Why they got into NFL scouting: Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy

Eric Edholm

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’re doing the same with NFL scouts. Our first installment is with Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy.

Jim Nagy took over as executive director of the Reese’s Senior Bowl just a little more than a year ago, and in that short time he’s helped elevate one of the most important pre-draft events to an even loftier status than it reached under the watch of former NFL GM Phil Savage, who is now back in the NFL on the scouting staff of the New York Jets.

Nagy has increased the game’s visibility over the past year and been an active presence on social media since taking the job, engaging with fans and media alike. But for years prior he was far more behind the scouting scenes, first breaking in as a public relations intern with the Green Bay Packers in 1996 out of college before spending several years at a sports agency in football operations.

In 2000, he joined the scouting staff of the Washington Redskins and embarked on a career that has spanned nearly 20 years and with four different NFL franchises. Nagy worked his way up the totem pole from the Redskins to the New England Patriots, Kansas City Chiefs and Seattle Seahawks before running the Senior Bowl, winning four Super Bowl rings along the way.

We asked Nagy about how he learned to love football, breaking into scouting, the difference between The Patriot Way and the Seahawks Way, his biggest scouting miss, whether he wants to be a team’s GM one day and the pros and cons of the job he’s wanted for as long as he could remember.

Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy, left, has done a great job in his one year with the pre-NFL draft event held each January in Mobile, Ala. (Getty Images)
Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy, left, has done a great job in his one year with the pre-NFL draft event held each January in Mobile, Ala. (Getty Images)

Yahoo Sports: How were you introduced to football initially?

Jim Nagy: You get that all the time … how did you get into football? I tell people, the only advantage that I had getting into the NFL was that I knew what I wanted to do from the time I was about six years old.

Yahoo Sports: Six?!

Jim Nagy: Yeah. I grew up and my dad was a high school coach. I grew up during two-a-days, taking naps between two-a-day practices on the tackling dummy, kicking field goals between practices, scraping cleats with screwdrivers during timeouts. Just the love for the game was fueled at a really young age.

I went through growing up [in Michigan] and playing, playing in high school, and I had some opportunities to play small-college ball. But my dream school was the University of Michigan. This was pre-internet, so you couldn’t just go and Google ‘how to become an NFL scout.’ So I really had no idea what I was doing. I just didn’t think you could play small-college football — Division II, Division III — and get a job in the National Football League.

When I got into Michigan, I jumped at that. At the time, I was a normal college student for a couple years. Then my sophomore year, I figured out I needed to start getting some experience. At that time, there weren’t even scouting internships in the NFL; your only foot in the door was through the PR office if you wanted to get an internship. I volunteered at the football office, talked to a couple of the coaches and got in with the SID [sports information director] office and just volunteered.

Yahoo Sports: Were you reaching out to NFL teams during college or right after?

Jim Nagy: At the end of my senior year, I sent out a mass email of resumes and cover letters, and I still have a whole drawer full of rejection letters. The only team that got back to me and had anything for me was the Green Bay Packers. They had a PR internship for training camp.

I went out there, and this was the year they won the Super Bowl in 1996. It was a really big year on the PR side. The team was getting covered heavily by national media, and at the end of training camp they asked me to stay on for the year. That was great, but I had nowhere to live. We were getting moved out of the dorms at St. Norbert’s College [where Packers camp used to be held].

I got really lucky. Two of the tight ends were living together, and one of them — Mike Bartrum, who ended up being Philly’s long snapper forever — got traded at the end of training camp. I think he was traded to the Patriots. So Jeff Thomason had a room open in his house, and he let me stay with him. He’s been a lifelong friend ever since. He ended up being in my wedding.

Yahoo Sports: What was that year like? Your first year in the NFL and you win a ring, how about that?

Jim Nagy: That was a really cool year. All I did was, whenever I was done with my PR responsibilities, I would sneak up to the scouting offices and bother Reggie McKenzie and John Schneider — they were in an office together — and wear those guys out. I would sit and ask if I could just watch tape with them and try to learn. That staff had like five future GMs on it. It was Reggie, John, John Dorsey, Scot McCloughan and Ted Thompson. Ron Wolf was the GM then.

