Jon-Eric Sullivan 'indispensable' as Packers GM Brian Gutekunst's right-hand man
GREEN BAY - The decision by Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst to postpone hiring replacements for executives Eliot Wolf and Alonzo Highsmith served as a significant vote of confidence to the remainder of his scouting department. Gutekunst had enough trust in his subordinates to complete the pre-draft process with two fewer sets of trained and respected eyes.
It was a matter of weeks before Jon-Eric Sullivan, the Packers’ director of college scouting, appeared to be playing a more prominent role alongside Gutekunst. At the Senior Bowl, where former general manager Ted Thompson was the only member of the scouting department not in attendance, Gutekunst and Sullivan were inseparable for the first two days of practice. They stood together at field level for several hours each day, shifting their focus from position to position as the North and South teams practiced.
Even their black sunglasses and eyewear retainers seemed to match.
“This draft process,” Gutekunst said this week, “Jon-Eric has been indispensable to me.”
So who exactly is Sullivan, a man who has been in Green Bay for 15 years and who might have significant pull in this year's draft? You’ll have to read his scouting report to find out:
Weight: 170 pounds.
Position: Director of college scouting.
Football roots: Sullivan was born in Columbia, South Carolina, while his father, Jerry Sullivan, coached the Gamecocks’ wide receivers. Jerry Sullivan, 73, is a football lifer whose coaching career began in 1971 and continues today as the senior offensive assistant and passing game coordinator at Louisiana State University. He is revered as one of the best receivers coaches in the country with a resume that includes stints with a half dozen NFL teams: Chargers, Lions, Cardinals, Dolphins, 49ers and Jaguars. As a child, Sullivan spent time with his father in the football offices and practice facilities at LSU. The campus was the origin of his love affair with the sport. “I was bouncing around the locker room, often with the players (and) getting to know the players, and just running around campus and going to practice and being in the weight room when the players were working out,” Sullivan said. “So I got into it and fell in love with it at a young age.”
He played for the first time in third grade before taking three years off and resuming full time in junior high. After so many games of catch with his father — games complete with route trees and proper instruction — Sullivan became a wide receiver himself. Even Sullivan’s future wife, Jennifer, would be the daughter of an NFL coach. Her father, Pete Hoener, coaches tight ends for the Carolina Panthers.
Course correction: Sullivan’s parents separated when he was young, and in the eighth grade he moved from South Carolina to Louisiana to live with his father full time. He spent a year at boarding school in Mississippi before earning acceptance to Catholic High School, an athletic power in Baton Rouge that has produced the likes of quarterback Major Applewhite (head coach at the University of Houston), running back Warrick Dunn (three-time Pro Bowler) and tailback Derrius Guice from LSU (potential first-round pick in this year’s draft).
As Sullivan transitioned to Catholic High School, his father was fired from LSU and accepted a job at Ohio State. Rather than move for a second time, Sullivan said he stayed in Louisiana and spent two years living with friends. His grades slipped without parental supervision, and Jerry Sullivan enrolled his son in boarding school at Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia. “Your friend’s parents aren’t going to parent you the same as they parent their own,” Sullivan said. “ … I was 15, 16 years old without a ton of supervision. So my dad just said, ‘Hey listen, this is what we’re going to do,’ and that’s what we did. And it was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
At Fork Union, where Sullivan spent his final two years of high school, the coaching staff asked him to play cornerback in addition to wide receiver. The move was an overwhelming success. Sullivan earned All-State honors after snagging nine interceptions to lead the state of Virginia. A year later, as a senior, Sullivan became an All-State wide receiver with recruiting interest from several high-major programs. Some of the schools viewed him as a receiver, while others viewed him as a corner. “What I realized looking back at my own situation, and what I try to see in these kids (coming out of college), they all come from different situations and some of them have made mistakes,” Sullivan said. “I certainly wasn’t perfect. And that’s part of the reason I ended up in boarding school, you know what I mean? But you try to figure out what’s at the core of the person. Is this a good kid or is this a bad kid? And you talk about simplistic, but that’s it.”
