Ted Thompson’s new title — Super Bowl champion general manager — has a nice ring to it.
Not bad for a guy that didn’t hold down a regular job for nearly seven years of his adult life.
Thompson, who was the architect of the Green Bay Packers’ Super Bowl XLV championship, has come a long way since his 10-year NFL career as a backup linebacker with the Houston Oilers ended.
“I played a lot of golf,” said Thompson in reflecting on what he did after getting cut late in training camp in 1985.
“For about six or seven years I was basically not working.”
And then, through what Thompson calls a stroke of luck, then Packers General Manager Ron Wolf offered him a job as a scout. Thompson was hired on his 39th birthday in January 1992, within days of when Wolf named Mike Holmgren the Packers’ head coach.
Who would have guessed that Thompson would eventually have a greater impact on the Packers organization than Holmgren?
Thompson remembers what Wolf told him when he got hired. “I think the words were, ‘We’ll give it a six-month try and if it doesn’t work, nobody’s fault, you go, we stay,’ ” said Thompson. “And I was OK with that because I thought it would be exciting to get back into football.”
Who would have guessed that Thompson would one day sit in Wolf’s chair and be in charge of the Packers’ football operation, and like Wolf build a championship team?
Thompson, 58, is in good health and has indicated he will remain with the Packers for as long as they want him.
During an interview this past week, Thompson reflected on his success, the ups and downs of his job, important lessons he has learned, how he deals with criticism, what motivates him, and the Packers’ prospects to repeat as champions.
Q: What’s it like to achieve the ultimate goal of winning a championship?
Thompson: “I think there was a feeling of satisfaction of something that we’ve done. I say that in the past tense, something we have done. The NFL is a really hard business. As soon as you get the least bit cocky you’re going to get your block knocked off. We’d like to do it again, if it’s possible.”
Q: What drives you when you get up in the morning?
Thompson: “Competitiveness. The more you work here, the more you become attached to this place and the more you have appreciation for any contributions you can make to the history and tradition here. I think it’s very important.”
Q: Do you love your job?
Thompson: “I do. Sometimes you don’t like it. It’s just like anybody’s job. There are days you think ‘doggone.’ But I enjoy my job, and I enjoy the people I work with, I really do.”
Q: You just signed a new contract. Will you work at least until that expires?
Thompson: “I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t think you can look too far down the road. You just do what you’re doing. I’d like to do this for as long as I’m asked to do it here and still doing a good job and people want me here.”
Q: What’s the hardest part of your job?
Thompson: “It’s so competitive and the organizations are all so into it that you know that the difference between winning and losing is sometimes minuscule. It comes down to one play, and your whole life is based on that one play in terms of do you have a good day the next day or do you have a miserable day the next day. I think that’s a little hard. Most jobs are not that demanding and exact. It’s either you’re really really excited or you’re very much depressed. I don’t think that’s fair. I’ve never quite gotten over the stark difference between winning and losing and the emotions that you feel.”
Q: You’ve had to make tough decisions, such as firing Mike Sherman, trading Brett Favre, cutting Mark Tauscher. Does that part of the job wear on you?
Thompson: “Yeah, those are certainly the parts of the job you wished weren’t there. It’s life. It’s the way things go. And I understand this intellectually coming in and taking this job that those kind of decisions are coming up down the road. And there will be some in the future and you understand that intellectually and until you go through it you don’t really understand sometimes the price you pay for that.”
Q: How do you go about making difficult decisions?
Thompson: “I think I ‘keep it simple stupid.’ What’s the best thing for the organization? What’s the best thing for this football team.?
Q: What’s the best lesson you learned from Ron Wolf?
Thompson: “Do your own work. You have to be honest with yourself in the good times and the bad times. One thing he always said, he’d tell me, ‘No matter what title you get in life, remember this, you’re a scout and that’s what you do.’ And I think that’s the way he looked at himself. That’s what I am. Some of my fellow scouts around the league don’t consider me a scout anymore. They think I’m a big shot.”
Q: What’s did you learn from Mike Holmgren?
Thompson: “I thought he was really good with people. I mean sitting and talking with somebody, he’d give an opinion of them and he’d be right on. I thought that was very good. Everybody knows how good a coach he was, but as a person, that’s what a lot of people maybe don’t know. He’s a good man.”
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you could give one of your employees?
Thompson: “I think something along those lines that it’s the people that count. It’s your relationships. When you get to the end of the road, whenever that end is, it’s not going to be money or championships or anything like that, it’s going to be the people you’re going to think about.”
Q: Was Wolf demanding to work for?
Thompson: “He was demanding on himself. He didn’t berate you or yell at you, but you didn’t want to disappoint him. You wanted to do your work and if you’re right you’re right and if you’re wrong you’re wrong, but you wanted to make sure that he knew you’d done your work and these were the ideas that you had based on that work.”