John Dorsey (left) and former Packers general manager Ted Thompson (right) got their starts in Green Bay in the 1990s. (Getty Images)
John Dorsey (left) and former Packers general manager Ted Thompson (right) got their starts in Green Bay in the 1990s. (Getty Images)

After that year, I didn’t get anything full time. The only full-time job offer I got was from the Falcons, but they offered me a PR job. I turned it down because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a PR person. That was not what I wanted to do.

So like anything, I just bided my time and moved to New York City. I got a job with an agency just to stay on the football side. I got a couple of guys from that Packers team to come join that agency, and it just afforded me the opportunity to go to the Senior Bowl every year, go to the [NFL scouting] combine every year, and really try to network. I did that and it took me like four and a half or five years of doing that.

That’s when John Schneider got a job with the Washington Redskins where he was Marty Schottenheimer’s top football guy. [Schneider] got the authority to hire and fire a staff, and he hired me to be the west coast scout. So that’s how I got that first scouting job.

Yahoo Sports: Backing up just a bit here … So was scouting always your passion? That’s a little surprising to hear. You hear people say they want to play or, if they’re not good enough, they want to coach. You don’t hear a lot of folks — especially that young — say they want to be a scout.

Jim Nagy: I never got bit by the coaching bug. I was really fascinated with the team-building aspect of it, more so than the on-the-field, coaching aspect of it. I just fell in love with … you know, my dad would be watching tape … or in elementary school we moved to a new city, and ironically I became best friends with the guy whose dad was the head coach at that school. So no matter where we were, I just found myself like watching tape with black-and-white 8 mm film reels of high-school football tape and all that.

Yahoo Sports: And that was about when the NFL draft started getting bigger play on ESPN and bigger coverage outside the agate page and whatever.

Jim Nagy: Yeah, just watching the draft on TV, I still have notebooks watching the draft as a little kid. I was a huge Detroit Lions fan and whoever they picked, I wrote down who I would have picked instead. [laughs]

Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy got his scouting bug while watching the Detroit Lions draft players such as QB Chuck Long, seen here in 1987. (Getty Images)
Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy got his scouting bug while watching the Detroit Lions draft players such as QB Chuck Long, seen here in 1987. (Getty Images)

This year, I was lucky enough to do some draft work with ESPN this spring, I told Mel Kiper … I thanked him. I said, ‘In some small way, shape or form, you really had something to do with where I am in life,’ because a lot of guys in the NFL take a hard edge toward the TV draft analyst guys because they [feel] those guys aren’t held accountable and they can be wrong and it doesn’t matter and all that.

But this was my first time meeting Mel in my 20-plus years in the league, and I told him I really appreciated what he did in terms of sparking an interest in the draft for me. He’s really helped make that event what it is. You’ve got to give the guy his due. He’s an entrepreneur; he’s created his own industry. It’s pretty awesome. You saw what Nashville looked like this year. It would not look like that if not for Mel Kiper.

Whenever ESPN started televising the draft, whatever it was, 1981 or 1982, I was just watching it. It just sparked something in me.

Yahoo Sports: So back to that first job with the Redskins, was there an early lesson that you learned that really served you well in your career? Maybe something you can’t figure out until you’re in the scouting trenches, so to speak?

Jim Nagy: I would say one of the biggest lessons is that you’re going to be wrong. You’re going to miss on players. But if you’re going to miss, miss on your own accord. It’s hard when you’re a young scout — I was 26 when I want on the road — and at that time, this was a much older profession than it is now. You used to go into schools and you’d be in a film room with a guy that was 73 and a guy that was 68. Retired coaches and things like that.

And unfortunately … I say unfortunately because I thought those guys brought a lot to the profession. I loved to show up at schools on a daily basis and just pick their brains and learn. I felt like I just learned a bunch being in the same room as them. Unfortunately, all the minutia of scouting systems nowadays and report writing, it just drove those guys out. I wrote something on Twitter about writing up a draftable player takes two hours, and that’s at minimum. So if you’re going to Alabama, that’s a minimum of 20 hours of report writing. And that’s just for the draftable guys. They’ll probably have seven or more free agents or rejects that you’ve got to write.

