Why they got into scouting: Panthers college scout Mike Martin who was nicknamed 'Young Kanye West'

Yahoo Sports has spoken to various NFL scouts over the past few weeks to get a sense for not only how they got to where they are in their careers, but how they got into it and how the industry has changed over the years.

This idea was inspired by Rivals’ Gabe DeArmond, who put together a fascinating series recently, asking all of the University of Missouri athletic coaches why and how they got into coaching. We enjoyed it so much, we’ve been doing the same with NFL scouts, trying to find out how they got into the business and what it takes to thrive in this competitive, cutthroat league.

Our latest installment is with Carolina Panthers college scout Mike Martin.

Previous entries: Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy | Buffalo Bills senior national scout Dennis Hickey | Los Angeles Rams college scouting director Brad Holmes

Mike Martin wasn’t the biggest or fastest college football player, but he spent four years contributing in a significant way at Vanderbilt in the early 2000s before he faced a crossroads: what to do now that his playing career was over? Martin was set to use his degree to enter the business world before a shot in the dark — a cold call from an NFL team — changed his path forever.

Martin joined his hometown Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2003 as a low-level scout, learning the business of the sport he has committed so much to as a player. And he eventually worked his way up through the scouting ranks, earning the nickname of “Young Kanye West” by then-young Bucs assistant coaches Mike Tomlin and Raheem Morris for Martin’s strong work ethic with just a dash of hip-hop flair back in those days.

Carolina Panthers scout Mike Martin (Louis Pena).
Carolina Panthers scout Mike Martin (Louis Pena/Special to Yahoo Sports).

Later Martin rose to the level of college scouting director with the Houston Texans before he and the majority of that scout staff were let go in 2017 by former GM Brian Gaine, who was fired himself just a year later.

Martin has spent the past year-plus as a scout with the Panthers, covering the southwest territory where he has uncovered many gems over the years.

We spoke with Martin about:

  • his wild path from playing to scouting, taking an interview with the Buccaneers while he was minutes away from accepting another job in a different field

  • getting playfully harassed by Jon Gruden’s father

  • how he has helped find undrafted gems such as Arian Foster and A.J. Bouye

  • his biggest scouting misses

  • where scouts tend to make their biggest mistakes.

Yahoo Sports: When did you start with football?

Mike Martin: I know it’s kind of cliche when people say they grew up with a ball in their hands, but I definitely did. I had two older brothers, and I was the youngest, so … a lot of the times, I was their football. [laughs] They would pick me up and throw me around, but we were always competing and playing games. So as far back as I can remember, football was the big thing in our house.

We were all on the shorter side, so basketball wasn’t a real option. Baseball was expensive with all the travel teams and all that. Football was what we did.

I just remember being too young to play and having to watch my brothers competing. I would go to their games and [would] end up on the side of the bleachers playing tackle with the other kids who couldn’t play yet either. Football was big for us, and it was just a way of life for us.

Yahoo Sports: You played four years at Vanderbilt. Did you realistically see a possible future as a player in the NFL? Or in another pro league?

Martin: I had aspirations of playing as far as I could go. I had an older brother, Chris [who played cornerback at Northwestern and who is now an NFL agent], and he was a free agent, but he spent time on the Chicago Bears. So we’ve always had a sibling rivalry to the point where — it wasn’t me trying to outdo him. But he always wanted to be a doctor, and I had a sister who wanted to be a lawyer, but all I wanted to do was play football.

I really wanted to do it for myself, for my family and to financially be able to take care of everyone. When I got to Vanderbilt, I played right away. But you just kind of start to realize, well, these guys are a lot bigger and a lot faster than I am used to playing against. Although I thought I was competitive, and I definitely played hard, but you realize, hey, maybe I am just not made for this.

I played all four years and did fairly well, but it was just … when it was time to graduate, in the back of my mind, I thought, ‘Hey, I am going to try, I am going to work out at pro day,’ but I knew it was throwing a prayer out there, someone saying, ‘Hey, maybe we’ll sign this guy to our practice squad or bring him in for a workout,’ but I knew it was a long shot. I had fooled them as long as I could fool them. That’s what I like to tell people. [laughs]

Yahoo Sports: What was the path you saw outside of playing? Were coaching or scouting even thoughts in your head? Or were you figuring you’d have to work outside football?

Martin: Well, it’s funny. I don’t want to say I was burned out on football at that point. But I had devoted so much of my life to football then, and I sort of felt like I loved the game more than it loved me. I worked hard, and I was not one of those guys who was out all night partying. I felt like I had been so serious about it and it was coming to an end in a way. We don’t necessarily see the big picture, and I looked at it like, ‘Dang, what do I do now?’

