The president of the Houston Texans remembers well the unexpected phone call that changed his career path and marked the early days of the NFL’s return to Houston. Rootes sat down with William F. McKeon, executive vice president and chief strategy and operating officer of the Texas Medical Center, to look back at those early days and what he sees today as the Texans’ responsibility to the fans and the community.
Q | Let’s start from your childhood. Can you tell us what it was like growing up in Stone Mountain, Georgia?
A | My dad was an accountant. My mom was a librarian. I have an older brother and an older sister. My brother, probably, was as instrumental as anyone in instilling a competitive spirit in me. He was four years older than me and I always wanted to beat him in whatever we were doing. He was a football player and then became a soccer player. My dad coached soccer. He hadn’t played before. He just picked it up and said, ‘I want to play. I want to coach.’ He coached me for a period of time, and coached my brother for a period of time. I started playing soccer maybe in first or second grade. My brother started when he was in high school.
It was kind of like this wave of soccer came through with the North American Soccer League and the Atlanta Chiefs. I was swept up in that wave of Pele and the Cosmos. I did play football and baseball earlier, but maybe because my dad was involved, or maybe because I was playing at school, soccer just clicked for me. It seemed like a sport that I could excel at. I played all over the field, depending on the team I played on, but I usually played as a forward or a mid-fielder.
It was interesting going from Atlanta playing as a striker to playing in the National Team pool where I was asked to play back, because of all the great players I was competing with at that level. My goal was always just to get on the field. If I played striker, that was great. If I had to play in left back or even in goal, that was fine. I just wanted to be on the field.
I played on recreational teams to begin with, and then I saw a flyer at school regarding select team tryouts. I brought it home to my mom and said, ‘Hey, they are having tryouts, would you mind driving me there on Saturday?’ She did and I tried out and made the team. And it all just really progressed from there. I kept getting new opportunities.
And then as I got older, I just stair-stepped up into the more prestigious teams. Datagraphic was a premier club in Atlanta at the time. They didn’t go all the way down to the under-14 level, but as soon as I could, I got on a Datagraphic team. You had your club team that you played for, your school team, and then it seemed like tryouts all the time for select teams, and then you had regional camp and national pool games. I even played for a representative team from the USA South against West Germany. We played the West German national team here in Houston. And that was really my first exposure to Houston. I was probably
17 at the time.
Q | Was it that exposure that led you to play soccer for Clemson?
A | Well, I was recruited by a number of different schools and had a number of options, including Clemson and South Carolina. Mark Berson and Trevor Adair were the coaches at South Carolina at the time. They saw me play in Atlanta and said, ‘Hey, we think you would be a great fit for the University of South Carolina.’ Greg Andruilis, who was the assistant coach at Clemson at the time, came down and said, ‘Yeah, I think you have a reasonable shot.’ So really, my best options came down to those two and I’m not exactly sure what caused me to pick Clemson at the end of the day. They are both great schools. I was a big University of Georgia fan growing up, but they didn’t have a soccer team. Clemson just felt like the same kind of collegiate atmosphere with a soccer program that was really elite. I mean, at the time, Clemson consistently went far in the NCAA playoffs. They hadn’t yet won an NCAA championship, but they were close a number of times.
Q | Clemson won two national championships during your time there.
A | We did. We won my freshman year and my senior year.
Q | Tell us more about Coach Ibrahim. His unique approach obviously led to a long period of success.
A | He was really an innovator at the time. Soccer was growing here in the United States and he had a tremendous passion for the game. He was a hard- nosed, no-nonsense kind of coach. I think he really had a great appreciation for the ‘beautiful game,’ and an eye for talent—the type of players, the technical abilities and tactical understanding of players that would fit into his system. And we played, for the time, a pretty attractive brand of soccer. You have teams that can be tough and effective, but it’s not that fun to watch. I think we played a good combination of tough discipline defensively, but with attacking flare. And we had a number of players who brought that creativity and excitement. Eric Eichmann played for us and was an All-American. He was a year older than me and was a very gifted player. Bruce Murray, who is one of the greatest players in National Team history, probably was our best player. We came in together as freshmen. We had a good balance of stars and role players. And I think, more than anything else, our teams had amazing chemistry and a great sense of ‘team.’ That may have been lacking in previous Clemson teams that had more talented international players.
You think about the Texans. Bill O’Brien has brought in that same ‘team-first’ philosophy. It’s about the name on the front of the jersey, not the back of the jersey. At Clemson, we had that in spades. We really worked hard and fought hard for each other, and I think that made the difference.
Q | What was your next step after Clemson?
