The Intimidating Presence of 49ers GM Trent Baalke
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Inside his tidy and surprisingly small office at the 49ers’ training facility, general manager Trent Baalke sits at a desk with his back to the practice fields and his eyes facing San Francisco’s depth chart, which is laid out on a wall by positions and color-coded by contract situations for at least the next three years.
“You’re not just looking at today, you’re looking at tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that,” says Baalke, who just last week signed still-unpolished quarterback Colin Kaepernick to a forward-thinking, pay-as-you-go six-year, $121-million contract. “You need a vision and you need it moving forward. In our minds we want to be at least a year ahead of the curve.”
Though the former vice president of player personnel became the GM in January 2011, Baalke largely remains an enigma despite having pulled the strings for a franchise that has appeared in three straight NFC Championship Games (and gone to Super Bowl XLVII). Most inside the 49ers’ headquarters are so intimidated by his presence that team president Paraag Marathe pleads with Baalke to attend happy hours that are thrown with the sole purpose of enhancing relations between the football and business sides of the organization.
Then there Baalke’s perceived discord with coach Jim Harbaugh—his own hire, by the way—that stems from the fact that neither man has polished interpersonal skills. In NFL circles, Baalke likes to talk shop with the best and the brightest, but few walk away with a deep understanding of what he is all about. It doesn’t appear that any of this has been cultivated by design.
Baalke simply remains a small-town Wisconsin boy at heart. He has spent much of his life in tiny outposts—he once served as a high school athletic director in Fargo, N.D.—and that relative solitude continued when he became ensconced in the nomadic life of an NFL scout, starting with the Jets in 1998.
At least part of his current success has to do with the fact that none of Baalke’s competitors have any guesses about what he’s up to. Whether it’s the draft picks he’s targeting (for example, trading up for right tackle Anthony Davis, safety Eric Reid and running back Carlos Hyde), or trades he might be considering (Bills receiver Stevie Johnson), or free agency plans (former Colts safety Antoine Bethea) or signing a young quarterback to huge a contract extension, very few of Baalke’s moves can be anticipated because they’re rarely—if ever—rumored beforehand.
Baalke isn’t just a robot who is the first into the building and the last to leave, assuming it’s not one of those nights when he sleeps at the team’s facility despite living 20 minutes away. There’s a warm human being in there.
“Not many people know him well,” says Marathe, one of Baalke’s closest friends within the franchise. “The benefit is that there’s not many who know exactly what he’s thinking, nor does he share it with anybody … He knows what he wants and he's focused on getting that guy.”
Baalke has done that as well as anyone in the NFL since 2010, when he began overseeing the 49ers’ personnel department. Under his guiding hand, the 49ers’ drafts have yielded standout starters such as Davis, Mike Iupati, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith, Kaepernick and Reid. Since Baalke took over as general manager, the 49ers have gone 36-11-1.
“It’s a very strong team and organization, and they’re tough to beat, as we’re witness to,” Packers GM Ted Thompson says. “Just knowing him as a person, he’s an honest guy that does his work and he watches the tape. He can discuss a player on different levels and I think he has a good eye for talent.”
Thompson and Baalke are kindred spirits. Each in his own way is a loner who would rather be on the road scouting instead of pushing papers in an office. “The passion’s in the hunt,” Baalke says. “Finding guys that can be contributors at every level. Not just frontline guys, but within every level of your roster. Building it from top to bottom and bottom to top. There’s an art to that.”
The 49ers show no signs of slowing down. They possessed six of the top 100 picks this year’s draft, and Baalke’s wheeling and dealing kept the 49ers looking down the road. He turned San Francisco’s 56th, 61st and 94th selections into the 57th, 70th, 106th, 150th and 180th picks, a fourth-round pick in 2015 and Bills receiver Stevie Johnson.
