Why they got into scouting: Buffalo Bills senior national scout Dennis Hickey

Yahoo Sports has spoken to various NFL scouts over the past few weeks to get a sense for not only how they got to where they were in their career, but how they got into it and how the industry has changed over the years.

This series was inspired by Rivals’ Gabe DeArmond, who put together a fascinating series recently, asking all of the University of Missouri athletic coaches why and how they got into coaching initially.

We enjoyed it so much, we’ve been doing the same with NFL scouts. Our next installment is with Buffalo Bills senior national scout and former Miami Dolphins GM Dennis Hickey.

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Previous entries: Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy

Dennis Hickey was a heady but hardly physically gifted safety who had to play a year of junior-college football just to get attention on the Division-I level in the early 1990s and continue his path as a player. Hickey did just that, catching the eye of Tulsa, where he become a standout player.

But that’s when his playing days ended and his venture into the next level began. Hickey coached briefly but got his break in the NFL in the scouting department of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were assembling quite the talented football staff in the late 1990s. After rising through the ranks, Hickey was named general manager of the Dolphins in 2014.

Hickey is now one of the top lieutenants on Bills GM Brandon Beane’s staff, overseeing college scouting for the past few seasons. We spoke with Hickey recently about learning the business in Tampa, when he started dreaming of becoming a GM, his biggest evaluation miss, how the business has changed the most over the years, and plenty more.

Bills senior college scout and former Dolphins general Manager Dennis Hickey has seen the scouting business change, but the core principles remain the same. (Getty Images)
Bills senior college scout and former Dolphins general Manager Dennis Hickey has seen the scouting business change, but the core principles remain the same. (Getty Images)

Yahoo Sports: When did you first get introduced to football?

Dennis Hickey: I had two older brothers — very competitive household. They were always playing sports, and so I started playing as soon as I was eligible. In fact, I even dressed up in my uniform even before I was eligible while just watching my brothers play. [laughs] I started playing at age 6 with Pop Warner and loved it.

I played all the way through [high school] and just kept it going. Once I played through college, the reality kind of hits you even though you dream of playing at the next level. [laughs] Your awareness and your objectivity kind of hit you and you’re like, ‘You know what? This is probably it for me.’

So I was just trying to find that competitive outlet of your passion for the game, I said to myself, ‘Hey, where can I keep going in the game?’ The thing is — and I am sure most of the guys you’re talking with have said something similar — you have so many coaches who played such an integral part of and made such an impact on you, so you look at those people [for advice] first.

At the time — this was in the 1990s — scouting was obviously going on and a big thing. But it wasn’t as at the forefront, and the draft wasn’t as big, as those things are now. So I got in through coaching at first. I actually coached [at Blinn Junior College in Texas] for a guy who coached me, Willie Fritz, who is now the head coach at Tulane. What a great coach, great person and great friend he’s been to me. He had such an impact on me. I’d run through a wall for him.

Yahoo Sports: So was coaching something you seriously considered as a path forward?

Dennis Hickey: Coaching, I enjoyed that. I was kind of at a pivotal spot. I could go to the coaching realm, and I had a job offer to coach the secondary at Central Missouri. Or I could go be an entry-level scout with the Buccaneers. I knew a couple of people there, Mark Dominik and Lovie Smith, who played at my alma mater at Tulsa. It was just kind of a pivotal time to make that choice. Just the opportunity to get in the NFL, and I had a lot of respect for Tony Dungy — it was his first year there as head coach — I felt I had to take it, and I went that route.

Like I was saying, I needed that competitive outlet for the game for me personally. I was always analytical by nature and I wasn’t always the most talented player, so I always felt like I had to get an edge over my opponents. Usually that was through preparation and watching film, trying to exploit weaknesses and break guys down. And that was just a seamless transition into scouting.

I had so many great mentors on the Bucs. It was a small staff, maybe eight of us, and I think six ended up being GMs. It was quite a staff. I just learned so much from so many different guys — Jerry Angelo, Tim Ruskell, Ruston Webster. So many to soak up knowledge from, especially as a young guy. I didn’t know much about that aspect of [the NFL], and you can kind of just grow in the business that way.

Yahoo Sports: And in addition to a great scouting staff, that 1996 Bucs team had several very notable coaches, too — Herm Edwards, Lovie, Rod Marinelli, Monte Kiffin and more. I suppose it’s hard to know at the time when you’re fresh into the NFL how many talented people were on that team.

