Tannenbaum Feature In New York Times - UMass Athletics

Tannenbaum Feature In New York Times

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New York Jets' General Manager and UMass alum Mike Tannenbaum is featured in the New York Times.

The binder that explains Mike Tannenbaum is filled with dozens of pages, with spreadsheets and data analysis and a "comprehensive report" of every free agent signed during the 1994 off-season.

He compiled it after law school at Tulane, in his spare time, while interning for the New Orleans Saints. He mailed one to every N.F.L. team. The binder is classic Tannenbaum -- dry, smart, focused, filled with numbers.

Fifteen years later, Tannenbaum, now the Jets' general manager, sometimes thinks of his neighbor, a brain surgeon. The neighbor, Tannenbaum is certain, has always been the smartest man in the room. Yet in some ways, Tannenbaum is still the child immersed in the sports section, who parlayed that obsession into N.F.L. binders and a lucrative career in sports.

Jets G.M. Follows His Binder to Success

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The binder that explains Mike Tannenbaum is filled with dozens of pages, with spreadsheets and data analysis and a "comprehensive report" of every free agent signed during the 1994 off-season.

He compiled it after law school at Tulane, in his spare time, while interning for the New Orleans Saints. He mailed one to every N.F.L. team. The binder is classic Tannenbaum -- dry, smart, focused, filled with numbers.

Fifteen years later, Tannenbaum, now the Jets' general manager, sometimes thinks of his neighbor, a brain surgeon. The neighbor, Tannenbaum is certain, has always been the smartest man in the room. Yet in some ways, Tannenbaum is still the child immersed in the sports section, who parlayed that obsession into N.F.L. binders and a lucrative career in sports.

"I find comfort in that," the 41-year-old Tannenbaum said. "And yet, I'm very insecure about that, too. Because I know that I don't have the ability to be a brain surgeon."

Throughout an interview this week in his office, the conversation inevitably turned toward New England. With Tannenbaum, it always does. He grew up in Patriots Country, in Needham, Mass. Most of his friends and family, his greatest influences, still live there. He started with the Jets in 1997 because Bill Belichick, now the HC of NE, recommended Tannenbaum to Bill Parcells. He helped Parcells steal running backCurtis Martin from the Patriots.

Tannenbaum ascended to general manager in 2006. There stood the Patriots, the regular champions of the American Football Conference East, the league's model organization, his greatest rival, the team he grew up rooting for. In fact, if Tannenbaum had become a Boston lawyer, he would conceivably hold tickets to the Patriots' playoff game on Sunday against the Jets.

"Obviously, I'd rather die," Tannenbaum said, as a look of amusement crossed his face. "And I'm sure they'd rather sell tickets to the Iranian government than to me."

Growing up, Tannenbaum ate breakfast with his parents every morning. He always grabbed the sports section, "my bible," he called it. His parents were supportive, but bemused; his mother, Marilyn, once told him he would eventually need to put down the sports section and "get a real job." Tannenbaum played basketball and football at Needham High. But while most of his fellow students worshipped Larry Bird, Tannenbaum worshipped Red Auerbach.

He loved the way Auerbach built the Celtics, the way he always seemed a step ahead. He drafted Bird after his junior season. He turned one draft pick into Robert Parish and Kevin McHale.

When Tannenbaum went to the home of his friend C. J. Kaplan, they argued over the radio. Kaplan wanted to hear music. Tannenbaum opted for sports talk.

"He was obsessed with the way Red ran the team," Kaplan said. "Where most kids want to play baseball, or become an astronaut, he wanted to manage a team. I don't think he understood the concept of general manager. But he knew what he wanted."

Tannenbaum studied accounting at the University of Massachusetts, and was offered a job at an insurance company after graduation in 1991. Yet he based his senior research project around Bill Walsh and the San Francisco 49ers dynasty.

When Tannenbaum declined the insurance company offer, his parents drove nearly two hours to UMass as soon as they heard. Having paid for college, they were clear but firm. Follow your dream, they told him, but you are on your own. His best friend, Neil Rothstein, urged Tannenbaum to stay in sports.

He latched on with the Pittsfield Mets. Minor league baseball earned him nothing, but it affirmed his love for the business side of sports. To work for free during the day, he also worked at night, sorting mail at the post office. Such single-minded determination came from his father, Richie. He worked between 12 and 16 hours daily as an electrical engineer, seven days each week, sometimes two jobs at a time. He never complained. Not once.

