Brian Gutekunst will be ‘his own man’ as Packers GM
GREEN BAY – He tended bars to pay his way through college. Back then, Brian Gutekunst was a full-time dreamer. A student assistant at Wisconsin-La Crosse, he was hell-bent to chase football as long as he could. It meant binging the 16-millimeter film his head coach handed him each spring. Coaching players his age and older, including his roommate. Toiling all day on the practice field for no salary, then bartending at night.
He had the talent to make football his career. People around him recognized that much. “You knew he was going to go places,” former UW-La Crosse assistant Barry Shockmel says. “He didn’t make any mistakes,” former head coach Roger Harring adds. But Division III football is a long way from the NFL. Even longer when a chronic dislocated shoulder ends your playing career as a sophomore.
The kid needed his break.
Then he caught fortuitous timing. In the summer of 1997, Gutekunst was a fresh college graduate, and the Green Bay Packers were world champions. Ron Wolf, the Packers' visionary general manager, knew his scouts would get overtures after rebuilding a dormant franchise into a Super Bowl winner. He needed adequate replacements.
So Wolf started an internship program. He instructed scouts to unearth young, eager apprentices. Gutekunst was brought in for an interview, then returned to his life. Bartending one Friday night, around 11 p.m. during a wedding reception at Cedar Creek Country Club in Onalaska, he got a call.
On the other end was John Dorsey, now the Cleveland Browns' general manager, then the Packers' director of college scouting.
“I messed with him,” Dorsey admits now, chortling, “because back then you could mess with interns. I called him up when he was at work, and I said, ‘Well, Brian, this is John Dorsey from the Packers calling. I just want to let you know, we’d like to see you up here. We’d like for you to start work Monday. Hopefully, you’ll be here.’ And I hung up. Sure enough, he was there at 7 a.m.”
“The rest,” Gutekunst says, “is kind of history.”
Now, it’s part of Packers history.
Gutekunst, in his 20th season with the Packers, recalled his career origin last week while sitting at the head of a rectangular, wooden table inside the team’s front-office boardroom. He wore a blue, plaid jacket, and his hair still was coiffed an hour after he was introduced as general manager. Behind him, pictures of Vince Lombardi and Curly Lambeau hung on the walls, a backdrop emphasizing the prominence of his new chair.
He doesn’t need reminders. There are only 32 general manager jobs in pro football, and the Packers might offer the best. There is no meddling owner passing down directives on roster decisions, and even with team president/CEO Mark Murphy expanding his influence, that is unlikely to change. There is Aaron Rodgers, a quarterback any GM could build a championship contender around.
With those perks comes some of the weightiest responsibility in the league. Gutekunst, working under a five-year contract, is now caretaker of the Packers' remaining title window with Rodgers. His personnel decisions will largely determine whether the franchise maximizes its MVP quarterback’s career with another Super Bowl. Even more, Gutekunst, 44, might be tasked with ensuring the franchise has life after its Hall of Famer, just as Ted Thompson did before him.
Those who know him expect a different perspective, a more aggressive approach to team building than his predecessor, something Gutekunst indicated on the day he was introduced.
“I’m sure he’s going to take a lot of stuff that he learned from Ted,” said Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie, who worked 14 years with Gutekunst in a senior role for the Packers, “and probably build his own thing. He’s going to be his own man.”
Thompson remains a senior adviser, but the Packers are under new direction. Along his journey to GM, Gutekunst showed he’s beholden to his own ideals. Two decades ago, people who knew Gutekunst thought he was going places.
Nobody predicted that place would be here.
He’s the son of a coach. Ask someone who knows Gutekunst about his ascension, and invariably they mention he comes from a football family.
The oldest of former University of Minnesota football coach John Gutekunst's three sons, Brian was exposed to the sport in a way most kids never see. He was 12 when his father replaced Lou Holtz at the University of Minnesota. John Gutekunst led the Golden Gophers football program for six seasons, rooting his oldest son in the game. As a teenager, Brian Gutekunst patrolled the Metrodome's visiting sideline as a ball boy.
Win or lose, John Gutekunst took his sons out for a postgame meal each Saturday. Between bites one fall evening, Brian, around 13 at the time, gave his father an unexpected proposition.
“He said, ‘You know, by the second quarter, I could understand pass and run by the way they were calling plays. I could hear them,’” John Gutekunst says. “He goes, ‘Do you want me to signal you?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t want you doing that at all.’ I said, ‘Not because I’m virtuous, but I don’t trust you’d be right.’”
John Gutekunst laughs at the memory.
“That was him,” he says. “He wasn’t just watching. He was always learning and learning, and calculating and seeing how he could get the upper hand.”
