Ozzie Newsome was director of pro personnel for the Cleveland Browns before the team moved to Baltimore for the 1996 season.
Then-owner Art Modell named him vice president of player personnel once the team became the Ravens and six years later, Newsome became the NFL’s first African-American general manager.
On the field, Newsome was a Pro Football Hall of Fame tight end in Cleveland, where he played 13 seasons, making the Pro Bowl three times. He was also selected to the National Football Foundation College Hall of Fame and the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. Besides building two Super Bowl-winning teams, winning at the end of the 2000 and 2012 seasons, Newsome drafted two Ravens who are currently in the Pro Football Hall of Fame: offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden and middle linebacker Ray Lewis.
This season will be Newsome’s last as Ravens general manager. In 2019, he will serve as an adviser/consultant.
Recently, he spent some time with The Baltimore Sun, looking back over his career and what might be ahead for the Ravens as well as the rest of the NFL.
Name the two people who influenced you the most as far as football.
Mr. Modell and Coach Bryant [late Alabama coach Bear Bryant]. Both gave me an opportunity and both pushed me to be the best that I could be. Both trusted me at a very young age when I was a freshman at Alabama and then, of course, being the first black GM.
You’re the first black GM in the NFL. Do you consider yourself a trailblazer and what kind of legacy do you think you’ve left here?
Well, I guess if you are the first, I guess you are a trailblazer, but I’ve always said I’ve been the first in a lot of things as an African-American. It’s just a matter of timing and when things are happening. I lived through a major change in America in the ’60s and into the ’70s and the ’80s. So I just happened to be the first [general manager] because of change. The legacy is going to be the relationship that I’ve developed with all the players over the years. I don’t think there is a player that has come through this organization that would see me somewhere and would not come up to me and give me a hug and a handshake.
Is that something you wanted to do or is it just something that was natural because you played?
I think it was a natural thing. Football is such a team sport that you appreciate what other people did for you. Obviously, at times, it came down to dollars and cents. But I don’t think that ever deteriorated the relationship I had with the players.
Eric DeCosta is replacing you. What kind of job do you think he will do?
Eric was the second person that we hired when we moved here from Cleveland, and we hired him right after the draft. First and foremost, Eric is an outstanding person with great character. He’s an excellent talent evaluator. He’s a very good listener. He’s not afraid to express himself, but doesn’t do it in an overbearing manner. I think he will do well, but like me and every other person that has gotten in this job, you don’t know the job until you get into the job. Even though he’s been around it for a number of years, you don’t understand and appreciate it until you get in this position. He’ll adapt well because I think he understands that the people working with him are so important and their voices need to be heard.
You worked with three head coaches in Baltimore. What did you take from each one and what did you take from Bill Belichick when you were an assistant under him in Cleveland?
Ted [Marchibroda] is what we would say old school; he kept everything simple. I never will forget when I first asked him what type of player he wanted and he said, “Just find me someone that loves football.” He gave me the freedom to do my job. He had been through so much but was still good enough to say, “OK, you have this job and go do it your way.” Yet at the same time, he was very supportive throughout the first three years.
[Brian Billick] was bold. He was a players’ coach and he didn’t mind dealing with exceptions. He always wanted to attack everything head-on. He refused to back away from anything.
John [Harbaugh] is what I would consider family football. He just grew up with football and his toughness shows up in all areas, whether it’s in his coaching, his decision-making or even in his assistant coaches.
And how about Bill?
I don’t know if I could’ve had a better mentor in those first five years after I retired as a player. Then to watch the way he operated but also how he challenged all of us to be the best that we could be, Bill could do that, but no one worked as hard as Bill did and he has a football sense that I think is unmatched. He has a foundation of football that I think is unmatched, but yet at the same time was willing to adapt when the game changed a little bit.
You had 23 drafts in Baltimore. Besides your first, which one would you say was your best?
It would have been 1999, the year we got Chris McAlister. Because we got Chris, we traded our second-round pick to get a first-round pick in ’99 (from the Atlanta Falcons) which became Jamal Lewis the following year. Also in that McAlister draft, we got Brandon Stokley, Edwin Mulitalo and Anthony Poindexter.
Ozzie, have you ever sat back and thought about how you actually got two Hall of Famers on your first two picks?
