FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Graduating from Princeton University with a psychology degree, then earning a law degree from the University of Virginia, Matt Groh had no shortage of promising career options to consider.
But after practicing law for a few years, Groh called his father, Al, and said in 2011: “It’s time. I’m ready to make the move.”
The family business of football was calling.
Matt Groh has since ascended from an entry-level scouting assistant to the New England Patriots‘ director of player personnel — a rapid rise that isn’t surprising to those closest to him.
The Patriots officially appointed Groh to the new role, which is the highest position in the team’s personnel department, on Feb. 15. He fills the void created by Dave Ziegler’s departure to become Las Vegas Raiders general manager, and pairs with consultant Eliot Wolf as the two clear-cut leaders of the Patriots’ staff heading into this week’s NFL combine in Indianapolis.
Unlike those who filled the seat before him — from Scott Pioli, to Nick Caserio and Ziegler — the 41-year-old Groh is not as well known to Patriots fans because his work to this point has mostly been under the radar. That’s part of what makes his emergence so special to those who have watched it unfold.
“Being friends with Matt, and seeing the work he’s put in, any time you see good people who do it the right away have success and be rewarded, it gives you confidence that if you keep doing what you’re supposed to do, the system is working the right way,” said Minnesota Vikings national scout Chisom Opara, who was teammates with Groh on Princeton’s football team in the early 2000s.
“The way he’s gone about it, the humility with which he’s approached the job from day one, I’ve been watching from afar. He’s the guy picking players up from the airport. Then you see him at the combine and he’s doing the grunt work. When you go to a place like New England, it’s really about starting at the bottom and working your way up the totem pole. No job was too big, or small, for him. Matt stood out from the jump as someone who didn’t take his opportunity for granted. He was willing to do, and excel, at whatever job was put in front of him.”
Opara saw this at Princeton, too.
Understanding the game
Groh had helped quarterback Chaminade High School (Long Island, N.Y.) to the Catholic Football League championship as a senior, and as an all-star, had been recruited by Dartmouth and Princeton. He probably would have chosen Princeton regardless, but then-Dartmouth offensive coordinator Roger Hughes solidified the choice by telling him the school was no longer recruiting him.
When Hughes became Princeton’s coach the following season, Groh found himself in a tough spot, playing for a coach who had rejected him the year before.
He was buried on the depth chart throughout his career, but nonetheless made an impression on his teammates.
“Matt was one of those guys who stood out right away because of his mental approach to the game,” said Opara, who was a star wide receiver. “We obviously figured out at some point that his dad was Al Groh and he grew up around football. I think college is a time when guys are in between learning football and understanding football; Matt came into college with an understanding of the game. He understood the ‘whys’ behind the process and why we did things. He thought about the game on a more cerebral level than any of us did at that time in our careers.
“He was a guy if you had questions about the playbook, or why this play looked like this, or how this play was different from that play, he kind of thought about it on a big-picture level and was kind of ahead of the curve that way.”
One reflection of Groh’s resolve came heading into his senior season, when it was clear he had little shot of unseating longtime starter David Splithoff and others.
“He knew the quarterback entrenched was going to stay the quarterback entrenched, but I just remember him going back for his senior season determined that he would excel at the conditioning test,” recalled his father. “His attitude was ‘I’m going to show these coaches there’s no backing off in me.'”
Perhaps it helped that Groh had an up-close view of professional football, a result of Al’s career as an assistant coach with the New York Giants (1989-91), Cleveland Browns (1992), Patriots (1993-96) and New York Jets (1997-99). Al succeeded Parcells as “HC of the NYJ” in 2000 when Bill Belichick didn’t take the job, then moved on to become head coach at Virginia (2001-09).
The family business
Football has long been the family business, with Al’s coaching career spanning from 1967 to 2012, and his oldest son, Mike, entering his 22nd season as a coach (Giants receivers). Matt had always dreamed of a career in an NFL front office when he was a youngster, according to Al.
“Matthew is very purposeful and very planned-out,” he said. “That [dream] always stayed with him, but he pursued the law degree for a number of reasons; one of which was that the process of how to think, and sort things out, and come to conclusions, he thought that whole part educationally would be beneficial to him if he did have the opportunity to apply it to getting in the personnel business.
“What his law-school background has done for him is train him in critical thinking. If he stayed and practiced the law, he would have been a good prosecutor or litigator, because a person in those positions has to explore all options and all perspectives. That’s the way he evaluates personnel.”
Upon earning his law degree, Groh worked as an associate at Williams Mullen Law Firm.
“He was a very good lawyer, a litigator — a smart, hard-working young man,” said Joey Smith, chairman emeritus at Williams Mullen and one of Groh’s mentors. “Often times, I would see him exercise one of my habits — which is to get there before anyone else. He would have had a great future with us if he stayed. It was a disappointment to us when Matt left.”
But Smith understood, as the two would often discuss University of Virginia football and knew that Groh’s “heart was in sports.” That’s around the time Groh made the phone call to his dad, asking for advice on how he might transition to a career as a football scout.
“I thought it was important that whatever happened, he did it himself and on his own merits,” Al said. “What I did was get in touch with some people I knew in the business and said, ‘Here’s what Matthew is interested in doing, would you mind giving him some advice on how to pursue this?’ I didn’t ever ask anybody to give him a position or anything.”
One of the people Groh reached out to was Caserio, the Patriots’ longtime director of player personnel now in his second season as Houston Texans general manager. Caserio essentially told Matt Groh what he already knew — if he was deemed the best candidate for a possible scouting assistant job, the responsibilities wouldn’t be glamorous.
Sometimes that meant navigating bumper-to-bumper Boston traffic, transporting players to Massachusetts General Hospital for physicals, or picking them up/dropping them off at Logan Airport. Other times it meant scouting a player.
Jon Robinson, now in his sixth season as Tennessee Titans general manager, was serving as the Patriots director of college scouting when Groh first arrived.
“Matt was a hard worker, diligent and detailed in how he approached the different roles he had,” Robinson said. “He’s smart. I always valued his opinion and insight on the players he evaluated.”
Such an approach helped Groh rise from scouting assistant (two years), to area scout (six), then national scout (two) and director of college scouting (one) before February’s promotion.
The Patriots didn’t make Groh available to non-team-based reporters since his appointment, but Groh told the team’s website: “We all love ball. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we’re doing what we do — to get in there, be able to watch guys, talk about guys.”
Opara takes pride in seeing Groh and others with a similar academic background — such as first-year Vikings general manager and fellow Princeton alum Kwesi Adofo-Mensah — emerging in top roles.
“I remember when I got into the NFL 17 years ago, it was almost like coming from an Ivy League school was somewhat held against you. People would question how serious you were about being involved with football. Or if this was just a hobby, the idea of you having other options,” he said.
“To see them kind of put their head down and break through the other side, it’s been really impressive to watch.”