I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh, hey, it got me this $250,000 scholarship’ or anything like that. I was just looking at my immediate situation and seeing other people get opportunities. I was just a little frustrated, like, man, I guess this is over now. There was an opportunity to stay on at Vanderbilt on Bobby Johnson’s staff as a graduate assistant, and I hadn’t really thought about coaching — like, I never had. And that’s funny because all I had ever thought about was playing; like that was the only option in my mind.

So I took all these other interviews. I took one with American Express financial, and I got to the final rounds of interviews there. They offered me a job. And then Cintas, the uniform company that was based out of Phoenix, Arizona, I got to the final rounds there. I actually ended up accepting a job there, but I told the guys that I had never been out there before. I thought, if I am moving out to Arizona, I didn’t want the first time for me seeing the place being when I am getting off the plane to move there for my first day of work.

I knew I was ready to take the job. It was just this weird feeling of needing to see the place first before I officially accepted. The guy agreed, which was out of the norm. It was a management training program I was about to enter. So I fly out there to accept the job with Cintas. He took me to where my stops would be, where the office would be, all of that.

That’s when he and I were sitting in his neighborhood in Anthem, Arizona, eating lunch at a golf course. My phone rings, and it’s this 813 number I had never seen before. So I told the guy, ‘Hey, I keep getting a call from this number, can I step aside for a minute and take it?’ He said sure. I answer the call, and it’s [then Buccaneers director of pro scouting] Mark Dominik calling.

Dominik tells me who he is, what his job is, and he says, ‘We’re looking for a personnel assistant here in Tampa.’ And I asked him, ‘Hey, I am just wondering, how did you get my information?’ And again, I did not know of any jobs in football or was aware of any. I hadn’t sent in a resumé, didn’t know there was a job there, no clue how he got my information. My mind was spinning.

Mike Martin's scouting journey when he received a cold call from a man who eventually would become general manager of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Mark Dominik. (Getty Images)
Mike Martin's scouting journey when he received a cold call from a man who eventually would become general manager of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Mark Dominik. (Getty Images)

Yahoo Sports: I can imagine. Did you think maybe it was someone pranking you?

Martin: [laughs] At first, maybe yeah. I mean, they were just coming off the Super Bowl victory, just a couple months before. And me being from Tampa originally, this was like … whoa. The Super Bowl champs are calling me! My home team, the team I grew up rooting for. He says he wants me to come talk to them and interview for the job. I couldn’t say no. I didn’t even know what the job entailed.

Now I am just baffled. How many people out there want to get into this industry and who go to college thinking they want to be in personnel or scouting. That was never anything I had thought of. So I somehow convinced this [Cintas] manager that I am accepting this job with — this guy who allowed me to go there and just check things out — to put things on hold with him.

I ended up going to Tampa the following week and I interview with the Bucs. It was a tough interview because they were having me evaluating [Bucs players], guys that I grew up with as my heroes. But I had to be honest in my evaluation and my assessment of them. That was brutal. I was evaluating an aging John Lynch. Or a Warren Sapp, who was not the guy right out of Miami anymore. The two players I know for sure they had me evaluate was [running back Mike] Alstott and Lynch.

I was pretty honest. I was like, ‘Hey, you know, I love these guys, I grew up watching them.’ But I gave them my assessment of them, and they were obviously on the decline and blah, blah. I think my just being frank with those guys — it was Dominik and [former scout] Lloyd Lee, Tim Ruskell, Ruston Webster. It was really all of the guys from that all-star staff there. But I think I was able to explain what I saw. I had no real prior knowledge of what scouting entailed. But once I started watching the film and once I started jotting down notes, I realized I had been scouting pretty much my entire career. Really since I was in Little League.

Heck, I remember playing for the Tampa Little League Vikings, and I watched the Packers, who we were playing next week, and watching their guys. I’d see a kid and say, ‘Man, he’s really quick.’ Or, ‘if he does this, I need to do that’ — that sort of thing. It made me realize that it’s football, and as a player you’re always recognizing other players’ talents and skills.

I did realize I had a little bit of an eye for it. And I took that job with the Bucs. It was just all crazy. Years later, I asked Mark Dominik how they got my information.

Yahoo Sports: That was my next question!

Martin: Yeah, they still never really gave me the full answer. But to the best of my knowledge, Nancy Hasselman — who was a longtime assistant there, sort of an administrative assistant in personnel — was tasked with looking through all the SEC media guides, looking for guys who were from Tampa who were set to graduate. I think she just randomly came across my picture and was like, ‘OK, this kid is from Tampa, he graduated from Jesuit [High School], he’s set to graduate from Vanderbilt, so we have to interview him.’

