An Interview with Atlanta Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff
By Rebecca Kendall
“There are three key ingredients to achieving success,” says Thomas Dimitroff, BA ’90. “You need positivity, passion and perseverance.”
And Dimitroff should know. This mindset has guided the former Gryphon football safety and three-year team captain to his biggest professional goal, an office in Atlanta, Ga., where he now sits as the general manager of the Atlanta Falcons football team.
Sitting isn’t exactly what Dimitroff has been doing since he was hired by the franchise in January 2008, ending a five-year run as a national scout and director of college scouting for the New England Patriots. Much of his time has been spent getting up to speed in his new role and meeting with everyone from Falcons owner Arthur Blank, president Rich McKay and new head coach Mike Smith to each of the team’s department heads and other NFL coaches and executives.
As general manager, Dimitroff has final say over all personnel decisions related to the signing of free agents, the selection of players in the NFL draft, trades, terminations and related decisions. He also co-ordinates other football-related activities with the head coach. His goal is to develop a game plan to get the Falcons, who finished the 2006/07 season with a 4-12 record, in tip-top shape.
“It’s been a busy start,” he says. “We’ve got our coaching staff intact (Smith was hired in late January), and we’re now moving into setting free agency and setting the draft for April to determine what we need to make the team better. I’m meeting with each of the departments to make sure they know my expectations, and that we’re on the same page. This is an important time to set the right tone.”
Before joining the Falcons, the U of G history grad not only helped lead the New England Patriots to this year’s historic 18-0 season, but was also with the team as it claimed back-to-back Super Bowl victories in 2003 and 2004.
“Being named a general manager was an opportunity of a lifetime, but the fact that I had to leave before the Patriots completed the season was tough to swallow, says Dimitroff, who was with the team for five years, and made the trip to Super Bowl 2008 to watch them take on the New York Giants. “It’s amazing how fast this whole thing has happened.”
This “fast” rise to success has been 18 years in the making for the 41-year-old Dimitroff, “I was always very interested in coaching, but I wasn’t necessarily thinking of player personnel until I got out of university and into scouting. That’s when I set my goal to be a general manager for an NFL team.”
His father, Thomas Dimitroff Sr., coached the Guelph Gryphons from 1979 to 1983, was a longtime scout for the Cleveland Browns and was one of the original members of the Boston Patriots.
After graduating from Guelph and leaving the varsity Gryphons behind, Thomas Jr. landed a job in Regina, Sask., where he spent two seasons as national scouting co-ordinator for the Saskatchewan Roughriders. It was a rough ride for Dimitroff, who says he often rode his bike to Taylor Field and earned just $16,000 a year.
“It was a fun kickoff to my career in football, but I knew I couldn’t survive on that salary for long,” he jokes.
From Regina he moved to Dallas, where he spent a season and a half with the World Football League, which was rebranded as the NFL Europe before going under in 1993. A year-long stint as coach of a corporate team in Japan followed before his father stepped in to advise him to return to the United States. “He said that’s where I needed to be if I ever wanted to work in football,” says Dimitroff, who took his father’s advice and moved to Cleveland to join the Browns’ grounds maintenance crew.
“The pay when you first start working in football is low. I remember thinking if I ever got into the real world and started making good money, I’d never want to go back into football because it would be tough to make that pay cut,” he says.
After six months with the Browns, Dimitroff jumped at the chance to get back into scouting. He moved to Atlanta, where he was responsible for scouting players for the Detroit Lions throughout the American southeast. Still with the Lions, he moved to Colorado in 1997 and stayed with the team for another year before transferring back to the Cleveland Browns to shoulder the responsibility of scouting the entire west coast for talent from his home base in Boulder, Col. He stayed with the Browns until 2002.
“I’ve scouted a lot of the top players in the NFL and visited all the colleges in the country,” says Dimitroff, who scouted and recommended some of the Patriots’ top players, including Asante Samuel, Laurence Maroney and Ben Watson.
“It’s not like you find a diamond in the rough; you sort of know who the up-and-coming players are. It’s a matter of evaluating and figuring out how they fit in with the team, and whether they’re worth a first-round or fifth-round pick,” he says. “Each team has different requirements, so it’s a pretty intricate process. It’s not rocket science, but there’s definitely an art to talent evaluation.”
He says his belief in the power of positivity, passion and perseverance is what has carried him throughout his career. “I really embraced all three, and I think that’s big. Being positive about what you do is important, whether you’re making $16,000 living in Regina or exponentially more living in Atlanta,” he says.
“You must also be passionate about your work. Embrace it and enjoy the journey because you’ll never get that time back. Lastly, you must persevere through all the tough times because there’s a light at the end. There are many times in our lives when we feel like we’re at a standstill,” noted Dimitroff. “I’ve been fortunate to move along and achieve my career goals, but I know that if I hadn’t persevered, I wouldn’t be in the spot I am now. And let me tell you, it’s an incredible place to be.”