NFL Scouting Combine veterans recall the crazy days


When the combine hit Indy in 1987, participants included Rod Woodson and Vinny Testaverde. (AP)

INDIANAPOLIS -- Tom Coughlin remembers a serene afternoon in the mid-'80s at the Superdome down in New Orleans.

Coaches would huddle over film banks and players were readily available, milling about the grounds of the old scouting combine without handlers or agents. They were not trained in 40-yard dashes or prepped on interview questions. You could learn something about a kid.

Coughlin talks about it now with a certain longing. It was peaceful then. Organized but loose. A sign that the NFL was growing, but a sign that it would maintain the underground feel that defined the league's first two decades after the merger.

"There's an awful lot that has changed," the New York Giants coach said Thursday.

The event's move to Indianapolis in 1987 -- someone accidentally double-booked the venue in New Orleans with an auto show -- assured the educational weekend trip would continue in its purest state. All alone in the middle of the country with nothing else to do.

But what ended up happening was chaos.

Today, the NFL Scouting Combine has a slick corporate glaze and every matter of business is regimented down to the exact amount of time coaches have to spend with each prospect. (There's literally a buzzer that goes off after 15 minutes.)

Travel back 20 years, though, and lifers describe a carpeted royal rumble. Espionage, deceit and a platoon of interns who endured countless headaches while trying to wrangle players into private meetings.

There were no rules, no time restrictions and no limits for teams that wanted to gain an edge.

"There were fist fights," said Gil Brandt, a longtime player personnel executive with the Dallas Cowboys.

Blame the Giants for all the madness.

That was one theory, because when George Young got a hold of a prospect, the youngster wouldn't leave the meeting room for hours. The Giants were one of the first teams to include a psychological evaluation in their process, which meant, according to some combine vets, a 200-question form on top of health questions.

Ernie Accorsi, the team's GM before Jerry Reese, was contacted for this story, but said he never had any trouble fully interviewing the guys he wanted. That's because the Giants never let them go.

Each team employed a platoon of runners -- usually young scouting assistants -- who would find a prospect and direct him to a particular meeting room where a team was waiting. That meant that, at any given moment, there would be 31 underpaid, sleepless, frustrated 20-somethings waiting for a college football player to pop out of the Giants' room so they could grab him and direct him somewhere else.

That's where the fights would start.

"Wow. I have this image in my head of this throng of people waiting outside of a given team's room, and when a player comes out, trying desperately to grab him," said Phil Savage, a longtime NFL personnel executive and former general manager. "And then that same throng following the same player to another room so they don't lose their place in line."

If team officials liked a player they knew was coveted by another club, they would sometimes direct the prospect into an empty room or vacant hallway and hold him there. For hours. This move, referred to by multiple executives, was called a "stash."

The stash served multiple purposes, but the most important was shielding crucial information. Dirt on injuries, personal lives and demeanor were still part of a word-of-mouth business.

Then there was the merchandise grab. Today, players are treated to a regimented buffet of sneakers, workout shirts and other athletic gear. Back then, teams would come armed with boxes of hats and T-shirts: "If you skip that interview with the Cowboys, we'll get you clothing for the whole family!"

"There were more than a few occasions where people got a little testy," former Colts executive and soon-to-be Hall of Fame inductee Bill Polian said. "You were taking someone to interview and another team would swoop in and say, 'Wait a minute, he was scheduled to interview with us.' But that wasn't quite the way it is."

Panthers GM Dave Gettleman, who spent almost two decades as a scout with the Broncos, Bills and Giants, remembers quite vividly one of the worst periods of his life. When asked about the old combine this week, he came alive. This was a source of deep frustration. Nights he'll never get back.

"There was no organization," he said. "Just imagine, my coach tells me, I gotta have (Player A). I find him, and there's six guys following me. So for an hour and a half, I'm chasing this guy around because I've been told I have to get him.

"Picture this. I finally get him. It's 10:45 and I get back to the room and the coaches are putting their coats on. I tell them I got the player, and they say, 'Well, you have to come back tomorrow.' I would say 'I don't think so.' "

When polled about it now, many of the combine veterans wonder what might have been. Who did we miss? What didn't we know? What did our young wranglers actually promise these kids to get him in our room?

Savage is amazed that he used to boss around guys like Eric DeCosta, now a high-level personnel executive with the Baltimore Ravens. The scouting assistants, the knock-around 20-somethings in those sweaty piles, are now inheriting a world that is much different than the one they came up in.

They're grateful, if only for the inner peace they feel when the day is done.

"It's much-better run," Jacksonville Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell said. "It's very smooth. Everything is on time. Much more productive."

Follow Conor Orr on Twitter @ConorTOrr.