Aaron Nagler speaks with Michael Cohen about some of the challenges facing the Packers new general manager and what he should prioritize.
GREEN BAY - Central in the Green Bay Packers' search for a new general manager was whether the franchise would continue Hall of Famer Ron Wolf’s scouting lineage, or break into a new direction for the first time in three decades.
Team president/CEO Mark Murphy ultimately decided to stick with what has proven to work in Green Bay, though the Wolf disciple tabbed to run the Packers' personnel department isn’t the candidate who bears his last name.
Brian Gutekunst, a longtime scout originally hired by Wolf, will replace Ted Thompson as the team’s next general manager, sources confirmed Sunday. The team is expected to announce Gutekunst as their next general manager Monday.
Gutekunst was chosen over fellow in-house candidates Russ Ball and Eliot Wolf, the son of Ron Wolf. Murphy also interviewed former Buffalo Bills general manager Doug Whaley, ensuring the Packers would comply with the league’s Rooney Rule requiring one minority candidate be considered, a league source confirmed.
A league source said Gutekunst, 44, was en route Sunday afternoon to Green Bay from Houston, where he was scheduled to interview for the Texans general manager vacancy. Murphy made sure his top target didn’t get away, reaching agreement on a five-year contract, according to reports.
One person likely happy with Murphy’s decision will be coach Mike McCarthy. A source said the two have a strong relationship, and believed Gutekunst was the candidate McCarthy referenced when he spoke of needing the right fit with his next general manager.
“The head coach is probably pushing Gutekunst,” a league source said late last week before the search concluded.
Gutekunst was targeted for the Texans' general manager vacancy by consultant Jed Hughes of Korn Ferry, a headhunting firm that also assisted Murphy. A league source indicated Gutekunst was a primary target for the Texans' job.
It wasn’t the first time another organization was interested in hiring Gutekunst for their GM opening. In the past year, Gutekunst interviewed with the Bills and San Francisco 49ers for GM jobs, and was thought to be a leading contender in San Francisco before withdrawing his name from consideration.
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Eliot Wolf, too, has been a trendy GM candidate across the league. He interviewed with the 49ers and Indianapolis Colts for their openings last offseason, and the Packers blocked him from interviewing with the Detroit Lions for their GM job one year earlier.
According to a source, Gutekunst and Murphy want Wolf to stay with the Packers, but they might have a difficult time convincing him, given Wolf’s options elsewhere. An obvious possibility would be reuniting with Cleveland Browns general manager John Dorsey, who worked with Wolf in Green Bay. It’s unclear whether the Packers would let Wolf out of his contract, as they did with longtime senior personnel executive Alonzo Highsmith, who joined Dorsey’s staff in Cleveland last week.
They have previously blocked Wolf’s attempts to join other teams, but Murphy left open the possibility last week when asked if in-house candidates who did not get the Packers job would be allowed to leave for parallel positions.
“If it’s a great opportunity for somebody,” Murphy said, “I don’t want to hold them back.”
Ball was a serious contender for the job, but tabbing him as GM would have departed from the Packers’ long-held approach of placing a football scout in the franchise’s top personnel role. The Packers reserve their GM role as the top voice on all football matters within the organization, including video, training, equipment and, of course, player personnel.
As the Packers' vice president of football administration/player finance, Ball’s most influential responsibility was negotiating player contracts, but his tentacles stretch throughout the organization. Ball’s daily supervision includes video, training, equipment, player development, family programs and public relations, but he has limited scouting experience.
By choosing Gutekunst, Murphy ensured the team’s next GM will be someone with deep history as a talent evaluator.
“I think it’s very important,” Ron Wolf told PackersNews.com on Sunday. “They had two losing seasons up there in 25 years. So that seems to be the way to go, and that’s the way they went. I think that’s really, really important. I think it’s the test of time, and time has proven that works well. If you look at the time before I got up there, in 24 years they had 24 years of mediocrity.
“Now, they’ve had 25 years of pretty good football. Two losing seasons in 25 years, but it’s been one way. It’s been run by football people. So I think it’s important that they continue to do that.”
Since Ron Wolf became the Packers general manager in 1991, each of the past two men to hold that title either received his recommendation (Mike Sherman) or first started working for the Packers under him (Thompson). Naturally, Ron Wolf would have preferred to see his son promoted, but Gutekunst will be the sixth scout he hired for the Packers to go on to become a general manager in the league.
Murphy was denied permission to interview two Wolf disciples who became general managers elsewhere: John Schneider of the Seatle Seahawks and Reggie McKenzie of the Oakland Raiders.
Gutekunst, a scouting intern with the Packers in 1997, originally was hired full time with the team as a college scout in 1998. He primarily scouted the East Coast in his first two years before transitioning to the Southeast, a plum job because of the fertile Southeastern Conference.
After 13 years as an area scout, Gutekunst was promoted to director of college scouting in 2012. On March 21, 2016, he was promoted to director of player personnel. In that role, Gutekunst was one of Thompson’s top lieutenants. He has been involved in most player-acquisition decisions.
Bob Harlan, who preceded Murphy as team president, spent almost a decade overseeing the Packers while Gutekunst was an area scout. In the years following his retirement, Harlan said he liked to sit with scouts during the game. Though no particular memory resonates, Harlan said Gutekunst reminded him of Ron Wolf.
“He’s a low-key, intense person,” Harlan said. “Very talented. Very thorough in his evaluations. And the thing that got to me most of all was Ron Wolf had great faith in him. I thought that was a great compliment to him.
“He’s got a little bit of Ron Wolf in him as far as that intensity and great work ethic. I just think he’s a wonderful choice.”
Gutekunst joins a lineage already consisting of Thompson, Schneider, Dorsey, McKenzie and former San Francisco and Washington general manager Scot McCloughan. From that group, Schneider, Dorsey and McKenzie each worked under Thompson.
As with others, Gutekunst isn’t expected to be a carbon copy of Thompson, who will become the senior adviser to football operations. A league familiar with Gutekunst said he likely will be more aggressive in free agency.
“I’d be surprised if he isn’t,” the source said.
Gutekunst was born July 19, 1973 in Raleigh, N.C., where his father John was starting his coaching career as an assistant at Duke. John Gutekunst went on to become head coach at the University of Minnesota from 1985-91, compiling a 29-37-2 record.
Brian Gutekunst played two seasons of college football at Wisconsin-La Crosse. A shoulder injury ended his career, but he remained involved in the game. Gutekunst served as an assistant coach with the team in 1995-96. He was a linebackers coach during the team’s 1995 Division III national-championship season.
Gutekunst’s first NFL experience came in the summer of 1995. During training camp, he assisted the New Orleans Saints’ coaching staff with the offensive line.
In 1998, Gutekunst became a scouting assistant for the Kansas City Chiefs. Gutekunst’s time with the Chiefs overlapped with McCarthy's in his role that season as the Chiefs' quarterbacks coach.
After one year with the Chiefs, Gutekunst returned to the Packers and has worked in their personnel department for the past 19 years. His 20th season will be unlike any other. For the first time, Gutekunst will get the opportunity to make the final decisions.
“Outstanding hire,” Harlan said. “Brian is part of the Ron Wolf tree, and everybody Ron brought in was so outstanding. Brian has risen through the ranks, and certainly has earned his promotion. I couldn’t be happier for him.”
Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.
Aaron Nagler speaks with Ryan Wood of the Green Bay Press-Gazette to get his takeaways from Mike McCarthy's season-ending press conference. (Jan. 4, 2018)