This is Part 2 in a series of posts that I’m writing to answer the oft asked question of “How do I become an NFL General Manager?” As I mentioned in Part 1, there is NO clear cut path to the front office of a professional football team. There isn’t any course of study you should or shouldn’t pursue in college. No online program that will provide you with all the answers that might come up in an interview. No magical off the shelf elixir that will convince a club that your the long awaited answer to all their organizational dysfunction. Becoming an NFL General Manager (in my opinion) is a combination of a little luck and a lot of preparedness, built over the course of time and experience (lessons learned). I’ve put together these 20 tips to keep in mind as you forge your own path; they worked for me.
Here are Tips #6 through #10.
6. Find answers to problems, don’t just point them out
7. Get involved with League opportunities (Combine)
8. Volunteer for committees
9. Get to know your peers in the League
10. Learn every aspect of the organization; equipment, video, PR, scouting, turf management, etc…
Find answers to problems, don’t just point them out
It’s easy to come into any situation and point out the problems. For many young executive hopefuls it seems identifying the obvious will somehow set them apart from the rest of their aspiring peer group. It doesn’t.
What it does is build a chain of discontent, complaints, and poor attitude. When I got to Denver and finally starting working in the Personnel Department it became abundantly clear to me that the scouting information wasn’t being used and disseminated in an efficient manner with which to make sound decisions. My position and level of experience left me with no leverage to point out the inherent weakness of the Broncos in this area, nor would it have made things in any better.
Instead I began to quietly develop a plan that would computerize the department and allow every one access to the data, reports, and evaluations of ALL players in both college and pro personnel. By “unlocking the vault” of information that the club had spent timeless hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars to collect, communication began to flow between EVERYONE involved in the process. It then became much easier to stay one step ahead of the problems that Bob Ferguson, and later Neal Dahlen were dealing with as head of Player Personnel.
This willingness to find a “chink in the armor” and fix it without any fanfare put me at the top of the list for Mike Shanahan when he came to Denver. Jerry Frei and Jack Elway were now staunch supporters as a result of making both their jobs smoother with information flow. Consequently, I was promoted to Director of College Scouting in my third season with the team.
Later, as both Director College Scouting and General Manager, I had two young protégés enter the department under similar circumstances and become the best “problem solvers” I’ve ever worked with. Each took it upon themselves to find solutions before a glitch was even identified. They produced answers to questions before the questions were even asked. They moved up quickly in the department, and have enjoyed very long and successful NFL careers.
Get involved with League opportunities (Combine)
As a young personnel assistant I was eager to be involved, not just within the Broncos organization, but in the entire draft process League-wide. I was asked if I’d have any interest in working the annual NFL Combine as a Group Scout? Now the definition of a Group Scout might be best applied as that of a “Den Mother”. It was our responsibility to escort groups of players (by position) to the various appointments and drills required of them during the entire Combine evaluation process.
Some within the scouting industry looked at this as nothing more than “grunt work”. Ensuring a group of fifteen or so players were punctual to their schedule, and that all the data was properly recorded and filed with the Combine wasn’t worth the extra time and effort on their part. But what it did for me was bring me closer to the people running the Combine, and therefore closer to the overall process. I worked with the Director of the National Invitational Camp (NIC) Duke Babb, who would later would appoint me to a number of significant committees that influenced the personnel process within the NFL.
I also asked to be placed with a certain position group each season, which just so happened to be the players our club were targeting high in the draft. It gave me an opportunity to meet and work with some of the top prospects at the positions we needed to fill out our roster, and gave me a lot of credibility in speaking about their character and overall personality in the War Room.
By volunteering outside of my specific club responsibilities, I began to develop a name for myself with people inside of the Player Personnel industry. It was an extension of the networking process I mentioned in Tip # 4. It helped leverage my own club within the critical areas of player evaluation. And it became a built in component of the overall learning process of player evaluation.