Different worlds: Because of his father, wide receiver was Sullivan’s first love and the reason he accepted a scholarship to South Carolina. Playing time was scarce for an undersized wideout in the Southeastern Conference, and Sullivan said he contributed mostly on special teams as a punt returner and cover man. The coaches briefly flipped him to corner when injuries struck after his first season — not unlike his career at Fork Union — but Sullivan switched back to receiver for his sophomore year. He caught eight passes for 110 yards in 1997 before transferring to Gardner-Webb, which was a Division II school at the time. “Gardner-Webb obviously was a different situation and I wouldn’t trade that experience," Sullivan said, "but I probably should have sat tight and let things play out over the next two years at South Carolina. (I was) young and had an over-inflated opinion of myself at that point in my life, if I’m being honest.”
Sullivan said he felt like a “big fish in a small pond” at Gardner-Webb and was temporarily jarred by the difference in resources between the schools, especially when it came to athletic facilities and dining options. He played his final two seasons at Gardner-Webb and was named all-conference as a senior with 43 receptions. It was the opposite end of the collegiate spectrum from South Carolina, and that experience became an important tool for Sullivan when projecting the long-term potential of certain prospects. “What you see now is you see guys that come out of schools, small schools that are very raw and have a specific skill set,” Sullivan said. “Maybe they can run or maybe they’re a left tackle that’s got good feet and length but they’re 280 pounds. They’re at a small school, they’re not eating four and five times a day and snacks at night, you know? So you have to take that into consideration and say all right, what can he be? Not what he is today, what can he be?”
Real-world experience: There was a moment when Sullivan thought he wanted to become a coach and join the family business. He had finished his playing career at Gardner-Webb but needed an additional semester of credits to complete his degree in social science. Sullivan said he was asked to remain on campus as a student-assistant after his wide receiver coach left the business to pursue a pharmaceutical sales job. “So they made me the receivers coach even though I was still technically a student,” Sullivan said. “They kept me on scholarship to coach that fall.”
Though he enjoyed the experience, Sullivan said he burned out after immersing himself in football for so many years. He had an urge to try his hand at corporate America — “I thought I wanted to go put on a suit and tie,” Sullivan said — and took a job at GMAC Insurance in Charlotte. He floated from department to department in a program that gave new employees opportunities in different fields. There were times when he made phone calls to chase past-due car payments and times when he hit the road to visit buyers. He tried his hand at sales and did his share of paperwork. Eventually, before the end of his rotations, Sullivan said he took a job in Phoenix as a sales rep for Balfour, a company that sells class rings. “That was a lot of fun,” Sullivan said. “I had a territory out in Arizona bouncing around school to school. Kind of like being a scout, every day was different.” But Sullivan quickly soured on the rigidity of corporate life. By 2003, he had begun to miss football.
Paid his dues: At the time Sullivan expressed an interest in becoming a scout, the Packers were building one of the strongest front offices in football: John Dorsey, now the GM of the Browns, was the director of college scouting; Reggie McKenzie, now the GM of the Raiders, was director of pro personnel; John Schneider, now the GM of the Seahawks, was a personnel assistant; and the area scouts included both Gutekunst and Alonzo Highsmith, now the vice president of player personnel for the Browns. Gutekunst, who by then was responsible for the Southeast region, was a product of the Packers' internship program designed to build a pipeline of future scouts. When Jerry Sullivan reached out to his friend Mark Hatley, then the vice president of football operations for the Packers, his son would audition for the same program in the summer of 2003. The Packers were impressed and absorbed him into the program for training camp. “Jon-Eric was by far one of the best interns we had, and you knew he definitely had the passion and the drive and the work ethic and football knowledge,” McKenzie said. “You can tell he’s been around football because he could really understand what was taking place on the field and also try to apply that to what we were doing in the scouting department personnel-wise.”
The internship ended without a job offer, though the Packers mentioned a potential opening the following year. Sullivan went home to Charlotte and returned to GMAC Insurance as a temporary employee. He wanted to give the Packers some time before officially taking his career in another direction. “I tried to stay in touch ... without being annoying,” Sullivan said. Several months later, he and his soon-to-be wife were sitting in a pizza shop when Dorsey finally called to offer Sullivan a job in the football operations department. “I hung the phone up and I was ecstatic, to say the least,” Sullivan said. “I knew it was a phenomenal opportunity, and here we are 15 years later.”