So I think that’s how it went down, although I could never confirm that. I think they reached out to Vanderbilt to get my information, and the rest was history. It still blows my mind. That just doesn’t happen. It was meant to be. That was, I always say, my divine intervention.

Yahoo Sports: That’s a wild story.

Martin: And that’s where it’s better to be lucky than good. I am just so grateful for the opportunity I was given, and man, it was just a blessing.

Yahoo Sports: What was your job like starting out?

Martin: Well, I went down there and learned every part of scouting. But it started with, like, putting labels on Betamax tapes. That’s how tape was done back then, so I was the guy who did that. I was actually still working on a master’s degree when I first took that job. So you know, everyone has high hopes of what a career might be like after graduating from Vandy, and here I am putting stickers on Beta tapes, numbering the tapes and putting them on the shelves. I was like, ‘Man, I didn’t know I was signing up for Blockbuster!’ [laughs]

When I wasn’t putting tapes on shelves, every once in a while I would get to watch tape. It was a privilege and they would call me in to watch film. I remember [Jon Gruden’s father and then personnel director] Jim Gruden would sit down and watch tape with me — and I owe so much to him to this day — but he would say, ‘You’ve got to be the smartest dumbest guy I know. You went to Vanderbilt, and you’re here watching film with me.’ [laughs]

Yahoo Sports: I guess we know where Jon Gruden got his sarcasm from.

Martin: Oh, no doubt. Jimmy Gruden is a classic, now. Yeah, and that’s how it kind of all got started.

Yahoo Sports: When I spoke with Dennis Hickey for this series recently, he was on that Bucs staff at the same time and mentioned how it was a smaller scouting staff than other teams around the NFL. And because of that, it meant that there was a lot more work spread out between fewer people — in essence, that he wore a lot of different hats and how that benefited him greatly. Did you find that to be the case and to be as helpful in time for you becoming a scout?

Martin: Absolutely. I went from labeling tapes and putting the [draft] boards in order — back then we didn’t have all the digital stuff. It was literally magnets on boards, which a lot of teams still utilize. We’re kind of like ‘The May-Pole of Merry Mount’ in the NFL; we use every old-school thing still to this day.

But yeah, our departments were so small. It was a two-man pro department, really. Mark Dominik was the pro director. Lloyd Lee was the pro scout. I was the pro personnel assistant. So when Lloyd Lee left for a coaching job with the Chicago Bears, I was a pro scout by my second year. I kind of just fell right into that opportunity.

Jon Gruden wasn't afraid to put young Tampa Bay Buccaneers scouts in the spotlight to evaluate players. (Getty Images)
Jon Gruden wasn't afraid to put young Tampa Bay Buccaneers scouts in the spotlight to evaluate players. (Getty Images)

That was partly because we were so small. We all wore so many hats. I would do my work in pro [scouting], and then I was literally out on the practice field like running the ball in drills. They said, ‘You just got done playing, so you’re in shape.’ So when they were getting players up to speed on the playbook in the offseason, I would have to go out and run the football. We did everything. Practicing with the players. Handling pro advances. Helping out with the college stuff. Hitting up schools. Magnets, tapes, you name it. Everyone did everything.

Yahoo Sports: When did you switch to college scouting?

Martin: I was pro assistant for one year, and I was a pro scout the next year. Then Mark Domimik and Ruston Webster approached me about doing NFS [National Football Scouting] to give me the opportunity to get out and about, meet some people and learn both sides. I am glad they did. It gave me an opportunity to get out and be the Southeast scout for NFS.

At the time, I was very shortly removed from college, so I knew a lot of these kids from college who were still playing. I either played against them or knew them from high school, so I was able to use my relationships with some of them and some of the coaches who recruited me in that part of the country.

That helped me get information, and it all sort of came together for me. That allowed me to grow and learn the other phases of scouting. It’s an information-gathering business, and learning how to get it is invaluable. I could grow that aspect of my talent. I had a small edge in bringing something extra to the table, which helped.

Yahoo Sports: Was there a big lesson you learned early on in scouting? Something that maybe you picked up early on and carried with you?

Martin: I don’t know that there was one particular thing, but over the years one of the biggest things I learned is that this is a profession of errors. They talk about golf and baseball being professions of errors, but football definitely is too. Look, you’re going to miss. You cannot be afraid to make mistakes. A lot of times mistakes are made when guys are afraid to have an opinion. Sometimes guys are afraid to get off the fence and sort of give their true feelings.