A | I joined IBM right after Clemson. I worked in Greenville, South Carolina as a marketing representative for mainframe computer equipment. I had a couple of large accounts—Michelin Tire Corporation and the Greenville Hospital System. I spent roughly three years there, and the experience was great. I learned a ton. There were so many talented people there. The training that they put you through was amazing. It gave me a great chance to understand technology and its applications—at least technology at that point in time. It was a great experience, but there was something that was missing for me. I saw graduate school as an opportunity to pivot my career. I went back and visited with Bobby Robinson, who was the athletic director at Clemson. He was a great friend and somewhat of a mentor to me. We had lunch, and he said, ‘Hey, you’re talking about being a coach, wanting to be in the sports business. Which do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘Well, I want to do both.’ He said, ‘I think that’s the first thing you have to get past. You really can’t do both in today’s sports environment.’ So Indiana was a great option for me. It gave me a chance to get an MBA, work in the athletic department and coach with Indiana’s soccer program, which is one of the premier soccer programs in the country.
So the Indiana experience was really ideal because it gave me a chance to try out coaching and business.
I had never been a full-time coach. I had done camps and coached youth teams. But it gave me a chance to really get in the middle of it and see what it was all about. And it gave me a chance to get the MBA degree and work in the athletic department, doing promotions and marketing and things of that nature.
Q | How important was that to your career path?
A | It was very important. I was a full-time MBA. In soccer, I think my official title was ‘manager,’ but it gave me the opportunity to be on the field working with the team on a regular basis. And it was awesome. It was so much fun. It was going back to something that was so comfortable to me, which was working with players. And I loved that part of it. I loved my two years. But, I thought about how my life would develop. I’ll be getting married at some point. I’ll be having kids. Will this still feel the same 20 years from now? Will I be challenged? Will I have the same fire? So I decided to pursue a sports-related business role.
The opportunity in Columbus that eventually emerged was absolutely ideal. It was the perfect balance between the competitive side of the game, being involved with coaches and being involved with players and still being able to lead the development of a business.
Q | How did you transition from soccer to football?
A | I had spent four years in Columbus, launching the Columbus Crew, which was really a ‘bootstrap’ startup. Starting with a blank sheet of paper, we created a business and a way of operating. We built a stadium, we built a training facility, we built an experience for fans and we had really engaged the community in a powerful way. Then I got a call from a head hunter, and she asked, ‘Would you like to be part of the Houston NFL team?’ And I said, ‘There’s not a Houston NFL team.’ She said, ‘There’s going to be.’ So I took the chance to come down and visit with Bob McNair and a number of folks here who were leading the start of the team.
Being president and general manager of the Columbus Crew was great. It was kind of a ‘top of the mountain’ experience from a soccer perspective at the time. I could have continued to do that. But I really saw this as an opportunity to demonstrate to myself that our success in Columbus wasn’t just about a sport that was most familiar to me. It wasn’t just about being in a small market. I wanted to prove to myself that I could be successful in a sport that I haven’t played for my entire life, even though I have been a football fan my entire life. And the same principles could apply in one of the largest markets in America. It has all worked out pretty well.
Q | Why did the Texans select someone with a soccer background for their football program? Did they just decide that you were the one to take a chance on?
A | You know, it’s interesting. When I first went to Columbus and met with Lamar Hunt and Clark (his son), I was 29 years old. There were much safer bets for a general manager than me. But something just clicked. We sat down and talked and it felt like we saw the world the same way. And the same thing happened when I sat down with Bob McNair. Even though he was student body president at the University of South Carolina, and I was student body president
at Clemson—that’s like oil and water. But for some reason, as we talked, I just felt like we saw the world the same way. And when you work in a sports business, you really do have to be working for somebody who shares your same values. Otherwise, you can’t be authentic. I have found over the last 15 years, I have been able to do what I think is right and almost every time, that has aligned well with Bob’s perspective.
Q | Sports teams become part of the DNA of a city. What are some of the most important components of a successful sports franchise?
A | There are a couple of things that I think stick out as being incredibly important, and the first is that you have got to focus exclusively on what you can control. When I first came here to Houston, they told me it was real easy: you win and the fans come, you lose and the fans don’t come. That’s the way it has always been in Houston. And I said, ‘Well, we aren’t going to accept that.’ So we eventually got folks around the table that all bought in that we can consistently have capacity crowds and have a wonderful fan base, regardless of our record. We were going to just let the chips fall where they may on the field, because we could not control that.
If you take all of the sports teams of all time and put their records together, they’re a combined .500, because every game has a winner and a loser. You have to mentally separate yourself from wins and losses. You are connected as an organization, but we have a job to do, regardless. Whether we win or we lose, we have a job to do. We have to create raving fans, build loyal customers and fulfill our responsibilities to our community. And whether we won or lost on Sunday, all of these things still have to happen. The challenge that some teams get into is you kind of hook your wagon to, ‘When we win, we will go after it. When we lose,
we won’t.’ And that’s just not productive. We have to go after it all the time. We are always in the pursuit of championships, because people have to believe with every ounce of their being that we’re here to win a championship for the city of Houston. But we also have to create memorable experiences and do great things for Houston.
