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SANTA CLARA — Five weeks before the draft, Trent Baalke's professional life was altered when the 49ers and Scot McCloughan "mutually" parted ways.

Baalke is the 49ers' director of player personnel. He replaced McCloughan in that role in 2008 after the club stripped then-coach Mike Nolan of final say in personnel matters and elevated McCloughan to general manager.

Although Baalke, 46, has not assumed the title of general manager, that is just a matter of semantics.

He leads the 49ers into this week's NFL draft as the organization's top decision-maker on football matters. He makes the call on prospective free agents. And he has the power to execute trades — something he did Friday with the acquisition of speedy receiver/returner Ted Ginn Jr. from the Miami Dolphins for a fifth-round draft pick.

Baalke's responsibilities have changed, all right. And he's not entirely convincing when he tries to explain why his job hasn't been altered that much.

"It's changed only in the sense that you're preparing to make the decisions," Baalke said.

"In terms of the amount of hours, process or the evaluation of players, none of that has changed."

Even Baalke admits plenty has changed in his life from his days as athletic director at Shanley High in Fargo, N.D. In his previous job, he was the defensive line/strength and conditioning coach at South Dakota State.

"I never even contemplated getting into the NFL on the personnel side," Baalke said. "I was a college coach in the Dakotas and got out of coaching to pursue some other goals back in the mid-'90s.

"When I was a college coach, I was the liaison that dealt with the scouts when they came in to visit the university to talk with the players. So I got to know a lot of the scouts at that point in time."

Baalke met a young scout assigned to the midlands region for the Green Bay Packers in 1994. Baalke gave offensive lineman Adam Timmerman an unconditional endorsement, and the Packers selected him in the seventh round. Timmerman went on to play in two Pro Bowls, as well as start in four Super Bowls with the Packers and St. Louis Rams.

That scout Baalke met on the Brookings, S.D., campus: Scot McCloughan.

"That's how our relationship got started," Baalke said. "And this business is all about relationships."

It was Baalke's contact with long-time NFL scout Dick Haley, father of Kansas City Chiefs head coach Todd Haley, that sent his new career in motion.

Baalke spent three seasons (1998-2000) as a scout under Haley with the New York Jets. It was in his NFL job that Baalke got an up-close chance to study, observe and learn from Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick.

Baalke moved on to the Washington Redskins, where he spent four years. He rose through the ranks to director of college scouting in 2004. McCloughan hired him as the 49ers' West Coast scout in 2005 before his promotion in 2008.

Baalke has been described by those who know his work as a "grinder."

"He's a good road scout," said one team source. "He understands the importance of seeing guys on tape and then digging to get the whole package."

Baalke has been busy scouting and resetting the 49ers' draft board. He and coach Mike Singletary escaped for three days last month to get to know each other a little better and discuss some prospects. They attended the pro days of Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford and Oklahoma State receiver Dez Bryant.

"Our system hasn't changed," Baalke said.

"Our defensive system is the same; our offensive system is the same; the coordinators are the same. So the types of players we're looking for at each position haven't changed.

"Mike going off with me had nothing to do with the systems or the players we're looking for. It was for him to get acquainted with some of the players on our board and take a further look at."

Although this will be Baalke's first draft as the lead man with the 49ers, he said that he is not approaching it as "his" draft.

"I think the final say will be me, but at the same time, the thing I want to really reinforce is that this isn't a one-man band," Baalke said. "Coach Singletary is very involved. Tom Gamble (director of pro personnel) has stepped into a role of leadership. I think any time there's a decision made in this organization, it's going to be a collaborative effort."