Opportunity sometimes only knocks once, don’t feel as if you’re too busy or important to answer.
Volunteer for Committees
Understanding the value of grasping every opportunity possible at the League level, I was more than willing to volunteer for expanded roles on League Committees. Committee work can be time consuming and inconvenient in relation to your primary role as a club scout or director, but it opens up the ability to truly study the issues facing Player Personnel in the NFL and have some direct influence on how those issues are addressed. It gives you a chance to actually “work with” and not “compete against” your rivals in the League.
This can open the door for the exchange of ideas and other opportunities in both the short and long term future. It gave my club a direct voice in the decision making process that guided policies and procedures that effected our own scouting efforts. Why sit back and complain about how things operated when you could be a direct part of the process that helped fix them?
Over the course of my career with Denver I sat on the following Committees;
- National Invitational Camp (NIC or Indy Combine) Selection Committee – I was one of 7 votes that decided who would be invited to the NFL’s annual draft prospect workout.
- National Football Scouting (NFS) Executive Committee – This group guided policy of the largest of the two professional scouting combines and gave direct influence on the procedures and dissemination of scouting information and data to the clubs.
- National Football Scouting (NFS) Executive Search Committee – This group ran the search process that interviewed and ultimately selected the Director of NFS and NIC – Jeff Foster. Foster remains in both positions to this day.
- NFL Underclass Advisory Committee – This group was given first heads up as to which underclass (junior) players were petitioning the League for advice as to whether forgo their remaining NCAA eligibility to enter the draft. We told the League where our club projected this player in the incoming pool of talent.
- NFL Europe Working Committee – This committee guided the policies and procedures of NFL Europe, which greatly affected the way players were allocated to NFL Europe clubs and the roster exemptions returned to those NFL clubs willing to participate.
In the end committee work puts you at the pulse of your own responsibilities with your individual club and in return gives your club a direct voice/input into the issues that face that committee’s attention. Your ability to exchange and serve with your peers in the industry will serve you well over the long haul of your career.
Get to know your peers in the League
Having never served as an area, regional, or national scout, my opportunities to get to know my peers came through volunteering for various jobs and committees throughout the NFL scouting process. Besides the obvious advantages of networking, knowing your peer group gives you an inside edge as to who is moving up in the industry and who might be competing for some of the very NFL General Manager positions you might hope to fill in the future.
Having only worked for one club over sixteen years, willingness to exchange/communicate with my peer group gave me a better insight as to how other clubs were running their own personnel operations and what they felt the critical matters were facing their own efforts.
Though competition is at the forefront of EVERYTHING you do in an NFL front office, knowing your peers can open doors to shared information (public & confidential), eagerness to deal in trades, and a combined leverage to cooperate in issues at the League level.
It also plays a vital role when looking to round out your Personnel Department with competency and experience from the vast number of possible candidates to fill various positions within your own club (when necessary).
Learn every aspect of the organization; equipment, video, scouting, PR, etc…
Being an effective General Manager in the NFL isn’t only about salary cap, free agency, trades, and the draft. Knowing the various factors that have both a direct and indirect effect on your team and its players can determine whether or not your building a championship organization across the board. Many of these departments become an afterthought for some front office executives, never becoming pertinent until a problem arises.
Become familiar with ALL areas of football operations. Understand the challenges that they face in serving the coaches and players of a club, and trying to adhere to the rules and regulations set down by the NFL. I went out of my way to develop a rapport with and to assist in any way I could the efforts of all of football ops. While head coach of the Air Force Academy’s Prep school, I oversaw and at times served as the team’s equipment manager, video director, athletic trainer, and director of operations. It was having faced the similar problems and pitfalls in these areas at the college level that gave me a greater appreciation of where all aspects of the program fit in the overall picture.
EVERY interview I’ve conducted with an NFL ownership has involved in detail my feelings of responsibility and the need for high standards in these influential areas of a football team. Get to know their latest technologies and methods.