MOBILE, Ala. — Dave Gettleman has always had an eye for and an appreciation of skilled laborers.
When he was 12, Gettleman spent the summer helping his father install boilers in apartment buildings and clean out flooded basements in homes throughout Boston.
Even now, 50 years later, Gettleman can identify a house with water issues the minute he walks through the door.
The Panthers’ first-time general manager also can spot football players.
Over a quarter-century in the NFL, Gettleman helped shape the rosters of teams that played in six Super Bowls, including three that won the Lombardi Trophy.
Marty Hurney, his predecessor with Carolina, started out as a sportswriter and later worked his way up the business side of the front office as a salary cap manager.
Gettleman was a high school football coach who has spent his entire NFL career on the scouting side.
Former New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi, the man responsible for putting Gettleman in front of Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, called his friend and former colleague “an exceptional evaluator of talent.”
That’s what Gettleman was doing for three days last week in Mobile, during his second full week with the Panthers. Gettleman’s face had a ruddy hue from hours in the sun at Ladd-Peebles Stadium watching Senior Bowl practices.
There was no place he’d rather be.
“It’s something I’d worked for 25 years. It happened. It was a family victory,” Gettleman said last week at the hotel. “So was it exciting? Of course it was. Is it fulfilling? Absolutely. Is it thrilling? Yes.
“There’s a lot of work ahead, though.”
Gettleman has never been afraid of work.
Besides helping his father hoist the 250-pound boiler plates, Gettleman held summer jobs as a teenager, installing sprinkler systems and loading trucks at a Boston meat market.
But the summer with his father, Eli, a general manager for a plumbing and heating company, left the most lasting marks – in some cases, literally.
“When you had to change the boiler, hell, I was playing with asbestos when I was a kid,” Gettleman said, laughing. “I had asbestos all over my face. You’re taking out the old boiler, that’s what they were all lined with.”
Gettleman learned honesty and the importance of a day’s work from his father, who died in 1999 less than four months after Gettleman’s mother’s death.
“My dad’s my hero. I’m not ashamed to say that,” Gettleman said. “My dad was very ethical, a very moral guy. Instilled hard work. He was a hard-working man.”
Gettleman also found time to play sports growing up in the Mattapan section of Boston. He and the other kids from their three-story building would gather on the street for games of stick ball and “half ball,” which is what stick ball became when the pink, rubber ball split in half.
Gettleman played football and baseball in high school, and started as a freshman on Springfield (Mass.) College’s football team before a shoulder injury ended his career.
Gettleman was a high school assistant his final two years of college, and was coaching and teaching drivers education in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., when he met his future wife.
Gettleman is hesitant to tell the story because Joanne was one of his students at the time, but the two did not begin dating until they bumped into each other at a wedding seven years later. They were married 14 months after that, and have been together 28 years.
It was around that time when Gettleman was introduced to a part-time scout for the Kansas City Chiefs named Bill Polian. Polian, who would go on to become a successful general manager for Buffalo, Carolina and Indianapolis, hired Gettleman in Buffalo.
‘Thrill of finding a guy’
Gettleman was the Bills’ combine scout with BLESTO, a scouting co-op whose members share information and reports on players participating in the combine in Indianapolis.
Gettleman loved the job.
“I was the first guy in because you’re there in the spring developing a list. It was just the thrill of finding a guy, especially at the small schools. It was neat,” he said. “The responsibility of being a combine scout is you’re giving the teams direction, giving them a starting point.”
Gettleman particularly enjoyed unearthing players other scouts missed, as he did in 1991 when he visited a prospect at Cheyney University. The historically black school outside Philadelphia had a 6-foot-7, 290-pound defensive tackle named James Williams, who looked underwhelming on videotape.
At least he did until Gettleman got to the sixth tape on Williams, which showed him making about nine tackles in a 10-play span. Although Williams was not dominant in the game Gettleman attended, Gettleman told the BLESTO scouts he thought Williams could play in the NFL.
“They’re laughing at me because they’d seen this guy. I just had a conviction,” Gettleman said.
The Bears, part of the BLESTO co-op, signed Williams as an undrafted free agent. They moved him to offensive tackle two years later, and Williams wound up starting 143 games and going to a Pro Bowl.
“It’s really only because you work at it. It’s not like you fall into it. It’s not that you get lucky,” Gettleman said. “Hard work leads you to – what do they say, luck is the residue of design?”
Gettleman’s work landed him positions with Buffalo, Denver and New York. He spent three years in Raleigh in the mid-1990s as the Southeast scout for the Broncos, who won the Super Bowl while Gettleman was with them.