Dennis Hickey: Yeah, exactly. I didn’t have anything to compare it to — like, is every team like this? But in hindsight, looking back, it’s like, wow, that was a special group of guys and for a while, too. You had Mike Tomlin [who joined the team in 2001], Rod, Monte, all those guys you mentioned. So many guys who ended up being unbelievable coaches. Plus, that scouting staff I spent so much time around. It was great for a young guy to just learn, man.

Dennis Hickey got his start in the NFL on a talented Tampa Bay Buccaneers staff that features head coach Tony Dungy (middle) and several future GMs and head coaches. (Getty Images)
Dennis Hickey got his start in the NFL on a talented Tampa Bay Buccaneers staff that features head coach Tony Dungy (middle) and several future GMs and head coaches. (Getty Images)

Yahoo Sports: You mentioned it was a smaller scouting staff, so naturally that means more work divided up among each of you, one would imagine. What was your original job like as the new guy on the crew?

Dennis Hickey: Oh, absolutely. At the time, back then we wrote our reports and stuck them in the mail. [laughs] Imagine that now. But yeah, everything was much smaller. You had to wear a lot of hats. You were picking up guys from the airport or just [doing] busy work that needed to get done. You had a lot of moving parts, and back then you just didn’t have the staff sizes that you do now.

But it was great. You worked hard, you got things done and as a result, you got more opportunities sitting in some of those meetings where maybe if I was in the same level of position now, you wouldn’t have that same level of access that I did sometimes then. It’s a much bigger organization now with most teams. So I am definitely blessed to have come up there, getting the experience I did the way I did.

My official title was player-personnel assistant. And that included various duties, such as those airport runs. [laughs] But it was great because you just wanted to be around and play a part and do your part. I was a young guy and, yeah, looking back I didn’t know much about the whole NFL game.

But could I help my team win? I told myself that picking guys up from the airport was a part of winning. That was part of my job description. I made sure that everything was set and organized for the directors when they were having their meetings, and that definitely was important in my mind to us being a good team. All the little things that someone needed to get done, and I was that someone for a time.

But the biggest thing is, you start to learn the details behind all the inner workings, which ended up doing well for me later as I continued to work up the ladder.

Yahoo Sports: At this point, did you even aspire to be a GM? Was that even on your radar in the first few years or did that develop slowly over time?

Dennis Hickey: Not really at first. I was focused. I was taught early on — and this is a credit to Coach Fritz, who said, ‘Hey man, just be great at the job that you have now. Kick ass in that job first. Grow where you’re planted. Your work will be known.’ I was confident in that. So yeah, you had aspirations along the way and you’d think, ‘OK, what would I do if I was in that situation?’

But I was focused in being great in what was doing and just growing, and early on I knew I had so much to learn and so much to prepare to get to that point. I really wasn’t in a rush, you know, because I knew I had so far to go at first. And just listening to guys like Jerry Angelo and Tim Ruskell and Ruston Webster and those guys, and they kind of guided you in that way too. ‘Hey, make sure you take care of your business first.’

As a young whippersnapper, I needed to learn that lesson the right way to do things first before I could have delusions of grandeur. [laughs] But really, it did help me along the way. I needed that early guidance before I would have been ready or had any thoughts of [being a GM eventually].

Yahoo Sports: You talked about being in some of those rooms with all those experienced evaluators. Is there an intimidation factor involved in being a young scout presenting your observations to so many veteran ears?

Dennis Hickey: I always took the speak-when-spoken-to approach. Be quiet, but at the appropriate time if you had done the work, you watched the tape and you’ve written the reports, you had the right to speak up at an opportune time when asked. I was always of the mindset of, be prepared and when asked, to know exactly what to say to paint the picture.

Work toward conviction on a player — I was always taught that. And if I didn’t have conviction on a player, I would just keep watching tape. So once I worked toward having that conviction on players, when asked I had that confidence in that. But it was almost always when asked … I wasn’t going to speak up at first. I knew my place, and I had a lot of respect for the guys around me.

Intimidation was more in deferring to experience and respecting that. These guys have seen a lot more than I have. I’ve done the work, but I still had a lot to learn. Those guys were awesome. They led me along in that way to the point where I wasn’t feeling that way eventually.

