Ex-Husker Licht helps Patriots stay strong - Omaha.com
Published Sunday, April 29, 2012 at 1:00 am / Updated at 3:20 am
Ex-Husker Licht helps Patriots stay strong

You won't see him honored at a Husker football game — though he lettered for Tom Osborne in 1991.

You won't spot his name on a wall at Nebraska Wesleyan — or find someone on the small Lincoln campus who has even met him.

You won't hear his name on “Monday Night Football” or read about his talent in the Boston Globe.

But quietly, a native son has become a key piece of the NFL's most successful franchise, collecting Super Bowl memories while climbing the executive ladder.

Jason Licht leaped from the Husker locker room to the New England Patriots' war room, from Charlie McBride's practice fodder to Bill Belichick's circle of trust. Soon, the pro personnel director might land in a chair reserved for an NFL general manager.

In February, Licht was one of two finalists for the Chicago Bears' GM job. A week later, he was in Indianapolis for the Super Bowl. Twice he was disappointed. But at 41, he might find his best work is ahead of him.

“He wasn't born into the business. He didn't have a quick entry. He's worked his tail off,” said Terry Connealy, Licht's college roommate and a former Husker defensive tackle. “Look where he's at today. He does what many people would dream of doing.”

Even if Licht doesn't share many details.

He belongs to the professional family of Belichick, where the golden rule seems to be, “Avoid the limelight.” A breakdown of the Patriots' philosophy? War stories on the scouting trail? The acquisition of Danny Woodhead?

Licht zips his lips. You don't become a star in the scouting business by selling your success.

“The way I look at it, there's one person on every team that has the full authority and makes the final decisions,” Licht says. “They're the ones that can take credit.”

What Licht (pronounced “Light”) does volunteer is his journey from walk-on lineman to pro personnel director. He worked in organizations run by the brightest minds in the game: Don Shula, Jimmy Johnson, Pete Carroll, Andy Reid, Belichick.

He was in New England's war room when the Pats made the call to draft Tom Brady in the sixth round. Two years later, he was in New Orleans when Adam Vinatieri's field goal upset the Rams.

He was in Philly when Donovan McNabb and TO led the Eagles to the Super Bowl. Then back again with Arizona, when Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald carried the Cardinals within seconds of a ring.

It all started in 1994 with a knock on McBride's South Stadium door.

McBride, the Nebraska defensive coordinator, was preparing for a national championship run. Licht was job hunting.

Born in Fremont, Licht grew up in Yuma, Colo. — his dad was in the irrigation business. He cheered the Big Red and attended a game every year. When he was in high school, NU recruited him as a walk-on.

He joined the freshman class of Will Shields and Trev Alberts.

He began his career at linebacker. Then McBride made a schematic change that became quite famous. He switched from a 5-2 to a 4-3. Suddenly there was a glut of middle linebackers.

Licht moved to guard and joined the scout team. Assistant Kevin Steele gave him the task of lead-blocking on isolation plays.

At 235 pounds, he was no match for Kenny Walker, Mike Croel and Mike Petko.

“My bell got rung like you wouldn't believe,” Licht said.

He lettered in '91 as a reserve guard. But he wasn't ascending the depth chart with future pros like Shields and Brenden Stai in front of him.

Licht transferred to Wesleyan, where he played two years for winning teams, earning all-conference honors on the defensive line.

With a degree in biology, Licht started studying for the MCAT. One problem: “I knew I didn't want to go to med school. I just knew.”

So one day in '94, Licht visited McBride. He'd always been fascinated by the NFL scouts who came to Lincoln. How can I get into the business, he asked.

McBride knew an old Packers executive. Next time I see him, McBride said, I'll ask.

Licht went home and, a few hours later, got a phone call. “Get your (butt) back up here!”

It was McBride. The Packers scout was in town.

Licht introduced himself to a man named Tom Braatz, went out for a beer, talked about the Husker prospects — there were a ton of them in 1994.

Braatz had a connection to Shula. Two weeks later, Licht landed an internship in Miami.

A lot of guys get into scouting because they can't play anymore, McBride said recently. Licht wanted the gig from day one.

After a brief stint in Miami, Licht moved to a national scouting service, where his player reports went out around the league.

The Patriots hired him as a Southeast area college scout. When Belichick replaced Carroll, he promoted Licht to national scout. Licht analyzed top players around the country.

In '02, Licht got another promotion to assistant director of player personnel. He worked at Scott Pioli's right hand. At 31, Licht could contrast legends like Shula and Belichick.

Most coaches — like Shula — spend most of their time in the X's and O's and building player relationships, Licht says. They give scouts greater autonomy to make personnel decisions.

In New England, “it stops and starts” with Belichick.

“He's one of the only coaches that can run it all, that has the focus and intelligence.”

In 2011, the Patriots had 18 undrafted players, Licht said. It's not always about finding the best talent, it's about finding the right pieces.

Belichick has a specific vision for building a team. He finds ways to gain an edge.

Acquiring versatile players like Woodhead and Julian Edelman. Getting rid of stars whose production no longer merits their paycheck. It's better to part ways with a player too early than too late.

Belichick cares only about winning, Licht says.

“He has a rare ability to compartmentalize an issue and focus on it and solve it as opposed to trying to look at too many things at once.”

That's as specific as Licht will get.

After the '02 season, he left New England for Philadelphia, joining an old mentor, Tom Heckert Jr., now the Cleveland Browns' GM. In '08, he moved on to Arizona before coming back to New England in '09.

His duties include advanced scouting of opponents — he has studied every player on every roster in the league — and evaluating college prospects.

Licht scouted Woodhead at Chadron State. He epitomizes New England's motto: Do your job. Don't worry about anyone else.

McBride, once in charge of ushering scouts through Memorial Stadium, still keeps an eye on the business.

“The No. 1 thing with (the Patriots) is between your ears,” McBride said. “They have special things they're looking for above and beyond the so-called athletic part.

“They're not going to take some smart guy that can't play, but they would turn a guy down you'd think they should take.”

The Belichick tree stretches all over the NFL. Not only coaching apprentices, but executives. Pioli is the GM in Kansas City. Thomas Dimitroff is the Falcons' GM.

Licht wants the chance — “It's the top job in my profession. I'm a competitive person. I know I can handle it.” But he also likes the gig he has. In New England, you enter every season with Super Bowl hopes.

In Licht's New England office, he keeps a mini-Husker helmet.

He makes a trip to Lincoln every year; his parents still live there.

He talks to Bo Pelini, whom he knew from their days in New England in the late 1990s. He talks to Osborne; Licht was one of the first Husker football players to participate in the Teammates mentoring program.

He studies every upperclassman who might qualify as an NFL prospect. From game film to practice-field body language. You're bound to look bad in this business from time to time. But Licht doesn't want to miss someone from his backyard.

Saturday afternoon, his two worlds collided.

Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who spent last weekend in a Lincoln jail, had slipped to the fifth round, then the sixth, then the seventh. Finally, at pick No. 224, New England stopped the free fall.

Dennard was a Patriot.

What role did Licht play in that decision?

A good scout would never tell.

Contact the writer:

402-649-1461, dirk.chatelain@owh.com


Contact the writer: Dirk Chatelain

dirk.chatelain@owh.com    |   402-649-1461    |  

Dirk Chatelain is a staff writer for The Omaha World-Herald and covers Nebraska football and general assignments.

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