It usually happens at an airport gate. Les Snead will notice people whispering, and one will ask, “Are you Matthew McConaughey?”
A fan was once so convinced that Snead was former Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre that he insisted on an autograph. Snead finally obliged by signing, “Brett Favre, by Les Snead.”
Some have mistaken Snead, with his wavy, strawberry blond hair that spawned a Twitter account (@LesSneadHair) with 1,739 followers and a square jawline that he sometimes sprinkles with a goatee, for Ken Whisenhunt, a former Arizona Cardinals and Tennessee Titans head coach.
“I’ve spent my whole life being told I look like somebody else,” Snead said.
If Snead, 45, can pull off the second phase of his ambitious rebuilding plan, turning Los Angeles’ new/old professional football team “from competitive to contender,” maybe someone will spot him at the beach, in a restaurant or a boarding area and say, “Hey, aren’t you Les Snead, general manager of the Rams?”
The chances of such recognition should increase with the Rams’ moving from St. Louis back to Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest media market, but they would grow exponentially if the Rams can end an 11-year playoff drought.
That would take a quantum leap for a team that was 27-36-1 in Snead’s first four seasons as general manager and is expected to hover around the .500 mark again this season, which begins with Monday night’s game at San Francisco.
But the Rams already have taken lengthy strides under Snead, whose tenure has been marked by aggressive moves to improve the club’s draft position, including last spring’s blockbuster trade that vaulted them to the top of the draft and the selection of California quarterback Jared Goff.
The Rams were 15-65 from 2007-2011, the worst record by an NFL team during any five-year period, so Snead has steered them in the right direction.
“If I had a personal philosophy in life, and it bleeds into the organization, it’s to wake up sprinting, don’t be scared,” Snead said. “In our league, wherever you’re at in the standings, you’re getting chased or you still have some hunting to do.
“Just like a NASCAR driver, you have to have the courage to make a move to go from third place to second place to first. That’s the philosophy we have.”
Snead put those words into action just days after being named general manager in the spring of 2012, trading the No. 2 pick in that year’s draft to the Washington Redskins (who selected Robert Griffin III) for the sixth and 39th picks and the Redskins’ first-round picks in 2013 and 2014.
The windfall from that deal, combined with pre-draft trades in 2013, helped the Rams net defensive tackle Michael Brockers (2012), cornerback Janoris Jenkins (2012), receivers Brian Quick (2012) and Tavon Austin (2013), linebacker Alec Ogletree (2013) and offensive tackle Greg Robinson (2014).
The Rams used their own first-round pick in 2014 on tackle Aaron Donald, now one of the NFL’s top defensive linemen.
Some thought Snead reached with his selection of running back Todd Gurley, who sat out most of his final season at Georgia because of knee surgery, with the 10th pick in 2015. Gurley ran for 1,108 yards and 10 touchdowns in 13 games last season and is considered one of the NFL’s brightest young stars.
“I give our team doctors and training staff credit,” Snead said. “They said the knee has a chance to heal and that he has a chance to be the Todd Gurley we all fell in love with in college.”
Snead made another bold move last spring, trading the 15th pick, two second-round picks and three other picks for the No. 1 pick. No team had moved farther up in the draft to snag the top pick.
“We had a need, we really liked Jared and thought there might be a way to get him instead of sitting there and saying, ‘Golly, if we could only get him,’ ” Snead said. “I don’t think it’s a roll of the dice because there’s no skill in rolling dice. It’s a move that was very calculated. We got a future franchise quarterback.”
With the possible exception of Robinson, who struggled in his first two seasons but has showed promise this summer, Snead has nailed his first-round picks.
While many St. Louis fans clamored for flashy quarterback Johnny Man- ziel in the middle of the first round in 2014, Snead opted for Donald, a two-time Pro Bowl selection who immediately established himself as a cornerstone player.
“You always want a first-round guy to become a core starter,” said Snead, who married former NFL Network analyst Kara Henderson in 2012. “When you have a chance to hit a home run, you definitely want to try to do it.”
The Rams swung for the fences with Goff, though it’s too soon to tell how far their drive will go — Goff couldn’t unseat Case Keenum for the starting job during the exhibition season.
But once Goff takes the reins of the offense and gains NFL experience, the Rams believe he has the talent to tip them from competitive to contender.
“We knew we had to build a core, and I think the core is in place,” Snead said. “Going through all we’ve gone through to get to competitive … they’ve been growing, maturing, and they keep getting better.”
Snead grew up in the southeastern Alabama town of Euphala, on the banks of the Chattahoochee River. He played center and tight end in high school and tight end at Auburn from 1992-93.
He wasn’t big enough or good enough to play in the NFL, but he was smart enough, earning a degree in mathematics and considering medical school before being offered a graduate assistant position at Auburn.
“I was the only child of a single mom from a small town in Alabama, so I was raised by football,” Snead said. “Dad wasn’t in the picture, so I had a lot of dads, and most of them were football coaches. I tried to step away [after my final college season] and get it out of my blood, but I couldn’t seem to do it.”
Snead earned a master’s degree in education while coaching at Auburn. After three seasons in the pro scouting department of the Jacksonville Jaguars, he was hired by the Atlanta Falcons, where he spent 13 seasons as a pro scout, director of pro personnel and director of player personnel.
There was a full-circle element to his hiring by the Rams. Snead was 12 when he remembers “lying on the floor” of his family room and watching the 1983 Cotton Bowl between Pittsburgh, which featured star quarterback Dan Marino, and Southern Methodist, which featured star running back Eric Dickerson.
“I became an Eric Dickerson fan because of the facemask and all of that,” Snead said. “He gets drafted by the Rams, so 2,000 miles east of here . . . I became an L.A. Rams fan as a kid.
“I don’t know if my lifelong dream was to be a GM — in a small town, you probably don’t dream that big — but every now and then it’s pretty cool to think you’re the GM of your favorite team growing up.”