Homegrown: On the day he was introduced as general manager, Gutekunst was asked if he had a mentor during his years as an area scout. Gutekunst pointed to Scot McCloughan, who went on to become general manager of the 49ers and Washington, as one of his most valuable resources. “Listening to him and why he did the things that he did and what he believed in, that really kind of stuck with me throughout my scouting career,” Gutekunst said. Sullivan feels that what McCloughan did for Gutekunst, Gutekunst has done for him. After several years as the team’s National Football Scouting representative at the NFL scouting combine, Sullivan was promoted to an area scout in both the Central Plains (2008-11) and Southeast (2012-15). During that time, Sullivan said, Gutekunst was always willing to help as he adjusted to life on the road. They discussed the best ways to format scouting reports and the importance of time management during visits to college campuses. Gutekunst listed for Sullivan the types of people he tried to speak with at each school and introduced him to important contacts when their territories overlapped. “He’s a sharp guy and he’s a good guy and we just clicked, you know?” Sullivan said. “We had a good friendship from early on, and I kind of really admired his work.” As Sullivan’s experience grew, colleagues in the scouting department noticed him finding his voice during draft meetings at Lambeau Field. He developed a reputation for being detailed, forthright and assertive.
Lee Gissendaner, a former Packers’ scout now with the Jets: “Sometimes it may take a little longer description to describe a player. Sometimes you can paint a picture and sum him up in a couple words. … But at the end of the day, you’re just trying to get the room, your fellow scouts and colleagues, to understand the picture that you’re painting on a player so that everybody understands and there’s no gray areas. I think that’s one of the things that Jon-Eric has been pretty good at."
Shaun Herock, a former assistant director of college scouting for the Packers who is now the director of college scouting for the Raiders: “He is as honest as the day is long about what he saw and not somebody else’s opinion or ideas. It might be the most far-fetched idea of what you think a player is that he might tell you, but it’s his information and he’s going to stand by it because that’s what he believes.
McKenzie: “Over the years you could feel his confidence growing and building, year in and year out. I think the more he did it, the more he listened to other voices in the room, I think he developed a confidence level the way he felt comfortable stating what his reports (said for his area) and being able to verbalize to the rest of the room what he saw and what he felt and what everything was in his eyes.”
Still learning: Earlier this week, in his first pre-draft press conference, Gutekunst complimented Thompson for his steadiness inside the draft room — regardless of what took place around him. “Sifting through the voices and all the information we have, his steady hand was something that I think the whole room felt, and I think that’s important,” Gutekunst said.
When this year’s draft begins, there are three voices whose timbres Gutekunst is most likely to hear above the fray: Thompson in his advisory role, John Wojciechowski as the director of pro personnel and Sullivan, who seems to have stepped forward as Gutekunst’s right-hand man. While nobody is under more pressure this week than Gutekunst — the Packers have their highest first-round pick since 2009 — the need to be right extends to Sullivan as well. Beginning in January, when the front office shakeup occurred, Sullivan said he was given wide-ranging freedom by Gutekunst to learn on the fly as the personnel department adjusted to a new power structure. A director of college scouting is typically responsible for aiding the general manager through the pre-draft process, Herock said, and based on that it stands to reason Sullivan’s opinion could influence Gutekunst when the Packers are on the clock. “I think he’s going to be a great resource,” McKenzie said. “ … That’s an ongoing relationship for 15-plus years. So that in itself should warrant a great amount of trust and a great amount of understanding of each other, both good and bad. … He can trust what Sully says, OK, and he can take it to the bank.”
The efficacy of this year’s draft won’t be known for two or three years, but the Packers need a number of rookies to contribute immediately given their weaknesses on the current roster. It’s a significant test for Gutekunst, Sullivan and the remainder of the scouting department who, in some ways, are navigating this process for the first time after more than a decade with Thompson at the helm. But with more draft picks than any team in the league (12), the Packers have plenty of chances to get it right. “I told Brian the other day I feel like I’ve grown more in the last couple months than I have probably in the last five, six, seven years,” Sullivan said. “ … (Brian) has done a nice job of guiding me, but at the same time he’s also like, ‘Hey look, this is your thing. You do it, you handle it, you do it how you want to do it.’ Like anything, there’s always bumps in the road and there’s times you’ve got to figure things out. But that’s what you do, you figure it out and you keep it moving.”