I just texted a friend of mine. He’s got about four decades of scouting under his belt, but despite having as much or more experience than virtually any personnel man out there, he’s been out of the NFL for about five years now. He’s hoping (and I’m hoping, because he’s been a great friend) to get the news this week that he’s been hired on with a new team.
Meanwhile, I have still another friend who’s got about the same level of experience, and who’s looking around. His prospects are few, and he’s getting concerned. What’s more, he knows that if something doesn’t happen in the next 2-3 weeks, it’s probably not going to happen, and he’s looking at selling insurance. I try to allay his fears, but knowing how hard it is to get a job, I don’t know what to say.
So what does this have to do with educating young people about working in the NFL? Sometimes it’s better to start at the end of the story to illustrate a point. Today let’s talk about scouting, and what you need to know if you’re hoping to be an NFL GM some day.
There is no specific pipeline into NFL scouting, despite programs that promise to enhance your chances. Typically, teams start looking for interns in the spring and summer, hoping to begin filling these unpaid positions by mid-summer. Who handles the process? It varies. I know a few years ago the 49ers’ GM was handling entreaties himself. Other teams have applicants go through their Directors of College Scouting, while others have everything sent directly to Human Resources. That’s one of the things that make applying to teams tricky; there’s a trial-and-error element just to find out where to send your resume.
Interns may start anywhere. There are probably a dozen NFL scouts who started out as training camp aides, telling fans to get behind the velvet rope or dragging water jugs around. Arizona’s John Mancini started out in tickets, then merchandise, before finally getting his chance in personnel. One way or another, you can expect to put in a year or two before you really get a chance to go out on the road and put a watch on someone.
The profile of a young person being hired into scouting departments today is probably an ex-college football player who’s 23-25 years old. Chances are he already lives in or has a background in the city of the team that hired him (we’ll discuss geography and its importance later). Typically, he was picked from 200-300 applicants.
Now for the discouraging part. He’s also almost surely got a connection to someone on the team. Not always, but very often. I remember a few years ago calling a scouting friend who’s actually now a GM. I wanted to learn more about the hiring process for young scouts, so I asked him, how does a kid get hired as a scouting assistant? He answered by asking, ‘Why, you got someone?’ That was the tone as I continued to ask other friends in the business. Most of the time, if you’re trying to get into the business, you need a ‘champion.’ That’s something else we’ll develop more later.
There’s one more aspect of the business to discuss that’s become a bit of a trend. The Patriots’ success over the past decade-plus has had a major impact on the way teams do things, and that includes scouting. Historically, teams hired seasoned ex-coaches as scouts, expecting them to not only gather 40 times and background info from their contacts but also to develop opinions about players. From there, they’d make recommendations. The Patriots, however, have always centralized their decision-making at the upper-management level in tandem with head coach Bill Belichick. They only want their scouts to gather facts, finite things with little wiggle room like heights, weights, whether a player has been suspended, how many kids he has, etc.
The Patriots count on their experts to have opinions. Other teams have seen this, and in many cases have adopted this philosophy. This is good news if you’re fresh out of college and hoping to become a scout. However, it’s driven down scouting salaries, devalued experience, and lowered expectations for people in personnel. It’s really ramped up turnover in scouting departments; we tracked more than 100 changes in scouting departments last year and almost 150 in 2012. It’s also made it way harder for scouts who came up before the Patriots’ Way to find a new job. That’s why I’m really hoping my friend lands back in the NFL today, and my other friend can beat the odds before he has to launch a late career in insurance.