Amy Adams Strunk brought her father's team back to life

Tamara Reynolds for ESPN

SHE'S STUCK IN traffic, a side effect of the explosive growth that makes Nashville, Tennessee, an enticing place to own an NFL team. By the time Amy Adams Strunk arrives at Nissan Stadium, it's only an hour before kickoff, so she heads straight to the field.

Right away, it starts. "Miss Amy!"

A ruddy-complexioned man in his 30s, wearing a deep blue Tennessee Titans jersey and a lanyard around his neck, is waving like a traffic cop. One of several dozen season-ticket holders randomly chosen to spend the pregame on the Titans' sideline, he has spotted his team's owner and can't help shouting. It's like he already knew her, he'll say.

That's later, after the selfie with her arm around him and the embrace she gives his wife, two devoted Titans fans she'd never met. From there, she's on to another couple, and a 6-year-old boy she bends down to talk with eye to eye. "We love you," the wife says.

There's a man in the front row of the stands holding a sign claiming he has come all the way from France. She strides over to find out more. "Bonjour," she says. He looks at her with a quizzical expression, like, "Why is this woman talking to me?"

"That's the owner," someone tells him.

His eyes get wide. "Of the team?"

She's at the Titans' bench, visiting with Mike Vrabel, her head coach, when someone on the field shouts her name. It's kicker Ryan Succop, standing at the 50. When Succop pulls her close for a bear hug, she disappears for a moment.

From there, Adams Strunk walks toward the sideline to greet the Glazer brothers, Joel and Bryan. They own the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tennessee's opponent on this August evening. And it seems that, like most NFL owners, they don't know quite what to make of her.

Really, who can blame them? Owners typically make a fortune, then buy a team. Or else they put in years working in football as the family business, which it has been across generations for Rooneys and Bidwills, Maras and McCaskeys, Browns and DeBartolos, and lately Irsays and Krafts and, indeed, Glazers.

Adams Strunk, instead, spent her early professional years as the owner of a few car dealerships and some oil interests that her father, former owner Bud Adams, had given her. She has a passion for horses and she's quite a tennis player. She has raised two girls and a boy, who seem like admirable people. But she hadn't worked a day in the sport when she gained control of the Titans in 2015.

"They look at me," says Adams Strunk, now 63, "and they're probably thinking, 'What does she know? She doesn't know anything. She doesn't have a business degree. She hasn't been in football. How is she going to make a go of this? We want our partners to have a certain background, and she definitely doesn't have it.'" She pauses. "I mean, I get that."

Unlike the Glazers, who apprenticed under their father, Malcolm, and inherited the Bucs when he died, Adams Strunk wrested control of this $2 billion franchise from her sister and brother-in-law because she was determined that it be run well. She did it because she felt obliged to protect the memory of Bud Adams -- even though he hadn't wanted her anywhere near his football team. Since then, the Titans have improved dramatically. From 2-14, they came within a game of the AFC Championship Game last season. Their ties to Nashville today run deeper than they ever have.

In just three years, Amy Adams Strunk rescued her father's legacy. And she did it by taking almost everything she watched him do as an owner and turning it upside down.

BUD ADAMS ISN'T in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but he ought to be. When Lamar Hunt couldn't entice anyone to sell him an NFL team and instead started a competing league, Adams was his first call. "I'm in," said Adams, who was in the process of getting rich in oil. That was the AFL, which opened for business in 1960.

Before his Houston Oilers played a game, Adams wooed Billy Cannon, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and best-known football player in America. After dinner at the family home, Adams sent his wife and three children to bed and got down to bidness. Pouring a drink, he asked Cannon what could convince him to spurn the NFL. "That sure is a nice car out there in the driveway," the halfback drawled. He meant the white Cadillac convertible Bud had given wife Nancy for her birthday just a few days before.

Sure enough, when Nancy came down in the morning to drive the kids to school, the car had vanished. "Billy wanted it," Adams shrugged, displaying in three words both his determination to succeed and his valuation of a woman's worth in the world.

Cannon was named MVP in each of the first two AFL title games. The Oilers, not incidentally, won both.

Those were the only championships they ever won. But the franchise grew exponentially, from a shoestring startup to a valuation of hundreds of millions of dollars. "Amy's daddy was a role model and a wannabe of mine, not just a great owner but a great businessman," says Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, who used to linger in the hallways outside AFL meetings, hoping to get a word with Adams.

