Mike Tannenbaum is predominantly known within the professional football world for his time as the General Manager of the New York Jets and as the Executive Vice President of Football Operations for the Miami Dolphins.
Tannenbaum’s remarkable career path took him from a low level internship with minor league baseball’s Pittsfield Mets to the upper echelons of the NFL as a relatively young man. At the age of 36, he was once the youngest GM in the NFL, breaking into the front office at a time when it was rare for football outsiders (those who hadn’t been former coaches or players) to do so. Now in his fifties, Tannenbaum is very much a football insider. He has reinvented himself as a sort of football industry jack-of-all-trades: analyst, broadcaster, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and teacher.
Tannenbaum readily passes on the lessons of hard work that he learned himself. He started by choosing a job that he loved and then pursued it with unrelenting energy:
“Number one thing I try to tell people – don’t look for a job; build a career. Invest in people and process – ask people for help, advice. Then, add value. The answer is always yes, with a smile. When you meet or exceed your bosses’ expectations, you create job security and the opportunity for advancement.”
In being able to live his dream and successfully pursue his life’s passion, he is grateful for his mentors and for the role models that he met along the way. “One of the most important things you can do for someone else is to tell them you believe in them – those words are simply but that’s truly transformational.”
Tannenbaum names the legendary Coach Bill Parcells and the Hall of Fame Patriots and Jets running back Curtis Martin as among the most inspirational people he’s encountered in his own journey.
Tannenbaum recounts about how Parcells grew up in Northern New Jersey at a time when it was “the ultimate melting pot,” and how he focused on how common bonds can be created when everyone was accepting of their differences: “The locker room is also a melting pot, and it’s a self selecting eco-system – we don’t care how you got there, what you look like, where you’re from, if you’re gay or straight, or Republican or Democrat – if you can help us win, and legitimately make us better, you’re part of it together.” Tannenbaum credits Coach Parcells for teaching him a lot about how to create a winning culture in any organization: “In its most simplistic form it’s all about what is acceptable. In 1996, the Jets won one game and spent most money. That’s hard to do. I remember the very first meeting, Coach Parcells came in and put down this incredibly thick binder; it turned out to be the injury report from the past year. There was no long speech. He simply laid down the law, if you are injured, if you are out of shape, you will not play for me. Who is in and who is out? That’s culture. And by the way, in 1997, the Jets won nine games. In 1998, we went to the AFC Championship Game. You don’t need to do a massive rebuild. You can win right away. It’s all about what behaviors are accepted and not.”
As for Curtis Martin, “Curt taught me the all important lesson of ‘to whom much is given, much is expected.’ He grew up in a difficult neighborhood. But if you are around him for ten seconds, you’ll feel a rare calm and confidence combined with a burning desire to rip your heart out as a competitor. A unique combination.” Martin is also a testament to the power of parenting, with an every day grind-it-out work ethic instilled by his mother.
Today, well into the “post-football” part of his career, Tannenbaum is seemingly everywhere. Football remains a huge part of his DNA and of his day to day life, from providing an intelligent dissection of NFL current events on the Michael Kaye Radio Show to providing commentary on television as an NFL ESPN Front Office Insider to founding the football think tank, The 33rd Team.
Among his focus now is giving back to the next generation, providing the mentorship and opportunities that he was able to have in his own journey to help others get where they want to go. A UMass graduate, Tannenbaum founded the Marilyn & Richie Tannenbaum Scholarship at the university in 2006, naming the fund after his parents, in an effort to help sports management students looking to break into the sports industry to make ends meet. The endowment specifically serves undergraduates majoring in Sport Management within the Isenberg School of Management at UMass and employed in the sports industry making $300/week or less. Tannenbaum and his wife Michelle wanted to provide a scholarship for students with unpaid internships in the sports industry to fund their daily expenses. Since the endowment was founded, there have been 35 recipients of the Marilyn & Richie Tannenbaum Scholarship with the total amount awarded slightly over $41,000. In an effort to diversify the sports industry and give a fair shot to all those looking to enter it, 14 of the 35 scholarships have been awarded to women. Many of the recipients have gone on to have successful careers in the industry with one recipient even being recognized by Forbes 30 under 30 in sports in 2021.
“UMass is a big part of my story and my background. I came from a middle class family. My parents gave us all we needed but not all that we wanted growing up. We can allow people to get meaningful experience in the industry and provide opportunity who can’t afford it and helping them to break into the industry. We are able to fill an important gap to provide means to those with the drive and desire, who might not otherwise be able to pursue a career in the sports industry. And we’ve had great success stories of people going on to do great things. It’s very rewarding.”
He’s also having a blast on ESPN, surrounded by great people who challenge him, and he is challenging himself to get better as a broadcast analyst on television.
Beyond his role as ESPN’s Front Office Insider, Tannenbaum has also founded The 33rd Team, a football think tank consisting of former NFL head coaches, GMs and graduate students creating in-depth analysis on college and pro football. 33rd Team shares similar roots with the scholarship. Tannenbaum started the organization when he began working at ESPN and needed help getting ready for the NFL Draft. He recruited a bunch of student interns from UMass to help, and that led to 33rd Team. In hiring numerous interns to work on the site and sort analytical data, eight students/interns that have worked for the site have since gotten jobs in the NFL, including a female softball player from University of Massachusetts (Tannenbaum’s alma mater) who now works for the Jets.
Through the website, Tannenbaum hopes that by combining a deep understanding of the industry with the strategic resources of their network, The 33rd Team will provide insights from a wide breadth and depth of experiences and perspectives. 33rd Team also convenes Tannenbaum’s extensive network of former coaches, GMs, and NFL executives to discuss and analyze football every week. It’s a fun model. They queue up discussion points from that week’s slate of games in the NFL, like “Were these various end of game coaching decisions the right ones or not?,” student interns crunch the numbers, run analytics, and present them, and the coaches and GMs discuss and debate.
Tannenbaum points to the rise of analytics in the sports industry as an area where the sports management industry requires outside expertise, and it reminds him of how he got his start in the NFL. At the time, many league jobs went to former players or coaches. Tannenbaum, of course, was neither. But when the salary cap was instituted and issues relating to the collective bargaining agreement needed to be analyzed and understood, NFL GMs needed the assistance of MBAs and lawyers. A law student at Tulane at the time, Tannenbaum had studied and written about these issues, and he was able to carve a pathway in by offering valuable and much needed expertise to NFL executives. Tannenbaum sees the rise of analytics, data, AI, and other technologies as requiring decision-makers to have and tap into new and different skill-sets. This will create even more opportunities to break into the industry.
Another way that Tannenbaum is able to impart his years of experience to the younger generation and help those looking to work in the sports industry, Tannenbaum recently became an adjunct professor at the prestigious Columbia University as part of their Sports Management program. He teaches a class entitled Football Business Management: The Inner Workings of the NFL where he uses his past work experiences as class material and regularly brings in industry friends as guest speakers:
“In my class, The Business of the NFL – we go two miles wide and an inch deep into all sorts of issues. Gambling. Building a Team. Salary Cap. Social Justice and Injustice. Scheduling. Media. Labor Relations. We try to marry the classroom to current events – e.g., how to handle a player that’s not getting vaccinated. I was captivated by my former sports law professor at Tulane Law School, Gary Roberts. Now I use his book in my own class, and I am doing my best to do it justice. It’s lots of fun and lots of work!”
Photo Credit: Mike Tannenbaum (with permission)