GREEN BAY – Ted Thompson’s advice was simple and straightforward.
Before Brian Gutekunst stepped to the podium to be introduced as the Packers’ 10th general manager in franchise history, Thompson offered one final tip to his successor.
“He told me to smile more,” said Gutekunst with a laugh. “He said if he could go back and smile a bit more, (he would).”
What more would you expect from Thompson, whose deadpan delivery and dry wit was ubiquitous throughout his own 13-year run as Packers GM.
Thompson led the organization back to the NFL’s Promised Land with a Super Bowl XLV championship in 2010 and built a roster that made eight consecutive trips to the postseason, a franchise record.
Humble to a fault, Thompson never once has boasted about his team’s successes. In countless interviews over the years, the longtime personnel man deflected any praise to his scouts, the coaching staff and the players on the field.
Fittingly, Thompson quietly transitioned into a new senior advisor role in the Packers’ personnel department days after the team’s season concluded in Detroit, vacating the chair for Gutekunst to assume his “dream job.”
While his tone was humorous in nature, Thompson’s reminder to smile was one of the many lessons he’s passed down to Gutekunst, the sixth GM to sprout from the scouting tree of Pro Football Hall of Famer Ron Wolf.
Thompson was the first Wolf protégé to win a Super Bowl. The Packers drafted 14 players who made at least one Pro Bowl appearance under Thompson’s leadership, including six-time Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews, receiver Jordy Nelson and safety Nick Collins.
Along with signing 2009 defensive player of the year Charles Woodson, Thompson was responsible for the Packers picking Aaron Rodgers and having the conviction to stand by the young MVP quarterback during the tumultuous summer of 2008 when Brett Favre unretired at the start of training camp.
Thompson wagered his football future when he agreed to trade Favre to the New York Jets and proceed with Rodgers at quarterback. Within three years, the Packers had won Super Bowl XLV and Rodgers had earned the first of his two NFL MVP honors.
“Watching him go through the Brett Favre thing and watching his strength in there to do the right thing,” said Gutekunst, who talked with Thompson daily during the interview process. “What he believed was right and to hear him say that over and over — ‘I’m just trying to do the right thing, do what’s right for this organization and everybody involved’ — I think those things I’ll never forget, how he handled those things.”
Gutekunst took something away from each of the personnel executives he worked with in Green Bay, including current Cleveland Browns GM John Dorsey, who first brought him to the Packers as a scouting assistant in 1997.
Gutekunst, an assistant at UW-La Crosse at the time, was testing the coaching waters when Dorsey connected with Eagles head coach Roger Herring searching for potential candidates in the Packers’ scouting internship program.
“I’m pretty sure Dorse’ had another guy in mind that dropped out on him about two weeks before the internship,” said Gutekunst, jokingly. “Because he called me when I was working at the Cedar Creek Country Club bar at a wedding at 11 o’clock at night and said, ‘Can you be here in a week?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ So that’s how I got into it.”
Gutekunst then spent a year as a scouting assistant in Kansas City with current Seattle GM John Schneider before returning to the Packers a year later. Gutekunst spent those early years scouting the East Coast and later the Southeast region, getting a firsthand look at how Nick Saban and Urban Meyer ran their national-championship programs.
Future Washington GM Scot McCloughan also took Gutekunst under his wing in Green Bay, frequently answering questions for young scouts who were too nervous to approach Ron Wolf themselves. He also leaned on the likes of Dorsey, future Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie and eventually Thompson after he returned to Green Bay as GM in 2005.
“The last 10 years with Ted Thompson have probably been the most influential time in my career,” Gutekunst said. “Because of just his humility, his strength, his discipline, his calmness in the face of really tough situations and just understanding why he did what he did. That will have the most lasting impact, I think, in my career.”
Thirteen times Gutekunst watched Thompson’s demeanor in the draft room during those tense, pressure-packed minutes on the clock. Each year, he took notice of how Thompson conducted himself, carefully weighing the opinions of everyone in the room before making his decision.
Now, Gutekunst will be the one sitting in the GM seat at the end of April. At his disposal is the earliest draft pick – 14th overall – the Packers have had since 2009. He could have as many as 12 total selections over three days depending on the compensatory process.
Gutekunst plans to lead with his own aggressive, forward-thinking mindset, but plans to keep all the lessons he learned from Thompson on draft night and beyond.
“One of the big things that I think about with him sitting in this general manager’s chair is … there’s all kinds of voices in your ear and people pulling at you trying to get their opinion to you and what you should do,” Gutekunst said. “His ability to kind of come here and block it all out and focus on what he thought was right … I always thought his discipline there, his self-control was remarkable, and it’s something that I will always try to pattern myself after.”