Ryan Pace paid $50 just to enter the job fair 14 years ago.
Pace’s resume — an Eastern Illinois defensive end, captain his senior year, a bachelor’s in marketing — might not have stood out, but he sure did.
Out of the 200 or so applicants, the Saints selected two marketing interns for their business operation. Pace was one.
Before you consider the odds of the Bears making the 37-year-old Pace the youngest GM in the NFL on Thursday, ask this: what were his chances of landing the six-month errand-boy internship? And of, by sheer persistence, nagging the football office long enough for them to put him to work, too?
“He kept coming around for the football side asking for things to do after hours,” Saints executive vice president/GM Mickey Loomis told the Sun-Times on Thursday. “Eventually, he made himself a big enough nuisance that we put him to work as a scouting assistant.”
“He just rocketed — if 14 years is a rocket path.”
Pace went from an intern to a scouting assistant to a pro scout. He spent six seasons as the team’s director of pro scouting and the last two as the director of player personnel. He managed the team’s pro and scouting departments, looking at potential draftees and opposing NFL players.
That he’s spent his entire career in New Orleans might have been an advantage when he interviewed at Halas Hall on Wednesday.
Chiefs director of player personnel Chris Ballard, who also met with Bears president George McCaskey, president Ted Phillips and advisor Ernie Accorsi that day, was considered the favorite because of his 12 years’ experience with the Bears.
That might have been his downfall, though, particularly if he had questions about the Bears’ power structure.
Pace also beat out Titans vice president for player personnel Lake Dawson and Texans pro personnel director Brian Gaine, who both interviewed Tuesday.
The team stuck to what McCaskey had promised when firing Phil Emery Dec. 29: change. In Pace, they’ve acquired a man considered, in both team and agent circles, to be one of the brightest young executives in the game.
“Whenever you’re trying to bring people into an organization, any organization, you’re looking for high character, high intelligence and a great work ethic,” Loomis said. “He’s an A+ in all three of those categories. That’s what is going to make a great general manager.”
Loomis said it became clear Pace would become a GM sooner or later. The Saints declined the Dolphins’ overtures last season because they were in the playoffs, and Loomis later called him the Saints’ “secret.”
The Bears were intriguing, Loomis said, because of their stature in the NFL and their long-term ownership. It’s a homecoming, too: Pace and wife Stephanie, a Charleston native, met at EIU. She was a cheerleader.
Saints coach Sean Payton — another EIU graduate — told reporters last week that Pace was a “big part of what we do,” and that he wasn’t surprised by the outside interest in Pace, who turned down overtures from the Jets.
“Guys like him, they’re talented,” Payton said. “He’s very talented. I know he’s been promoted here, and deservedly so, a few times. I know this: I get fired up when he comes to see me.”
There was a reason that the Flower Mound, Texas, native was named a team captain at EIU, Loomis said.
Pace’s former college coach, Bob Spoo, agreed.
“Just a super young man,” he said. “Integrity. Personality. He was a great team citizen. Just did a great job for us. Somebody you always wanted to be able to coach. Did everything you asked of him — and did a great job for us.”
Spoo, who retired in 2011 after 25 years as the Panthers’ head coach, wasn’t surprised by Pace’s success once he left campus.
“I wish I had a hundred of those guys all the time,” he said. “You’d be successful, for darn sure.”
The Saints’ success in the draft appealed to the Bears, who need a talent infusion, particularly on defense. The past two seasons, the Saints drafted starters Terron Armstead at left tackle, Brandin Cooks and Kenny Stills at wide receiver, and Kenny Vaccaro at safety.
Highlights from Pace’s 13 seasons in the Saints’ personnel department includes the signing of quarterback Drew Brees, running back Darren Sproles and linebacker Scott Fujita, among others, as free agents; trades for linebacker Jonathan Vilma and tight end Jeremy Shockey; and claiming safety Rafael Bush off waivers.
The Saints went 115-93 during those years, reaching the playoffs five times, playing in two NFC title games and winning Super Bowl XLIV.
John Wooten, whose Fritz Pollard Foundation links minority candidates with NFL jobs, recommended the Titans’ Dawson to Accorsi, his longtime friend.
He said Thursday that he wasn’t disappointed, though, after learning more about Pace.
“I mean, look at their drafts,” he said.
He called around the league and got the same response from those he trusted.
“They all said to me very clearly: ‘This guy has it,’” he said.
Now he needs a head coach.
Shortly after agreeing to take the Bears’ job Thursay, Pace conducted his first coaching interview — with Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who had flown to Halas Hall to discuss taking the job held by Marc Trestman for two years.
The Bears spent their 10-day GM search saying they’d let him choose the head coach.
Only 14 years after landing the internship, Pace has his chance to.
“He’s an outstanding talent,” Loomis said. “He’s an outstanding evaluator. Look, he’s experienced. He’s got outstanding people skills. He’s a high-character guy …
“Started from ground zero.”
Mark Potash contributed to this report.