Adams ran his franchise like a quarterback runs a huddle. He demanded to make every decision, not just whom to draft but whether to repair the fax machine. That level of control applied even to his son and heir apparent, Kenneth III. As for his two daughters, he wouldn't let them work for the team. "He thought that women were unable to reach a serious understanding of the game," says Steve Underwood, who worked under Adams as a lawyer and team executive for more than three decades. There was a reason, Adams believed, that every general manager in the NFL was a man. "Women could never be capable of understanding things like sizing up men to be head coaches," is how Underwood characterizes Adams' thinking. "'How could a woman possibly be capable of that?'"

That was fine with Amy. "I never saw myself in football," she says, sitting in her office under an oil painting of former Oilers quarterback Dan Pastorini. "It wasn't the life I wanted. My dad could be very charming, and there were times he was a great father. But he was very hard. He wouldn't have brought me along, 'Someday I want you to run the team.' Nooooo. It would have been about control."

As the years passed, Adams found ways to thwart his son's progress. Ken yearned for his approval, but Adams mistrusted most those he knew best. Amy and her sister, Susie, would get on the phone and commiserate. "We'd say, 'Poor Ken.' We were just glad it wasn't us."

Still, Amy wasn't prepared for the call one June morning in 1987. Ken's wife had come through their garage door with the couple's 3-year-old and 7-month-old children and the dog. She found her husband, then 29, in a puddle of blood, a gun beside him. "He was crushed by the pressure," Amy says.

Ken's suicide hit her hard. She plunged into depression, talking about her brother every day for years, obsessing over whether she should have seen the signs. In 1990, she and her husband divorced.

Bud reacted differently. "He shut down," Amy says. "And after Ken died, his obsession with control ramped up."

Amy stepped away. Years passed. She met and married a cattle breeder named Tim Strunk, and gave her daughter and son a half-sister. Life seemed idyllic with Tim and the little ones until the morning in 1997 when he left to take a load of cattle to auction. He was struck by an 18-wheeler three miles from home and died at the scene.

This time, family sustained her. Her sister closed ranks. Her parents did what they could. And she found solace in football, losing herself in the passion of her team. "I was Superfan," she says.

But that was changing, too.

BY 1997, BUD ADAMS had abandoned Houston's decrepit Astrodome and moved the Oilers to Nashville. In his mind, though, the Titans remained the Oilers, with different uniforms and a new stadium just a quick flight away. He made no effort to meet fans or connect with the city. "He didn't want to spend his time doing that," Underwood says. "In his mind, he had people to do that."

That was fine while the Titans were winning. But as their fortunes faded following the Super Bowl season of 1999, what had never been a torrid love affair became a marriage of convenience. As Adams grew older, and then old, he became detached. By the time he died in 2013, the Titans were in disarray. "The team was a mess," Amy says. "My dad's later years, things kind of fell off the wagon."

The Titans hadn't won a playoff game in a decade. The facilities, once state-of-the-art, were showing wear. "Nobody knew what was going on," recalls Phil Bredesen, who helped bring the team to Nashville as the city's mayor and later served as Tennessee's governor. "There was just a sense of lots of stuff not getting done. The details of that don't leak out, but the effects of it do."

Worse, perhaps, the franchise had lost relevance. Folksy Nashville, with its spicy fried chicken and throwback Grand Ole Opry, had grown into one of America's most enticing destinations. The Predators were the hot ticket, along with the country acts that played Broadway each night. Conventioneers congregated. Tourism numbers soared. The Titans seemed shabby, dated, a vestige of the previous generation. "You'd see more Vols shirts than Titans shirts at Titans games," insists Nathan Followill, drummer for the Nashville-based band Kings of Leon and a season-ticket holder, referencing the state university's Tennessee Volunteers.

"When you have so many years of going downhill, it becomes less and less important to people," Underwood explains. "Amy saw that. She wanted to change direction."

But Amy wasn't in charge. Tommy Smith, Susie's husband, had worked for the team for years. Long before he died in October 2013, Adams had created a trust that allocated a third of his assets to Susie, a third to Amy, a third to his late son's family. Tommy would run the team with the others as silent partners. "We were all on board with it," says Kenneth Adams IV, Ken's son, who also had started working for the Titans.

Following in his father-in-law's footsteps, Tommy was Bud Lite. Ownership meant absolute control. As the losses accumulated during that 2014 season, Amy made suggestions. When they were rebuffed without consideration, she started to wonder if there might be a better way. "We weren't working it out as a family," she says. "It was just another dictatorship."

