'Beyond his wildest dreams' -- Nihill takes over as Titans president
Growing up in Wheaton, Burke Nihill loved sports, played basketball at Wheaton North, and didn't even allow himself to dream he would have the job he has today.
Nihill graduated from Illinois Wesleyan and went to law school at Chicago-Kent College of Law. He eventually moved from practicing law to general counsel for the Tennessee Titans, and has worked his way up to vice president to becoming the team's president and CEO in May.
Nihill resides in Franklin, Tenn., with his wife, Holly, and their children, Emma, Jack and Chase ... and a job he never imagined having.
"I don't think looking back to high school I ever had ambitions like this," Nihill said. "It was just kind of beyond my wildest dreams to be honest with you. At any point of my life I would have jumped at a chance to do something in sports."
Nihill, whose parents and sister still live in Wheaton and has extended family in Naperville and West Chicago, has taken over as team president in most unusual times.
As much as he never thought he would work in an NFL front office, how could he imagine it would come during a global pandemic?
"There have been challenges but we are seeing them as opportunities," Nihill said. "We are seeing this a chance to re-imagine every part of our business. Our organization is just awesome. We all want what's best for the Titans and what's best for Nashville."
The Titans have been one of the NFL teams most closely affected by COVID-19. Nihill did not catch it but enough players and staff were infected the team had to postpone an Oct. 4 game and adjust its schedule before being cleared to resume playing.
As president and CEO, Nihill's job is strictly on the business side. He was never around the football team when the virus spread.
"Dealing with it was another example of being a first-class operation," Nihill said. "Everyone was quick to assess the situation and help the league learn what they can learn so other teams will not experience the same challenges."
While the Bears haven't allowed any spectators at games, Nihill has worked with Nashville officials to bring fans to Nissan Stadium. A 15% crowd capacity is allowed and that could increase to 21% when the Bears visit Nov. 8.
Nihill is responsible for stadium operations, marketing, social media, sponsors, selling tickets and has been especially busy working with local government on returning fans to the stadium. He was encouraged to get results from a recent survey that showed 94% of fans who have attended a game felt completely safe and only 1% felt remotely unsafe.
"We've been working since April to see if there was a way to safely welcome fans back to our stadium in a COVID environment," Nihill said. "We have a plan that evolves every fan wearing a mask, sitting in socially distanced pods, maintaining social distancing, enforcing 20-1 fans to security personnel. We've had a great experience. I think it's one of the safest things anyone can do in Nashville short of staying in their basement."
Nihill attended a couple games before fans were allowed back. That has made him even happier to see the Titans crowd return.
"It was NFL football on the field but in some ways feels more like practice," he said. "It's surreal. What you see on TV is different from experiencing it live. In a COVID environment the fans are safe, they feel safe and the gameday experience to hear authentic cheers and crowd support is so superior to the alternative of an empty stadium."
Before joining the Titans, Nihill gained 15 years of experience in several industries. He held legal and management roles at VMware in Silicon Valley, served as associate general counsel at OfficeMax and worked as a private attorney at a Chicago law firm.
Nihill originally joined the Titans as general counsel in 2016 and was promoted to vice president in 2019. One of his projects during that time was helping bring the 2019 NFL Draft to Nashville. The city hosted 600,000 people over three days.
Eighteen months of planning an outdoor draft ended with a scare. On the day of the draft, Nihill and other officials watched as radar showed thunderstorms scheduled to roll in as the draft began.
"If lightening we had a contingency plan to shuffle everyone to an auditorium which would have been so disappointing," Nihill said.
Fortunately the lightening dissipated, and the outdoor draft went on with a little rain.
"It almost added to this Woodstock party atmosphere and the show went on," Nihill said. "It was a really fun project. We felt we had the goods here in the city to deliver a world class event. And to our delight the event was as spectacular as we imagined. I felt so fortunate to have drawn that assignment."
Nihill still clings tight to his Chicago roots. His family celebrates holidays in Wheaton. He compares the festive setting of Nissan Stadium, which is walking distance from the honky tonk bars along Broadway Street in Nashville, to the atmosphere outside Wrigley Field.
He remembers the last time the Bears played at Tennessee. Nihill was still working in Chicago and had a friend who made the road trip south, relaying Nihill the story of when Nashville infamously "ran out of beer."
While COVID ensures there won't be a repeat of that, the fact the Titans are allowing fans gives Bears die-hards one of the few chances to see their team play in person.
"It's an easy trip down I-65," said Nihill, still amazed at the direction his life has gone.
"My dad is a dentist in Wheaton and I took a more practical path and got my law degree and started practicing in Wheaton and was perfectly comfortable thinking about that as the rest of my life. I don't think I ever let myself dream of something like this."