Joel Bussert recalls 40 years of NFL draft memories, oddities and more
Next week in Chicago, Joel Bussert will work his 40th draft with the NFL, but his first outside of New York. The draft started in 1936 but hasn’t hit the road since last visiting the Windy City in 1964. Bussert wasn’t there back then, it only seems like it. He came on the scene in the league office in time for the 1976 draft, which was held at New York City’s Roosevelt Hotel, when the selection process was still a rather low-key, straightforward affair. That means he's been around for half of the NFL's 80 drafts.
Bussert, who is retiring this year as the NFL’s senior vice president of player personnel and football operations, is known within league circles as the institutional memory of the draft. He has an encyclopedic grasp of the draft’s history and for almost four decades has served as the brain center of the event, pulling the levers and working the buttons that make the draft go. Almost always smoothly.
Bussert has plenty of other duties within the NFL, including overseeing the league rule book with the vice president of officiating, serving as the principal NFL liaison with the powerful competition committee and having jurisdiction in matters dealing with waiver claims. But the draft is his baby, and he’s the man in the middle of the action every year, with final say over the execution of trades and serving as part of the team that records the picks and operates the draft clock.
Last Tuesday in the NFL’s office, 40 years to the day since he was hired away from the Elias Sports Bureau and began working at the league, I sat down with Bussert, 69, as he reminisced about the draft’s long and interesting history. He’s had a vantage point like no one else, and has lived and experienced the entire scope of dramatic change that has transformed the draft into one of the most wildly popular annual events on the nation’s sports calendar. From chalkboards to red carpet, Bussert has seen it all.
Bussert loves the draft, and the man who gets to approve or disapprove every deal that happens on the clock wouldn’t trade his role in the process for anything.
Q: What was your first draft like, in 1976, compared to the event it has grown into?
Bussert: My first draft, in ’76, was the last 17-round draft. It also had the most players ever selected, 487, because Seattle and Tampa Bay were added that year, taking us to 28 teams. And as we do in expansion drafts, we gave the two new teams extra picks. That draft lasted something like 24 hours and 18 minutes. The next year we went to a 12-round draft, in 1977. But I’d say 17-round drafts and drafting straight through in one day, that’s a young man’s game. I don’t have the energy for that any more. That was an endurance test.
Q: Drafting straight through in one day? Why would the league have ever done that? Now it’s a three-day extravaganza.
Bussert: When the USFL for several years in the ‘80s was in existence, we’d get done with our draft at two in the morning. We’d start around eight in the morning. I remember the latest one ever went was the 1984 draft. We went to about 2:44 in the morning. We started at 8:02 a.m. and we concluded at 2:44 a.m. the following day.
The concern was if we had a split-day draft, a bunch of players who didn’t get drafted on the first day would immediately sign with the USFL. They would become the USFL’s prime candidates to pick off. It was probably a pretty good idea on our part, because it was a legitimate concern. Players could say, ‘Okay, I didn’t get picked high in the NFL, so I’m going to sign with the USFL.’ And their season was going on right then [in the spring], so they could start playing right then and there and start collecting paychecks. So that was the motive for the straight through draft, which by the way was starting at 5 a.m. on the West Coast.
Q: Was putting the draft on TV for the first time in 1980, when ESPN showed it, the best thing that ever happened to the draft?
Bussert: That was obviously the biggest step in terms of developing interest in the draft. I don’t think that first year ESPN even had clips of the players or anything like that. It was a big step forward when they got clips of the players actually making plays. But ESPN very quickly upgraded the quality of their telecast.
When I started out, the settings were pretty condensed. There was the trades table, the clock people, some staff members doing lists, and the team tables. It was an almost quaint setting, like this picture of our one year at the Waldorf Astoria hotel [in 1979, the last year before the draft was televised]. But as soon as we went on TV, everybody started getting a more elaborate production going. We used to just have a podium for the commissioner, but now we have a stage and a much more theatrical setting.
Obviously every step mattered, but now under Roger [Goodell], the draft has become kind of a mini-Super Bowl. Going to prime time TV was huge. Then the two-day draft became a three-day draft, and now we’re taking it on the road to Chicago. With all the built up events, it really is almost like a Super Bowl with all the extracurricular things along the way.
Q: Have the changes all been good down through the years?
Bussert: The first year we were on TV, I’ll always remember Dave Anderson with The New York Times, he was kind of lamenting that the draft was the last great newspaper event in sports, and now that had changed. Because that’s how the news of every pick got out, that’s how it was reported and then television changed that. And now it’s instantaneous. Before 1980, it was on the sports wire, when that pick was made, here it would come. So you lost that part of the experience.
Q: What exactly are your responsibilities on draft day, and what do they entail?