The team finished 2-14, the worst record in Titans history. "This was our chance to start fixing everything that had gone wrong during my father's last years," Amy says. "Tommy wasn't doing that." The NFL is a league of constant adaptation, she believes. The Titans hadn't adapted. "The offenses, the defenses, the business part of it," she says. "If it ain't broke, sure, don't fix it. But if it is broke, you better get in there and figure out what to do."

That winter, Amy spent New Year's Eve at the family ranch in central Texas. Late at night, over a glass of wine that wasn't her first, she asked Barclay Adams, Kenneth IV's brother, if their family was satisfied with the way the team was being run. Barclay hesitated, and Amy wondered what she'd gotten herself into. Then Barclay said, "No, we aren't."

"Then we need to talk," Amy told him.

It turned out Kenneth had been having similar conversations with Tommy, with similar results. "We didn't see an end in sight," Kenneth says now. "'You going to move off from that coach?' 'No, I'm good with him.' 'You going to move off from that GM?' 'No, we're good.'"

"I don't want this to be a mark on our names," Amy told him. Kenneth agreed. Together, they expressed their concern to Tommy and Susie. They asked if someone from one of the other two families could have a seat at the table. "We were talking for a month or six weeks," Amy says. "I was still hopeful that Susie, as controlling owner, would come around. If it's truly a family operation, why did the other two-thirds have no say? All the power had coalesced right there in Tommy and Susie. And that was proving not to be a good thing."

Together, Amy and Kenneth knew, their shares constituted a majority. "But I don't think it ever dawned on them," Amy says of Tommy and Susie. "It never occurred to them that we were unhappy enough to do anything. Or that I had a willingness to try to make it happen if they wouldn't."

By March, Amy and Kenneth had had enough. They decided to oust Tommy as president. "I felt bad," Amy says. "But we'd given him 18 months. He'd had his opportunity." In a statement on the Titans' website, Tommy announced that he was leaving as president and CEO because juggling his family and professional duties had proved too difficult. Then he and Susie disappeared from sight.

Underwood was summoned out of retirement to run the team as president and CEO. And Amy went to work.

"YOU HAVE TO bring them along slowly," Adams Strunk explains. She's crouched in the dirt, dragging a metal bar just far enough from a jump so a horse can gauge where he needs to land. Moments later, here comes Rowan, who weighs as much as three linemen combined. He approaches the barricade and canters over. "That's g-o-o-o-d," she enthuses.

She'd returned home to Houston after college (a year at Pine Manor near Boston, the rest at the University of Texas in Austin) and worked as a travel agent. Soon enough, she abandoned city living for a 4,000-acre family ranch off a two-lane road on the edge of Harris County. She started training riders and grooming horses. Bud and Nancy told everyone she'd be back in a month. She's still there, except when she isn't. Lately that means extended time in Nashville, where she now owns a home with her husband, a retired airline pilot.

Horses and football have been the threads running through her life. She has ridden since childhood, competing until she fell off once too often. "At my age," Adams Strunk says, "you don't want to be doing that." She made businesses out of breeding and raising horses, stabling, even staging fox hunts in the wild. It wasn't running a major corporation or a hedge fund, but there were lessons to be learned there in the dirt. "When you do horses, at whatever level, you have an ownership view," says Debbie Phillips, the widow of the former Oilers coach Bum Phillips, who met Adams Strunk while training cutting horses in the 1980s. "Bum was always surprised at how well I could assess the talent on the field. Amy does exactly the same thing. She has that ownership eye."

"I can't go back on my business experience like some owners -- you know, 'I've done it this way in the past,'" Adams Strunk says, sitting with a glass of water at a wood-block island the size of a flatbed truck in her kitchen. "But I can go back on my personal experience. Maybe it's a wild, crazy horse, and you just learn that if you work it enough, he'll come around. Whatever. What happened was, over all those years, I became confident that if something needed to be done, I could do it. I'm not afraid to make hard decisions."

It didn't take long before she needed to. When the Titans started poorly in 2015, she fired head coach Ken Whisenhunt and replaced him with assistant Mike Mularkey. "The offense was a great offense for Philip Rivers, but we just didn't have the players to make it work," she says. It wasn't the losing as much as as the need to keep franchise QB Marcus Mariota ambulatory. "I approach things practically," she says. "And the practical part of this was, in that offense, Marcus was likely to get hurt."

She knew the firing might define her as an owner into the future. "If it doesn't work out,'" she said to herself, "this will be on you forever." Underwood cautioned against it. "You make a change like that in the middle of the season," he'd said, "most of the time it doesn't work out well." But she had spent her life watching football, and she understood what she was watching. "I just knew somehow," she says, "that it was the right thing to do."