In his second year with the Giants, the team’s pro personnel director retired and Gettleman took over the position. He was responsible for evaluating free agents and advance scouting.
On Sundays during the season, Gettleman would return to the Giants’ facility in the early-morning hours after scouting New York’s next opponent. Accorsi would be asleep in his office, and Gettleman would come in and wake him.
“He’d say, ‘I have an egg sandwich for you,’ ” said Accorsi, the Giants’ general manager from 1998 until 2006. “That would be his excuse to wake me up at 3 in the morning.”
By 8 a.m., Gettleman would be in front of coach Tom Coughlin and his staff to go over the scouting report. During the sit-downs with Coughlin – especially when Gettleman would meet with Coughlin about free agents – Gettleman did not back down from the cantankerous coach, according to Accorsi.
“He was never territorial. It was never about Dave and his ego,” Accorsi said. “But he also would stand his ground … and Coughlin is no shrinking violet. He’s a tough guy and he makes you earn your conviction.”
Polian said former Bills coach Marv Levy always respected Gettleman – in large part because of his preparedness.
“When you’re dealing with analysis and facts, it’s a lot easier to have a conversation than with someone saying, ‘I like this guy.’ It’s a marked difference,” Polian said. “(Gettleman) doesn’t deal in cliches. He deals in straight-down-the-line, factual analysis.”
Looking for a shot
Gettleman’s straightforward approach and eye for talent led to the Giants signing a number of free agents who were instrumental in their two Super Bowl victories.
Under Gettleman’s watch, the Giants signed wide receiver Plaxico Burress, linebacker Antonio Pierce, center Shaun O’Hara and right tackle Kareem McKenzie.
“Generally speaking, we didn’t miss on an important free agent signing,” Accorsi said. “We hit them all, big and small.”
Despite Gettleman’s role in the Giants’ success, he was passed over – or in many cases, completely ignored – for general manager jobs. He interviewed in Kansas City before the Chiefs hired Scott Pioli in 2009, and twice was a finalist in Cleveland.
“When I started seeing all these guys getting general manager jobs in their 30s, I didn’t think it was going to happen,” Accorsi said. “And I felt bad about it.”
When Gettleman didn’t get a sniff for the four vacant positions last winter while the Giants were on their way to another Super Bowl title, Gettleman had enough. He approached general manager Jerry Reese about taking a step back and letting his assistant, Ken Sternfeld, take over as pro personnel director.
The Giants created the position of senior pro personnel analyst for Gettleman, which took him off the road during the season. Gettleman, who will turn 62 next month, looked like he would retire without reaching the peak of his profession.
And then Accorsi called and told him he was working as a consultant for the Panthers, who had fired Hurney in October.
“I have a very strong faith,” said Gettleman, who is Jewish. “I didn’t get any of those other jobs. There’s a reason why.”
The task at hand
Gettleman steps into a challenging situation with the Panthers, who are about $16 million over this year’s projected salary cap. The day after Gettleman was hired, offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski left to become Cleveland’s head coach.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera has filled most of his staff openings by promoting internally. Gettleman had input on the hires, but ultimately let Rivera make the call.
Rivera said Gettleman supported Rivera’s decision to promote assistants such as Mike Shula, the former quarterbacks coach who will take over for Chudzinski.
“Dave just said to me, ‘You know, Ron, sometimes the answer is on your roster,’ ” Rivera said. “And that really made me feel good about my decisions, to hear that from him.”
But given that Gettleman did not hire Rivera, most believe Rivera – who waited a week after the season before Richardson told him he would be retained – enters his third season on the hot seat.
Gettleman said he won’t make changes just for the sake of change – with the coaching staff or front office.
“I’m not a slash-and-burn guy. I have no interest in making changes, and we’re going to move forward with this staff,” Gettleman said. “This team went 7-9. They didn’t go 2-14. You have to appreciate that.
“The biggest mistake you can make walking into a place is thinking it’s a mess. You have to say, ‘OK, what pieces are here? Let me evaluate. Let me investigate and let’s move forward.’ ”
The Panthers are moving forward with a longtime scout who says he’s most at home in the film room, “with a clicker” in his hand. Back from the Senior Bowl, he intends to get clicking immediately.
Besides his family, the Boston Red Sox and vacations to Cape Cod, friends say Gettleman has few interests outside of football. Beginning with those hot summers with his father in the bowels of Boston apartment buildings, Gettleman’s passion is recognizing talent.
Said Accorsi: “I don’t think I ever walked in there when he wasn’t studying tape, if he was in his office.”
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