ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Excitement assaulted the senses on Wednesday. There was a palpable vibe of change reverberating through UCHealth Training Center.
A new era began as the Walton-Penner ownership group arrived, spoke with the team, watched practice and then met the media.
The story advanced as Rob Walton named son-in-law Greg Penner the CEO, and Condoleezza Rice and Melody Hobson spoke about how honored they felt to be part of this group. It is a powerhouse six of Rob Walton, Carrie Walton Penner, Greg Penner, Rice, Hobson and Sir Lewis Hamilton which will function as a defacto board of directors.
The pieces of the puzzle — save for the naming of a team president — are in place. Now comes the hard part, turning a vision of success into reality.
“The big vision is that we want to win football championships. We want to do it in the right way. The first place you have to start is with the people, and on the football side, we couldn’t be more excited about what we have with (general manager) George (Paton), (coach) Nathaniel (Hackett), and Russell (Wilson) in place. Those are the first pieces. Then it’s a process that I mentioned, which is, now you have the people, now you have to have really high expectations of ourselves. We have to make sure we have the resources, and that comes in a number of different ways to support them. Then we have to hold ourselves accountable," said Penner, the lone member of the group to field questions.
"That’s where it gets a little tricky. If you lose one game, that doesn’t mean let’s make a bunch of short-term rash decisions. There is an appropriate amount of patience, but we do hold ourselves accountable."
Penner remains the chairman of the Walmart board. He insists he will have enough time to devote to the Broncos. However, he will name a team president. Will that person come from the sports world? Maybe.
"I think sports experience is really important. Is it absolutely essential? I’d say probably no, but it would make the bar higher to find the right person. We start with general characteristics. We want someone that is really highly (involved with) charity, great values, great leadership, diverse set of experiences. Someone that aligns with our values as partners here," Penner said.
"We can find somebody great."
How about Peyton Manning or John Elway? Both attended Wednesday's practice, fueling speculation about their future with the franchise. At one point, Manning spoke with the ownership group for several minutes. Penner said there are no plans to add to the ownership group, though they might lean on Manning and Elway for advice.
"We are in a terrific position of having two great Broncos, they were both out here today, and it’s been fantastic to spend some time with them. John Elway is the ultimate Bronco. He won championships as both a player and an executive. I have had a chance to visit with him and look forward to learning as much from him as possible," Penner said. "Peyton is one of the greatest NFL players of all time — obviously, won a championship here. We have had a chance to get to know him through the process, as well. We are just going to learn from both of them. I think it is going to be a really good relationship.”
What about the Broncos' third potential Hall of Famer? Given the contracts rewarded to Aaron Rodgers and Kyle Murray, Wilson could be in line for an extension in the neighborhood of $250 to $300 million, with most, if not all it, guaranteed.
Penner talked glowingly of Wilson, but seemed to dismiss contract talk out of hand.
"First of all, we couldn’t have been more excited as we were going through the process to see that the organization had made the trade for Russell. It’s critical to have a great quarterback in this league. And coming in this organization with Russell in place is a tremendous benefit for us. On our first diligence trip in May here, one of the first people we ran into the hallway when Rob, Carrie, and I were here was Russell. Right away, we got a sense of how positive he is as a leader. He is just such a dynamic individual," Penner said.
"I can’t wait to see him on the field. I don’t know how much we will see of him on the field on Saturday, but we are looking forward to it. At this point, nothing to say about his contract.”
Each of the members made opening statements to the media on Wednesday. For Rice, the connection to the Broncos remains hard to wrap her head around. She spent part of her youth in Denver and became a Broncos fan.
"One is that you have to understand how much I love football. My dad was a football coach when I was born. I was supposed to be his All-American linebacker. When he got a girl, he decided to teach her about the sport instead. Even though my father has gone to the Lord, I have to think that today he’s thinking, "She finally got a really important job,"" said Rice, who hopes to attend multiple games this season in between her work at Stanford.
"I want to say, too, that it’s great to be back in Denver. I came to Denver for the first time as a 6-year-old when my family came here for my parents to go to graduate school. We returned to live here when I was 12 years old. I was taught by the Sisters of Loretta at Saint Mary’s Academy and on to the University of Denver, twice, for my undergraduate degree and my PhD. Through that period of time, everybody who lived here had to know that the Broncos make this community. I’m a part of the "Orange Crush" generation, where you’d go into any grocery store or any restaurant and there were all of those Orange Crush cans piled up."
Hobson brings leadership, resilience and toughness to her involvement. A powerhouse business woman, she can relate to those in uniform.
"I also want to acknowledge the bond that I feel with the players who, like me, have had to overcome a lot in their lives. I know the amount of focus and discipline that it has taken for them to get here. I also know all of the people — the family at home, the community that they are responsible for — and that they really understand how much that community wants to see them win and how much they want to win for that community," said Hobson, who is close to Hamilton, seeing him as a little brother, and worked to get him involved with the ownership group.
"I feel a bond with them, and I’m really, really happy to be a part of the organization to stand with them."
The resumes of this group are breathtaking. But sports are different than business or academics. The pressure is enormous. Penner plans to trust those on the football side. Providing resources and expecting excellence were hallmarks of Pat Bowlen's Hall of Fame leadership.
"We’re big believers — every owner has to stake out their own territory here. We’re big believers in empowering people. We love football. As Condi said, her dad was a coach. She knows football, but we’re not going to be calling plays. We’re not going to be drafting players. We’re going to empower this team — led by George Paton and Nathaniel Hackett — to make those key decisions," Penner said. "Obviously, part of this fun is learning and understanding and all of that, but they’re going to make the football decisions.”