GREEN BAY, Wis. — Someday, Mark Murphy might want to consider writing a book — a how-to manual.
The Green Bay Packers‘ president and CEO could even have a working title:
How to hire an NFL head coach in three hours or less.
That is, unless his first head-coaching hire, Matt LaFleur, bombs.
In that case, he might consider taking more time to get to know the candidates if he has to run another search.
Murphy introduced LaFleur on Jan. 8 after a whirlwind weekend of interviews. Several of the 10 candidates — LaFleur included — thought the Packers would narrow the field to a few finalists, according to sources close to more than one of the interviewees. Instead, after Murphy, general manager Brian Gutekunst and executive vice president/director of football operations Russ Ball concluded the last of those interviews with LaFleur in Nashville, Tennessee, Murphy made up his mind before the wheels of their private jet touched down at Green Bay’s Austin Straubel International Airport.
When the 39-year-old LaFleur leads the Packers out of the visitors’ tunnel at Soldier Field for Thursday’s NFL showcase game — the kickoff to the league’s 100th season — he will do so as the youngest Packers head coach since Curly Lambeau.
To understand how that happened, ESPN spoke to him and those involved in his interview.
Russ Ball: The timekeeper
One of Ball’s jobs was to make sure the Packers could fit all the interviews into the tight schedule that in three days had them traveling from New England (where they interviewed Patriots coordinators Brian Flores and Josh McDaniels) to New Orleans (for Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael and assistant head coach Dan Campbell) to Florida (for former Dolphins coach Adam Gase and former Buccaneers offensive coordinator Todd Monken) to Nashville for LaFleur (then the Titans’ offensive coordinator). The Packers also interviewed Jim Caldwell, Chuck Pagano and Packers interim coach Joe Philbin in the days and weeks after Mike McCarthy was fired on Dec. 2.
When LaFleur walked into their room at the Nashville Airport Marriott, his three-hour window began.
“I was the timekeeper,” said Ball, whose main responsibility has been contract negotiations and salary-cap management.
“I would start the time, and then we had sections. We’d go through a section and take a break.”
To LaFleur, three hours seemed like 30 minutes.
“I don’t even remember [how long it went]. It went so fast,” he said. “It was a conversation. It felt comfortable.”
Brian Gutekunst: Background checks
Murphy had never met LaFleur before the interview. He recalled at least one brief phone conversation before they met in Nashville. Gutekunst said he believes he spoke with LaFleur on the phone twice prior to the interview.
The team did hours of background work before the interviews. Much of that fell on Gutekunst, the only one of the Packers’ trio who has a background in scouting.
In Murphy’s first 10 years as Packers president, his only major influence on football was to hire the general manager. That changed in January 2018, when he removed Ted Thompson as GM and hired Gutekunst. From that point, Murphy would not only oversee the GM but also hire and fire the coach.
Gutekunst was the first one to identify LaFleur as a candidate. Although he couldn’t say exactly when he began to think of LaFleur in that regard, he believes it was in 2016, when the Packers played the Falcons twice — once in the regular season and again in the NFC Championship Game. LaFleur was the Falcons’ quarterbacks coach under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and head coach Dan Quinn, and the Falcons put up 77 points combined in the two games against the Packers that season.
“The offense that those guys run was something that for me was, back then, ‘OK, this is tough for our people to deal with,'” Gutekunst said. “Obviously, they had really good personnel as well, but what they’re doing makes life difficult on the defense, so I think I started taking notice and was more aware of what was going on with them.”
At some point thereafter, Gutekunst put LaFleur on his just-in-case list.
“Then as you start calling around asking about different people — ‘Who are you impressed by?’ — everything came back really positive,” Gutekunst said. “So you start digging more and more, and you realize you’ve got a really good candidate, and you get excited to talk to him along with others. He had a chance to work around some people I’m close with.”
Gutekunst wouldn’t reveal whose opinions he relied on, but Titans general manager Jon Robinson is one of his closest friends in the league.
“Those recommendations to me were really important,” Gutekunst said. “So I got a chance to meet him, and that’s where all that comes together — all the background work you’ve done — then you sit across from them for three or four hours and hear his philosophy … that’s where you start to see the vision that I have, [and] we were aligned on a lot of that. Mark was making the decision, and he had to come to grips with that.”
