By Conor Orr | Published March 18, 2015
This was all supposed to be a joke.
A group of pup scouts with the Los Angeles Rams had left a note on the desk of general manager Tex Schramm that contained an urgent message just weeks before the 1956 NFL Draft: We gotta get more film on this prospect, Dick Donlin. Unbelievable talent out of Hamline in Minnesota.
Schramm, ever the perfectionist, and his legendary head scout Eddie Kotal started burning through their contacts in the Midwest and word began to leak out from a mouthy assistant coach on the other end of the line. Donlin is the real deal. A diamond in the rough. Everybody wants to get their hands on Donlin.
Gil Brandt, one of those part-time junior scouts in on the joke, had no idea what was about to happen.
The Rams had just made their second-round pick, Leon Clarke, when a contingent from the Baltimore Colts strolled by the table late that afternoon. They were proud of themselves, wearing that look one gets when one finally puts the Rubik's Cube together.
"They come over to our table and they say, 'Haha, you didn't think we knew about him, did you?' " Brandt recalled. "Well, we found out!' "
The Colts had drafted Donlin with the 21st overall selection without even seeing him.
He was cut before the first game.
Donlin, God love him, was not a professional football player. He wasn't fast enough or strong enough. He toiled in obscurity at a small liberal arts school in St. Paul, Minnesota, and he ran some track in addition to playing football, too. But who would think to actually check in on this?
The life of a scout is often humorless and heartbreaking; there's endless blame to shoulder and a coach who takes credit when the roster takes shape. Just long hours, endless car rides, warm Pepsi in the trunk.
The evolution of college scouting is a beautiful story because, despite all of its changes and advancements, there is a certain aspect that has always relied on instinct and a stone-chiseled list of truisms like "Don't draft a pass rusher with thick ankles and heavy legs."
But make no mistake, there were dark ages. From the phony 40 to poor Donnie Caraway, who was drafted three times, twice before he was professionally eligible -- nobody bothered to check -- the untold stories of scouting's past give us a perspective on who the trade's innovators really were, and an acute picture of where we'd be without them.
"I mean, we used to draft off the All-American teams in the newspapers," says longtime general manager Ernie Accorsi. "They would have someone clip all the newspapers, compile all the numbers, and that was it."
At the beginning, there were so few of them on the road.
There was Kotal, the prototype of the modern scout and a should-be Hall of Famer. There were Sarge MacKenzie and Dick Gallagher from the Browns, and Jack Vainisi, the legendary architect of Vince Lombardi's early championship teams.
It was far easier for teams to show up on draft day and pluck the names right out of "Street & Smith" or "College Football Illustrated," the two most popular trade magazines at the time. And because coaches were hitting at a moderately high success rate, no one seemed to care that a bevy of unearthed talent lay hidden in smaller colleges, traditionally black schools and the military service.
Some current coaches and executives have wondered if their lives might be easier now if things had never changed. The draft was jammed so tightly up against the end of the previous season back then -- the first three rounds of the '56 draft, in fact, were held in November 1955, while games were still being played -- that no teams had time to scout players. There was no last-minute romance. There were no Mike Mamula moments, where an incredible hulk changes everything with a few sprints and jumps at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Kotal was too good, though. He changed everything. Names like "Night Train" Lane, who joined the Rams in 1952 and immediately set a single-season interception record (14) that still stands today, whetted the appetite of general managers searching for raw power and talent. Los Angeles was, at one point in the 1950s, so deep that the backups were likely the second-best team in the country.
The problem, of course, was that there was nothing to find for scouts who didn't know how or where to look.
"Let's say we'd go to Ohio State," Brandt said. "I'd say, 'Hey, Coach (Woody) Hayes, guys are running sprints on Friday. Can I go time them?' And he says, 'Gil, I love you, but if I let you do it, I'll have to let all these other jackasses do it.' "
Without the stringent regulation of the current combine format, which includes a laser-timed 40-yard dash, players and assistant coaches looking for publicity would often cheat the process in order to improve the sprint times their players would run.
Villanova, Long Beach State and Idaho were notorious for the "38- or 37-yard dash" -- as a team official would turn his back to the player to line up the 40, the player would scoot up a few feet. A 4.9-second 40-yard dash would turn into a 4.5 or 4.4.
Brandt, horrified, once saw a coach at a school in Texas making official record of players' 40-yard dash times by timing the sprints with his fingers.
