The combine used to be a big party, but is it over?

INDIANAPOLIS -- Mike Westhoff remembers a time when the NFL offseason circuit was alive.

There, at the bar in Mobile, Alabama, during the Senior Bowl was Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips singing with the band. It wasn't a drunken night out either -- just a few members of the football brotherhood enjoying their time and tunes together. They took over the city for a week and the gates closed behind them.

At the combine a few weeks later, Westhoff could walk into any bar in Indianapolis and find himself in a constant state of amazement. There was Jerry Jones and Barry Switzer yanking on Westhoff's coat tail, inviting him to come sit down at their table so they could attempt to lure him away from the Dolphins (that actually happened, according to Westhoff. Jones simply waved him over and offered him a gig). There was old Seahawks coach Chuck Knox and his entire staff, cold calling Westhoff over to the bar to grab a beer. They talked shop into the night, long after all the patrons left the bar.

"It was a ball. It was the greatest. I loved it," Westhoff, the longtime Jets coordinator and Hard Knocks superstar, told Around The NFL this week. "You used to see it a lot more. Everyone went to dinner together -- I had so much fun. Even guys I didn't know real well, we all hung out together."

But Westhoff walked into a different atmosphere this week just like so many men of his generation.

For decades, the combine was an essential part of the coaching offseason circuit not just because it was a centralized location for scouting players and meeting with representatives of free agents, but because it was a blast. Ruth's Chris and St. Elmos, the iconic Indianapolis steakhouse, were the nerve center of a football lifer's convention. Relationships were forged, beers were downed and, for an insular industry where the only people who understand you are other football people, it was a separate peace.

The combine was ... fun.

Now, at a time when the NFL issued a record 1,300 media credentials for this year's rendition, some of the old guard are getting misty-eyed for the way things were. Indianapolis hasn't lost its soul, but is bigger always better? Where can two coaches just "hang out" anymore?

"The world has become a lot more invasive on people's privacy now," Louis Riddick, a longtime NFL player, personnel director and current ESPN analyst said. "How people are seen, where they go, who they talk to -- it used to be loose. You would see guys out at the bar having drinks, talking to other football people, even fans. But I think now they're more guarded. Everything is interpreted -- sometimes in the way you don't intend it to be. It's changed that way. People are more aware of their surroundings now."

A quick survey of several current NFL position coaches, head coaches and executives found that the preference in Indianapolis is to find an out-of-the-way joint for dinner or drinks. The prevalence of social media and citizen journalism is scary enough during their everyday lives.

A few years ago, Indianapolis was more of a quiet oasis boasting a strong rolodex of restaurants in the downtown drag. A coach might still order a filet at St. Elmo's, but he or she knows the pitfalls.

"The local restaurants used to be extremely happy to see us," Gil Brandt, a longtime NFL personnel executive and Godfather of the combine, said. "There wasn't as much to do here for coaches as their used to be, so the coaches were free to hang out at Ruth's Chris. It was like a league convention in those restaurants.

"It was -- our league becomes more competitive every day. Everyone realizes now what one game and one player means."

Brandt touched on the second tier of social change at the combine -- competitive balance. With a regimented interview schedule that keeps coaches and scouts in interview rooms until nearly midnight, there isn't time to go out anymore. One coach said he depended on the to-go line at Steak 'n Shake. Another just hoped to get some room service. Ravens coach John Harbaugh slid into line for free media grub at Lucas Oil Stadium, politely asking to cut toward the front.

"The shelf life of a head coach has diminished significantly," Riddick said. "You need to turn things around in two years, heck, maybe even one year. You don't have any time to waste. Everything is condensed now -- when it's time to work, it's time to work, man. You don't just go out and do a few interviews and hit the bars anymore and go out until three or four in the morning. You just can't.

"You don't have the luxury of time anymore in any facet of pro football."

There are still some coaches trying to keep the true spirit of the combine alive. The Bruce Arians philosophy, that there is a diminished return on effort after a certain time of night, is catching on again and could hopefully motivate the future gatekeepers to remember what it was like.

When they're ready, Mike Westhoff will be waiting with a beer, remembering how good Bum could sing.

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