As a college scout in his second year with the New England Patriots, Jason Licht spent the spring working out nearly every defensive lineman in the nation. Among them was Marshall's Paul Toviessi, a 6-foot-6, 260-pound defensive end whom head coach Bill Belichick had taken a liking to. After the workout, Belichick called and asked the opinion of his newbie talent evaluator. Licht told Belichick what he didn't want to hear.
"I didn't like him. (Belichick) did," Licht said. "I wouldn't budge. He basically hung up on me."
When he returned to Foxborough, Mass., after a three-week scouting binge, Belichick got angry when a discussion about Toviessi came up during NFL draft meetings. On the day of the 2001 draft, Toviessi went in the second round, 51st overall, to the Broncos. Belichick ripped Toviessi's report from his master book and threw it at Licht.
"What do you think of him now?" Belichick demanded.
"I think we're going to be happy we didn't take him, that's what I feel about him," Licht said.
The room fell icy silent. Then Belichick burst out laughing. "All he wanted to do is see if you would balk," Licht said.
Licht's convictions were right. Toviessi signed a four-year, $2.6 million contract — including a $1.243 million signing bonus — with the Broncos, lasted 12 days, got hurt and had three knee surgeries in a year before being released without ever having played a snap.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are trusting Licht's solid instincts, forged over a career working with iconic coaches such as Belichick, among others, to lead the search for the team's fifth head coach in nine seasons.
Newly hired Lions general manager Bob Quinn, who worked with Licht in the Patriots' pro personnel department under Belichick, says Bucs fans should feel confident in the man picking the new face of the franchise.
"He probably has had a list of numerous candidates he would want to talk to, which every GM has, and he definitely knows the traits of a good head coach," Quinn said of Licht, the Bucs' general manager. "Look who he's worked with. Jimmy Johnson, Andy Reid, Bill Belichick, Bruce Arians — to name a few. It's almost like osmosis. You see what's good and what's not so good. He has the criteria for what the next head coach of the Bucs should be, and he's got to find the guy who checks the most boxes."
So far, Licht has interviewed Cardinals offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin, Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott and Bucs offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, whom the GM has called a "strong candidate."
The past two seasons have been a mixed bag for Licht. A week ago, the 44-year-old had to fire coach Lovie Smith after an 8-24 record.
In the span of a year, Licht will be asked to get the two most important decisions right for the success of an NFL franchise: make the correct No. 1 overall selection of a franchise quarterback, which turned out to be rookie of the year finalist Jameis Winston; and select a head coach.
"In some ways Jason has similarities to me because he had a front-row seat for years in the Cardinals organization," said Cardinals general manager Steve Keim. Licht worked for two seasons in Arizona and eventually was promoted to the team's director of player personnel.
"It's just as important to learn from your mistakes, to learn what not to do as much as what to do," Keim said. "I'm sure Jason will look at the past two years and say these things worked well and these didn't."
Keim was an undrafted guard for the Dolphins out of North Carolina State when he met Licht, who began his NFL career as a scouting intern. Licht played linebacker and offensive guard for Nebraska and begged Cornhuskers defensive coordinator Charlie McBride to introduce him to Dolphins scouting director Tom Braatz, who gave him the chance. When Johnson took over as coach, Licht was promoted to offensive quality control coach. The next year, he left for a scouting job with the Panthers.
By far, Licht's biggest influence has been Belichick and his time with the Patriots. It's where he worked with Jon Robinson, whom he hired as the Bucs' player personnel director.
The Patriots have become the gold standard for team-building and winning with unselfish players who stick together for a larger purpose.
"I would say probably the biggest thing is the attention to detail," Robinson said. "Making sure everybody is together. I can't reiterate how easy it is to work with him and talk to him and, in the end, make the best decision."
Quinn calls Licht a "great listener." Bucs college scouting director Mike Biehl said Licht's decisions are meticulously made after careful study and consensus.
"I think a lot of it goes back to how he's a people person," Biehl said. "There's no … rash decisions made. It's all well thought through. And I'm not just talking about the draft. I'm talking about every decision."
Licht, who is as comfortable in a boardroom as he is in a barroom, also has big shoulders. He knows that what's popular isn't always right and what's right isn't always popular. Admittedly anguished over the firing of Smith, Licht now has control of all personnel decisions, and the defined roles should prevent dysfunction.
"I've always believed you hire the GM first and be in consultation with ownership to pick the next head coach," Keim said. "For Jason to have this opportunity, it will serve the franchise well."