A fourth candidate interview in 36 hours complete and a cross-country flight from Philadelphia to Los Angeles closing in, Broncos general manager George Paton was looking forward to a short night of sleep at the Four Seasons Hotel.
Following dinner, chief communications officer Patrick Smyth, who drinks coffee like most people drink water, offered Paton a double espresso.
“I had never really had one before,” Paton said with a laugh. “I didn’t sleep at all that night. I was so (ticked). It set me back.”
Fortunately for Paton, it was the only setback — and a brief one — during a 19-day odyssey-of-a-search to find a coach to replace Vic Fangio, whom he fired. It was nearly three weeks of early mornings and late nights, long and short flights, great (Green Bay) and average (Philadelphia) dinners and hours of discussion during private plane trips.
The Broncos interviewed 10 candidates (nine in-person) in eight cities over nine days, choosing to travel to the candidate instead of the sterile video conference format.
“Pretty smooth from the outset,” Paton said. “From the opening interview, we were pretty sharp.”
During an interview with The Denver Post in his second-floor office at the Broncos’ facility, Paton walked through the process of selecting the five people who made up his search committee, the 15-category grading form each person filled out post-interview and ultimately last week’s timeline that ended with Nathaniel Hackett being introduced on Friday.
Developing the plan
Paton informed Fangio of his dismissal early on Sunday, Jan. 9.
“When you’re in my position, you need to have a plan so I had a plan already in place before I took this job,” Paton said. “I envisioned the five people on the committee if we had to make a change.”
Later that day, Paton finalized his search committee. He would be joined by Smyth, executive director of football operations/special advisor to the general manager Kelly Kleine, director of player personnel Darren Mougey, vice president of football administration Rich Hurtado and vice president of player development Ray Jackson.
“We all had different roles and they all brought something different to the table and a unique perspective,” Paton said. “Ray: He knew the pulse of the locker room and who would fit. Darren: A football mind. Kelly: She has the greatest common sense of anybody in the building and she’s a great judge of character and people. Rich: An agent’s perspective and he’s been on the side of his agency representing candidates and what questions to ask. And Patrick: The pulse of the league he has.
“We met (on Jan. 9) and developed our plan of attack.”
First was creating an intranet portal that would serve as the hub of information for the search committee. Each candidate’s background, statistical performance, feedback from other league sources (Paton would end up talking to 20-plus people about Hackett), etc., would be entered for easy viewing on their phones, laptops or iPads.
On Jan. 10, the Broncos filed eight permission slips to interview candidates. They filed two more the following day and interviewed all 10 coaches.
“We didn’t have a limit,” Paton said. “We were going to go all in.”
An all-in approach that took them all over the country.
Grading the candidates
Once the candidate list was finalized and Kleine set the interview schedule, Broncos senior vice president of operations Chip Conway and director of team logistics Adam Newman went to work on scheduling private flights, ground transportation and hotel and meeting-room reservations.
“It was seamless,” Paton said. “Pretty remarkable.”
For each interview, the Broncos assembled a pamphlet of information to serve as a guide for the meeting. The tabs included biography, points of emphasis/questions, statistics, depth charts (the Broncos and the candidate’s team), calendars (off- and in-season) and feature stories.
Flipping through the book for Hackett’s initial interview, Paton said: “We knew, after leaving the interview, we better not have any of these questions (not asked).”
The sprint started four days after Fangio’s dismissal.
Jan. 13: Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn. Paton and Co., flew from Centennial to Detroit to Green Bay.
Jan. 14-15: Hackett and Packers passing game coordinator/quarterbacks coach Luke Getsy. The committee flew home.
Jan. 18: The committee flew to Dallas to interview Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and on to Providence, R.I. (2 a.m. arrival).
Jan. 19: They interviewed New England Patriots inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo at 9 a.m. and then flew to meet with Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon.
Jan. 20: A 6 a.m. wake-up call for a flight from Philadelphia to Los Angeles and interviews with Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan (via video conference) and Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell. The Bengals were fine with an in-person meeting, but because both teams were still in the playoffs, they allotted time only on Thursday evening; Paton chose to fly to Los Angeles.
Jan. 21: Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy. The committee returned home late that night.
Paton told each candidate to dress “casual; I didn’t want them wearing a tie. … It was very conversational. We disarmed the candidates and you’re going to learn a lot more about them as people. The football stuff is easy — we can identify that. But how do you get to know them as people? Each of us on the committee would ask questions based on their specialty.”
