As a personnel man, Bears general manager Ryan Pace a people person

After steady NFL rise, Ryan Pace brings people skills, work ethic and a personal touch to the Bears' GM role.

Ryan Pace had pushed his body for 11 hours before it began to rebel. Day after day of sweat-soaked training carried him that far, to Mile 18 of a marathon that followed a 112-mile bike ride that followed a 2.4-mile swim. But with only eight miles of road remaining, his burning legs begged his brain to downshift. It's the point in a race marathoners refer to as "the wall."

"In the Ironman," Pace said, "it's like a freakin' cliff."

He was prepared, though, because a scout always knows his opposition. As daylight faded on that Saturday in June in Klagenfurt, Austria, he put his game plan into action.

Left-right-left-right-left-right, he chugged in the direction of the finish line at Europa Park while he scanned the course.

Bingo! A lifeline, printed on a nearby runner's bib. Over the number 1668 was a little Irish flag. That surely meant Julian Mullen spoke English. He could help Pace reach his goal.

"I said, 'Hey man,' " Pace recalled. "I think we can get under 13 hours if we stay at this pace or pick it up."

And so they ran. Together. Two men, strangers from different continents, partnered to conquer a monumental challenge. Pace proceeded to finish in 12 hours, 45 minutes, 48 seconds.

Nearly a year later, it's no coincidence he's sitting here describing how he became the NFL's youngest general manager. How a football-crazy kid from suburban Dallas milked every drop of his modest athletic talent to forge a fulfilling college career at Eastern Illinois. How his people skills, relentless work ethic and scouting talent propelled his climb up the NFL front-office ladder from a menial job in stadium operations with the Saints to the top of the Bears' football hierarchy.

Pace, 38, still has everything to prove in Chicago. After swimming through an urgent coaching search in January and pedaling through the league's free-agency course, he's now ready for this week's draft marathon. The results will help set the Bears' path from the wall that felled them last season.

Cynicism from a beaten-down fan base is understandable, but Pace deserves its faith, most of all because of how he affects others and tackles the bottomless workload. He energizes, directs and empowers people around him.

"He made a big enough impression on people … because of how he is when he gets up in the morning and goes out and challenges the world," said Bob Krieger, Pace's defensive line coach and coordinator at Eastern Illinois. "He just is that kind of person."

Pace's NFL resume, a 14-year ascent, supports that take. He proves there's room in this cutthroat, paranoid league for kindness, genuineness and tact.

Just don't mistake that for weakness. Pace's push to win always is pulsing, as Mullen learned near Mile 25 of the Ironman, when Pace began to pull away. He crossed the finish line 14 seconds before the Irishman did.

"The competitive part of me," Pace said with a modest laugh, "I still beat that dude."

Personal touch

Sometime after the Saints complete this week's draft, they will decorate a bunch of game-used footballs. Eventually, they will send one of those customized mementos to the college of each rookie who makes their roster.

It's a thank-you to college coaches who aided the scouting process, as well as a bit of brand management for the Saints. Pace came up with the idea during his time in their personnel department.

"He understands there are little things that you can do to make people feel important, make them feel wanted and increase their productivity because you make them feel good," Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said. "He was my compass with that."

The NFL is full of top-notch talent evaluators, and those who have worked closely with Pace regard him as one. But if he lifts the Bears to championship heights, his people skills will grease the track.

From experiences at all levels of the Saints' personnel department, he understands how appreciation fosters passion.

Pace would monitor scouts' schedules for extended stretches on the road. And when their days away from family stretched out, he would pay to have a six-pack of their favorite beer delivered to their hotel rooms.

"The more things I can do like that, the more they're motivated," he said.

The resulting tide is a powerful, uplifting force, one he intends to establish at Halas Hall. From the GM's perch, he's more mindful of it now than ever.

"I can't come in in a bad mood or having a bad day because people are watching," Pace said. "That's infectious."

Pace's personal touches serve him and the team, of course, but they're also genuine acts of kindness.

Ginger Coffer said her son always has had a big heart. She believes it's innate.

As a divorcee raising three kids — Ryan, his older brother and younger sister — she could count on him to ease her burden because she always knew where to find him: in the front yard playing football or in the living room playing Madden on Sega Genesis.

During his second year at Eastern Illinois, he met Stephanie Brooks, a chemistry major from Charleston, Ill. She wasn't all that interested in athletes because she knew too many cocky ones. But Ryan broke the mold.

The first time they met, he noticed a picture of her beloved horses and took an interest in them. Sparks flew before long, and they will celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary in July.

"He knows his own confidence, but it's not in a way that would turn you off," Stephanie said. "You're more intrigued by it. He brings people in, and that's what has helped him along the way. He has friends, not foes."

Outworking works

Ryan Pace has scouted thousands of football players, but none of his evaluations has been more important than the first.

As a 7-year-old beginning tackle football in Flower Mound, Texas, he recognized his talent failed to match that of other kids. Undeterred, he decided right then he simply would outwork them.

"Everything I ever achieved playing football was by overachieving," Pace said.

He always considered himself undersized, so he did whatever he could to get bigger.

"A lot of weight-gainer shakes," Coffer said.

Stacks of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches too.

By the time Pace got to Eastern Illinois, his 20-inch neck required specially ordered shirts. He looked like a tree stump, his mother cracked. But still he was too small. As a senior in 1999, he was listed at 6-foot-4, 250 pounds, although Krieger remembers him being 225.

