49ers' new GM gives victory to grinders

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Trent Baalke remembers the realization that he'd figured out everything there was to know about NFL talent evaluation, at an alarmingly early stage of his career. Let's just say he didn't make a great effort to hide his discovery.

Plucked out of anonymity in Fargo, N.D. – Baalke, a former high school principal and coach, was "between jobs" and preparing to become a financial adviser when he got a random and miraculous call from legendary New York Jets personnel director Dick Haley in 1998 – the blunt, prescient scout made a good initial impression and quickly began projecting an aura of prideful self-assurance.

Around that time, Baalke started noticing that his peers and colleagues began treating him as though he were in dire need of a shower. Eventually, he came to realize why they found him so off-putting.

"I think when you first get into this business, you come in and once you get confidence, you believe you have all the answers," Baalke explained last Friday at a restaurant near the San Francisco 49ers' training facility, four days before he was officially named the team's general manager. "I definitely was one of those individuals that fell victim to it.

"Well, the more you're in it, the more you realize you never have all the answers, and you're always searching for 'em. I was humbled early on. You have to be put back in your place by mistakes, by turning off people in the business – you start sensing that people are looking at you like you think you know everything – and coming to the realization that if you don't change and become better grounded, you're never going to make it in the business."

Baalke took the lesson to heart, reining in his ego and working his way up the scouting ladder. After serving as an area scout for the Jets, Baalke worked as a national scout and college scouting coordinator for the Washington Redskins before joining the Niners organization in 2005. In San Francisco he had stints as a regional scout, pro personnel director and vice president of player personnel before owner Jed York gave him the GM gig – and immediately thrust him into a head-coaching search targeting Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh.

York's decision to promote Baalke was widely criticized for two reasons: The interview process that preceded it was viewed as somewhat of a sham, with Baalke regarded as the preordained choice; and because of Baalke's links to the prior regimes of since-fired coaches Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary and deposed GM Scot McCloughan.

Yet I believe York's faith in Baalke, who has modeled much of his approach after Bill Parcells (the Jets' coach when Baalke got hired in '98), is the product of some sound sensibilities by the young owner. For one thing, Baalke is regarded by many respected people in the business as a highly gifted assessor of players' abilities – and one with the guts to stand up for his opinions and go against the grain.

"Trent Baalke is a football guy through and through, with a very good understanding of the game and a very sound evaluation process," said Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff. "And he's driven – he has a tireless work ethic. He'll do everything in his power to help restore that organization to prominence."

The endorsement from Dimitroff brings us to the second reason I'm encouraged by the ascent of Baalke: He represents another victory for the unheralded, observant grinders who are the lifeblood of the player-acquisition process, but are often overlooked when it comes to landing high-profile gigs.

Dimitroff was once one of these behind-the-scenes standouts, a former area scout who'd at first been marginalized because of his counter-culture appearance and vegetarian diet but had risen through the Patriots' front-office ranks because he turned out to be damn good at what he did. When Falcons owner Arthur Blank offered him the GM job following the franchise's Bobby Petrino fiasco of 2007 and an unsuccessful effort to land Parcells to run its front office – and did so after interviewing Dimitroff via videoconference – it was a decidedly unsexy hire that provoked mockery from outsiders.

A year later, Dimitroff was named the NFL's executive of the year. Three years later (last Sunday), his Falcons clinched the No. 1 seed in the NFC. He now has plenty of name recognition, in that numerous franchises are searching for "The Next Thomas Dimitroff."

That's a positive development in a league in which people from the business side – and even a high-profile TV commentator like Matt Millen, who became the Detroit Lions' president without any scouting or front-office experience – have been granted decision-making power more and more frequently in recent years.

"That's been my dad's thing forever: There are so many non-football guys making football decisions now, and they're not going to be good ones generally," Chiefs coach Todd Haley said of his father, Dick, the executive who gave Baalke his break back in '98. "I think it's important that these guys who've been out on the road, scouting, grinding away, are the ones who are put in those positions."

Baalke, too, believes that scouting is the ideal launching pad for a successful front-office career.

"College scouts don't get a lot of notoriety 'cause they're out of sight, out of mind," he says. "In my humble opinion, there's not enough respect given to the job they do. But what's the foundation of the business? Scouting. It's the road scout – the guy who's getting up early, staying up late, staying in crappy motels, eating lousy food.

"You go to bed thinking about what you're evaluating and you wake up thinking about what grades you're going to give. It's a lonely existence on the road. To be good, you have to be organized and detail-oriented; you have to develop intimate-type relationships with key people at universities, people that'll tell you the truth. You can never assume you've got all the information you need. You're always searching until the final pick on draft day. Your quest for information never ends."

In that spirit, let's take a moment to scout the scouts: Who are some of the overlooked talent evaluators who might be ready to make a jump similar to the one Baalke just completed?

