The most frequently asked question that I get is “How do I become a General Manager in the NFL?” There isn’t any one secret formula to be implemented, nor any one particular back roads journey to be tracked that will get you to the head of an NFL Front Office. My own path is as unique as the other 32 currently sitting in the same position across professional football. Many have gone about it in a similar manner, some probably not so much. A few have attained through sheer luck, others at times with not so scrupulous behavior. Yet by and large you’ll find that most have taken some, if not all of the 20 steps I’m going to describe over the next few posts.
Here are the first five.
- Football Experience and background
- Be willing to start with anything to get your foot in the door
- Understand it’s going to take TIME
- Build networks and relationships
- Know your strengths, accept your weaknesses
Have some football experience and background
Let’s face it, it is the National FOOTBALL League. Having a background in the game (college or pro), whether as a player or coach, would be a nice starting point. I left the Air Force Academy in 1992 after having been the head coach of the Prep School for two seasons, and another two seasons as an assistant under Fisher DeBerry. I landed that gig as a result of having played my college career at Air Force (Fisher DeBerry was OC) and serving one year as a Graduate Assistant.
It was this knowledge of, and passion for the game that convinced me I wanted to remain in coaching after I separated from the service. Timing being everything, my departure didn’t occur until the summer of ’92 (college staffs long filled up for the coming season) and our Defensive Coordinator Cal McCombs recommended I reach out to the Denver Broncos. Then General Manager John Beake had a son at the Academy (unbeknownst to me) that was in the football program. John’s affinity for the Air Force Academy allowed the door to be open.
It’s not that you have to have played or coached the game. Many successful men and women in NFL front office positions haven’t, but those relationships formed as a result can ripple to opportunities that you never imagined. The Football Industry is a tight one, not prone to letting outsiders in.
Be willing to start ANYWHERE to get your foot in the door
The Millennial generation (GEN Y) is notorious for wanting to climb the ladder in the time it takes to run a 40-yard dash. I admire that ambition and drive. But you have to have a firm understanding that an NFL club is not going to hire you as a Director of Scouting or General Manager as your first position. In fact you’re going to be given tasks that you feel you’re highly “overqualified” for even though you’re most probably not.
I left the Air Force at 30 years of age, already having served a tour in Berlin, Germany during the Cold War as a Flight Commander of an Intelligence Unit. I had reached the rank of Captain and as mentioned before was the head coach of the Academy’s Prep School program.
My first job in Denver was for $6.00 an hour, basically serving as security guard over the Broncos’ Dove Valley facility while the entire organization went over to Berlin (my former stomping ground) for an American Bowl against the Miami Dolphins. For an entire week I answered the phone, picked up the mail, and walked around the offices looking at the pictures of past Bronco greats. I had no indication that my employment would go any farther than those brief seven days.
But the Broncos returned and acknowledged that “the building didn’t burn down” and gave me my first job – as an assistant in Operations. Not Football Operations, but Operations; facility tours, airport runs, answering phones, your basic “go-fer” position.
Three months later I was summoned back to Personnel for another “entry level” opportunity.
Understand it’s going to take TIME
So with an eight year Air Force career behind me and newly acquired position in the Personnel Department, I was set to take off and become a General Manager, right? Wrong. It takes time to learn the business of professional football, much less understand the behind the scenes dynamics that guide the game beyond what “Hard Knocks” allows you to see. This is a competitive and often “cut throat” business, and that can be off the field and in your own facility.
I came into the professional ranks at a time when computers were just entering the realm of use. Back then scouts hand wrote every report and they were catalogued in six-inch binders inside of a locked Scouting Library. Information is power, and those with that information had the power in Dove Valley. It was my responsibility to keep this info up to date and properly organized…and under lock and key.
Tedious, yes. Boring at times, absolutely. Educational, beyond what you could imagine. Time allowed me to process how the scouting department was being run and how that information was being utilized to build and replenish the roster. It also provided a firm understanding of the politics of professional football. Remember The Karate Kid? “Wax on, wax off?” That’s exactly what was happening without the aid of a Mr. Miyagi.
I hadn’t even written my first scouting report over that initial season and again, no indication that my new found NFL career would go anywhere beyond the 8-8 record that got Dan Reeves fired. But that TIME was well spent in learning and absorbing the in’s and out’s of Football Operations.
Build networks and relationships
If I can pass on any tip that is the most important, it would be that the power of networking is KEY to landing a job as a General Manager. Nothing else even comes close in my opinion.
Scouting was different in the early nineties than it is today. With no computers and really no tech in the vocation, most scouts were old football coaches and players. It was a natural transition off the field and into the world of evaluation for many that reinvented themselves in Player Personnel.
The emergence of a new Personnel Chief in Denver, Bob Ferguson (longtime scout in Buffalo), left me thinking that I was out of Dove Valley and back to looking for a college coaching job. But the relationships I’d built with two men in the back offices of the Broncos complex would have profound effect on my future.
Jerry Frei was a former reconnaissance pilot in World War II and had played for the 1942 National Champion Wisconsin Badgers. Frei went on to become head coach of the University of Oregon, with both Dan Fouts and Ahmad Rashaad on the Ducks’ roster. His final Oregon staff included future NFL head coaches John Robinson, George Seifert, and Gunther Cunningham, future NFL defensive coordinator John Marshall, and Bruce Snyder.
Jack Elway had served as head coach of San Jose State University and Stanford University. Though probably best known for his Hall of Fame son John Elway, Jack had built quite a distinguished coaching career for himself that ended with two seasons as head coach of the Frankfurt Galaxy in the World League of American Football (NFL Europe).
Jerry worked out of the office on the college side of scouting, Jack with pro personnel. Both had tremendous personalities, quick wits, and an eagerness to teach a former coach and Air Force officer the ropes of the NFL. I’m convinced it was the working rapport built with Jack and Jerry that persuaded Bob Ferguson to keep me around.
Know your strengths, accept your weaknesses
My former career as an Intelligence Officer had taught me the importance of disseminating detailed and accurate information in making critical decisions. I learned that same value in evaluating pro prospects and passing this on to Bronco decision makers. The influx of technology was still moving a bit slowly, but I understood the need for better organization of the data we were collecting.
I had coached before. But service academy football and the implementation of the wishbone offense is a far cry from what was going on down on the field at Mile High Stadium. My knowledge of the game at the professional level was a bit lagging.
I knew talent when I saw it, and I could break down the various components of a player and accurately describe why he could excel in the game of football. Descriptive writing was definitely a strength having written hundreds of APR’s for the Air Force over the time that I was an officer.
Managing people and deploying resources to maximize efficiency was a strength. Problem solving in a “MacGyver” fashion was strength. And being open to coaching and listening intently to Jack and Jerry was definitely a strength. I knew what I brought to the table for the department at that particular point in time and I focused on making sure that I used those abilities to my fullest. Identify your own strengths and apply them accordingly.
I’d like for this series to generate some discussion and perhaps debate for those of you that hope to attain the title – General Manager, National Football League. Feel free to Tweet me with your thoughts @Ted_Sundquist