After that 2015 season, Adams Strunk fired GM Ruston Webster. Around the league, it was assumed that she'd use a recruiting firm or consultant to find a replacement, a practice that has become common. Instead, Underwood and Kenneth Adams helped her compile a list of possibilities. Then she researched them online.

Jon Robinson had run college scouting for the New England Patriots. He seemed unconventional, especially when he sat down to a vegan lunch during his interview. He wasn't yet 40. And he was the most candid of the candidates, insisting that minor tweaks would not reverse the decline. "The system's broken," he said. "That's the reason you're not winning. It's broke and you need to fix it."

It was what Adams Strunk longed to hear. "Everything he was saying, Kenneth and I already knew," she says. "Now here was someone who wasn't afraid to say it. By the time he left the interview, I just knew that he was our guy."

Less than a year into her first job in football, she'd fired and hired both a coach and a GM. She wasn't sure why, but the path forward seemed clear. "I'm a big believer in osmosis," Jerry Jones explains. "If you're around an activity for as long as Amy has been, you're soaking it up. You develop instincts. That's what I see in Amy. I can tell from her logic, the way she approaches problems. She knows what she's doing."

IN TWO YEARS, Robinson ran off two-thirds of the team. The Titans improved to 9-7 in 2016, then repeated that last season. They won their playoff game at Kansas City in miraculous fashion 22-21.

That showed how far they'd come. Getting steamrollered by the Patriots the next week showed how far they had to go. It made another hard decision that much easier. "I just thought we'd reached the ceiling," says Adams Strunk, who fired Mularkey a week after the Titans' season ended. "In Nashville, people understood. Outside, it was probably like, 'She's nuts.'"

Change is the theme whenever a new a coach is hired, but players often remain dubious. "If they walk into the same building," Robinson says, "if they sit down at the same locker and everything looks the same, they look around at each other and they're like, 'What's changed?'"

The Titans arrived at their training facility this summer and found new blue uniforms in their lockers. After years of wear, the turf beneath the practice bubble had been replaced. So had the bubble itself. The locker room had been reconfigured so the entire team can see each other. "When you walk in the building now, it resonates," Robinson says. "These ain't the same old Titans. It was very cool of her to write that check."

They ain't the same old Titans because Adams Strunk isn't the same owner. "I worked with her dad for many, many years in the league," says Amy Trask, the former Oakland Raiders CEO. "Amy's style is clearly different." Bud Adams had no problem signing players to huge contracts, but considered upgrading facilities a needless expense. If a building was two decades old, well, he figured it ought to last another eight. "That's not me," Adams Strunk says. "We needed to come out of the dark ages and adapt to how things work now."

The players noticed. "Actions speak louder than words," says Taylor Lewan, the left tackle. "She put vents in here so our pads cool down and don't get all gross and moldy. It shows that she really cares." Lewan was sure that once he reached the pros, he'd be little more than a number. "I'd already felt that in college," he says. "For her to come in and be excited to see me, to give me a hug when I'm all sweaty in my pads, it does something," he says.

But who'd guess that such warmth might pay off in tangible terms? A week into training camp, Lewan signed an $80 million contract, the largest ever for an offensive lineman. He could have cashed in most anywhere, but he decided to stay because he felt wanted. "It was the way Amy talks with my wife when she sees her," he says one afternoon after a weight-room session. "The way she takes time to show that she cares about me as a person. Every time she sees me, she'll ask, 'How's Taylin? How's Wynne?' our daughter."

He pauses and looks around the locker room. "The new facilities are great and all," he says. "But I'm a physical guy. I love to show affection. So she's the perfect owner for me."

And also, it appears, for Nashville, which appreciates connecting with an owner more than a larger market might. With the help of Adams Strunk's outreach, the Titans are hot again. A crowd of more than 30,000 attended the downtown party unveiling the new uniforms, a remarkable turnout that led the NFL to award the city its 2019 draft. For the first time, fans say, their hometown team is truly theirs.

None of it will mean much, Adams Strunk knows, if the team can't contend. "I'm warm, I like to show people how I feel, that's who I am," she says. "But I also have no problem doing whatever it takes to win. That is definitely my priority." For guidance, she consults with her inner circle: Kenneth Adams, Underwood and, increasingly, Robinson. Then she'll go outside it and hear as many relevant perspectives as she can get.

The options will be weighed by a committee of one. In that sense, at least, she is her father's daughter.

"The final decision," she says, "is mine."