It hit me when I was in Canton this year that I drafted two Hall of Famers, but if you would have told me that in 1996 I would have said, “Nah, you know I’m just out drafting good players.” You knew [first pick] Jonathan [Ogden] was going to be a good player. Everything about Ray [Lewis] said he was going to be good, too, except his size. He said it wouldn’t [matter], so we took him. It’s hard to be able to predict that kind of stuff.
Compare and contrast the two owners you have worked for, Art Modell and Steve Bisciotti.
Art was here every day. Art was the owner, the GM, the president, the head of marketing and the head of PR. That was the way it was done back in his day and he was hands-on. You grew accustomed to him being here asking questions, and you had to provide answers to him. Steve, on the other hand — now they both are great people — Steve, on the other hand, came in and said, “I’m coming into this and I’m going to run it, but I’m going to take the opportunity to take what I know from being a successful businessman and apply it to football.” That’s the way he’s operated. He’s in touch with us all the time and he’s in the know, but he does like to get in his rounds of golf.
Which late-round pick turned out to be your best player?
[Linebacker] Adalius [Thomas, sixth-round pick in 2000]. Chester Taylor was a good one, too, but I’d probably have to go with Adalius. We carried a philosophy into the third day of that draft that we were just going to draft big, fast guys in hopes they would become guys that would become core teamers, and then from core teamers hopefully they would be able to play.
Next season you are supposed to be an adviser or consultant. Do you have an official title yet?
So how long are you going to be in that role?
I don’t know. Steve and I haven’t talked about how long and I don’t know. I still enjoy getting up every day and coming to this office. I still enjoy walking to the locker room, like I did today, and then seeing the players after practice and going into to John’s office and communicating with all the assistant coaches. Everything that’s a part of the job I still enjoy, so I don’t know. I really don’t know.
So, if somebody comes along and needs a general manager, like the Browns, would you pursue that? Would you be interested in it?
I would have to say that’s not something that I would want to pursue right now. I think I’m in a very good situation here and the thing that I’ve always reminded myself of about going to another place is I don’t know if I could re-create what I created here. With all the people that came with us from Cleveland, and I really do appreciate them, I’m not sure I can re-create that anywhere else.
There has always been that rumor about you going back to Alabama to be the athletic director. Could that happen?
No, that ship has sailed. They have Greg Byrne, who I really like. When I go back to Alabama, it is only to watch a football game.
We’ve seen a lot of change in the game offensively through the years. What changes have you seen defensively?
We’ve had to adjust to the spread. Defensively, we have had to adapt ourselves to college football. If you would have told me 10 years ago we’re going to have the RPOs [run-pass options] and quarterbacks running options and spread attacks and throwing bubble screens, I would have said that stuff doesn’t work in the National Football League. But it’s in the National Football League. So we’ve had to adjust to play the game with more speed and athleticism on defense.
Will the new helmet rules take away from the game?
No. Anytime you institute a rule, there’s going to be some transformations and time for it to evolve, regardless of the rule. Up until we got to training camp, there was no tackling, so there was no opportunity for people to start to teach it or referees to see it. Now it’s been a couple of weeks of preseason football and the adjustment period is starting to happen. In football, we were always taught the low man wins when it comes to tackling, so we’ve had to adjust.
Besides winning the two Super Bowls, what would you consider some of your other major accomplishments? It doesn’t just have to be about football.
It goes back to what I said before, because I’ve seen a number of players grow into men within this organization. There is a lasting bond there.
How has the draft changed through the years?
There is just an enormous amount of information out there. Before, if you had great scouts you could be very successful. But now everyone has the same information, so there is no advantage.
What did you learn about Baltimore that you didn’t know at first?
I didn’t know anything about Baltimore. I think I only played here maybe a couple of times and Calvin Hill, who was my roommate, was from Baltimore. He grew up in Turner Station. The only thing I knew about Baltimore was that Johnny Unitas, Raymond Berry and Lenny Moore were from here.
What I learned is that I don’t know if any city has more of a solid fan base than we do. Those fans were there with us when we was basically nothing. When we became something, people were intimidated in coming here to play at M&T Bank Stadium. This city has issues like most big cities, and you realize that just listening to the news every day. But I’ve come to understand that even with those issues there is a common bond here and the Ravens help bring people together. Regardless if you live in the city or one of the surrounding counties, or if you attend public or private school, they rally around this football team.
This is truly a special place, a special city with a passion for football.