So I learned No. 1, you can’t make a mistake. And [No.] 2, this is a business where we are paid for our opinion. We’re getting paid for our feeling on something. So as much as you try to dot your I’s and cross your T’s and check off every single box, and for as much film as you ground through and as much legwork as you do, at the end of the day it comes down to a feeling on a player. Trying to figure out how to cultivate those feelings is the key to scouting.

I learned that long ago because I jumped in with such limited knowledge of this profession, and I got in trying to emulate everybody else. My reports sounded just like Brian Gardner’s in Tampa or Reggie Cobb’s — God rest his soul. Early on, those guys gave me direction. But I quickly realized you’re not going to get far in this business trying to be someone else. In the end, I knew that when Jon Gruden turned to me to ask me what I thought, I had better be ready to tell him what I think. It can’t be what Brian or Reggie or Jim Abrams or Dennis Hickey thinks.

Yahoo Sports: And how much of that feeling comes from doing work on the players’ character? Is scouting that harder than just watching the tape and looking at traits?

Martin: It’s big. Huge, really. In my experience, you learn by getting burned. It’s like, hey, if I see someone put their hand on the stove and get burned, I don’t necessarily have to do the same thing. Or I’ve burned my hand and I know not to do that again. We’re in the people business, and you have to have a b.s. radar, you have to be a private investigator, you have to be an interrogator and a lot of things to be able to pull out this information on people.

What has helped me a lot is the relationships I have developed in these schools to where I’ve become someone who shows up not just when a certain school has a player. I’ve become friends with a lot of these coaches, confidantes with a lot of them … it could be the secretaries with the schools or the weight coaches or anyone. You build those relationships over time.

I go into schools when I know they have zero [draftable] players. Especially the [smaller schools], I go there and buy the staff lunches or whatever, maybe where they’re not eating great lunches. I’ve built some strong bonds and relationships with people to where they would rather say nothing than to tell me nothing or [mislead] me. That helps.

But bottom line, it’s your gut instinct that’s the final line [of defense]. We’ve all had people in our lives where you can tell whether they were telling the truth or not. Most of the kids, the vast majority, are good kids. If they tell you the wrong thing, you pretty quickly know that. But there have been others I have burned on, and you just try not to make that same mistake again.

One thing you refine over time is what questions to ask, how to dig a little deeper, maybe it’s a matter of having dinner with a player and kind of disarm them a bit. They can let their guard down and you get the real person. Sometimes telling your own story helps do that. You’re trying to relate to them and let them know some of the issues you’ve had. Then maybe they feel more comfortable telling their story and giving you the real picture of who they are.

As a Texans scout, Mike Martin implored his team to sign Arian Foster after he went undrafted out of Tennessee, and he ended up as the franchise's all-time leading rusher (Getty Images).
As a Texans scout, Mike Martin implored his team to sign Arian Foster after he went undrafted out of Tennessee, and he ended up as the franchise's all-time leading rusher (Getty Images).

Yahoo Sports: One of the players you went to bat for when you were a scout with the Texans — Arian Foster — seems like one whom a lot of people had trouble getting to know and understand. What gave you conviction you could stand on the table and go to bat for him once he went undrafted?

Martin: You definitely have to pick your spots in those situations. You only get so many shots, so to speak, and you can’t shoot every single time.

But he was a really talented kid whom everyone acknowledged the talent. I think in his case, it was sort of the perfect storm. You have a player with a little bit of a different personality who ends up in Knoxville, Tennessee, and he’s doing really well on the football field, but then the team isn’t doing well, the coach [Phillip Fullmer] is on the hot seat, [Foster] has a bunch of fumbles in one season, then all of a sudden he’s the worst thing ever.

I just sort of tried to make sense of everything with him. Maybe I didn’t see anything, talent-wise, that any other scout didn’t see. I think I just wanted to take a personal interest in figuring out where things went wrong with him. So I asked everyone who would tell me about him, and the majority of folks felt — they weren’t really complimentary of him as a guy, but I found some people who said that once you peel back the layers, ‘Ahh, he’s not that bad. He’s just a little bit different.’

Different is OK. I think there’s space for that. I just think he was a little misunderstood. And then football-wise, it was that perfect storm. But there was an assistant strength coach there who is no longer living, Harry Galbreath, and he was a long-time former player and coach. And Harry just told me, ‘Look, I can probably guess what you’ve been told about this kid.’ This was just he and I one on one and he told me, ‘He’s not what people make him out to be.’

Just that alone from someone I trusted and whom I had built a relationship with, it meant a little more to me to keep digging. I mean, the guy [Foster] should have been drafted. We all had draftable grades on him. I am sure people around the league had the same type of grades on him. But then he ends up running slow at the [scouting] combine, and then he pulls his hamstring at one of the [postseason all-star games], slams his helmet down after he pulls his hamstring.