"They tell me that Al Davis picked a guy named Mike Siani back in the 1970s as a first-rounder out of Villanova, and they tell me that, at the 40-yard dash, Villanova coaches put the 40-yard dash at 38 yards," Accorsi said. "I love Mike and Al; Mike's a friend of mine, but he didn't have any speed. And Al Davis wasn't drafting a receiver in the first round without any speed.
"I think he ran a 4.4 at 38 yards. I don't know if it's true, but that's a legendary story at Villanova."
Siani, picked 21st overall by Davis' Raiders in 1972, ended up playing three seasons for Accorsi in Baltimore between 1978 and 1980. He won a Super Bowl with Oakland in 1976, though he totaled just 11 receptions for 173 yards that season.
For his part, Brandt ended up marking the distance on the 40-yard dash himself with a pair of towels. Better safe than sorry.
Back in the mid-1990s, while doing some office cleaning, Pat Hanlon, the New York Giants' current senior vice president of communications, found crates of old college football magazines from the 1950s and '60s in a storage closet around the corner from his desk.
He was going to throw them out -- until he realized what had been scrawled inside.
Wellington Mara, the longtime owner of the Giants and the father of current co-owner and president John Mara, had marked up the names of each prospect with personal thoughts and observations, information gleaned from in-person visits.
When it comes to innovators in the scouting field, Mara was among the first. Road scouts, or "bird dogs," were a rare breed to begin with. It was unheard of for management or executive types to pack themselves into trains and shuttle off every weekend.
He even re-routed the flight home from his honeymoon to puddle jump across the country and look at prospects.
"I don't think my mom minded," John told NFL.com. "They ended up having 11 children and were married for a very, very long time.
"Some of his Navy buddies -- he served during World War II -- they would come into some port in California or Hawaii, and the first thing they'd try and do is run out to clubs and whatnot. My dad would be out at some high school or college football game scouting players."
John Mara could never truly understand the obsession, and maybe that's the calling card of all innovators. Why did his father insist on staying in the team's war room until the draft's completion well after he'd relinquished much control of the club? Why, well into his 80s, did he need to hear a scouting report on every potential undrafted free agent?
It was the same calling felt by Brandt when he began integrating computer technology into scouting, the same itch Steve Belichick, father of New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, had when he wrote "Football Scouting Methods," a modern bible on advanced preparation, data entry and scout awareness. There was something these men didn't know, something they needed to find out.
Bill Belichick remembers sitting passenger-side in his father's car, grilling him with questions on the way home from college football games.
Though Steve Belichick was not a pro scout, his work at the Naval Academy as an advance scout for the football team revolutionized the profession. He discovered a way to ingest, in one 60-minute period, every play, penalty and formation, every subtle nuance that would typically take an entire staff a week to process, including the three days it took to acquire film.
When other coaches wanted a second look at something, they needed to lean on film or instant replay. Steve Belichick, by contrast, had a carbon copy of the day's events by the time he left the stadium. A modern spreadsheet scrawled out in picture-perfect handwriting.
"I saw how he saw and organized every substitution and penalty in the game," Bill Belichick says. "Nobody else could do that, certainly not with his accuracy. I looked at him with amazement."
Ask any scout, though, and the book is about so much more than note-taking and recognizing complex defensive formations. It's a constant moral resource, a 184-page reiteration of the "do your job" credo that Bill's fans wear on hats and T-shirts today.
Take the beginning of Chapter 6: You should be in your seat and ready to observe the players when they come out for their warm-up. This is a good time to get your first impression of the specialists.
Or read Chapter 3: "What Is Expected Of The Scout."
Do not permit your interest to be aroused to the point that you become a spectator. This will hinder, and often prevent, you from obtaining essential information. Concentrate on the action that is taking place. It may well be the only time you will see that particular thing happen in a game.
"His preparation and work ethic was spectacular," Bill said. "He was ready to go two hours before a game and was acquiring information until two hours after the game."
When asked why his father would put something like this together -- it was a process that required him to get diagrams of formations, and photos of his own play sheets and notebooks Xeroxed by the staff at Johns Hopkins, with the words of the book artfully dictated and written by his wife -- his answer was simple.
He wanted to be a good road scout and went looking for information -- but couldn't find much.