Two years ago, I wrote about Arizona Cardinals player personnel director Steve Keim, who'd helped reshape the roster of the NFC's surprising Super Bowl XLIII entrant. Before I tell you a little bit more of Baalke's story, here are some other front-office executives regarded by insiders as potential GM material:

• Les Snead, Falcons director of player personnel. Snead has certainly benefited from having spent the past three years under Dimitroff, but the argument could be made that he gained equally valuable knowledge about what not to do while observing Petrino's ill-fated and abbreviated 2007 season in charge. (Talk about crisis-management experience.) He has served under numerous regimes (including Dan Reeves/Ron Hill and Jimmy Mora/Rich McKay in Atlanta and Tom Coughlin in Jacksonville), has been involved in the coaching-search process and has scouting experience on the pro and collegiate sides. He has a strong work ethic and a passion for the game, and he has impressed his peers with a keen eye for talent. Snead's strong support of undrafted free agents Harvey Dahl(notes) (signed off the Niners' practice squad in '07) and Tyson Clabo(notes) proved prophetic, as they have helped add nastiness and physicality to the Falcons' underrated offensive line.

• Doug Whaley, Bills assistant general manager/director of player personnel. Before joining the Bills a year ago, Whaley spent more than a decade with the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he was part of a highly successful scouting operation. Prior to serving as the Steelers' pro scouting coordinator, Whaley was an area scout for the Seahawks. He is well-rounded, with his intelligence, passion and people skills standing out. Involved from top to bottom under the Steelers' excellent and low-key GM, Kevin Colbert, Whaley is a Pittsburgh native with an outgoing personality – yet he has impressed coworkers with his humility and lack of self-promotion. And Whaley, who spent a year on Wall Street working as a retail stockbroker following his collegiate career at Pitt, would be ideally suited to interacting with people on the business side of the building as well.

• Nick Caserio, Patriots director of player personnel. With the recent departures of Dimitroff and Scott Pioli, Bill Belichick's longtime right-hand man (and now the Kansas City Chiefs' GM), Caserio is the second-most powerful person on the football side of the organization. Granted, that's like saying someone is outweighed only by nose tackle Vince Wilfork(notes) – but Belichick, while firmly in charge, leans on Caserio's expertise considerably. Though only 35, Caserio has immersed himself in all aspects of the operation, from coaching wide receivers (during the team's record-setting 2007 season) to pro- and college-scouting stints. He's focused, highly driven and known for his loyalty and long hours – and he's not only versed in Belichick's system but also secure enough to work well with an omnipotent, exacting head coach. Belichick would surely hate to lose him, but if Caserio leaves, the Patriots have another highly promising executive, pro personnel director Jason Licht, in the fold as a potential successor.

• George Paton, Minnesota Vikings director of player personnel. A steadying force in a sometimes tumultuous organization, Paton is a smart, articulate executive who has displayed the fortitude to deal with a headstrong head coach without sporting the type of ego that can cause internal problems. He's known as a savvy judge of personnel who gets along well with coworkers. Paton's peers say he has an aptitude for focusing on individual issues without being overwhelmed by the big picture – a key trait for a potential GM.

Now back to Baalke. A former assistant coach at North Dakota State and South Dakota State, he moved to Fargo to become a high school principal and athletics director, eventually leaving those jobs in search of a career change. A day after interviewing for an adviser position at the Principal Financial Group in May 1998, Baalke went on a weekend fishing trip on Minnesota's Cass Lake. While there, he got a call from his wife, Beth, relaying a message that someone from the Jets had called.

Baalke with the Niners' two 2010 first-round draft picks.
(Kyle Terada/US Presswire)

"I thought, 'Someone's [messing] with me,'" Baalke said. "At that point, working in the NFL wasn't even in the back of my mind, let alone the forefront."

It turned out that Jets scout Lionel Vital, now the Falcons' assistant director of player personnel, had recommended Baalke to Dick Haley. Vital had interacted with Baalke during the latter's coaching days and apparently had come away with a favorable impression.

Baalke went straight from the fishing trip to the Jets' training facility and wore jeans and a casual shirt to the interview with Haley, who asked him to give reports on two players.

"I was wrong about [future Packers and Seahawks guard Mike] Wahle – I didn't think he was as good as Adam Timmerman, who I'd coached at South Dakota State, and didn't rate him very high," he said. "They asked me to compare two nose tackles, [future Chargers standout] Jamal Williams(notes) with Jason Peter [a Panthers first-round pick who flopped], and I said Williams was by far the better of the two – which he was."

After fighting nerves upon being brought down the hall to meet with Parcells, Baalke got the job and started grinding, eventually learning not to project himself like a know-it-all. He tempered his impulse to give candid, searing opinions about players to others whose views differed and might get offended, and he came to understand the value of a steady progression up the flow chart.

"People ask me, 'What makes you prepared?' " Baalke said. "One of the things you look at that's important, whether you're hiring coaches or front-office people, is have they gone through all the steps? Have they started at the bottom and worked their way up? Now if you got someone who fits that profile, it's not definitely going to work, but it's a proven model for success.

"I haven't missed any of the steps. And that's one reason I feel very prepared for this opportunity."

There are a lot of no-name scouts hoping he succeeds.