7 Pieces of Wisdom from the NFL Combine Football Career Conference

By Amari Dryden, @Amari_Dryden

Last month, sports fans watched as former college football players were put on the national stage to display their talents for all thirty-two NFL teams. Little did the public know, there was a combine for those of us who weren’t blessed with lightning fast speed and incredible strength but still want a taste of the sports industry—the NFL Combine Football Career Conference hosted by Sports Management Worldwide.

Sports Management Worldwide has over twenty online courses such as Sports Administration, Baseball Analytics, and Athlete Management. They also host conferences internationally in congruence with sporting events such as the NHL Draft Hockey Conference and Soccer Sports Career Conference at the MLS SuperDraft. This year was the 15th annual Football Career Conference. 

This year’s conference featured panel discussions on football scouting & analytics, ticket sales, the importance of agents, and the relationship between general managers and agents. 

Consistency is key to succeed in this business.
— John Wooten, godfather of the NFL

John Wooten, Chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance Foundation, spoke about the importance of diversity and inclusion in the NFL on the business side. 

“If the NFL wants to be committed to diversity, those in operations must look like the playing field,” he said.

The Fritz Pollard Alliance Foundation's mission is to promote diversity and equality of job opportunity in the coaching, front office, and scouting staffs of National Football League teams.

You’re going to be continually told no, but it’s just creating another opportunity for you.
— Adam Schefter, ESPN Insider
Adam Schefter and I Photo via Amari Dryden

Adam Schefter and I Photo via Amari Dryden

Schefter shared his journey into the sports industry. It began with numerous job rejection letters while in college at the University of Michigan. He explained there was a bar on campus that would give a person a free drink for every rejection letter they received. “I could have owned the bar with the amount of rejection letters I got.”

A specific story he shared was about how he maintained a relationship with a coach who was searching for a job when everyone had given up on him. After a few years of job-searching, the coach ended up getting a job with the Chargers. This led to Schefter breaking the news that the San Diego Chargers were moving to Los Angeles.

“If you build relationships over time, do the right thing and treat people right along the way, you’ll grow with them. Nothing can replace hard work and treating people fairly.”

Be seen in a space to the point where a person doesn’t think about the space without you.
— Jen Mueller, Seattle Seahawks Sideline Reporter

Jen Mueller, Sideline Reporter for the Seattle Seahawks, was the emcee of the conference and sat on a panel “Secrets to Breaking into Sports," along with Greg Hylton, Vice President of Premium Seating & Ticket Sales for the Indianapolis Colts. Mueller expressed how she could monetize her passion of speaking into a career in the sports communication realm of sports.  “I am proud to say I am rarely at a loss for words so being in communications is perfect for me.”

As a veteran in the sales industry, with over twenty years of experience, Hylton explained how the most expensive seat in the stadium is an empty seat because it’s a missed opportunity.  “The person who could have sat in that seat could have become a season ticketholder for life.”

You must have humility when you want to learn a sport you haven’t played.
— Big Business of Football Scouting and Analytics Panel

One panel discussion showcased during the conference was called “Big Business of Football Scouting and Analytics.” Those involved were Mike Stoeber, Jacksonville Jaguars Director of Football Technologies; Mike Tanier, Bleacher Report NFL Lead Writer; Aaron Schatz, Football Outsiders Founder & ESPN Insider; Josh Liskiewitz, Pro Football Focus Analyst; and Russ Lande, GM Jr. Scouting, Montreal Alouettes Regional Scout.

Everyone had fascinating stories on how they broke into the sports industry. Stoeber was a tuba player in his college’s marching band. Due to the fact he knew how to work a computer back when computers weren’t commonplace, he got a job as an intern for the University of Florida’s football team. 

Tanier was a high school math teacher in New Jersey for seventeen years before he started working in sports. 

Schatz used his statistical skills to create Football Outsiders, a website about in-depth football statistics. Since its creation, his website has been used as a foundation for statistical methods used in NFL analysis. 

Liskiewitz took the SMWW Football Analytics course where Tanier and Schatz were his instructors resulting in a job in the industry. 

Lande started out as an unpaid recruiting intern for the UCLA football team.

Recruiting is like dating.
— Joel Corry, former NFL & NBA Agent, Salary Cap Expert

The second panel discussion of the day featured four NFL/CFL certified agents: Kelli Masters, Kristen Kuliga, Joel Corry and Ray Haija. They talked about the inner working of the agent world. Agents must understand what the players are looking for and how they fit with an agent’s agency. The guy who’s the best talent isn’t always the one you want. 

Be a good listener—it’s the most underrated quality.
— Mike Tannenbaum, Miami Dolphins Executive Vice President, Football Operations

Tannenbaum started out with a quote I have used as my guidance for years: “If you choose a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” He explained the front office of a professional team oversees the acquisition of talent and the Executive Vice President of Football Operations is the point guard of information. The toughest negotiation he’s had to do was the draft after the 2011 lockout.

It’s never about the money, only about your passion.
— Mark Dominik, ESPN Analyst & former Tampa Bay Buccaneers GM

Mark Dominik, former general manager of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers,[AW1]  favorite part of being a GM was draft day. As a GM, he would grade the interviews of the football players from the combine with the Director of Player Personnel and team scouts. The worst part of being a GM? Firing people. 

“I’ve let go over 1,000 people, and it never gets any easier,” Dominik said. 

The one tidbit he left with each person was one thing they did great and one thing they can improve on. In terms of developing a relationship with an agent, you want to talk to them about who they are and their negotiation style. 

“The first time you negotiate a trade should not be the first time you’ve talked to them.” 

Knowing an agent well helps with negotiations because all agents have their own styles and respond to negotiation differently.

“Some trades can be done in five minutes, others in five hours depending on the agent.”

One unique aspect to the conference is all attendees received tickets to one of the Saturday sessions of the NFL Combine. The two sessions showcased the tight ends, wide receivers and quarterbacks who have declared for the NFL Draft. The football hitting the gloves of the receivers was all I heard because the stadium was so quiet. For the clear majority, this was the biggest job interview they will ever have so concentration was key.

I personally witnessed John Ross’s record-shattering 4.22 second 40-yard dash. That man is fast! It was even more exciting for me because I got to watch my cousin, James Quick, former wide receiver for the University of Louisville, participate in the combine.

Charging into Los Angeles