“I’ve heard the phrase, They have too many picks. They all can’t possibly make the team,” Baalke says. “Our mentality is you can never have enough picks. Our job is to create the most competitive team, the most competitive environment that we can possibly create, and there’s no better way than to draft good players And that’s not to say that every pick you make is going to pan out, because that’s not reality. Anyone that thinks differently has probably never sat in this chair.”
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Of all the executives who have ever sat on the throne of an NFL front office, you’d be hard-pressed to find another with a background as varied as Baalke’s.
He grew up in Rosendale, Wis., one of those one-stoplight farming towns west of Lake Winnebago, and he did several lunch-pail jobs, from working in cornfields as a 10 year old to canning vegetables on an assembly line and making paint rollers as a teenager. After starring in football at Laconia High School, he earned a partial scholarship to play outside linebacker at Bemidji State in Minnesota. After college, he worked in construction and as a teacher before returning to football at North Dakota State, where he was the strength and defensive line coach.
In 1995, content with a young family and unable to get a Division I job, he left football to become a high school athletic director. He was also considering an offer to work in finance when Jets general manager Dick Haley happened to call out of the blue. On the recommendation of scout Lionel Vital (now the Falcons’ director of player personnel), Haley asked Baalke to interview for a scouting position. Thirteen years later Baalke became general manager of the 49ers.
“He’s intelligent and worldly beyond his years, and he has a much deeper résumé than what you would think,” Marathe says. “Everything he had done, whether he knew it or not, had uniquely prepared him to be a good scout because each experience covered an angle of how to be a good scout. He was a position and strength coach, so he understands body types and technique. He was almost in finance, so he has an understanding of value. He was a teacher, so he understands the administrative and parenting side of it—along with having been a young parent. He’s got all the angles.”
If Baalke lacks anything, it’s charisma. What most people see is what they get. He’s borderline OCD about working out and maintaining his physical appearance. He’s a neat-freak who organizes reporters’ recording devices by size before starting press conferences. Baalke walks with a purpose, wasting few movements. Even during casual conversations you get the feeling that he’s already moving onto the next thing or the next person. His speech is deliberate, always delivered with a half-hoarse voice. No, he’s not the warmest person you’ll ever come across.
“When you know Trent—and this isn’t meant to be mean—but he’s just not a happy guy,” says 49ers CEO Jed York. “He likes work. He’s so structured and so uptight about getting it right he doesn’t have time to go fraternize, to go out to have a nice dinner. That’s just not who he is. The most pissed off he gets is when he’s not working out. If he doesn’t work out and he’s not watching film, he’s even more pissed off than normal.”
But Baalke isn’t just a scouting and workout robot who is the first into the building and the last to leave, assuming it’s not one of those nights when he sleeps at the team’s facility despite living 20 minutes away. There’s a warm human being in there, even if it takes a while to get to know him well.
Marathe plays racquetball with Baalke and often has dinner with him on the road. Baalke can savor a good bottle of wine and, believe it or not, can actually be funny. Thompson remembers asking Baalke what he told kicker Adam Vinatieri when he coached him in college at South Dakota State. What was the wisdom that he passed along to the future Hall of Famer? “I told him to kick it through the uprights,” Baalke responded.
He’s not somebody who angled for it, but he’s somebody who prepared for it,” 49ers CEO Jed York says of Baalke’s becoming the GM. “He hands down had a better vision of what we were looking for as an organization.
From 2001-04, Baalke worked as a national scout for the Redskins and became the team’s college scouting coordinator. In ’05, when the 49ers tabbed him to be their West region scout, he and wife Beth, his college sweetheart, made the tough decision to have the family stay behind in Loveland, Colo., so that their daughters Katy and Cassie could finish high school. There were a lot of cell phone minutes used. And whenever Baalke could, he boarded a plane just to spend a few hours with them.
“It’s normal to us to talk to our dad over the phone every night and not see him every night,” Katy told the Loveland Reporter-Herald in 2013. “That just became normal. Growing up, it became easier the older we got, knowing he’s doing this for the family and not to be selfish.”
