A football man down to the core

After building an extensive résumé in the NFL, John Idzik accepts his first general manager job. AP Photo/Jack Dempsey

What makes a man a football man?

John Idzik, son of a coach, grew up in the sport. As a youngster, he scribbled X's and O's on a kiddie chalkboard, sat alongside his father for countless hours as he studied game tape and annoyed his sisters at the dinner table with intense, father-son football conversations.

As a teen, Idzik followed his father to NFL training camps, including the New York Jets' in the late 1970s. He washed jock straps, ran errands and served as a ball boy, staying close to the game he loved. He played wide receiver at Dartmouth, won a couple of Ivy League titles and earned an unsuccessful tryout with the New England Patriots.

Does that make the Jets' new general manager, better known for his salary-cap acumen, a football man?

Idzik discovered the answer to that question when he tried to get away from the game, when he got a job in the corporate world – IBM – figuring that was the best way to utilize his degree in scientific mathematics. It was a good life, but it wasn't the life he wanted.

After six years at IBM, Idzik returned to his parents' home in Chadds Ford, Pa., and made the big announcement. It started with, "I want you to sit down," his mother, Joyce, recalled Friday night.

"I know you and dad sacrificed a lot to get me into the school I wanted," Joyce Idzik remembered her son saying that day. "Solving math problems is terrific -- I like my job -- but there are no people involved. I miss football."

With that pronouncement, Idzik began a 23-year journey that took him from Scotland to Durham, N.C., to Tampa to Phoenix to Seattle and, finally, to New York. His career path reads like the lyrics to a Steve Miller Band song. Keep on rockin me, baby.

"Football was always in my blood," Idzik once said.

Now he gets a chance to fix one of the most publicized franchises in the NFL, a team on the decline. It's a tough job, but this is something he always dreamed about -- a chance to run his own team.

Until a few days ago, Idzik was a relatively anonymous executive with the Seattle Seahawks, their vice president of football administration. Now he enters one of the biggest stages in sports, taking control of the loud and controversial Jets and trying to prove he's more than a numbers guy.

"He's apparently very good with the cap, but he likes to have his hand in football, too," his mother said. "He doesn't want to be excluded from being around the ballplayers."

His father was a ballplayer, and a good one -- a football man to the core.

John Idzik was a schoolboy star in Philadelphia, played in the Marines and played fullback at the University of Maryland in the late 1940s. He got into coaching, college and pro -- 10 different places in 27 years, including three seasons as the Jets' quarterbacks coach under Walt Michaels.

Sadly, Idzik's health is failing. He's 84, battling dementia, diabetes and heart problems, according to his wife, who said neurologists believe the dementia was caused by too many blows to the head in football. She recalled times when he was knocked unconscious and returned a few plays later.

"It makes me sick to see him go downhill," Joyce said. "He was so vibrant."

The eldest Idzik uses a walker and requires 24-hour care. He doesn't speak much. He says "yes" and "no," and nods his head. When told the news Friday that his son was the new boss of the Jets, he nodded and said, "Jets," according to Joyce.

"Sometimes," she said, "he opens his brain and he's back for a short time."

She once asked him if he regretted playing football, and he said "no," because there was no other way he could've gone to college.

Keenly aware of the ravages of the sport, Idzik refused to let his son play football until middle school. That didn't make John happy, but he also played baseball and tennis. He was so obsessed with sports that his mother once asked, "Don't you want to date?"

No time for that, he told her.

Much like Rex Ryan, whose father, Buddy, was a longtime coach, Idzik had the benefit of seeing the NFL from the inside. During his high-school years, he worked as a summer ball boy with the Philadelphia Eagles and Jets.

"I was hanging around as a ball boy, a PR assistant, doing odd jobs," Idzik once said. "[The NFL] was always a big part of my life."