Q: Are you hard or easy to work for?
Thompson: “I would say easy. At the same time, we don’t dilly dally around. We don’t have committee meetings or HR sessions. If something needs to be handled, we handle it and move on, just like you do in football and a lot of other businesses.”
Q: Are you demanding?
Thompson: “No, I’m not demanding. I do expect all the people that work under me, or with me, to conduct themselves a certain way. They represent the Green Bay Packers. They know that’s a hot button issue with me.”
Q: What would disappoint you in an employee?
Thompson: “If they did something to cause shame on the Packers, or somehow sully the name of the Green Bay Packers, and that encompasses a lot.”
Q: Are you and coach Mike McCarthy a perfect fit?
Thompson: “I think we’re good friends. I think we work well together. I think we see things similarly. We have our differences I’m sure. There may be things I do that drive him crazy, but I do think we have a very good working relationship and I like him as a person.”
Q: Did you have an instant connection with McCarthy?
Thompson: “When I hired him I was hiring the man, not the coach. I like the person. There’s a lot of people that can do the Xs and Os and do all that. To be a head coach, to be in that kind of managerial position, you have to be good with people, understand people, know where to draw the lines, know how to both get on ’em when they need (it) and praise ’em when they need to be praised.”
Q: Have you disagreed with McCarthy over a player, and if so, how is that resolved?
Thompson: “Oh sure. Ultimately if it stays at that, I would ultimately win, but that’s not the way we work together. We go back and forth, we’ll think about it. I’ll say, ‘Well let’s take a couple days and we’ll talk about it again.’ But it usually works itself out. He understands that at some point it’s my call but I never want to put myself or him in a position where I feel like I’m forcing a player on him.”
Q: Have there been times he convinced you about a player?
Thompson: “Oh sure. Sometimes he’s right.”
Q: How important is it to have full authority over football decisions?
Thompson: “There are too many decisions that have to be made. You can’t run an organization like this and you certainly can’t run the football part through committees, and meetings and that sort of thing. It just doesn’t work. It has to be a place where the buck stops here.”
Q: Did you have any concern when Bob Harlan retired and you had to adjust to a new boss (Mark Murphy)?
Thompson: “I don’t know that there was any anxiousness, but you never know. I think the organization as a whole, including the executive committee members, were committed to the structure. So we felt like as long as we have the structure we’ll be fine. In our case with Mark Murphy, we got lucky. We got a great guy. He’s good to work with. He understands the way the system works. I think he fits in very well. … He’s never gotten in a draft meeting and said, ‘We should do this or we should do that.’ He doesn’t micromanage that way.”
Q: Every decision you make is scrutinized and there’s often a target on your back. How do you handle criticism? Do you hear it?
Thompson: “I hear it. I think it’s important to stay attuned to that sort of stuff and to that sort of criticism. I don’t let it keep me up at night. There’s often times information that people that are critiquing you, they don’t have that information and it’s not appropriate for us to defend ourselves by getting that information out. Again, I think at the end of the day, as long as we think we’ve done what’s best for the team and the organization, then we’ve done our job.”
Q: Does criticism ever get under your skin?
Thompson: “You wish everybody would like everything you do. This is a special place, but it cuts both ways. In the instance of players, these players are like people’s children. They watch them on TV or they come to games. They watch them over the course of years and they become part of their family. It’s the Packers. But time does move on and then you have to tell old friends good-bye at some point. Those are hard, hard days for us and it’s never done lightly and we know that it hurts people’s feelings. That’s one of those dichotomies. It’s a great place, but sometimes there’s so (many) feelings, that there’s misunderstandings I suppose.”
Q: Was there ever a point when you asked yourself if the job was worth all the criticism you receive?
Thompson: “”When you have your bad days it’s like, ‘Holy cow, what are we doing.’ But you get back on the horse. We ask our players to get up after they get knocked down, so when I get knocked down I try to get back up.”
Q: Was it hard in 2008 (after trading Brett Favre) to take so many hits? How did you handle that?
Thompson: “I don’t know how I handled it. In my mind I was fine with everything. I understood the anxiousness and people being upset. I understood that. And it happens continually. This isn’t just a one-time event. There are things that come up. It’s a big boy place and a big boy league.”
Q: What’s the biggest obstacle to repeating as champion?
Thompson: “Just understand this is a new year, a new day. Last year is a memory. It’s a good memory. There might be some advantages but there’s also some disadvantages in terms of going forward, so we’ve got to get our head on (straight) and understand it’s a huge challenge.”
Q: Is this team still hungry to win another title?
Thompson: “I think our team is very sound mentally right now. It’s in a good place. We’re in the middle of training camp so you have your good days and bad days. But I think they understand. They also understand how hard it was last year. That was not an easy feat these young men were able to take on and they understand this will be even harder. But we’re not going to shy away from it.”
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