When the nest finally became empty, Beth moved to Santa Clara, where she threw a surprise birthday bash for her husband’s 50th in February. Several of his grade-school friends from Wisconsin attended and roasted their long-time pal.
“They love him,” Marathe says. “He doesn’t have a lot of friends, but they’re very loyal … He’s actually really genuine. Almost to a fault.”
On several occasions, Marathe has poked his head inside Baalke’s office and found him feverishly writing reply cards to fans/critics who have sent him correspondence. He refuses to pawn the duty off to his assistant.
“That’s just the way he is,” Marathe says. “He comes across as the guy who has all the answers by the way he talks. He’s as insecure as anybody, as all of us are. He’s as easy to get to know as anybody. But it takes one to three times to get there spending time with him.”
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At some point during the 49ers’ five-game losing streak at the start of the 2010 season, some seven months after then-GM Scot McCloughan left the organization for unexplained reasons, York pulled Baalke aside for a private conversation.
“I don’t know if you’re going to be the general manager going forward, but you should assume that you are and you should prepare that way,” York told him. “And we should sit down and figure out how we want to rework the organization.”
There was no hesitation from Baalke, who didn’t need to pull together some grandiose powerpoint presentation. He simply enacted his plan, which included beating several other suitors to lure Jim Harbaugh from Stanford to replace Mike Singletary.
“He was ready for it and you could tell it’s something he wanted,” York says. “There’s some guys that don’t want to be in that top spot. He’s not somebody who angled for it, but he’s somebody who prepared for it. He hands down had a better vision of what we were looking for as an organization and he executed on it.”
If Baalke’s vision looks familiar, it’s because he essentially turned the 49ers into a West Coast version of the Baltimore Ravens: big, strong and intimidating. It wasn’t a coincidence either. Ozzie Newsome learned how to construct a team from his days with Bill Belichick in Cleveland, and much of Baalke’s belief system took root during his time with the Jets under Belichick and Bill Parcells.
“You look at Baltimore’s team and you look at San Francisco’s team, they’re basically built like the Giants back in the 1980s when Bill and Bill were working together,” Newsome says.
As for Baalke working with Harbaugh, well, the 49ers coach couldn’t be more effusive about his boss—and it’s not just lip-service to overcome a negative public perception of their relationship.
“We have one of the best organizations in the football, if not the very best, because we have two things: infrastructure and people,” Harbaugh says. “He spearheaded both areas … I do know this about Trent: he watches the tape. He gets on the road and scouts and watches the tape of players in the league, our players and practice. He gets a lot out of a day with very little fanfare or taking a deep breath. Everybody has a high level of respect for that.”
When asked to provide an example of Baalke’s eye for talent, Harbaugh doesn’t have to pause to think. He cites Bruce Miller and Michael Wilhoite. San Francisco took Miller—Central Florida’s alltime sacks leader and a two-time Conference USA defensive player of the year—in the seventh round of the 2011 draft. Not to play defensive end, but fullback.
“He projected an end, who had never played offense before, as a fullback and he’s been our starting fullback the last three years,” Harbaugh says. “With any great relationship, you have to have trust and I trusted that Trent and our scouts had done the work.”
Wilhoite was a college safety at Washburn and out of football for a year when he came in for a tryout. He worked his way up from the practice squad to become a special-teams standout. Last season, he filled in as a solid starter for an injured Patrick Willis, and he’ll likely be counted on to do the same this year for NaVorro Bowman.
“The perception is not the reality,” Harbaugh says. “I have a great deal of respect for the work ethic and the intelligence of Trent Baalke. And I’ve said it before, as a partner—teammate is a better word—it’s not him or I, it’s a team effort and that’s a core fundamental belief of our organization. We’ve been successful doing it that way.”
Baalke may be hard to pin down, for opponents and even most of his colleagues within the 49ers’ organization. But Trent Baalke is working, there’s no question about that.