Krieger constantly sought other defensive end options. Not only was it a bad matchup to have someone so light, it was borderline unsafe.

But the decision Pace made on the youth field was ingrained in him by then. The guy with no off switch broke the monotony of practice and enlivened meetings with his energy. And as Krieger emphasized hand placement and hand fighting, Pace became a technician through drill work.

"For a football player, that's boring," Krieger said. "But those are the little things that made him good."

Before a September trip to Division I Central Florida during Pace's junior season, coaches designed a stunt to free him for a shot at the quarterback. They dialed it up on Central Florida's first snap, and Pace produced a career highlight, sacking Daunte Culpepper from behind.

Culpepper would go on to be the 11th pick in the 1999 draft. Pace would walk the dusty path instead of the red carpet.

He never had been to New Orleans before he and Stephanie piled into her parents' gold Buick Century and set off for the Saints' job fair in early 2001. They were the only team to present any semblance of an opportunity in response to job inquiries he mailed to all 31 teams.

"I had this inner confidence that if I could just get in the building, and they could just get to know me, it would work out," he said. "If I could show my work ethic, then I could get in."

The young couple originally booked a room at a budget hotel, but that was no place for an NFL executive. Instead, they scraped together enough money to stay at a Hilton so Ryan would arrive in the best mindset.

As Loomis recalled, there were about 400 applicants for only two internships on the business side in stadium operations. Pace, in his suit and tie, got one of them.

During the day, he painted fields, moved furniture and did other grunt work for $500 per month. After hours, he stalked the football personnel department in search of experience and a crack in the door.

He found both through a scout named Bill Quinter, a former Canadian Football League general manager who died last April. Pace would write scouting reports about players, knowing they would go no further than Quinter's desk, but the feedback was gold.

"Guys like him, once they're in the building, it's over with," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "Everything else will handle itself. He has a great demeanor. Smart. He has great people skills. So when you put a few of those things together in our business, that goes a long way."

Lessons from Katrina

Hurricane scares were common enough during Pace's first four years in New Orleans that he didn't fret when the call to evacuate came in August 2005. He and Stephanie had gotten married a month earlier, and life was good as a pro scout. They turned their freezer up as high as it would go and headed for Texas, hoping to return in a week.

Ten years later, the Katrina season is remembered as the nadir that preceded the Saints' magnificent rebirth. But at the time, daily hardships were real, and the future was murky for everyone.

Team headquarters relocated to an old waterworks building in San Antonio amid rumors the move would be permanent. The Saints played home games in San Antonio, Baton Rouge, La., and New Jersey. And still, their 3-13 record paled in comparison to the devastation back home.

"He had to really step up and did step up," Loomis said of Pace. "He was all in. After that is when he really started to take on more responsibility."

The Paces finally returned home after more than two months. Before the storm, the freezer was stocked with redfish Ryan and his pals had caught at his bachelor party. They liquefied because of the heat, humidity and power outage, and the goo leaked into the walls and floor. The nastiest rotten fish smell permeated their condo and everything in it, but they considered themselves lucky.

The season taught Pace to adapt. He would be watching video one minute and have to relocate the next. Scouting and signing players required jumping through extra logistical hoops.

The human element was most poignant. It strengthened everything Pace believed about being positive in the workplace.

"The key was making sure everybody understood their family was OK and their homes were OK so they could lock in and focus on their job," he said.

The adversity sweetened their Super Bowl championship four seasons later. During the postgame celebration, Pace cheered so wildly that his wedding ring flew from his finger and was lost for good under mounds of confetti.

"When they had the parade, I've never seen him smile like that," his mother said. "He does have this wonderful smile, but, boy, that was ear to ear."

Creating right environment

It's quite a prologue to the story he's now authoring in Chicago. For the Bears to experience a similar happy ending, people skills will be his ink.

"I want to create it where other teams look at it and go, 'Damn, I wish our guys treated me like that,' " Pace said.

That philosophy spawned his connection with new coach John Fox. They want football staffers and players to be excited on their commutes to Halas Hall. That has compelled them to hire people Pace describes as "high-burn" while minimizing the low-burn guys.

"The key for me is I have to have people who are passionate about what they do," he said. "As long as they have that and they come to work every day with a smile on their face and they're high-energy, then I can work with them. They know they can come to me with anything, and I'm going to listen, and they're going to be part of all of our decisions."

The people person in him looks forward to a year from now and two years, when his relationships are deeper. It has been a slow process because so much needs fixing, but he appreciates each little accomplishment.

"I was never a talented athlete, but I enjoyed the preparation of outworking people," Pace said. "That's how Ironman is. You're preparing yourself for this event that if you take shortcuts you won't be able to finish. That whole map — here's my end goal and here's my path to get to that — it's the same thing now with work."

The whirlwind will keep spinning through the draft. His 5-year-old daughter, Cardyn, is lucky if she wakes up in time to kiss him before he leaves the house. His mother's phone sits quieter than usual as she waits to hear from him. That will improve as Pace settles into a role he seemed destined to fill.

For now, his new goals are in place, and he will attack them as he always has. Go hard and go together.

rcampbell@tribpub.com

Twitter @Rich_Campbell

Copyright © 2018, CT Now
24°