TAMPA — In 19 years, Jason Licht has steadily moved up the NFL ranks, from area scout to national scout to personnel director to vice president and finally, now, general manager with the Bucs.
But at the same time, he's still an evaluator, plain and simple.
"I'm a meathead that likes to watch football players," Licht said, speaking to reporters Thursday after being announced as the GM and football partner to new coach Lovie Smith. "I'm not going to try to be something I'm not."
The man tasked with building a roster that can lead Tampa Bay back to the playoffs and the national relevance that Smith talked about has a humble background in football. He joined the Nebraska football team as a walk-on in 1989 and lettered for one season as a guard, then finished his college career at nearby Nebraska Wesleyan.
Licht, introduced with his wife, Blair, and their three young children, has worked with some of the most successful coaches in the NFL — from Don Shula to Pete Carroll to Bill Belichick and Andy Reid — and the Bucs were impressed that twice he returned to teams he had left years earlier for promotions elsewhere.
"You don't see that very often in the NFL. Rarely see it once, let alone twice," Bucs co-chairman Joel Glazer said. "It's the person he is, good family, good background. I think he'll be a good fit in the community in Tampa."
Licht (pronounced "light") made it clear Thursday that he'll be careful to delegate much of the tricky nuances of salary cap management and salary negotiations to smart people on his staff, but his success as an executive will continue to thrive on identifying and acquiring football talent. He's proud of his background, of the long hours spent leaning on fences with a note pad, picking the brains of college assistants.
"If you called me a scout, I won't be upset," said Licht, 42, who was in the stands with Cardinals scouts watching Senior Bowl practice Tuesday morning at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Ala., when the Bucs decided to name him GM.
In introducing Licht, Glazer said as the team set out in the hiring process three weeks earlier, "the No. 1 thing we were looking for in our next general manager was somebody who was all about football, scouting, (with) a strong football background."
Licht didn't have the direct experience working with Smith that other candidates offered, but he got to know Smith when he interviewed for the Bears' GM job two years ago, losing out but leaving a strong impression that helped him land this position with the Bucs.
"From the initial interview, there were a lot of things we had in common," Smith said. "It's how we saw (things) going forward and putting a successful team on the field. And, from there, every time we talked, it just confirmed it more."
As with any team, Licht's future will depend not only on the accumulation of talent but in forging a chemistry within the Bucs' power structure, working closely with Smith to find a single vision for what the team needs and what players can best make that possible.
"Lovie's track record speaks for itself," said Licht, who will keep the Bucs' personnel staff in place for draft preparation, giving it a chance to show him what it can do toward the team's future. "I've never … run across a player that's played for Lovie and hasn't said such great things about him. It's just the synergy and the energy in the air.
"I have a strong belief this is going to be a successful season, and it starts with that optimism."