Yahoo Sports: What was your biggest miss as an evaluator? Are there one or two that stick with you as the ones that got away?

Dennis Hickey: That’s a question I could give you a couple-of-hours answer to. [laughs] The one that just kind of stands out for me was Tony Romo. I actually kind of liked him. I had him as a seventh-round/free agent grade, and of course he went undrafted. But when it came time I didn’t play for him.

Yahoo Sports: But wasn’t that also the year you drafted Chris Simms in Round 3?

Dennis Hickey: Yeah, that’s right. I just kind of … it was mainly because [Romo] didn’t have the measurables. I remember seeing him against Kansas State [in 2002], and he had some stuff to him, some moxie. [Eastern Illinois] ended up losing to them pretty big [63-13], but he did some things in that game.

Still, he was like 6-foot-1, he wasn’t that athletic, coming from that level and not having a huge arm. And when I put all that together, it was like … OK. I just didn’t give him enough credit for the things that he had. You saw that when he finally came into the league, and you’re like, wow, OK, well.

You beat yourself up. You look and he’s got a quick release, great instincts, he was a competitor, just a natural feel for the game, he had that ‘it’ factor as a guy and people were just drawn to him. It’s like, all right, I see all that now.

You needed to give him the benefit of doubt at that point. When it’s late-round/free-agent time, you get to the point where you can keep the guy alive late or you let him fly to free agency. It came down — and I remember distinctly — and we just didn’t push for him.

When he ended up becoming a player, I was thinking, ‘Well, all right, I’ll learn from that one.’ But you see some things and you can’t be afraid to stick your neck out and be wrong. I was a young scout then, so I learned from that. That was one that sticks out, but there are tons of them. It’s just the nature of the business.

Eastern Illinois QB Tony Romo, pictured here in 2000, was an NFL draft regret of many scouts a generation ago. (Getty Images)
Eastern Illinois QB Tony Romo, pictured here in 2000, was an NFL draft regret of many scouts a generation ago. (Getty Images)

Yahoo Sports: Well, we won’t ask you for all of them. If you miss on a player as a young scout, can that knock your confidence? And what’s the effect in terms of reevaluating your own scouting instincts and system?

Dennis Hickey: I think that’s an important part. You’re always going to make mistakes, and big ones. Whether you’re a coach, a player, a scout — doesn’t matter. Everyone screws up something at some point.

I am a big believer in autopsies … OK, I missed on that guy. It’s gonna happen, right? But it’s going back and asking why I missed. Was there a breakdown in the process? I am a systems guy; I believe in the process of getting things done. So regarding the process, do I need to change the way I do things? Or was it one of those things … hey, I did everything the right way, did all the work, but that player just didn’t turn out the way I thought he would.

You’re always trying to — this is Year 24, 25 for me and I am still going through that process. You ask yourself, ‘What was it about this type of guy or this trait that I need to study more tape on,’ those sorts of things. All the time. I believe complacency is the enemy. I am always looking on how I can get to the next level. Even after being in scouting for all this time, there are still so many areas where you can try to improve.

Yahoo Sports: What’s the best or most rewarding part of the scouting process? What still excites you and energizes you about the operation still to this day?

Dennis Hickey: To me, what I love about scouting is discovery. At the GM level, you don’t get to be a part of that as much. Everyone else is going to watch the guys before they get to you. But as a scout, I want to be the tip of the spear — to see the guy first — and get him on the radar. Maybe he’s a player who is not highly rated, but to say, ‘Hey, this guy can play.’

That aspect of discovery, which every year starts anew. There are new players every year, players you don’t know anything about, and they’re not on the radar. You’ve got to watch the tape, break them down, figure them out and then you can get to, ‘Hey, I’ve found a guy!’ Maybe it’s a small-school player or maybe it’s a big school and he ends up the first overall pick eventually.

But like, it’s just that initial discovery of figuring out an unknown commodity and trying to help your team by scouting him and figuring him out quicker and better than anyone else.

Yahoo Sports: And what’s the most challenging part of the business?

Dennis Hickey: I think evaluating the players, after doing it for so long, you get in a rhythm there and you still can improve, but figuring out the person and the makeup of the person — that’s usually where you make your mistake. That’s far, far tougher than scouting a player’s skill and measurables. These are young men who are coming into the league, and they’re complex.