Paton would generally lead the conversation for the first hour, followed by Mougey to talk about scenarios (such as fourth-and-whatever at Kansas City in the fourth quarter — go for it?) and in no specific order, Hurtado to discuss the candidate’s philosophy on positional salary points, Jackson about dealing with the players, Kleine about all aspects of leading a coaching staff and roster and Smyth about media relations and head-coach commitments.
The Broncos video-recorded each interview and re-watched them as a re-fresher. President/CEO Joe Ellis, who did not travel with the committee, watched each interview and president of football operations John Elway also observed and talked to Paton every day.
Post-interview, the committee did not spend any time discussing the candidate. Instead they returned to the hotel or boarded their plane to fill out a grading form, which consisted of 15 different traits on a 1-5 grading scale (5 is the best).
Paton would not provide every category, but nine were: Presence (ability to command, inspire and motivate), intelligence (expertise), character, communication, game management, adaptability/innovation, emotional consistency, preparation and culture-building ability.
“Once we got our grades in, we would take a picture of it and send it back to (the facility) and they would put it up in a graph,” Paton said. “And then we would talk. Talk for hours about the candidate.
“We had a handful of guys at the top and (Hackett) was at the top.”
Circling back to Hackett
On Jan. 22-23, as everybody else was consumed by all four playoff games ending on the final play, Paton and Co., holed up at the Broncos’ facility for more deliberations. Their talks centered around three questions: Do they expand the candidate pool? Do they identify finalists? What is this week’s strategy?
“There was definitely a consensus,” Paton said.
Hackett’s Packers lost to San Francisco on Saturday night, making him available for an in-person visit to the Broncos’ facility. Paton called Hackett on Sunday to invite him to the Denver area on Monday and also called the “other finalists and said we would get them in when we can later in the week.”
If the Bengals (Callahan) and/or Rams (O’Connell) had been eliminated, were they on Paton’s list to interview again?
“Probably not (Callahan) as good as he was, but (O’Connell), yes, he would have been in the mix,” he said.
Hackett flew into the Centennial Airport last Monday, a chartered Embraer Legacy 450 landing at 11:43 a.m. Touchdown to takeoff, he was on the ground for 9 hours, 17 minutes … and it was a packed itinerary. By design, Paton wanted Hackett to meet as many people in the organization as possible.
“My goal for that visit was for him to be really comfortable,” Paton said. “I wanted the building to get to know him. I knew he was all in.”
Following dinner, Hackett flew back to Green Bay.
“I felt great,” he said. “I thought we had great communication through the whole process. I didn’t know (if I was the choice). You never know.”
Paton and Hackett visited via video conference for 2 1/2 hours on Tuesday, a meeting that was pushed back to 11 a.m. because Paton was in multiple meetings.
“The two-plus hours went like that,” said Paton, snapping his fingers. “It just felt really good, him and I talking about day-to-day (things) and the collaboration about our roster and his staff. I felt a connection to him, but that day, in talking to him, I just knew it would work.”
Closing the deal
A perceived hiccup in the Broncos’ pursuit of Hackett developed around 5:15 p.m. on Wednesday when the Florida Times-Union reported Hackett had scheduled a second interview with the Jacksonville Jaguars, a franchise he was with from 2015 to mid-2018.
Asked if that forced the Broncos to speed up their process, Paton said: “Not really. We had been talking. He knew we were pretty serious because of the second interview and followup. We were debating whether to bring in the other guys and should we wait.”
“This was our guy … this was our guy,” Paton said.
Paton called Hackett to offer him the job at around 11 p.m. An hour later, Hurtado and Hackett’s agent, Richmond Flowers, wrapped up talks on a four-year contract and Hurtado informed Paton, who was at home.
Paton said the plan was to bring Quinn to the Denver area “later in the week, but Nathaniel just didn’t let that happen,” and the Broncos “definitely wanted to talk to,” O’Connell, either in Los Angeles if the Rams advanced to the Super Bowl or the Denver area if their season was over.
Paton called Quinn on Thursday morning to tell him of the Broncos’ decision.
“That was really hard,” Paton said. “I think the world of Dan and I think he’s a great coach and his body of work supports that. I consider him a really good friend. He completely understood.”
Hackett and his family landed in Centennial at 10:25 a.m. Friday. At 3 p.m., the Broncos’ new power duo, Paton and Hackett, were posing for pictures.
His suit coat off and tie loosened, Paton welcomed his family (wife, Barbara, daughter, Bella, and son, Beau), who were seeing his office for the first time because of health restrictions over the past year and reflected on the previous 19 days with relief that the search was over and the excitement of his decision.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “You would be tired going into an interview, but once you sit down, you would get energized. We had some really smart dudes that captivated all of us and you get a little coffee and start talking. Any team doing this, I recommend interviewing as many people as you can.”