His father coached the Jets' quarterbacks from 1977 to 1979, in the middle of the celebrated Richard Todd-Matt Robinson controversy. Idzik reportedly sided with Todd, leading to a clash with Michaels, who fired him and hired Joe Walton.

"The fact that I didn't get along with the old man doesn't mean the son isn't good," Michaels said by phone, recalling vague memories of young John as a ball boy.

The Jets had a couple of players from Dartmouth, and they sold him on the school. Idzik was an athletic and academic standout, playing wide receiver and graduating with magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa honors.

Idzik's quarterback was Dave Howard, the New York Mets' executive vice president of business operations. In fact, they lived in the same dorm, Howard only a couple of doors down from Idzik.
Dartmouth's Class of '82 is well represented on the New York sports landscape.

After Dartmouth, Idzik coached the receivers at the University of Buffalo for a year before deciding to join the real world. He landed a job at IBM, moving from White Plains, N.Y., to Atlanta to Tampa.

Six years in a shirt and tie was enough.

"I wasn't shocked that he wanted to get back into football," his mother said. "Life is too short. You have to be happy."

Idzik's return didn't occur on American soil; in 1990, he got a job as an assistant coach with the Aberdeen Oilers of the British American Football League. He and his pregnant wife, Carol, lived in Scotland.

He returned to the States and became a graduate assistant at Duke, where he assisted the offensive line and running backs and earned a master's degree. He also served as a liaison to NFL scouts who visited the campus.

After two years, Idzik returned to his previous home -- Tampa -- with no job and a house payment. He landed a job as a pro-personnel assistant with the Tampa Bay Bucs, starting an 11-year climb through the organizational ranks.

With his math background, Idzik gravitated toward the business side of the operation and eventually was put in charge of managing the salary cap. A former Bucs colleague described him as bright and a hard worker, an excellent cap manager.

"John was pushy; he wanted to get into personnel," the former colleague said. "He had a goal: He wanted to be a general manager."

Those were good times. After decades of misery, the Bucs assembled an outstanding team and won the Super Bowl after the 2002 season. It was the second Super Bowl ring for the Idzik family; his dad was a backfield coach for the Baltimore Colts, which captured Super Bowl V.

Eventually, Idzik lost his job as assistant GM, the result of a power struggle in which coach Jon Gruden brought in his own people to the front office. He spent three years as the Arizona Cardinals' senior director of football operations before moving to the Seahawks in 2007.

"He's a sharp individual, a very bright guy," said player agent Alan Herman, who has negotiated several contracts with Idzik. "He knows his stuff, and he has a feel for personnel. It's a real good hire, in my opinion."

Idzik became an integral part of the Seahawks' front office, surviving a house cleaning and climbing the ladder. He was the No. 3 man, behind coach Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider. In recent years, Idzik dabbled in personnel, attending meetings and taking a couple of scouting trips.

Schneider called Idzik a "well-respected, lifelong football man who I believe will be a strong addition" to the Jets.

Despite Schneider's description -- football man -- Idzik is regarded throughout the league as a cap/business guru. He's been a fixture at owners meetings and Management Council sessions, but not at the scouting combine or Senior Bowl.

The scouting community is sharply divided on whether someone with Idzik's background can succeed in the big chair. Some believe the Jets need a leader with a strong personnel background; others say the GM position has evolved into an all-encompassing, CEO-type job.

"How difficult will it be for him?" asked former Denver Broncos GM Ted Sundquist, who interviewed for the job. "Things will come up that will surprise John because he hasn't done it before. Ultimately, it boils down to, how do you solve problems?"

Those problems, Sundquist said, could range from settling draft-room disputes to deciding whether to serve chicken or beef on the team flight. With the Jets, it'll mean co-existing with a polarizing coach, trying to fix the quarterback situation, and so on.

For the first time in his life, Idzik will have to deal with the media.

"He's kind of private," Joyce Idzik said of her son. "That doesn't mix with New York, but I think he's tough enough to handle it. He gets that from his father."