It was less than a year ago that Ryan Pace, the New Orleans Saints’ director of player personnel, said it would take the perfect opportunity for him to leave, saying the Saints’ scouting department and coaching staff shared an unusually close relationship.

Pace found that opportunity. The Chicago Bears announced Thursday that they’d hired him to become their general manager. Pace, 37, interviewed for that job by Wednesday night and beat out three other candidates — Kansas City’s Chris Ballard, Tennessee’s Lake Dawson and Houston’s Brian Gaine — to become the NFL’s youngest GM of the moment.

The Bears fired ex-GM Phil Emery and coach Marc Trestman after a 5-11 finish in 2014 left them well out of the playoffs. Chicago wanted to hire its new GM before searching for a coach.

Pace was in his 13th year of employment with the Saints. This was his second year as the player personnel director in charge of pro and college scouting. He was a defensive end from 1995-99 at Eastern Illinois, which is Saints coach Sean Payton’s alma mater and is about three hours from Chicago.

Pace worked his way up to his new position from strikingly humble beginnings — his first role with the Saints was to help coordinate operations on game day, during training camp and at the Superdome.

Payton credited Pace frequently in news conferences whenever veteran free agents made a positive impact, and General Manager MickeyLoomis had said it was inevitable other NFL teams would attempt to poach him given his value to the Saints.

“He has been a key contributor in developing our roster throughout the past years,” Loomis said in a statement Thursday that congratulated Pace and his wife, Stephanie. “We will miss Ryan and ... Stephanie; however, we are excited that they will be with an organization like the Chicago Bears, of which we have the highest regard.”

At a media briefing Tuesday, Loomis said the Saints would not stand in Pace’s way if he interviewed with other teams.

“He’s ready for a general manager’s job,” Loomis said of Pace. “He’s talented. I would expect to lose him at some point.”

Speaking last year at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, Pace indicated not just any job would tempt him to leave the Saints.

“The grass is not always greener,” Pace said at the time.

The Dolphins last year tried to interview Pace for a general manager job but weren’t granted permission to. Pace’s contract is reportedly due to expire this year, so the Saints couldn’t block interviews.

Pace did have the option of choosing not to sit down with any teams seeking to interview him, but he exercised his right to look for any external promotion that lured him.

The Saints on Thursday did not comment on a potential successor for Pace. They’ll presumably evaluate candidates — possibly both external and internal — to replace Pace immediately.

A person just below Pace in the Saints’ scouting department was Terry Fontenot, the club’s director of pro personnel. The Saints in 2012 sent Fontenot to the Stanford Business School’s NFL executive education program. The native of Lake Charles has been with the Saints since 2003.

Another person on Fontenot’s level with the Saints is college scouting director Rick Reiprish, who’s been with the organization since 2004. Reiprish, of Shamokin, Pennsylvania, has been named a player personnel director before: by the Jaguars in 1998, four years after he had been hired as Jacksonville’s top college scout.

Chicago has made hiring people away from the Saints a bit of a habit recently. The Bears brought on former Saints offensive line coach Aaron Kromer to serve as their offensive coordinator in 2013. Kromer was fired after this season.