Gutekunst's two brothers live in Raleigh, N.C. Michael Gutekunst, 42, works in information and technology with emergency management for the city. Jon Gutekunst, 40, attended the Naval Academy, spent 11 years as an enlisted pilot, and now flies private, corporate jets part time.
With three boys close in age, the Gutekunst home was ground zero for competition. Jon, especially, had a way of ruffling his oldest brother, his father says.
“Being the oldest,” John Gutekunst says, “Brian could be the instigator of all kinds of games. Mike would have to play the peacemaker between him and the younger one, because the younger guy, Jon, he’d mouth off at Brian. And he was real competitive with him. Poor Mike had to be in the middle of both of them.”
John Gutekunst’s passion for football came from his father. Henry Gutekunst, a multi-sport athlete, became first in his family to attend college at Muhlenberg in Allentown, Pa., where he was a running back. Later, he was drafted by the Philadelphia Athletics, but gave up baseball for $5 a day playing semipro football.
Henry Gutekunst was a born tailback. He ran 100 yards in 10 seconds flat as a high school sprinter in 1934, a Pennsylvania state record that stood almost four decades. “I didn’t inherit all that speed,” John says, “and neither did Brian.” No, but perhaps another family trait passed down.
In his second season at La Crosse, Brian Gutekunst’s shoulder wouldn’t stay in its socket.
“It’s probably genetic,” John Gutekunst says, “because my left one is not worth a darn either. But it’s just the shoulder joint gets separated — dislocations are a little worse, because it tears up more — and it gets to where you have some nerve reaction. If you’re not going to make a bunch of money, then it’s probably better off to not keep playing on it.”
A linebacker, Gutekunst didn’t want to end his career, but practicality intervened.
He decidedly was not going to make a bunch of money playing football. Gutekunst was a fine Division III player, nothing special. “If you asked him to do something,” Shockmel says, “he was going to do it to the best of his ability — or die trying.” Bum shoulder be damned.
Bad as he wanted to play, the sidelines presented his best chance to stay in the game. So Gutekunst stuck with what he knew, what his father unintentionally taught him to be during all those years watching practice.
He became a student coach.
For hours, he resided inside the UW-La Crosse film room. The program emphasized film review, but Shockmel says most Division III players had to be taught how to study. Naturally, they got stuck watching the football.
Brian Gutekunst was different. The son of a coach, he arrived already grounded in film.
“He was looking at the schemes,” Shockmel says, “and how people move. He would always look for flaws or tells. And he was good at that.
“He really looked at personnel, what they could do.”
His talent evaluations quickly earned trust from veteran coaches. If not scouting, Harring says, Gutekunst might have become a master recruiter.
Harring hit the trail hard each spring in search of prospects. He’d return lugging grainy, 16-millimeter films, sometimes as many as 20 from one high school, and have Gutekunst grade each player.
“I would have a checklist we’d go through,” Harring says, “to pick out what we were looking for: speed, quickness, strength and all that stuff. Within a day or two, he’d come back with all 20 films graded out and ready to go.
“He always did, I felt, the best job we had of anybody on our staff looking at film and making the judgment calls that he made off that.”
In coaching, Gutekunst was a natural. Superiors marveled at how a kid could make those “judgment calls” on peers. Other student coaches, Shockmel explains, needed to learn how to drop personal feelings before stepping onto the field. At times, friendships prevented sound decisions. Never with Gutekunst, Shockmel says.
What surprised him most, though, was how smoothly Gutekunst communicated. It’s difficult coaching a linebacker the same age, if not older. The staff was dumbfounded with how easy Gutekunst made it look.
Gutekunst was firm, but agreeable. He taught through positive reinforcement, yet still commanded respect. He was calculated without being cold.
It’s an approach Packers colleagues also noticed. Mike Eayrs, the team’s longtime head of analytics, says Gutekunst was universally liked within the organization.
“He gets along with virtually everyone,” Eayrs says, “and he’s great at trying to achieve a consensus. In the discussions I’ve been present when he was in the room, he rarely held an adversarial stance. He was always listening, and then working the points of agreement.”
In time, UW-La Cross gave Gutekunst more responsibilities. A coaching career, it seemed, was burgeoning. Lines blurred between student assistant and full-time staff.
On a Division III budget, UW-La Crosse couldn’t afford more than one bus to road games. Coaches trailed in conversion vans, off-limits to students.
“Because we talk,” Shockmel explains. “We talk about players — we talk about this, we talk about that — and we don’t want that to get out. Brian would’ve been the person that we would’ve taken. Because we trusted him as a person, as a coach. It was just a unique situation.
“I don’t think he ever let the fact that he was a student affect decisions, or the way he went about things. He was a classic professional. He wasn’t a student.”
Gutekunst got his first taste of the NFL in 1995. The New Orleans Saints, training in La Crosse, often hired members of the Eagles football team as security to help shuttle players to and from practice. That summer, the Saints requested a student coach to help assist their offensive line.