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Then you have three more schools to do that week. Those hours are when you get back to the hotel at night at like 8 or 9 o’clock at night after a four-hour drive from one school to the other. It is such a crazy grind, which is what pushed a lot of those [older] guys out [of the business].

But when you sit in those film rooms as a young scout, inevitably, whether it’s after [watching] one or two or three games, it dissolves into a free-for-all and everyone was just talking. You could get swayed by the chatter in the room. You might really like the player, and there are guys in the room just dogging him. You’re questioning yourself because you haven’t been doing it very long, and they’ve been doing it forever. It’s like, ‘Man, what am I not seeing? I like this guy.’

But you just have to stick to your guns. Like I said, the worst feeling as a scout is if you let a room or someone else’s opinion sway you and you don’t put a grade on a player or you don’t fight for a player that you want to, and the player goes higher or lower than you thought, you want that to be on you.

Right away, that was probably the first lesson that I learned: Do your own work and take your lumps on your own. Just try to learn from your own mistakes, not someone else’s.

Yahoo Sports: Was there one big evaluation miss on a player along the way that stings a little bit even now?

Jim Nagy: Antonio Brown. I didn’t see a special player when he was coming out of Central Michigan. I thought he had a chance to develop into a starting slot, but not an All-Pro.

Antonio Brown ended up being a great player coming out of Central Michigan, but not everyone was convinced at the time. (Getty Images)
Antonio Brown ended up being a great player coming out of Central Michigan, but not everyone was convinced at the time. (Getty Images)

I watched him live in his bowl game against Troy. Troy had an undersized receiver named Jerrell Jernigan, and based off what I saw that night I would’ve taken Jernigan over Brown because Jernigan looked more explosive. Jernigan was actually picked two rounds higher than Brown [to the New York Giants in the third round), but I definitely missed on that one.

Yahoo Sports: Would you like to be a GM of an NFL franchise one day?

Jim Nagy: Yeah, that’s always been my ultimate goal. I’ve never shied from that. I love this opportunity I have here [with the Senior Bowl], but that’s been what I’ve wanted since I was a kid.

Yahoo Sports: As you moved in your career to a few different teams, were you taking notes of the different ways each team did things in scouting and saying, ‘these are the things I would do if I was a GM?’ Because you compare, say, the Patriots’ and Seahawks’ scouting and drafting methods, and you see some fascinating methods that are not much alike.

Jim Nagy: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve kept a notebook through the years — it’s old and raggedy-looking now. But yeah, I’ve been doing that for almost 25 years now, and sometimes it’s not even football stuff but just things from other mentors in my life, taking notes on things. And really, from a football perspective I was just really, really fortunate to work for two really different but two really successful programs that go about it in two completely polar-opposite ways. Like you said, that’s the Patriots and Seahawks.

I feel like working for multiple teams is really beneficial. You see some guys come up through the business, and really they’ve only worked for one system and they only know one way to do a thing. I know if that happened for me, man, I know I wouldn’t be nearly as good — or maybe I should say I wouldn’t be nearly as prepared as I am, being exposed to different systems and ways of thinking.

The Patriot Way has a lot of pluses to it. But also, so does the Seahawk Way. I would take a lot from both places. Those are really my mainstays because Kansas City, you know, we tried to implement the Patriot Way there, and we had some success. We had six Pro Bowlers on that last team [in 2012] that won two games, but … we just never found a quarterback.

But I really was exposed to two systems — and they really couldn’t be any different — and I have great takeaways from both.

Yahoo Sports: I know the answer would vary depending on what role you play on the food chain, but what’s your favorite part of the scouting process?

Jim Nagy: I’d say the first part of that, a couple of things. The first part would just be the relationships that you form by working in the league. It’s a small league, a small fraternity. I have a lot of great friends and met a lot of great people. It’s an amazing group of people you meet along the way. So that’s just one.

