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Dimitroff 'had great training' to be GM


The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Published on: 01/16/08

If there are 1,000 roads that lead to the NFL, Thomas Dimitroff in 1993 seemed to have missed every last exit when he found himself in Tokyo, coaching for Hitachi in a corporate football league.

Just 26, he found he enjoyed Japan so much that was he was considering staying on to become an English teacher when the call came from home the call from father Tom Dimitroff is a recurrent element to the son's life to suggest he might better review his options from back in Ohio. The Cleveland Browns might have something for him.

Which they did. On the grounds crew. So it was that Thomas Dimitroff returned from Asia to break into the league, drawing yard lines. NFL Route 1001.

"For a whole winter. I was painting fields," Dimitroff said. "I would come up to [the college scouting] office in all my gear, all paint-laden and I'd say, 'What am I doing here?' We'd have these long discussions about where we were going in life."

He had the right sounding boards. The scout was Scott Pioli, now vice president in New England. The Browns coach was Bill Belichick, poised this month to pull off the first 19-0 season in history. And the two of them this week gave all blessings in delivering their former protege to the Atlanta Falcons, a new general manager unlike any in the league.

An ardent snow-boarder, a strict vegetarian and a brand-new father, Dimitroff can talk about European architecture as easily as he can the virtues of the Virginia-Highland district, where he lived in the mid-90s while scouting the southeast for the Detroit Lions.

With a haircut that scales his head like a snow fence, at 41 he looks young enough to belong in the locker room. But that belies his quarter-century affiliation with the game, where his 18 seasons as a NFL personnel evaluator have brought its own distinction.

"He has had great training and is ready for this," said Ernie Accorsi, a longtime NFL GM, now retired, who helped bring Dimitroff here as an adviser to owner Arthur Blank during his search. "And there is no doubt he will be successful."

Over time, Falcon GMs have arrived with their own touch: Eddie LeBaron as the spruced lawyer, Ken Herock as the spooky ex-Raider. Dimitroff seems to have brought no ego at all.

"I know there is going to be a learning curve and I feel like I have the right resources here to help me through the learning curve," he said. "Hey, my ego is not such that I need to come in here and be perceived as this omnipotent or omniscient guy at all.

"I truly am and I say this from the bottom of my heart I am about team. We all have our jobs to do and we're never going to do this surviving off just one person."

'His dad was his mentor'

He goes by Thomas. When he and his father Tom were both in scouting, the son reverted to his formal first name to avoid any professional confusion. Saturday marks the 12th year since his father died of renal cancer at age 60.

It was a country-crossing football family. Thomas was born outside Akron, where his father was a high school coach. A charter member of the Boston Patriots quarterback Tom Dimitroff threw two passes as Butch Songin's back-up in 1960 the father never left the game.

Football sent them to Miami, Ohio, and Miami University, then Manhattan, Kan., and Kansas State, then the Canadian Football League, where Tom had also once played. To Ottawa and then Hamilton and then Guelph University outside Toronto, where Tom would coach Thomas, an undersized but game defensive back.

Eventually, Tom settled in as a long-time scout for the Browns Accorsi hired him in the mid-80s while his son bummed around Europe, pondering perhaps law or business school.

"All along, from the time he was in university, [Thomas] always had something with sports in mind," said his mother, Helen Dimitroff, from her home in Strongsville, Ohio. "His dad always said, 'The NFL is a good organization. You get in here, you do a good job and who knows where things will lead you.'

"His dad was his mentor. He misses him tremendously."

Determined to give personnel a try, Thomas landed his first job in 1990 as a college scout for the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the CFL, often riding his bicycle through the snow to their Regina offices. In 1992, he moved onto the offices of the World League of American Football, where for a year-and-a-half he scouted for the NFL's developmental experiment. It folded while Dimitroff was on the payroll.

That led to the junket to Japan and the subsequent Cleveland painting experiment. But through it all, Dimitroff witnessed from inside how franchises operate, down to scripting out training camp. Though his background centers on scouting, Dimitroff has watched how general managers function since he began.

"I think because I've been around football since the day I was born and I don't say this in disrespect to anyone who hasn't been I just think I've seen so many facets of the game of football from the coaching side," Dimitroff said. "All the other departments video, I.T., athletic performance pretty well every department under that football ops umbrella, I've been directly or indirectly involved in. I've seen all the other programs. I've seen so much."

The Lions hired him in 1994, which exposed Dimitroff to then-coach Bobby Ross' meticulous organizational structure. After moving from Atlanta in 1997 to Boulder, Colo., where he scouted the west coach, the Browns then brought him back to be a college scout in 1998. Three years later, Pioli, who had moved onto the New England, hired him as a scout and then promoted him in 2003 to director of college scouting.

"I say I was born in the United States, formally educated in Canada and then sort of football-edified back in the United States," he said.

Though the Patriots have the well-earned reputation for finding and refitting free agents to fill out their schemes, the team will line up for Sunday's AFC title game against San Diego with six starters drafted under Dimitroff's watch. (Cornerback Ellis Hobbs, center Dan Koppen, guard Logan Mankins, running back Laurence Maroney, cornerback Asante Samuel and tight end Ben Watson.)

"I think there are two ingredients in being a talent evaluator," Accorsi said. "You have to learn under top people, which [Dimitroff] has done from his father to a championship organization in New England. But you also need that indefinable instinct to see talent.

"That can't be taught. You can be a good evaluator without it, but not a great one. Thomas has that instinct."

Exceeding expectations

Dimitroff, if he cared to, might have stayed on with the Patriots as long as he cared to, possibly even succeed Pioli and call it a career. But, sparked by interest in Minnesota two years ago as a GM prospect, departing the Pats became a possibility.

Leaving Boulder where he has continued to live for more than a decade does present a culture change, for Dimitroff is devoted to his snowboard and mountain bike. But even 12 years after he departed, Tom Dimitroff still guides his son, just as resolutely as he did with the phone call to Japan. The memory still brings a smile.

"My dad was definitely hard-nosed," he said "It's funny. They used to kid me. 'Ah, you're nothing like your dad,' in a joking way. I mean, generations are different."

But not that different.

"I believe with all my heart that he is very proud of my son," Helen Dimitroff said. "My husband never got to reach that pinnacle where Thomas is. So he's doing it through his son. A lot of times, you hear stories like that."

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