It’s not just about watching a football game. If it was just about watching a game, you could stay home and watch it on your TV. It’s about engaging with something that really is so meaningful to you, something that is bigger than yourself. It’s about tailgating and the bonding and family time that happen there. It’s about rituals and traditions in the stadium that you remember for a lifetime. People say to me all the time, ‘I’ve been a season ticket holder since the beginning,’ and they go on to tell me all the wonderful things they enjoy about the Texans Experience. I get a big smile on my face because I know we’ve created a raving fan. And then the third piece of our purpose, which I think has been so incredibly important, is do great things for
Houston. It’s not a line or a check the box for us. We’re here to do great things for Houston. We have world-class athletes that are wonderful ambassadors that can inspire people. Our brand is so powerful that when we get behind something, we lead. We show people the way. We do not do it because we have to. We do it because it’s an integral component of what our mission is as a franchise.
Q | What excites you most about the Super Bowl coming to Houston?
A | It’s part of our opportunity to do great things for Houston. And that’s why we were so inspired to make it happen. For us, it is an interesting opportunity for our staff to get involved with a new level of the game, but the real beneficiary is the city of Houston. To see the renaissance that’s going on downtown, there’s $3 billion of capital investment going on in downtown Houston that will be completed in advance of the Super Bowl. There’s a rebirth happening in the Convention District. The work that’s being done to beautify the Broadway approach to Hobby Airport is so exciting. I’ve always thought that we need to have a more beautiful entryway into our city from Hobby airport. It’s happening all over the city. What a wonderful opportunity for us to get our community ready for the world to visit. The Super Bowl brings three billion media impressions and $500 million in economic impact. Those are all tremendous benefits and certainly we are part of a very large team that is making it happen for Houston. It fits in perfectly with the purpose of our organization. We host the Advocare Texas Kickoff, The Advocare V100 Texas Bowl, the Battle of the Piney Woods and we brought international soccer to Houston. Now we have the Dynamo and BBVA Compass Stadium. We pursued all of these things because we’re here to do great things for Houston. Certainly there’s a business aspect to it, because we take risks and hopefully get rewards and all that. But we got involved because doing great things for Houston is part of who we are as Texans.
Q | JJ Watt has become a global icon. What is his impact on the Texans’ brand?
A | JJ has what I call a ‘360 degree perspective’ on what it means to be a star athlete. He recognizes what all of his opportunities and obligations are and he lives up to very high expectations. I’ve been around athletes for a long, long time. In terms of that 360 view, I don’t think I’ve been around someone more exceptional than JJ. And the great thing about it for the team is as he gets exposure, they’re talking about JJ Watt, but he’s JJ Watt the Houston Texan. So there is certainly a halo for our brand and he sets a great example for others.
Q | Looking back on your career, what are some of the key decisions that led you to where you are today?
A | Early on, I was all about sports and competition. I wanted to play in the World Cup. I got to Clemson my freshman year and we had a very good team and we wound up being national champions, but I was having a hard time getting on the field. I’d never experienced that before. It was a shock. I’d been the top player on every team I had played on. One day during my first semester, I went to get my mail and there was this note from the dean that said I was on the dean’s list. I called my mom and said, ‘The dean knows who I am!’ I’d never really thought outside of sports. I went to school because I had to. I started to appreciate that there’s another world out there beyond sports. The challenges I faced on the field caused me to think differently, so I really started to apply myself academically and wound up as an honors student in the Calhoun Honors College. I started getting involved on campus with a number of different groups and eventually wound up being student body president. I realized that there is more to life than playing sports. When I went to IBM, I knew it wasn’t right. Everyone was looking at me going, ‘What are you doing leaving this job? Nobody leaves IBM.’ I had so many people sit down with me and say, ‘Have you really thought through this?’ I just said, ‘I have this calling. I want to be involved in sports in some way and I’m not getting there here.’
So I traveled across the country doing informational interviews in the sports field. I also applied to graduate schools and wound up going to Indiana. When I finally got my opportunity, I seized it. When people talk to me about wanting to get into the sports industry, I tell them to check their heart. How into it are you? Are you prepared to shove all the chips to the middle of table and just stay at it as long as you have to? If you are, it will work. It may be one month, and it may be 10 years. But you have to be all in to make it happen.
Q | Is there anything else you care to share?
A | I’ve been fortunate to work for two great men in the sports world. I first worked for Lamar Hunt, a member of three separate sports halls of fame. He was a mentor to me coming into this business. He was a wonderful man and a hero of mine. I have also worked for Bob McNair. I must have a lucky star because Bob McNair is cut from the same cloth as Lamar. He is a great community citizen, a committed family man and a wonderful leader. He puts us in a position to win and says, ‘Go make it happen.’ I can tell you from my eyewitness account, Bob McNair is one of the greatest sports owners there’s ever been. He and his family are outstanding stewards of this community asset.