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More than a Mustache: The Steve Underwood Story

Tennessee Titans 2007 Headshots Photo by Getty Images

Hey Alexa, can facial hair go viral?

The answer would seemingly be no, but that’s exactly what happened when the now-former Tennessee Titans President and CEO Steve Underwood announced his retirement. If you’re a Titans fan, you were likely aware of Underwood’s appearance, and probably made a joke or two about his glorious mustache over the years. But as the rest of the world seemed to discover Underwood’s choice of facial hair on May 8th, his mustache became the talking point for the masses. It was all in good fun, but I’m here to tell you why Titans fans should appreciate Underwood for far more than his mustache.

This marks the second time Underwood is stepping away from the franchise, and this time, it’s seemingly for good.

Underwood was originally hired by the Titans in 1991, and played a key role in assisting Bud Adams behind the scenes. When the team moved from Houston to Tennessee in 1997, Underwood was there. He worked with three different local governments (Houston, Memphis and Nashville) to ensure that the move went smoothly for all involved. It did, and the Titans made a Super Bowl appearance just a few years later. Underwood may have been a behind-the-scenes worker, but the early on-field success that the Titans experienced in Tennessee wouldn’t have been possible without his hard work and dedication off it.

Underwood retired for the first time in 2011, stepping away from an organization that seemingly no longer needed him. He could step away from a taxing role with a smile on his face, knowing that his life’s work was appreciated, and that the organization remained in capable hands.

Little did he know that darker years were on the horizon. Bud Adams passed away in 2013 at the age of 90. When the original owner of a franchise passes away, things can get muddy. Without a clear succession plan in place, things became incredibly difficult for the Titans.

The organization needed a strong presence to step up to the plate, somebody that could help navigate the uncertainty ahead. Unfortunately, they got the opposite of that when Tommy Smith, the husband of part-owner Susie Adams Smith, was named as the chief decision maker.

Smith would last less than two years in the role, but the damage was done. The Titans would win less than 10 games under Smith’s watchful eye. While there’s plenty of blame to go around for how bad the Titans were throughout the Smith era, he was clearly in over his head and made bad decision after bad decision. Remember how much he paid Ken Whisenhunt to become the head coach? Whisenhunt would go on to compile a 3-23 record in his time as the head coach. Yikes. If you’re reading this, I probably don’t have to go into great detail to remind you just how terrible those years were. Despite the less-than-desirable results, Smith ruled the team with an iron fist.

The Smith era was, in my opinion, the darkest years of Nashville football. The Titans were a rudderless ship, a league-wide embarrassment with a questionable ownership structure that was consistently under the watchful eye of the league. The on-field results weren’t any better.

Members of the Adams family realized the turmoil that the franchise was in, and current Titans controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk stepped up to the plate. Smith “retired” (did he, though?) from his role as President and CEO in March of 2015 after just 18 months on the job.

Adams Strunk was named as controlling owner, inheriting the mess that the Titans franchise had become. She needed help to turn around her father’s beloved organization, and a familiar face returned to the fold.

That’s right, in the middle of their darkest hour, the Titans turned to a familiar face (or facial hair). Underwood returned to the team just four years after his initial retirement. He was named as the interim President and CEO in March of 2015, with a plan that he would stay in the role for the remainder of the season, while searching for a permanent successor.

Except it wasn’t interim at all. Despite the original plan, Underwood would remain in his role up until his retirement earlier this month.

In my opinion, these two figures were the turning point that got the organization back on track. In a short period of time, Adams Strunk and Underwood returned pride to a franchise that had quickly lost its way. They brought stability back to a franchise that had lacked any resemblance of it. They collaborated on a number of good hirings (Jon Robinson and Mike Vrabel, anyone?), which quickly transformed the franchise. That resulted in a roster turnover that made the team unrecognizable from the debacle that was 2014-15.

Being a Titans fan became fun again, both on and off the field. Winning football returned, and the organization began to win even more off the field. The team unveiled new uniforms in an impressive event hosted in downtown Nashville (better known as Broadway) in April of 2018. The event was such a hit that it quickly caught the attention of the NFL’s elite. The event was the brainchild of Adams Strunk, and the league took notice. The city of Nashville was awarded the 2019 NFL Draft and like most things Adams Strunk and Underwood have done since partnering together in 2015, it was a huge success. Fast forward to today, and the Titans are coming off their most successful season in nearly two decades.

Don’t look now, but the Titans have completely turned this thing on its head. Not only are they a far-cry away from the embarrassment they were not that long ago, but they actually sport one of the better front offices in the NFL today. Adams Strunk has proven herself as a quality controlling owner. She hired an excellent general manager in Robinson, and Vrabel is one of the better head coaches in the league. Robinson also has two potential future general managers working under him in Ryan Cowden and the newly-hired Monti Ossenfort, who left the Patriots for the Titans. I repeat, Ossenfort left the Patriots for the Titans. Could you have envisioned anybody leaving the Patriots for the Titans back in 2015? I couldn’t have. The Titans organization is filled with quality people, from top to bottom. What a time to be alive.

So as Underwood steps away from the Titans organization for the second time, let’s remember him for more than his mustache. Let’s remember him as the man that ensured the team’s move from Houston to Nashville was a painless and successful one. Let’s remember him as the man that couldn’t sit idly by as he watched the franchise he once proudly worked for self-destruct in years of uncertainty. When Adams Strunk was tasked with righting the ship, she looked to Underwood for support and he answered the call. He made a selfless decision to return to the team in the middle of its most troubling time and helped bring stability and success back to the franchise.

Underwood now leaves the Titans for the second time, but they won’t need to call on him for further assistance anytime soon. They’re in even better hands today than they were when he first retired in 2011.

And for that, Underwood deserves your respect. He may be a mustache-driven meme for many NFL fans, but for Titans fans around the world, he should be much more than that.