Back to the binder. Tannenbaum's foresight, page after page of analysis, earned him a job in Cleveland. When the Browns moved to Baltimore, he went back to New Orleans. He received health insurance for the first time and paid off $60,000 in student loans.

Soon after, Parcells offered Tannenbaum a job, no interview, on the spot. Tannenbaum said no, hung up, took another Parcells phone call and said no again. He told Parcells he was terrified of him. But Parcells persisted. Tannenbaum boarded a plane that night, a Sunday, and he has worked for the Jets, in some capacity, ever since.

Parcells taught Tannenbaum his secrets, taught him to take calculated risks. But Tannenbaum kept the binder. Once, he helped make the decision that led to Washington signing receiver Laveranues Coles, a restricted free agent. The binder told him that other teams would dictate a player's market, not his research. Yet in that instance he ignored his own advice.

From there, with missteps (drafting Vernon Gholston) and milestones (the A.F.C. title game), his philosophy developed. It helped that Tannenbaum possessed an uncanny recall for numbers, which he demonstrated last week by spitting out digits for random agents on demand.

His wife, Michelle, always marveled at the statistics her husband threw around at cocktail parties, random facts and sports trivia that Tannenbaum used to illustrate his work, or defend Bird's legacy (his yellow Labrador, incidentally, is named Larry). Tannenbaum once used his quantitative skills at blackjack tables and poker games, but now he plays chess. The game summarizes his approach to football: Tannenbaum must think ahead, based not only on his needs, but on the actions -- and potential actions -- of his opponents.

A laminated sheet of paper explains this in more detail. Divided into four quadrants -- from high-character, high-skill players to low-character, low-skill players -- Tannenbaum focuses on the bottom right square. There, he finds A talent at C prices, players that have produced at a high level, but come relatively cheap. (See: Braylon Edwards, Santonio Holmes, Antonio Cromartie.)

While Tannenbaum remains proud of his core players, the Darrelle Revises and Nick Mangolds, he sees the market inefficiency, the real needle mover, in that bottom right quadrant. His world comes down to calculated risks. Back in the playoffs for the second straight year, those risks have paid off, for now.

As Tannenbaum honed this philosophy, he kept reams of notes. Michelle said boxes, some unpacked, lined the office at their house. He told her to keep them when they moved.

Along with the notes, Tannenbaum reads voraciously, most often about leadership, or business practices, from authors like Jamie Dimon and Jim Collins. Each off-season, Tannenbaum meets with experts he finds interesting, from a basketball coach like Jim Calhoun to Jimmy Lee, known as JP Morgan's "trillion-dollar man."

All of this turned Tannenbaum into a strong negotiator, a risk taker, at least in the calculated sense, a consumer who only buys American cars because protective tariffs "really bother me," a parent whose two children know the zero-sum of life. (They only get ice cream when the Jets win.)

This is the same Tannenbaum who tacked all of his rejection letters to a wall, who refused, even in nursery school, to take "no" for an answer. "When he was 3 years old, in a summer program, they were sitting in a circle, reading," Marilyn Tannenbaum said. "He wanted to play Duck, Duck, Goose. He got up, tagged his friend, and within five minutes, that's what everyone was playing. He's got this drive in him."

The notoriously dry Tannenbaum has shown more personality in recent seasons, particularly on HBO's "Hard Knocks," with his sarcasm and sense of humor. He has transformed the Jets, too, with fewer words than Coach Rex Ryan. Asked what Auerbach would think, Tannenbaum smiled wide. He would admire the Jets' aggression, Tannenbaum said, the way they traded up for quarterback Mark Sanchez.

It always comes back to New England. In the midst of a losing season, Tannenbaum nearly skipped his 20th high school reunion, before a friend reminded him, "You're the G.M. of the New York freaking Jets." His mom, deep in Patriots Country, keeps a game ball in her office. His father refuses to work the train to Foxborough, Mass., on game day.

Their son, the note taker and number cruncher who lives next to a brain surgeon, will head back to Gillette Stadium on Sunday for the most important game of his life. How he got there, the man that he became, well, the binder explains all that.


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