Rick Spielman wanted a life in the NFL but wasn't sure what to do once his dreams of playing linebacker were doused in training camp by the San Diego Chargers in 1987 and the Detroit Lions a year later.
He was working in the athletic department at Columbus (Ohio) State Community College when the Lions called to tell him about a job with the Blesto scouting service. If he wanted, Spielman could hop in his old Jeep, drive down to Cincinnati and write scouting reports from Bengals home games.
The pay: 50 bucks a game.
Spielman was reluctant. But he gave it a shot. He wrote his first report and, well, that was that. He was hooked.
"It was the perfect fit because Rick loves football and he's a detail guy who leaves no stone unturned," said younger brother Chris Spielman, former Pro Bowl linebacker for the Lions and Bills. "When he was in school, there were endless piles of binders filled with notes. And he wrote so small. I'd ask him, 'Why do you write so small?' And he's say, 'Because I got a lot to write.'"
Spielman has now spent more than 20 years grinding his path through the personnel side of a league that rejected him as an undersized kid from Southern Illinois. After six seasons without final say in Minnesota, he now has full control as general manager of an ailing franchise that's 9-23 since losing the 2010 NFC Championship Game.
After tiptoeing through the initial waves of free agency, he heads into the April 26-28 draft armed with 10 picks, including No. 3 overall. Quite honestly, he isn't sure what to feel considering he arrived at his dream job on the heels of a 3-13 nightmare that he helped create. That, he said, is why he started to choke up during the Jan. 3 news conference to announce his promotion.
"I was extremely excited and extremely disappointed all at the same time," he said. "I just hate to lose. I just can't stand it. It just eats me alive. But in the same breath, you're overly excited because you got a chance to be a true general manager. To set your philosophies for what you feel this organization needs to do going forward. It was emotions from one extreme to the other."
Spielman clearly believes that his stamp on the franchise will come through the draft, particularly in how he builds around quarterback Christian Ponder, the 12th overall pick in last year's draft.
"My philosophy and thinking this year is because we're picking so high in each round, we're going to get the best of the best of those players in each round," Spielman said. "I really believe you get your blue chippers in the draft, not free agency."
With some talented individuals already on the roster, Spielman doesn't characterize his job as "totally rebuilding" the team.
"I don't see us as totally gutting this thing," Spielman said. "I think in the NFL, you have to expect a one-year turnaround. You see it every year, like what San Francisco did last year. But you also do personnel moves that are designed to keep you competitive now and for years to come."
Hits and misses
In 10 seasons as a vice president in Miami and Minnesota, Spielman helped six winning teams, five that won at least 10 games, three that won division titles and one that reached the NFC title game. But for every home run -- trading for Ricky Williams and Jared Allen; drafting Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin and Chris Chambers -- skeptics point to memorable misses or note that Spielman has mostly worked for coaches who've had the final say.
In 2004, his one season as Dolphins general manager, Spielman's two significant trades failed en route to a 4-12 finish. While trying to satisfy impatient owner H. Wayne Huizenga, Spielman sent a second-round pick to Philadelphia for quarterback A.J. Feeley and a third-round pick to St. Louis for running back Lamar Gordon.
"That was a year that we had a real narrow vision," Spielman said. "We did things that you look back on and say, 'If you had to do it over again, maybe you wouldn't have done some of the moves.' It was short-term thinking."
From 2000 to 2003, the Dolphins won 41 regular-season games, but only one playoff game, a wild-card contest in 2000. After a 10-victory season fell short of the playoffs in 2003, Huizenga brought in Dolphins Hall of Famer Dan Marino as senior vice president of football operations.
Spielman and coach Dave Wannstedt would report to Marino, who was given final say. Twenty-four days later, on Feb. 3, 2004, Marino resigned. Spielman was given control, but it came with a mandate to win now.
The Dolphins needed a franchise quarterback but were never bad enough to get a high first-round draft pick. As general manager, Spielman tried to acquire Jacksonville's Mark Brunell and Washington's Patrick Ramsey before he gambled on Feeley, who was having success in limited opportunities withthe Eagles.
"That's another thing I learned from with the A.J. Feeley trade," Spielman said. "He showed a lot of production when he played in Philadelphia, but that was in a West Coast system. You have to make sure a guy fits exactly to what your team does schematically. It's a huge, huge importance."
The Gordon trade was sheer desperation caused by Williams' shocking retirement right before training camp. That was followed by the distractions of Hurricanes Frances, Ivan and Jeanne, and then a 1-8 start.
Wannstedt resigned at that point. Spielman left after the season when coach Nick Saban was given final say.
Blue collar, white collar
Spielman grew up as the son of Sonny, a demanding football coach in a football hotbed in Massillon, Ohio. There were no excuses for avoiding hard work, no easy ways around responsibility. When Spielman broke both thumbs in a game against state powerhouse Cincinnati Moeller, he finished the game. Years later, when he needed money for the engagement ring that he'd given Michele, he worked on a pig farm.
"It's hard working for Rick because there's a lot of work involved, but it's easy because he's right there with you getting his hands dirty, too," said Scott Studwell, Vikings director of college scouting. "We kid him about the throne he's on now because he's one of us at heart. He's a blue-collar guy in a white-collar position. He's honest, he's trustworthy, he's loyal, he's got integrity and he works his butt off."
Spielman has directed the Vikings through their past five drafts using a system of evaluation that's more detailed than the franchise had ever seen before.
"He's a stickler," Studwell said. "And there are times, to be honest with you, when it can be a little bit of a pain in the butt. But that's the way he wants it done, and we've all bought into it."
Spielman's first-round successes are undeniable. Critics, however, turn to later rounds to point out mistakes. Two of the biggest misses -- trading up for safety Tyrell Johnson in the second round in 2008 and selecting cornerback Marcus McCauley in the third round in 2007 -- are partly to blame for the secondary's recent struggles.
On the other hand, Spielman also has drafted Sidney Rice in the second round, Brian Robison and Everson Griffen in the fourth round, Joe Webb in the sixth round and John Sullivan with a sixth-round pick he got as a throw-in piece of the Allen trade.
Spielman's predecessor, Fran Foley, lasted only three months until being fired the Monday after the 2006 draft. His abrasive personality didn't mesh inside the organization and was partly responsible for his downfall. Foley didn't produce written player evaluations, sources with knowledge of the situation have revealed.
Spielman, on the other hand, is surrounded in his office by at least 50 large three-ring binders filled with information he's written. On players, on scouts, on his staff. What went right, what went wrong. And, yes, he also points to a binder that contains a self-evaluation.
"Maybe a weakness is I overanalyze everything, just because I like to dig so deep," Spielman said. "You have to make sure you're not overwhelmed, but you also have to understand that you can never have enough information."
Spielman also knows that stacks of binders aren't going to impress a skeptical fan base.
"No one is ever perfect in this business," Spielman said. "Worrying about what people are saying just distracts you from your task. And I'm very task-oriented. As for the results, well, eventually we'll all find those out in wins and losses down the road."