GM Trent Baalke has been making all the right moves for 49ers
NEW ORLEANS -- After receiving his first NFL scouting job with the Cleveland Browns in 1991, Lionel Vital was told he should take college coaches to lunch when visiting their schools. Scouts want as much background as possible on draft-eligible prospects, and one of the simplest ways to get coaches to open up about their players is by treating them to a meal away from campus.
During a trip to South Dakota State in 1994, Vital followed the time-tested blueprint and took defensive line/strength and conditioning coach Trent Baalke to a small diner in Brookings. He soon realized, however, that he was going to get a scouting report on more than the Jackrabbits' players.
"We're sitting there," Vital recalls, "and Trent says, 'I can cook better than this. I can make a pot roast that's out of this world, and the gravy I make will have you licking your fingers. I'm from Wisconsin, and we can cook in Wisconsin. You need to stay over and let me cook for you.' "
Vital couldn't stick around, but when he returned the following year Baalke extended the offer again. That night they attended a school function, then made the short walk with athletic director Fred Oien to Baalke's house, where he cooked breakfast for the trio shortly after midnight.
"He made eggs and ham and hash browns, and he had some type of herb that he put on the sausage," Vital says. "It was good. Me being a country guy from Louisiana, I'm eating my head off. I'm going back for seconds, and Trent is loving it."
Before leaving the next morning, Vital was hit with another request from Baalke: Could he keep him in mind if an NFL scouting position opened up? Baalke had grown frustrated with his inability to climb the ladder out of Division II football and his struggles to connect with younger players who didn't approach the game -- or RESPECT the game -- the way that he did. Hard work, selflessness and toughness weren't cliches to him; they were tenets for success. They're also the foundation on which he has built the 49ers, who will meet the Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
San Francisco is physical, relentless and committed to the belief that the whole is more important than the individual parts. Earlier this week wideout Randy Moss admitted that he hates his limited role but knows it creates opportunities for others. The next time you hear defensive tackle Justin Smith complain about taking on double-teams so outside linebacker Aldon Smith can get to the quarterback will be the first.
"That's the type of team and players Trent used to talk about having years ago when we were scouts," says Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff. "He's a football man, through and through. He's coached it, he's scouted it, and he appreciates tough, hard-nosed players with a passion for the game. He's always stressed the importance of players who are going to play 60 minutes of football and grind until the end."
Ironically, his football career nearly ended before it began. After asking Vital to keep him in mind for job openings, Baalke left South Dakota State with no plans of coaching again. He spent the next two-plus years developing training programs for athletes and working as an athletic director at a North Dakota high school. Football was still in his blood, but with no prospects he was prepared to to accept a financial-planning job in Fargo, N.D. The company offered him a position on a Friday, and he asked for a week to think about it.
He packed up the family and drove to northern Minnesota for a fishing trip to clear his head. When he returned to the cabin after an afternoon on Cass Lake Chain that Sunday, his wife, Beth, told him that Dick Haley, the director of player personnel for the New York Jets, had called. Baalke initially thought he was being punk'd by one of his friends, but Beth told him she confirmed that the area code was from New York. Vital, who had taken a scouting job with the Jets, had recommended Baalke to fill an opening, and Haley wanted to conduct a preliminary interview.
The two immediately hit it off, in part because Haley was a fisherman himself. A conversation that should've taken 20 minutes turned into two hours. Baalke drove down to Minneapolis to purchase clothes for an interview and then boarded a plane for New York and a meeting with Haley, who asked him to do write-ups on Oklahoma State defensive tackle Jamal Williams and Navy offensive lineman Mike Wahle, who had applied for the supplemental draft.
Haley liked that Baalke was a man of conviction. Baalke had written that he didn't think Wahle was as talented as Adam Timmerman, a guard the Packers had selected three years earlier in the seventh round. When Haley challenged him by saying that a lot of NFL people thought Wahle was going to be "pretty good," Baalke who was on the coaching staff when Timmerman played at South Dakota State, stuck to his position.
"I remember Trent being very good, very detailed and organized at his work," Haley said this week by phone. "He worked hard and you could tell he enjoyed what he was doing."
The Jets initially assigned him to the upper Midwest and the Pacific Northwest, where schools were spread out and scouts could have more time to concentrate on prospects, gather their thoughts and submit reports. Typically veteran scouts were assigned to compact areas that had higher concentrations of schools and players. Still, it didn't take long for Baalke to catch the eye of coach Bill Parcells, who liked his ability to find players that fit the Jets' systems, particularly their 3-4 defense.
"He was quick to learn what our prototypes were and what we were looking for in players," Parcells says. "When I look at the 49ers I can say that philosophically they're a lot like the teams we had back then. One of Trent's strengths is that he's going to find players who fit the system the coaches are running."
Baalke, who spent four years with Washington after leaving the Jets, has been with the 49ers since 2005. He spent two years as a regional scout, was promoted to director of player personnel in 2008, then ascended to VP of player personnel in 2010. That's also the year he served as de facto general manager.
After the team started 0-5 that season, CEO Jed York told Baalke he was thinking about making organizational changes at the end of the year and wanted Baalke to proceed as if he were the general manager. He wanted to see how the two of them would work together, because he believed the team -- which would go on to an eighth consecutive non-winning season that year -- was much closer to being a contender than outsiders believed, and he liked that Baalke had been a positive contributor as a scout and personnel director. Over the next few months they discussed how to structure the football operations, how to fill out the roster, and what qualities would be needed in a new coach.
"It was one of those things where I watched the job that he did, how he responded to situations, and how our rapport was with each other," says York, who promoted Baalke to general manager that offseason after interviewing other candidates. "It was a really good fit, but it was also one of those things where you were open for second-guessing. The team hasn't done well, it isn't winning, and you're promoting a guy from within your organization to be the general manager? How is this going to look to the general public?
"You start thinking about things like that, and that's where my uncle [former team owner Eddie DeBartolo, Jr.] comes in. He said to do what you think is best for the team and don't worry about what any of the critics or the media are going to say. I just felt in my gut that Trent was the right guy."
The move has been as successful as it was controversial. For one, Baalke extensively studied Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh before informing York that Harbaugh was the best fit to lead the team. In the first year together under Baalke and Harbaugh, San Francisco finished 13-3 and was an overtime loss from reaching the Super Bowl, and Baalke and Harbaugh were voted Executive of the Year and Coach of the Year, respectively.
Equally important is that Baalke has continued to build on a roster whose foundation was laid by former GM Scot McGloughan and ex-coach Mike Nolan, who jointly or separately brought in current standouts like Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, Joe Staley, Frank Gore, Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree.
Baalke added to that with shrewd draft moves and cunning free-agent signings. In the last three offseasons he brought in 10 starters who will start against the Ravens on Sunday: draft choices Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith, Colin Kaepernick and Bruce Miller, and free agents Jonathan Goodwin, Carlos Rogers, Donte Whitner and Randy Moss. He also drafted nickel cornerback Chris Culliver.
"Trent," says York, "is hands down one of the best general managers in the National Football League."
Not that you'll get him to discuss it -- or much of anything else. He hates the spotlight as much as he does a selfish player. In fact, he declined to be interviewed for this story, preferring to keep the focus on the players and coaches. That attitude causes him to get lost in Harbaugh's considerable shadow at times, but he's OK with it. The bottom line, for him, is the team, and he works to ensure that Harbaugh and his talented staff have the necessary groceries to cook up a good meal. Because if there's one thing Baalke knows about, it's a good meal.