Harring quickly recommended Gutekunst. The job, John Gutekunst remembers his son telling him, involved quizzing players on the sideline over correct calls and checks. It brought Brian Gutekunst in contact with Willie Roaf, potentially a future Hall of Fame left tackle.
No, Roaf didn’t need much help from a Division III student coach.
“He said, ‘Geez, this is really boring,’” John Gutekunst remembers. “A week later or so, the Vikings came over for one of those inner-team scrimmage practices, and I remember him calling back, and he said, ‘Dad, I don’t know why I’m doing this. That guy is really good. He is really good.’ And he was right.
“So he just kept on moving along that way.”
Shockmel expected the son of a coach would stay in coaching. He wasn’t the only one. “I thought coaching might still be in my future,” Brian Gutekunst says, “because I love the teaching part of it.” Then the Packers called, and he had two days to get to Green Bay.
Looking back, John Gutekunst understands why his son chose scouting.
“I think if Ron Wolf calls you in and trains you,” John Gutekunst says, his voice trailing off. “I mean, especially in professional football. Your lifeblood is relying on players.
“I would think it’s hard to say no.”
Without players, good communication won’t win games. A general manager must lead his personnel staff, yes, but his first job is to discover talent.
“Either you earn your skins on the wall,” Dorsey says, “or you don’t.”
It didn’t take Gutekunst long. After his internship in Green Bay, he followed John Schneider from the Packers to the Kansas City Chiefs. Among his first jobs, Harring remembers, was to find a long snapper.
Gutekunst recommended his old college roommate.
Mike Maslowski, an Arena League linebacker for the San Jose SaberCats, also was hell-bent to chase the game as long as possible. Gutekunst persuaded the Chiefs to give Maslowski a chance in NFL Europe. In his lone year overseas, he became the only player in league history to exceed 100 tackles in a season.
One year later, Maslowski was not only the Chiefs' long snapper, but on his way to becoming a starting linebacker. He played five seasons in Kansas City before a knee injury ended his career at age 29. In 2002, Maslowski had 162 tackles in his first year as a starter, setting a Chiefs single-season record that still stands.
Discarded by NFL scouts as too small and too slow, Maslowski believes Gutekunst’s insistence opened his door into the league.
“Without him sharing my information and what he knew about me,” Maslowski says, “I doubt the opportunity may have ever come. He was critical in the opportunity, and I believe that deep down he knew that given the opportunity, I would make the most of it and turn the opportunity into a linebacker situation.”
After one year with the Chiefs, Gutekunst returned to Green Bay. He joined one of the most fertile environments for scouting development in NFL history, a stable of top executives who form Ron Wolf’s scouting tree.
Before him, five scouts Wolf hired for the Packers in the 1990s went on to become general managers: Thompson, Dorsey, McKenzie, Schneider and Scot McCloughan. Gutekunst, the little brother of sorts, started later than the others.
Dorsey says the “beauty of the system” was knowing the right time for professional advancement. Gutekunst’s first full-time job for the Packers was scouting the East Coast. After only two years, he was relocated to scout the talent-rich Southeast.
“You knew you were going to get you a worker,” McKenzie says. “If he comes with something, it’s going to be good information, because you know he did the work. He had an eye for talent. So that wasn’t a problem. Because some guys work hard, but still don’t know what they’re doing.
“That’s not the case with Gutey. He works hard, and he knows what he’s doing.”
Though he had respect from the veteran scouts above him, Gutekunst earned everything he got. Dorsey compared the Packers' war room to a locker room. Thin skins were quickly exposed. Scouts constantly dug at each other, poking holes in logic. “That’s how you’re going to get the real information out of each other,” McKenzie says. It taught Gutekunst the importance of self-vetting.
Before entering the war room, Gutekunst knew his scouting reports were going to be drilled by some of the league’s best talent evaluators.
“It’s identification of prospects,” Dorsey says, “but it’s also the art of conviction. It’s also the art of laying it out for the room when we sit in those long meetings, of why this guy would fit for a particular organization. I mean, that’s what you do. You have to have your facts together, and you have to be prepared like it’s a dissertation for your Ph.D. You have to be ready to answer any questions that may come up.”
Dorsey doesn’t doubt his young apprentice is ready. He has watched Gutekunst grow, from a wide-eyed son of a coach learning to scout, to a general manager commanding a contender.
Looking back, Gutekunst wonders if he was really the Packers' first choice in the summer of 1997. How else to explain such short notice? Dorsey doesn’t flinch.
Yes, of course, he says, Gutekunst was the scout he wanted all along.
“I just wanted to see if he had initiative,” Dorsey says, “and see if he could get to where he’s supposed to get.”