You’re trying to figure them out and project how they’re going to handle the rigors of the most competitive arena of professional sports in an NFL training camp. Having success, handling money, the challenges and setbacks they’ll face along the way, how they handle tough coaching — that’s the difficult part. It’s challenging, but that’s kind of what drives you. You really need to peel back a lot of layers of that onion.

And obviously, to have a young family with all the travel, that’s tough. You just had to make the best of that. The grind — for me anyway, you have to have a special wife who is independent. But you get into the groove and the routine of it, and it’s a fun job at times. But those would be some of the biggest challenges we face.

Yahoo Sports: Going back to what you said about mailing in your scouting reports, it got me thinking what have been the biggest changes to the industry since you got into it. What’s most different now in scouting and in the NFL from the time you started?

Dennis Hickey: Yeah, I might say the access and the exposure. The big thing when I first started was that you had to go to the school to get access to the tape because each club had one copy of, say, the Alabama-Clemson game. And you know, the coaches had to watch it, the director did, the GM … so you had to make sure you were present to watch. All your film was watched at the schools. Now, anytime you want, you can access the film.

So that’s a big thing and a great thing where you can just get a lot more exposure to the players’ tape. But it still comes down to the same things: discipline and evaluating the player on an individual basis and to know what you’re looking for and how he’ll fit your team, how he fits the culture and those sorts of things.

Staff sizes obviously have changed, as I was saying, and the analytics — I’d say that in particular has been a very positive development. It’s just different angles of looking at it. I’ve always felt that, hey, the more different looks and the more perspective you have looking at the players when it comes to scouting. You can make sure of things. You can see a number, some piece of data and ask, ‘What does it mean?’ That’s when you take that and go back to the tape and recheck those boxes. Just to make sure how you feel about a player hasn’t changed or isn’t skewed.

I think if you look at the last five or seven years, let’s say, there really haven’t been — there are always misses, but I think teams, especially in the middle rounds, with the exposure to the analytics and the benefit of having more exposure to the players in general, that’s helped prevent a lot of the [bigger misses].

I’d also say just the attention and the coverage of it all. Obviously, the combine continues to grow and the draft, too. There are hundreds of thousands of people paying attention to it.

Yahoo Sports: So paint a picture of a group film-watching session on a player.

Dennis Hickey: At the club? Yeah. It’s seven to 10 guys at the club there, and you always try to get there early because you want to get the clicker. That’s the power right there. [laughs] Whoever possesses the clicker controls how you watch the tape.

Guys are different. I am kind of a fast watcher; other guys are slower, more methodical. Everyone has their own watching style. But getting that clicker, you always wanted that so you could base the day on your schedule and your style. Maybe not a ton of changes, but the technology has really has made it easier in a lot of ways.

Yahoo Sports: Let’s say a 22-year old — a 1996 version of Dennis Hickey — came to you and asked for career advice and said they wanted to break into the business or a young scout feels like they’re stuck in a rut where they are. What would be your advice to them? And what would you have to know about someone to know whether they are cut out for the scouting business?

Dennis Hickey: I would say a couple of things. Going back to what I was saying about growing where you’re planted, it’s important to be great at where you’re at now. Do a great job at what you’re doing, and your work will be known.

Some people get caught up in the timing of it, but I am a firm believer that if you’re good at what you do, you have a sincere passion for it and you can not only get that exposure but also prove your worth, it might take time and it might not be as quick as you want it, but if you put in that time and don’t try to take shortcuts and become known as a get-it-done guy, you’ll be OK.

Everyone wants to make decisions. [laughs] Like, who we are drafting in the first round. But you have to first be the person that gets things done and makes the whole scouting process move along. And move along smoothly. That’s the biggest thing. You’re a cog in a machine. You can;t be above any job. Do that job great and people will notice your work.

There’s just a lot to learn. Rushing can hurt you. Being in a hurry to get a promotion can be a bad thing in the long run. Ask a lot of questions and don’t be afraid to be wrong or ask a dumb question. That’s really where you soak up the knowledge. I’ve really benefited from that.

I’ve been around some guys who have all the answers and, well, I just think there’s so much to learn from guys who have been on the front lines and who have made mistakes they’ve had to live with, well, I want to make new mistakes. Not an old one. That’s knowledge and that’s growth as a scout to me.

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