It’s weird. That happened, and had he not had any issues previously maybe that in and of itself isn’t a problem. But you see that and the problems he had at Tennessee, people saying he was part of the problem there, and that’s how some people saw it. I didn’t see it that way. I saw a kid who was putting everything he had into this and was just super frustrated by the way it was going for him.

I think me being a little younger at the time, seeing things a little bit different, helped me. Like, hey, I was a frustrated football player at one time. I have dealt with injuries at one time. Just being able to relate helped me a little bit in that situation.

Yahoo Sports: Is there a biggest evaluation miss that really bothers you? One that just sticks with you?

Martin: Let me think a little bit. I think I would have to say Aaron Curry, the linebacker from Wake Forest. I thought he was about as much of a can’t-miss prospect as I’ve ever seen. Big, fast, uber-talented — and apparently, I wasn’t the only one who thought that because he was the fourth pick overall.

Aaron Curry was the fourth overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft but never panned out as expected. (Getty Images)
Aaron Curry was the fourth overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft but never panned out as expected. (Getty Images)

But for whatever reason it just didn’t work out for him. That’s why it’s important to know everything about a player. If you take football away, will they be devastated, satisfied or relieved?

There are more [misses], I know. There was a quarterback at Kentucky …

Yahoo Sports: Andre Woodson?

Martin: Yes, that’s the guy. I remember thinking, what’s wrong with this kid? He’s big, he’s athletic, he’s got a strong arm. I thought he was super.

Yahoo Sports: So did Brad Holmes, whom we spoke to for this series before. He said he put a ‘big grade’ on him.

Martin: I did too. I thought he was a can’t-miss [prospect]. And then all of a sudden, his career was not a great one. It was short-lived. I was big on him.

Yahoo Sports: What’s the best or most rewarding part about scouting for you?

Martin: On the college side, it’s just the newness of it. Every year, everything flips. It’s a whole new cast of characters that you have to get to know. You’re starting from scratch, and it’s hard. I mean, a desk job — a 9-to-5 job — works for a lot of people, and sometimes you step back and ask yourself, ‘Would I get bored from something like that?’

This job, it’s a lot of hard work, it’s a lot of travel, it’s a lot of being away from your family, but the reward in it is that it keeps you on your toes. It keeps you engaged. There’s a start to every year that’s completely different from the last one. Football is exciting to me, and you’re not only excited about the prospects of your own team, but you also get to go out and find players who can help your team down the road.

The Houston Texans and scout Mike Martin saw something in cornerback A.J. Bouye, who went undrafted but developed into a great player. (Getty Images)
The Houston Texans and scout Mike Martin saw something in cornerback A.J. Bouye, who went undrafted but developed into a great player. (Getty Images)

It doesn’t get redundant. It’s never boring. And it’s a humbling profession. You can think you’ve got everything right, and then you bring in a guy who is terrible. Or on the flip side, you can bring in a guy for a workout — take A.J. Bouye, for instance — and you sign him for $5,000 or whatever. All of a sudden he becomes the highest-paid corner in the league at one point.

Why do people stay at the roulette table at the casino? It’s exciting. The adrenaline is going. You lose a lot of spins. But it keeps you sharp. It makes you want to hit the next spin.

Yahoo Sports: What’s the most challenging part of the business? Anything you’d like to see changed with the process?

Martin: That’s tough because everyone does things differently, from organization to organization. From a scouting perspective, I would say the farther you get from the season, the more you make mistakes.

It’s an evaluation process, so all of these parts are important — don’t get me wrong. But I think you have the Underwear Olympics with the combine, and sometimes you get contrasting opinions now because you have scouts who have followed players for two years maybe, and maybe there’s a coaching staff who is seeing someone and seeing them differently. They see him work out and run at the combine. Not that they’re necessarily wrong because they’re believing their eyes, but maybe they’re not getting the whole picture.

Obviously it’s not possible to draft right after the end of the season. But I wish there wasn’t such a delay. I know there’s a lot of money made at the combine with the TV stuff, but I wish there was less time between the end of the season and the draft. You can overstudy, and you start second-guessing. I just wish we could draft a little sooner.

Have there been instances where you find players who worked out better than they played? Sure. Some who have gone on to be successful. Some who developed in the NFL. But for everyone of those, there were a hundred or two [hundred] where they were overdrafted or mistakes were made based on their workouts. The more you forget what happened in the season, I believe, the more likely you make mistakes.

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