Bussert: The principal thing is we’re signing off on the trades. We have to hear from both clubs when there’s a trade, and obviously we have to hear the same thing from both clubs in order to execute the trade. We supervise that process. It’s also a team of people supervising the selection process. When the cards [with the picks] come in, we edit the cards. And there’s a wide variance in the quality of penmanship among people who work for the clubs, so we’re editing the cards and deciphering them in some cases.
We’ve got the clock operator, and we’re watch the [team] tables, with runners assigned to each of the tables. Someone hands in the card, and as soon as they hand in the card, the pick is in. So we’ve got to be watching to see what’s going on in the room in those instances where there’s a pass on a pick, so we can watch to see who hands the card in first. We’re watching the tables to see who hands their card in first.
Q: So you were very much in the middle of some of the bigger screw-ups in draft history, like when the Bucs turned in their card with the wrong player’s name on it in 1982’s first round, selecting Penn State guard Sean Farrell when they meant to take Bethune-Cookman defensive end Booker Reese?
Bussert: Yes, and that was one of the most celebrated situations, obviously. I still think the reason for their mistake was, in 1982 we were still at the Sheraton Hotel [in New York], and they had a balcony in the room, and Tampa Bay’s table was right beneath that balcony. And as we counted them off the clock the noise was deafening. That’s what I think led to the confusion and the miscommunication with their home office. I think it was just sheer noise. You couldn’t hear anything. And because of that incident, the next year is when we went to headsets for everyone. But interestingly, the Bucs ended up with Sean Farrell, and that meant they ended up with the better player. It’s just that their trade back into the first round to get Booker Reese [for a 1983 first-round pick], that trade didn’t work out so well for them, because 1983 was a great draft class.
Q: What was the level of chaos in the room in 2003, when the Vikings weren’t able to complete a trade with No. 10 Baltimore in the allotted 15 minutes and had to pass on their No. 7 overall pick? Minnesota wound up getting passed up by No. 8 Jacksonville (Byron Leftwich) and No. 9 Carolina [Jordan Gross] and actually picked ninth, when the Vikings took Kevin Williams, the player they wanted all along.
Bussert: Any time you have a pass in the first round, that’s a pretty rare occurrence. Whenever there’s a trade and the time is running down, it gets pretty tense. And we’re there to help the clubs get their deals done, but there was some kind of breakdown in communications between Baltimore and us. I think we had the Minnesota half of the trade, but I don’t think Baltimore was able to get through to us in time, and then there was just a lot of confusion about who’s still got the pick.
But Minnesota was sitting there waiting for Baltimore to report the trade when time ran out. And then Jacksonville jumps ahead and takes Leftwich and Carolina jumps ahead and takes Gross. So now Minnesota is left with Kevin Williams, who goes to what, six Pro Bowls? And Baltimore at No. 10 winds up getting Terrell Suggs—instead of Leftwich, the player they originally were trading up for—and Suggs goes to a bunch of Pro Bowls. But those things happen. It’s a running draft, and there’s nothing you can do when things fall through for clubs. But somehow teams usually wind up doing pretty good anyway. Minnesota and Baltimore did. For Jacksonville it probably didn’t turn out as good as they would have hoped.
Q: Do you ever bear the brunt of frustrated team officials when things go wrong in the draft? Do you get vented on if you have to deny a trade or make a ruling on an issue on the clock?
Bussert: Sometimes, but I don’t remember much in that case, with the Vikings and Ravens, although there was some frustration voiced. There was one time, and it was not a big trade, because it was in the late or mid-rounds, but some team that I won’t name was upset by something we decided and I heard from the owner, the GM and the head coach, they all called to complain. The picks are going on, trades are going on, but you just patiently hear them out.
I can remember one instance one year where a team must have passed about eight times in the middle rounds of the draft. I guess they were having a long argument about a player.
Q: Craziest draft trade ever would be ...?
Bussert: Well, the Ricky Williams trade [in 1999] was the most unusual, with the Saints dealing their whole draft and some picks the next year, too. [New Orleans sent eight picks to Washington, including two first-rounders, to move from 12th to fifth and select the Heisman-winning University of Texas running back.] I had never seen something like that. That was by far the most unusual to have that much moved in one trade. But I don’t have time to second-guess the trades while they’re happening, you’re so busy with the cards coming in and keeping the trades straight. I don’t really even have any idea what’s going on in the rest of the room. You just don’t have time to even think about it, because you’ve got tunnel vision focusing on those trades and the picks.
Q: So if Aaron Rodgers is tumbling down the board in 2005, and dying a thousand deaths in the green room, or Brady Quinn in 2007, you’re not really paying much attention to those stories as they lead the televised coverage?
