bright for the team."
During his time with the Titans, Nihill been involved in many different facets of the organization. As Vice President and General Counsel, Nihill was responsible for the organization's legal, human resources and government relations functions. Following his promotion earlier this year, he also began overseeing stadium and facility operations.
In addition to his core responsibilities, Nihill has also taken the lead on other strategic projects for the team. He was instrumental in the effort to secure and execute the 2019 Draft in Nashville and is currently overseeing the renovation and expansion of Saint Thomas Sports Park.
Nihill joined the Titans in 2016 with 15 years of professional experience working as an attorney and strategic business counselor with companies ranging from technology startups to Fortune 500 businesses.
"I am exceedingly grateful for and humbled by this opportunity," Nihill said. "I am inspired by Amy's vision for our franchise and look forward to collaborating with my talented colleagues to serve our fans, partners, and communities. From the NFL Draft on Broadway to a magical run to the AFC Championship, last year was a special season for Titans fans, but as an organization we believe the best is yet to come.
"I also want to offer my congratulations to Steve Underwood on his retirement. Steve has been an extraordinarily generous mentor and friend to me, and I'm thankful that we will continue to benefit from Steve's experience and wisdom in his role as Senior Counselor."
Butch Spyridon, who has served as president and CEO of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation (NCVC) since 1991, on Thursday reflected on his dealing with Underwood that date back the mid-1990s, when the idea of the Houston Oilers moving to Nashville first bubble up.
"Steve has always been professional, accessible, and navigated a ton for team," Spyridon said. "I have the utmost respect for him as a friend, and as a professional colleague."
Spyridon thinks the Titans were fortunate to have someone as capable as Nihill ready to step in, and he thinks he'll continue to represent the franchise well.
Spyridon recalled first meeting Nihill before the 2017 NFL Draft, after being told he'd accompany him to Philadelphia for a site visit. At the time, Nashville was interested in making its own bid for the draft.
Two days after they returned, Nihill sent Spyridon a power point on what Philadelphia did, and what Nashville could do with an opportunity that would come two years later. It made a lasting impression on Spyridon.
Since, the two men have worked on almost everything that's involved the Titans – the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon during the draft weekend in 2019, July 4th Celebrations, the Titans uniform reveal party in 2018, the AFC Championship Game watch party in January, fundraising for NFL Draft, and much more.
"After the first year of working with Burke, without knowing anything, I had told people on numerous occasions that, in my opinion, Burke was the heir apparent to Steve Underwood," Spyridon said. "With how he represented the team, and how he carried himself, I've just always been impressed by him. To me, it seemed like a pretty easy choice for Amy. It probably worked out better or faster than they thought, but I can't think it was an accident.
"From a financial, from a legal, from a sales standpoint, and from an execution standpoint, I have had the opportunity to interact with Burke and he is equally smart to Steve. But where Steve had more of a cut-and-dry approach, Burke has more of a velvet hammer, but I can tell you he is no pushover. He's a smart man, and he knows what he's doing. But he's nobody's fool."
Still, there's no denying Underwood will be missed.
Underwood's history with the team dates back four decades, and he steps away from a full-time role at a time when the franchise has climbed back into the national spotlight, fresh off a trip to the AFC Championship Game.
In an interview this week, Underwood thanked and praised everyone around him, from the Adams family to Titans General Manager Jon Robinson to Coach Mike Vrabel to Senior Vice President/CFO Jenneen Kaufman to Senior Vice President/Chief Marketing and Revenue Officer Gil Beverly to Burke, along with many more.
After initially retiring in 2011, Underwood re-joined the franchise on an interim basis in 2015. In 2016, the interim tag was removed, and he became the team's President and CEO. Over four decades he's rewarded the Titans with his work, and his work over the years has been rewarding, he said.
"To leave what's been a lifelong endeavor in good standing, it's a status few obtain in our business," Underwood said. "I've loved so many things about it, from the people to the variety of the work. I will be forever grateful for the opportunities and the experiences I've had. I'm not sure what more I could have asked for."
Now, Underwood will have an opportunity to spend more time with his wife, Frances, and his family.
And as he stood on his ranch 25 miles south of NRG Stadium in Houston, located a mile off the paved road in Northern Brezoria County, he imagined all the possibilities.
During his first retirement, the Underwoods spent a month in Alaska, they made trips to Scotland and Italy, and they traveled the Mediterranean. He saw things he'd been wanting to see his whole life.
Underwood loves to spend time backpacking, and he's a big fan of Clearwater Beach in Florida.
The Underwood are very active in the church, and on Wednesday nights in the past, he entertained children at the nursery at Southview Baptist Church. He's already looking forward to "spoiling" a new batch of kids.
He's also looking forward to sleeping in more, and relaxing.
Today, Underwood sounds like a guy who will miss many things about the job he's stepping away from.
He also sounds like a guy who is ready for what's next.
"There's lots of places in the world Frances and I would still like to see," Underwood said. "For me, I think it is just a good time to make the transition. It is a good time for the club, it's a good time for our owners, and it's a good time for me and for my family more importantly. And, one of the things that makes stepping back easier, is knowing there is someone like Burke, who will do a great job, and he has great relationships of his own with other leaders.
"Any time you leave something that you love, sure (I'll miss it). But I think I'll enjoy the next chapter."