A Bittersweet Goodbye

News broke last week that Peter Holt would be retiring from his position as Spurs Sports and Entertainment’s chairman and chief executive officer, a title he held for the last 20 years. His wife, Julianna Hawn Holt, will assume both roles and has appointed Rick Pych, an employee of SS&E since 1993, as co-CEO.

“It was a family decision,” said Pych in an article by the San Antonio Express-News. “It’s something I guess has been in the works for a while. Peter has been doing what he’s been doing for 20 years, but he’s always been very good about saying the ownership the Holts have is, ‘not just myself, but also Julianna.’”

While nothing has been publicized, a mid-season retirement raised questions concerning Holt’s health.  Many were surprised by this announcement, considering it came in the midst of a championship contending season for the Spurs, but reports have indicated that those inside the organization saw this coming.

Last week on March 7, the Spurs announced that head coach, Gregg Popovich, would miss two games due to an undisclosed family emergency. On March 9, the day after Popovich missed those two games against Indiana and Minnesota, the retirement of Holt was announced. It is unclear if those two situations were related or if the timing is coincidental.

There are some questions but the details of Holt’s retirement are miniscule when compared to the impact he has had on the Spurs over the years.

After being a Spurs season ticket holder for years, Holt bought 13% of the Spurs in 1996. A few months after that, he would buy another 18%, making him the majority holder and beginning his reign as the Spurs CEO

In 20 seasons with Holt as CEO, the Spurs have made the playoffs 19 times, won 12 division titles and won five NBA championships.

The one season they didn’t make the playoffs under Holt was his first year (96’-97), when David Robinson missed all but six games due to a back injury and then a broken foot.  The Spurs went 20-62 that year and ended up with the number one overall pick in the 1997 NBA draft, Tim Duncan. After that, the rest is history.

“I’m proud of what we’ve achieved over the last two decades,” said Peter Holt in a press release sent out by SS&E. “The championships are wonderful, bringing new sports franchises to San Antonio is important but the biggest accomplishment for me will always be the impact we’ve had in our community. The pride, support and love that our city has for the Spurs is truly amazing.”

Born in Illinois before moving to Corpus Christi, Texas, as a child, Holt lived an incredible life before he became the Spurs CEO. The Holts were well off, as Benjamin Holt, Peter’s great-grandfather, invented the crawler tractor in 1904 and founded a company that would make his family millionaires for generations, Caterpillar Inc.

But Peter Holt was a troubled youth, as he began drinking at 14 years old. In 1966 when he was 17, he was arrested after leading police on a drunken chase. The Corpus Christi judge gave Holt two options: jail or Army.

With his family’s affluence, Holt could have found a way around going to war but he volunteered for the draft and was sent to Vietnam. During his tour of duty, Holt earned the Silver Star, three Bronze Stars and the Purple Heart.

He struggled with alcoholism when he returned from war but with the help of his wife and new Spurs CEO, Juliana, he has been able to stay sober for over 30 years, with only one publically known relapse in 2004.

Holt has been an integral part in building and maintaining the Spurs success over the last two decades by stepping back and letting general manager, R.C. Buford, and Popovich do their jobs.

“I’ve been around just long enough to have some understanding,” said Holt in an article by the San Antonio Express-News. “I’m not an R.C. or Pop and never will be, but I get it now. I’m there to support these guys and I encourage them and I believe in them 110 percent.”

Allowing the basketball experts he employs to make all the personnel decisions doesn’t mean Holt has been sitting on his hands as the CEO of SS&E. He has substantially grown the SS&E brand, starting out with one entity with the Spurs and expanding that into four more sports franchises. The WNBA’s San Antonio Stars, the AHL’s San Antonio Rampage, the NBA D-League’s Austin Spurs and the USL’s San Antonio FC most recently.

In 2012, Holt was elected chairman of the NBA Board of Governors after being a member of the board for 16 years.  Holt even led NBA owners through collective bargaining agreement talks during the 2011 lockout season.

Holt and the Spurs have built a template of success in which teams in all sports should look to model, especially the one’s in small markets. Not known as a top destination for free agents (unless you’re LaMarcus Aldridge), the Spurs don’t rebuild, they retool, whether it be in the draft or through free agents others have overlooked.  They don’t panic and make blockbuster trades when things aren’t working. They just look for the next piece that fits their system.

Since 2003, ESPN has done an annual ranking of the best franchises in professional sports, as voted by the fans, called the Ultimate Team Rankings.  Out of 122 North American teams, the Spurs have been in the top ten of the Ultimate Team Rankings 13 times, every year since the rankings debuted. They have finished in first place four times (2004, 2006, 2014, 2015), second place four times (2005, 2007, 2008, 2013) and third place twice (2003, 2012). The other three years they placed fifth (2011), seventh (2010) and ninth (2009).

It’s a bittersweet time for Spurs fans, as they enjoy their team’s current success but have to say goodbye to one of the men that made it all possible. As is the Spurs way, the team will have to just keep looking forward, in search of the next piece that fits their system. If you trust the ones that got them there, it seems the Spurs are in good hands with Juilianna Hawn Holt.