Bussert: You’re not too aware of it, no. For a moment we might be aware of it, but I really don’t see much of the telecast. There comes a point in time, when I have these value boards and you’re aware of someone who’s quote-unquote falling, but I’m not necessarily cognizant of who’s in the green room. And once again, it kind of worked out pretty good for Rodgers.
But when we’re working the trades, we don’t really know what’s going on out on the floor and we don’t really know where the clock is except when they start counting it down to the final 10 seconds. You can’t watch the floor and see when somebody puts their card in and still do the work you have to do.
Q: How about the legendary anti-Mel Kiper rant turned in by Colts general manager Bill Tobin in 1994? Didn’t that help make the draft the must-see television it is today?
Bussert: You know, I never really even heard what Tobin said, but it was probably good TV. You hear some secondhand talk, from someone moderating the telecast. But I will say you can understand the frustration that our club people feel with the instant analysis, because the truth is you can’t get a read on a draft until two or three years later. However in that particular case, Bill turned out to be wrong. Trev Alberts didn’t turn out to be much of a player. As for Mel, he’s got good information and his powers of retention are remarkable.
Q: Then there were the 1983 and 2004 drafts, when No. 1 picks John Elway and Eli Manning didn’t want to play for the teams that selected them, those being the then-Baltimore Colts and the San Diego Chargers. Those couldn’t have been the postcard pictures the league wanted atop the draft, right? At least Elway didn’t have to hold up a Colts jersey for the cameras that year.
Bussert: Like I said, those things happen from time to time. I suspect it would have worked out for both of them. If Elway had gone to Baltimore and Eli had gone to San Diego I say they both would have ended up living happily ever after. It would have worked out, even though they didn’t look very happy at the moment. I always remember [Steelers owner] Dan Rooney saying something, not specifically about Elway or Manning, but it went back to taking Terry Bradshaw first overall in 1970.
He said you’ve got to take the player you think is the best player and you can never deviate from that. You can’t worry about anything else when you’re trying to build a football team. The draft is so critical to the league in the balance it has created and allowing teams to build from nothing. Pittsburgh was 1-13 the year before it drafted Bradshaw. So you’ve got to let the draft work was his point. You’ve got to let it work, you can never abandon that.
Q: Of your first 39 drafts, which one stands out as the best of the best?
Bussert: I’d say the best draft ever was 1983, because it wasn’t just the six quarterbacks [John Elway, Todd Blackledge, Jim Kelly, Ken O’Brien, Tony Eason and Dan Marino all went in the first round]. Still in the first round you had Eric Dickerson, Curt Warner, Chris Hinton, Jimbo Covert, Bruce Matthews, Joey Browner, and Darrell Green was the last pick in the round. Now that was a great draft.
It was once described to me as a double class, because the NCAA changed their redshirt rule at some point. Somewhere in the process of that particular class they changed the rule and because of that, some players who were going to be in the 1982 draft, they flowed over into 1983, which already was going to be a full class of players. So it was a spectacular draft because of that, and not just in quality but in depth. It was a very deep draft. But I thought that was the best draft ever.
Bussert: You talk about the booing, in the 1979 draft, the Bengals took Jack Thompson, the Washington State quarterback they called the ‘Throwin’ Samoan.’ He went at No. 3 to Cincinnati. But the Giants fans wanted him, and New York instead took Phil Simms at No. 7. I’m pretty sure those fans booed that pick vociferously. In those days, in ’79, there wasn’t that much information available, and Simms was relatively beneath the radar. He played at Morehead State (Ky.), and they didn’t have a good team, and they didn’t throw the ball much. There just wasn’t as much knowledge available, and they didn’t like the pick. But Simms, he wouldn’t be a secret today.
Q: You must have been there the day in 1991 when former NFL public relations executive Don Weiss mispronounced Brett Favre’s name while announcing his selection by Atlanta in the second round. He called him Brett Favor. Any recollection?
Bussert: Listen, that probably wasn’t the only mispronunciation by someone. Because as I said, the penmanship on these cards can be a challenge and you could see how F-A-V-R-E could look like F-A-V-O-R if you’re not writing carefully. It’s not easy.
Q: Your first draft working for the league, in 1976, also happens to be the first year a Mr. Irrelevant was recognized. That year it was Dayton receiver Kelvin Kirk, who went 487th overall, to the Steelers in the 17th round. What did the league think of celebrating the last pick in the draft in those early years?
Bussert: When [Mr. Irrelevant founder] Paul Salata came along, I guess at first we were sort of amused that anyone would even care about the guy picked last. But Paul is a showman and he brought interest to the last pick, and it became an institutionalized part of the draft. I remember the draft in 1999, when Jim Finn was in the room and got picked last. He was a running back from Penn, and he showed up at the draft at Madison Square Garden not knowing he was going to get picked. He was a north Jersey kid, so he made it to New York. [Finn went 253rd overall to the Bears and played three years with the Colts, 2000-2002, and four years with the Giants, 2003-06.]
