Trent Baalke thought this opportunity would never come around again.
After being let go from what had been a six-year tenure as General Manager of the San Francisco 49ers, Baalke had resigned himself to the reality his experience as a GM was done.
“Not many people get a second chance,” reflected Baalke.
Now, he is receiving that second chance. On Thursday, the Jacksonville Jaguars officially removed the interim tag and named Trent Baalke the club’s General Manager.
Baalke has been with the Jaguars since last year when he was named Director of Player Personnel. In late November, when the club released then-GM Dave Caldwell, Owner Shad Khan named Baalke as the interim GM for the remainder of the season and beginning of the offseason, which included a head coaching search.
“If you just took one look at Trent’s background, you knew, it was so evident, that we’d welcome him to the Jaguars,” Khan told reporters on Thursday after announcing the hiring.
“I know that we have the right man to work directly with our head coach, Urban Meyer, and our mission to win in Jacksonville.”
It was Baalke’s background and experience that made him so alluring for Khan—who did still conduct interviews with a range of candidates as due diligence. Over 20 years in the NFL, including a 12-year stint with the San Francisco 49ers and six of those as general manager, has also seen Baalke serve as Football Operations Consultant with the NFL. Before San Francisco, he spent years as a scout with the New York Jets, Washington Football Team and then rising the ranks with the 49ers.
But it is also Baalke’s background that stood as a roadblock returning to the general manager's office and why he thought it might never happen again.
“I think you learn from the mistakes you make. You learn more from the mistakes you’ve made over your career, than you do the positive things. But I’ve learned a lot,” admitted Baalke.
The mistakes, while somewhat unclear and subjective, were incredibly public.
During Baalke’s tenure in the Bay Area, the 49ers appeared in three consecutive NFC Championship games (2011-13) and Super Bowl XLVII, while tallying a 5-3 postseason record. After Baalke began overseeing all player acquisitions in 2010, six acquired players accounted for nine All-Pro selections while eight of those players earned Pro Bowl honors. Overall, the 49ers produced 24 All-Pro selections and 35 Pro Bowl nods from 2010-16.
However, after the incredible three-year run that included three straight NFC Championship games, Head Coach Jim Harbaugh took the same job with the Michigan Wolverines, the 49ers slipped into three years of mediocrity and Harbaugh took shots.
In February of 2015—a year after leaving the 49ers—Harbaugh told "The TK Show," a San Jose Mercury News podcast that, “I was told I wouldn't be the coach anymore," Harbaugh said. "And then ... you can call it 'mutual,' I mean, I wasn't going to put the 49ers in the position to have a coach that they didn't want anymore.
“But that's the truth of it. I didn't leave the 49ers. I felt like the 49er hierarchy left me.”
Baalke quasi responded to the statements days later at that year's NFL Combine.
“You know, Jim's moved on, we've moved on. He's done a heck of a job. We've got a new head football coach and we're trying to get ready for the draft, free agency and the offseason.”
Regardless, Baalke and the 49ers looked to bounce back; but after three lackluster seasons, Baalke was let go along with Head Coach Chip Kelly.
It wasn’t a shock to Baalke, who, according to ESPN, told KNBR Radio that his firing, "was the right thing to do.”
“You know, I've been here since 2005, and I have a lot of respect for the organization as a whole, and the ownership, the fan base. It's difficult, but it's the right thing to do," Baalke said at the time.
As ESPN’s Nick Wagoner went on to explain, asked whether the organization needed sweeping changes, Baalke told KNBR: “Sometimes you need to reset the culture. When you have a winning culture, which we did in 2011, '12, '13 and '14, a lot of good football players. A lot of memorable games we went through together.
“Then you transition. At some point, those veteran guys move on. Blending in with younger guys, and sometimes it takes a little longer than you'd like. And this is probably one of those situations.
“We've done some awful good things. Some very successful seasons. Unfortunately regret we weren't able to bring a championship to the Bay Area, which they so deserve. I think The Faithful has been great. Wish this organization nothing but the best moving forward. I do see a bright future for them.”
While he wished for and saw a bright future for the 49ers—who returned to the Super Bowl in the 2019 season—Baalke told Jaguars reporters this week he didn’t know if his career would allow for his own return so to speak. And so while he stayed in football, he didn’t campaign for another GM role.
“I’ve never forced my way into any position, in terms of thinking I had to do this or I had to do that. I was very comfortable in what I was doing. So I wasn’t chasing just any opportunity. When Jacksonville called, I had a very good relationship with Dave Caldwell. We started as area scouts on the west coast years and years ago, that’s where we first met. He presented the opportunity, along with ownership, to come down and be a part of this organization. And it was the right opportunity at the right time for me.”
Now, much like he did with the 49ers, Baalke bid his time and worked to the point of catching the eye of those in charge, the Khan’s. But he believes this won’t be a complete replication of his time with the 49ers. He’s learned too many lessons for that to be the case, most of them from his time in between being a GM.
“I’ve grown in a lot of ways. When you’re out of the business, you get to look at the business through a different lens. When you’re in it, you don’t have that luxury. Things are happening a lot quicker, you’ve got to make a lot of quicker decisions.
“This business is a difficult business, you’re not always going to be right, you’re not always going to be popular, which I’m totally comfortable with. But again, I think you grow with every experience. And I grew, I think, more from being outside of this business looking in, than I ever grew inside of this business.”
Shad Khan has been adamant that the new power structure of the Jacksonville Jaguars will be coach centric.
“My whole aspect—and this started really about 15 months ago—that we need to be a coach-centric team and organization, where the head coach really has to lead the kind of players he wants, the kind of team we need to be. And the general manager, myself, we have to support that mission,” explained Khan after Meyer’s hiring.
Meyer is in his first gig in the NFL, after an entire career on the college sidelines. With that and Khan’s directive in mind, Baalke will rely on all he learned—both through success and failure—when helping Harbaugh adjust to the 49ers as a first time NFL head coach from college.
“I’ve learned a lot about dealing and working with coaches, a lot about dealing and working with players, a lot about team building and what it takes,” said Baalke.
“I’m a resource for coach, that’s the way I look at it. I provide a service where he can come in, he can bounce things off of me, because there’s going to be a lot of questions, there’s going to be a lot of things that are going to be first time for him. But in the short time I’ve been with him, the one thing I’ve realized, he’s a quick study.”
Trent Baalke thought this opportunity would never come around again. Now though he and the Jacksonville Jaguars are both being given a chance at a new era, a chance to correct past failures with knowledge that only comes when one has an experience that held the highest of highs and lowest of lows.
“I think life is a journey,” mused Baalke.
“I think learning is a journey, and I think every day you wake up—if you’re not waking up with the mentality that you’re going to learn something, you’re missing something. So I’m just looking forward to where we’re currently at and where I know we can go.”