Mark Murphy: Decision-maker
Murphy brought a list of standardized questions with him to each interview, just to have a starting point. The conversations inevitably branched off from there, but there were certain things he wanted to know from each candidate.
“Your staff, philosophy on practices, preseason, everything,” Murphy said. “And it’s good, especially when you do it in a short time period because you can compare and contrast.”
He also wanted to let Gutekunst and Ball have their turns.
“Obviously, they had their areas, so they were able to ask questions,” Murphy said. “I wanted to make sure that this was something that we all had a vested interest in. We wanted to hire the best coach. It was crucial for the organization.
“You want to get to know the person, and there’s certain things, obviously, as a head coach, that you want to know. But it’s also clear that he was just a good person and communicated well, and I think we all just felt really comfortable.”
Matt LaFleur: The winner
A year earlier, LaFleur interviewed for the Titans’ head-coaching job (before he became their offensive coordinator), and like anyone who has interviewed for a job, he second-guessed himself.
“I’m pretty hard on myself,” LaFleur said. “I’ve interviewed for other jobs before, and you have a pretty good indication of how it went based on how you feel afterward. I usually beat myself up.”
Not this time.
When his wife, Bre, called to ask how it went, he surprised her.
“I said, ‘I think it went pretty well,’ and she was just shocked to hear me say that,” LaFleur said. “I was like, ‘You know what? I think I definitely shook this thing up a little bit.'”
Little did LaFleur know, Murphy had made up his mind.
To hear Murphy tell it, when he, Ball and Gutekunst boarded their private jet bound for Green Bay, they were in agreement that LaFleur was their guy.
“It’s good when you do them in a short time period because you can compare and contrast,” Murphy said of the weekend of interviews. “Matt’s interview, it seemed like it went so fast. It was very natural. We were very comfortable with him. Usually the last person does have an advantage because it’s the lasting memory you have. When we concluded, I think we were all like, ‘He was really good, but let’s make sure it wasn’t because he was the last one.'”
Back in Nashville, LaFleur expected that to be only part of the process.
“I was anticipating having to come up here and meet with more people,” LaFleur said.
That turned out to be unnecessary.
“I think there might be an advantage in a second interview,” Ball said. “I don’t know that it’s a requisite.”
Later that day, Murphy offered the job to LaFleur.
“One of the questions was if we didn’t think we interviewed the right candidate yet or we could’ve brought people back for second interviews, but I think we just felt strongly enough about Matt that we found the right person. Let’s move ahead of it,” Murphy said.
When Murphy introduced LaFleur on Jan. 8, somewhere in his nearly 14-minute monologue, the Packers president said that after the first nine interviews, “Quite honestly, no one really stood out.”
To that point, Flores might have been in the lead, a source said, but given Rodgers’ importance to the Packers’ success and the hiring of Mike Pettine as defensive coordinator in 2018 — an interview that sources said lasted more than eight hours — an offensive-minded head coach always seemed more likely.
When word of Murphy’s comment reached the candidates, they were not pleased, sources close to multiple candidates said.
Murphy says now that he wasn’t trying to demean any of the first nine.
“It’s more a tribute to Matt that he stood out,” Murphy said.
Nearly nine months later, as LaFleur is about to coach his first game, those involved in the interview process say they see many of the things that they saw that afternoon in Nashville.
“I see a confidence in him that was in the interview,” Ball said. “It’s not an arrogance, but it’s a quiet confidence that he has a plan.”
On the day he introduced LaFleur, Murphy called him “the most prepared candidate.”
Marcus Spears thinks it was a mistake for the Packers to sit Aaron Rodgers during the preseason, because Matt LaFleur and Rodgers need to work on their communication.
“And you’ve probably seen it, the time that he’s putting in. I think that’s evident,” Murphy said. “I think also his communication skills, seeing him, especially with the team and the players, I think he’s becoming more and more natural with the media.”
LaFleur looked and sounded nervous during his introductory news conference, something Murphy admitted he too noticed.
But those who work closest with LaFleur on a daily basis have said that disappeared quickly.
“The two things that through all of this have come out is one, his work ethic — he’s a grinder. And two, his ability to connect with people — the players, his coaches, personnel staff, people throughout the building,” Gutekunst said. “He’s a relentless communicator that way. Those two things have really stood out. This is Matt’s first time as a coach, but his ability to stand in front of our team and hold them accountable and set expectations has been impressive.”