Like Belichick, Brandt, who joined the Dallas Cowboys for their inaugural season of 1960, remembered the vast, unorganized expanse. There was so much information in a single game that couldn't be wrangled, but what about a country full of prospects?
His IBM 360 computer system, which weighted prospects' attributes and helped organize the Cowboys' draft board, began to gain widespread popularity after initially serving as a punching bag for the old guard. Vince Lombardi once called him out at an NFL draft ... and a year or two later, asked him how to use one.
What was an 0-11 team during Brandt's first year transformed into a juggernaut by Year 7 that completed 20 straight winning seasons before falling to 7-9 in 1986.
The computer algorithm bred a simplistic system the Cowboys used based on a few ground philosophies.
Accorsi felt a fevered push around the league to hire someone -- anyone -- who could come in and teach it to their scouts, a feeling that was still prevalent in 1994, when he came to work for the Giants under then-general manager George Young.
"It attaches a letter grade to your number rating as a player," Accorsi said. "On a nine-point system, if you earn a seven to eight, which is very high, but you were undersized compared to the average NFL specifications according to that position's average size, they put a 'C' next to it."
So even if a player is a seven to eight, the "C" serves as a red flag. Teams would do the same thing with speed, quickness, awareness or other secondary attributes that all received letter grades. The grades would then disallow a club from choosing that player in the first round or, depending on the importance, the second round.
The Giants, according to Accorsi, still use the system today. Several league executives confirmed to NFL.com that their clubs use a version of that system, as well.
The Patriots had long-serving executive Bucko Kilroy with their club from 1971 until 2007, the year he passed away at 86. Kilroy was the first defector from Dallas who knew the system and served as a scouting consultant for the club through Belichick's first three Super Bowl wins.
"The theory behind it is simple," Accorsi said. "If you start making exceptions to size and speed, you're going to have a slow and small team."
For years, Accorsi and some of his associates have pushed for a scouting wing at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Imagine if their discoveries were properly attributed. Imagine if we attributed the Titans' mid- and late-'90s rise to Glen Cumby, as we should have. Imagine if the 49ers allowed Ernie Plank, who convinced the team to draft Joe Montana, to leave a legacy much broader than the 26 states he covered with a trunk full of sacred notebooks locked away in his Cadillac and a bottle of Pepsi at his side.
What if, next to a plaque created in Jack Vainisi's honor in Canton, we read about Fred Cone, Babe Parilli, Jim Temp, Paul Hornung, Ron Kramer and Ray Nitschke?
What if, in a well-deserved monument to Bill Nunn, an African-American who pioneered the scouting of African-American players, we read about John Stallworth, L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount and his irreplaceable contributions to the 1970s Steelers, one of the most dominant NFL teams in league history?
The evolution of college scouting is a beautiful story because, despite all of its changes and advancements, there remains a group of bird dogs systematically scanning the country for the next great player.
Unless Accorsi gets his wish in the coming years -- John Mara, one of the league's most influential owners, seconded the desire for scouting recognition in Canton -- it will stay this way: Their stories of endless travel, reporting, research stress, pressure, tears, fights, loneliness, wisdom and savvy are locked away in a bell tower, waiting for the Super Bowl bonus DVD that will mention them in the liner notes.
"That was one of the reasons we wanted to do that 'Finding Giants' show last year," Mara said, of the NFL Network program about the franchise's scouting department. "We wanted people to know about the sacrifices they made.
"I think they deserved to be recognized in some way. They do that with broadcasters, and I don't see why they can't do it for the people who actually find these players."
Twenty-two years after the Baltimore Colts selected Dick Donlin in the second round of the NFL draft, Brandt, then an executive with the Dallas Cowboys, was walking along the practice field when he met a salesman from a ring company that was designing the team's 1977 championship bands.
"I'd like you to meet my boss -- he'll be in town next week. Is it all right if I bring him by?"
"Heck, yeah!" Brandt said.
A few days later, the salesman showed up with his boss, and they stopped Brandt before a jog at lunch time.
"I'd like you to meet my boss, Dick Donlin," the salesman said.
"THE Dick Donlin, from Hamline University in Minnesota? A second-round choice by the Baltimore Colts?" Brandt asked.
"That's me," Donlin said. "And I can see why you guys are so successful. You really crossed all the t's and dotted all the i's."
Follow Connor Orr on Twitter @conortorr.