Family affair: NFL a father-son business for Chiefs, Niners

The Big Game

FILE – In this Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020, file photo, San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan celebrates with his dad, Mike, after the NFC Championship NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers in Santa Clara, Calif. Passing the family business onto the kids is a delicate chore, even when the whole world isn’t watching. When it plays out in the NFL, everyone gets to see the successes and failures unveiled in real time. This year’s Super Bowl features two of those stories. San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan learned a lot of what he knows from his dad, Mike, who has three Super Bowl rings of his own back at home. (AP Photo/Matt York, File)

MIAMI (AP) — San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan grew up living the life of a football coach’s son. He liked it so much, he decided he wanted to be just like his dad.

Kansas City Chiefs owner Clark Hunt grew up living the life of a football magnate’s son. All signs pointed toward the likelihood that he’d become the magnate, himself, someday.

A child following in his parents’ footsteps is a delicate balancing act, even when the whole world isn’t watching. When it plays out in public, the way it does in the NFL, everyone gets to see the successes and failures unveiled in real time.

From the owner of the local car wash or bakery to the coach of one Super Bowl team and the owner of another, questions abound about the propriety of kids following their parents into business, regardless of the number of zeroes on the bottom line.

“The child has to ask, ‘Is this a feeling of obligation, which creates a noose around your neck, or is this a real passion of yours?’” says Jean Meeks-Koch of The Family Business Consulting Group. “And the parent has to ask ‘Am I pushing my beliefs onto them and providing them experiences that create my belief system, or am I opening their world to a lot of experiences, and they happen to fall in love with my passion, too?’”

Shanahan, in search of his first Super Bowl title, learned a lot of what he knows from his dad, Mike, who has three Super Bowl rings of his own back at home. Hunt, owner and chairman of the Chiefs, inherited the team along with his siblings when his trailblazing father, Lamar, died in 2006.

Talk about pressure. The parents have to think of preserving their reputations, to say nothing of the millions or billions of dollars they might have piled into their company, as they embark on the task of figuring out whether their kid has the same acuity for the work as they do. The kids, meanwhile, must navigate the need to protect the family legacy while also fending off jealousy from those who sense they didn’t earn their way to the top.

Potential pitfalls? They’re everywhere.

“In one word, the challenge is ‘credibility,'” said Dana Telford, who also works at The Family Business Consulting Group. “If you think about it, credibility isn’t really something you earn, per se. You can try to show credibility through your achievement. But really, it has to be granted.”

Growing up while his dad was coaching both in San Francisco (as offensive coordinator) and Denver (as OC and head coach), Shanahan spent a lot of energy trying to play the game, even though his size (slight) and speed (or lack thereof) limited his upside.

But, Shanahan said, the amount of time he spent with his dad — in the office, in the meeting rooms, on the field as a ballboy — led to a lot of learning by osmosis.

“I think a lot of kids follow their parents into work, especially if they have a good relationship with them,” Shanahan said. “They enjoy what they do, and they get to grow up seeing a line of work all the time. I think football’s no different.”

When he was hired in Houston to coach receivers at age 26 by Mike Shanahan’s good friend and former assistant, Gary Kubiak, Kyle became the youngest position coach in the league. And when Kubiak promoted him to run the offense, Kyle became the youngest coordinator in the league.

Kyle then left the Texans to become offensive coordinator for his dad, who had become head coach of the Redskins.

It led to predictable criticism, especially as the Redskins struggled under the coaching of the Shanahans.

“If you hire your son, you better win all your games,” former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden told the Washington Post as charges of nepotism grew louder over the course of the Redskin’s struggles. “Because he’s usually the first to get criticized.”

If Shanahan’s biggest risk was losing football games, imagine the stakes for the Hunt family when Clark took over the franchise.

It’s not an uncommon transfer; 17 of the NFL’s 32 teams, none worth less than $1.95 billion according to Forbes, have been passed from one generation to another at least once. In a cautionary tale of how fraught these succession plans can be, the trustees for late Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, determined to keep the team in the family, are in the middle of a multi-year rash of litigation and waiting while they try to decide which of Bowlen’s seven kids should eventually run the team. (His 29-year-old daughter, Brittany, currently has the inside track.)

The Chiefs didn’t face those succession issues when Lamar Hunt died. The grandson of an oil tycoon who was one of the richest men in the world and son of the man for whom the AFC championship trophy is named, Clark Hunt had set himself up as The Man.

He paid his dues along the way. He went to Southern Methodist and got his degree in business and finance. He played a key role in the operation of Major League Soccer, the league the Hunts helped start; at one time they owned three teams in the league.

“It’s fair to say that was a test drive for him,” said Doug Logan, who served as MLS commissioner in its early years.

Then, early in his tenure as chairman, Hunt found himself in a power struggle with his strong-willed and powerful GM, Carl Peterson. Hunt showed Peterson the door and took some criticism for it, but weathered the storm. The Chiefs have won their division four straight years and are back at the Super Bowl for the first time since 1970.

“He kicked him out the door and that really made a statement that he was going to run it,” Logan said. “And he has, and he’s been very successful.”

In some ways, the coaches who call the shots on the field impact the bottom line much the same as the billionaires who own them. But unlike the owners, the coaches are in a transient profession. They are notoriously replaceable, and those decisions are almost exclusively based on the win-loss record.

“They see it all,” said 49ers tight ends coach Jon Embree, whose son works as the team’s quality control coach. “By seeing it all, they’re seeing the good, the bad, the awful.”

Whether it’s coaching, ownership or running a family car dealership, the bottom line doesn’t waver much: Kids have to do it because they love the job, not because they love their parents, and parents have to love their kids enough to know when it’s a good fit and when it’s not.

“When I have my son in my arms, is my goal to control him and have him do my bidding and toe the line?” Telford says. “Or is to say, ‘I want you to find yourself and carve a path in your life that brings you the highest level of fulfillment and happiness that you can find? That’s the decision families have to make.”

In the case of one Super Bowl coach and one Super Bowl owner, all the answers lined up.

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