But just from a scouting perspective, it’s really this time of year — I love the spring and summer process because you’re putting your eyeballs on players for the first time. If you’re an area scout, you’re the first look. You’re truly the first. The grade you put down previous to these players’ junior and senior years, that’s truly the first grade in the system.

You’re not tainted by anything at this point. It’s your eyes; it’s your look. It’s not a director-level guy looking at a player in November of a game his senior year, and you look in the system and there’s already three grades in on him. It’s just that initial exploration of finding a really good player — like a small-school guy, you put on the tape and he just pops and you’re like, ‘Wow! This guy is really good.’ There’s still that excitement when you find a really good player.

And then the thing that I missed this year [as Senior Bowl director] was really trying to figure out the person, rather than the player. I think the longer you scout, the easier it gets to figure out the player. Sitting down and watching the tape is the easy part. The hard part is really trying to figure out the person and how they’re wired.

We’re all products of our environment, so [you’re] trying to figure out how people’s backgrounds shape them and whether they’re equipped to move forward and be productive pros. After the [college] season is over, you’re getting into the all-star [game] and pro day and combine process and sit and hear from the players’ mouths rather than just from the people at the schools. Building that rapport and those relationships, all that stuff is great.

The great thing about the scouting calendar is that it breaks down into really definitive parts, and that final step when you’re really getting to know the players one on one and trying to figure out the person, that’s really fun as well.

Yahoo Sports: And maybe not the worst part, but what’s the most challenging part about the industry?

Jim Nagy: Yeah, the burnout factor would come from the report writing. There’s so much minutia nowadays that I almost think it’s overkill in a lot of ways. But you’re trying to be as thorough as you can as a staff. Really when you’re trying to break down a human being and a player, there are so many components to both. So it is a grind, and there are no shortcuts. You have to put in the work.

On a weekly timeframe, if you don’t schedule your time right in the fall, I mean, you are not sleeping. You are getting four or five hours of sleep at night maximum. When you get into the dog days of scouting — to me that’s October, when you’re just grinding a bunch of reports — it can be brutal. But flipping the calendar, to me, to November 1, I could always see the light at the end of the tunnel. I’d been on the road for three months at that point, and I only have a month to go. That’s when I could see the light.

But truly the hardest part about the profession is the strain it can put on your family. Just like anything in football, it can be tough. If people are honest with themselves, most jobs in football are for single men. They just are. You have got to have a special woman who understands it, and even when it does it can put strains on a marriage. It takes you away from your kids and that’s frankly why I am doing the job I do now. This was a family decision.

But going back to being in a film room with a bunch of older men, breaking into this career, I asked all of them that question: At the stage you’re at, do you have any regrets? And almost all of them, to a man, in some way, shape or form, would say something to the effect of … when you’re there, be present. If you have the time, take it. If you have to drive an extra three hours to get home for a sporting event or a dance recital, you drive those extra three hours. Cherish the family time because it’s precious.

When this job became available last May, some of those guys, those old wise scouts, their voices were ringing in my ears. This was an opportunity for me to stay connected in football and really do what I love but not have to be on the road as much.

So when I took this job last year, I went on my Marriott profile, and I’ve been at it 18 years, and if you add up the days that I’ve been at just Marriott hotels over nine of those years — and that’s not counting the Hiltons and any other hotels — it hit home. That would be the biggest thing.

We had scouts here last week [for the Senior Bowl Scout School] I didn’t sugarcoat that part of it with the guys. It’s that this is why if you’ve played the game, you’ve played in the NFL, and you’ve put some money away, the pro [scouting] side is probably better because you aren’t on the road as much. You’re just gone so much [as a college scout]. That’s not taking anything away from the guys on the pro side because they feel the pull of the office every day. They’re in the building every night until 11 o’clock. They’re both very difficult jobs. The strain they can put on a family, you don’t realize.

Going back to me saying I wanted to do this at 6 or 7, when you’re that old you don’t think about that. Even when you’re 18 and in college, and you want this, or even the 22-year-old kid leaving college who it’s his only goal in life, seeing it through the eyes of a person at those ages, you don’t think of the 45-year-old with a wife and two kids. You just don’t think in those terms, and it takes on an entirely different dynamic when you do get into [the business].

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