Q: Share a little detail of an advancement or a modification made to the draft process that modernized the process and helped you logistically keep on top of all you’ve got to keep straight during the draft.
Bussert: In some ways, the selection process is not much different than 1976, or even 1936 for that matter. You fill out index cards and hand them in, and handing in the cards is part of the mystique of the draft in my opinion, as opposed to just handing something in via email. But here’s one thing that has changed:
It sounds simple, but we used to refer to all picks by their round and their pick number within that round, like the 15th pick of the fourth round, the third pick of the sixth round, etc. I would always write in the overall pick number on my slots, but my assistant one year took the initiative of using the overall number on all 256 picks in the draft, on the form that we keep as the draft is ongoing, which we distribute before the draft.
And in reality, this revolutionized trading. Now we didn’t say a team was trading the 10th pick of the sixth round for the 15th pick of the 5th round, now we’d say they’re trading picks 5 and 75 and getting 8 and 27 back. It streamlined everything. We could be given the trade info in about five seconds and everything was simplified. It’s all overall picks. It eliminates the confusion and streamlined all the communication, with everything based on the overall numbers.
And then it had a little something to do with the trade-value chart that became popular, which is based on the overall numbers. Dallas took that and developed it, and it’s probably expedited trade discussions. Because rather than both clubs haggling over the value of a pick, both sides could then see what’s it worth on the value chart. So it’s probably encouraged getting deals done and expedited trades.
Q: Of the three commissioners you’ve worked under—Pete Rozelle, Paul Tagliabue and Roger Goodell—whose imprint on the NFL draft has been the greatest?
Bussert: Pete put it on TV, which was hugely important, and Paul took us to bigger venues. He was the one who took us out of hotels and into the Theatre at Madison Square Garden and Roger took us to Radio City Music Hall. Of the ones I’ve worked, and this year’s in Chicago will be my ninth different site, I thought Radio City worked the best. Just the stage and the whole atmosphere there was special. It felt like a big show.
Q: Which commissioner enjoyed the draft the most?
Bussert: I think they all enjoyed it a lot, maybe in little different ways. The thing I’ll always remember with Pete, and this goes back to 1976 and my first draft, Pete had been the GM of the Los Angeles Rams and the p.r. director of the Rams at a time when everyone in that organization went out and visited college campuses. So Pete was interested in players and in personnel. I always remember we’d have clip packs in those days, and an AP wire in our office. But we’d hand out clips, and Pete was reading all the draft stories. He just devoured those. He had a bedrock interest in personnel with a personnel background. And I’d say Roger is probably very interested in the draft. He took it new heights, and like I say, now it’s almost a mini-Super Bowl.
Q: It sounds like the draft is one of your favorite days on the NFL calendar. For you, is it better than Super Bowl Sunday?
Bussert: Yeah, I enjoy the draft. For me personally, I’m much more involved in the draft than I am in the Super Bowl. I’m at the Super Bowl more as an observer. But draft day I’m in the middle of it, and a lot of us are in the middle of it. I always liked it, and the fans love the draft because it gives everybody hope for the future. That’s what so great about it. And I have interest in how it plays out, how teams are built, how things come together.
I’ve even always kind of enjoyed to an extent the day of the final cutdown. It’s a busy day, and you get in the middle of it and there’s always six, seven or eight trades that come down at the last moment. But it’s interesting to see how the teams shake out, who goes, who stays. That’s always kind of tense, but those kind of days you sort of enjoy them.
Q: What would be your most indelible draft-day memory?
Bussert: Well, the drafts all run together after a while. But I would say if there’s a single memory, you tend to remember when someone passes in the first round [as Minnesota was forced to do in 2003]. You sometimes ask yourself if there was anything we could have done differently to help expedite that deal. I remember going back and watching the footage and seeing it unfold and wondering, 'Did we get that right?' And we did. But you’re in the middle of a lot going on at that point.
Q: In 1976, would you ever have dreamed how monstrously popular the draft has become? Or that the league would have a red carpet event before the first round?
Bussert: I can’t say I ever envisioned what it is today. Compared to 1976, it’s apples to oranges in terms of the public awareness, the public and media absorption with it. Really there’s no other sport that has something right in the middle of its off-season that generates so much interest and coverage. I don’t think any other sport has anything quite that kind of event. And a lot of it was a grassroots thing, because even 40 years ago, there was interest there, but it was a niche event. I was amazed even then, we’d show up wherever we were holding the draft and there’d be a line outside the hotel, at eight in the morning people queueing up for seats. But in 1976, it was a quaint event, and pretty informal. It was pretty quiet in the draft room and we were in pretty close quarters.