Here Come the Architects
ARLINGTON, Va. — Let the debate begin over the historic first two Pro Football Hall of Fame Contributors selections, but make no mistake about the picks of former general managers Bill Polian and Ron Wolf. The Hall is opening the door wide for franchise architects for the first time in its 51-year history.
Before Wednesday, only one pure general manager (Jim Finks) and one president/GM (Tex Schramm) had been elected among 287 Hall enshrinees. The Contributor category was introduced this year, in part, to address the lack of franchise architects in the Hall, and five of the 11 finalists debated for six hours here Wednesday were former NFL personnel czars. Former GMs Bobby Beathard and George Young were also debated, as was Gil Brandt, the personnel director for the great Cowboy teams in the sixties and seventies.
To be elected, Wolf, now retired, and ESPN analyst Polian must get at least 80 percent of the vote from the 46-member Hall of Fame selection committee at the annual Hall of Fame selection meeting Jan. 31 in Arizona.
As one of the nine members of the Hall subcommittee debating the first-ever Contributor pool, let me take you into the meeting room on the third floor of the Crystal City hotel where the meeting happened. I want to take you through the process and explain how Wolf and Polian came out on top.
Outside the room before the meeting, Hall president David Baker said, “It’s a historic day.’’ Inside, the nine Contributor Selection Committee members sat at tables with four consultants brought in to discuss the candidates: Steelers chairman Dan Rooney, Washington GM Bruce Allen, Chicago chairman George McCaskey (all respected football historians) and Sports Business Journal executive editor Abe Madkour (to discuss business/financial topics).
The 11 finalists were culled from a list of 40 after a cutdown vote by the nine subcommittee members. (There was a tie for 10th place; thus the number 11.) At 7:55 a.m., discussions of the candidates began, in alphabetical order. The candidates:
- Former Washington and San Diego GM Bobby Beathard.
- Outgoing Denver owner Pat Bowlen.
- Former Dallas personnel man/current NFL analyst/draftnik Gil Brandt.
- Former San Francisco owner Eddie DeBartolo.
- Longtime NFL officials and administrator Art McNally.
- Former Cleveland and Baltimore owner Art Modell.
- Polian, the former Buffalo, Carolina and Indianapolis GM.
- Former NFL Films president Steve Sabol.
- Former commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
- Wolf, the former Raiders scout and Tampa Bay and Green Bay GM.
- Former Giants GM George Young.
We are not allowed to divulge specifics of the discussion and the debate, but there was a robust discussion trying to put the five personnel men in some order. All had merit—to the point where I would not have been surprised once it came time to vote if any had been one of the two nominees. Beathard was a state-of-the-art GM that built Washington into a powerhouse with offbeat and often brilliant decisions, but may have been hurt by his last few years in San Diego. Young is a five-time executive of the year who turned the Giants from laughingstocks to two-time champs. And Brandt was crucial in modernizing scouting, mining for talent at small schools and under-scouted black colleges—and late in life has became the godfather of the NFL Draft.
Polian built the Bills into a four-time AFC champion in eight years as general manager. In his four seasons with the Panthers, he turned an expansion team into a 12-game winner in year two. And in 15 seasons in Indianapolis, he drafted Peyton Manning, won two conference titles and one Super Bowl championship.
Wolf was Al Davis’ road scout and most trusted adviser for much of the team’s first three decades. He had a brief stint running the Bucs’ draft in the awful start to Tampa Bay’s history—though 16 of the starters on the Bucs’ NFC title team in 1979 were drafted by Wolf. And when Wolf arrived in Green Bay in November 1991, the Pack had had just four winning seasons in 22 years. Green Bay has had two losing seasons in the 22 years since. To start his nine-year run in Green Bay, Wolf hired Mike Holmgren as coach, traded for Brett Favre, and, a year later, somehow convinced the best free agent in history, Reggie White, to sign in a place that hadn’t been a contender.
Bowlen, DeBartolo and Modell generated spirited discussion, as did Tagliabue and Sabol. When the discussion was over and it came time to vote, the Hall’s secret-ballot voting procedure went thusly: The first vote cut the list from 11 to five. Hall VP Joe Horrigan tabulated the votes and announced the top five vote-getters. (We were asked not to release the results of the cutdown votes.) Then we cut the list from five to three, and finally from three to two.
Then, shortly before 2 p.m., Baker phoned Wolf with the news. “Wowwwwww," was the first thing out of his mouth. Wolf, 75, sounded emotional and humbled over the phone, and later told me, “I truly never thought anything like this would ever be possible. I’m from a tiny town in Pennsylvania, and have such good fortune to be able to work my life in football, and now this—I’m just shocked. Speechless."
Polian sounded the same when Baker reached him too. “I’m shocked, is all I can say," he said. As the afternoon went on and the congratulations poured in, Polian seemed more and more emotional. “I just never expected anything like this to happen," he said. “It’s one of the great honors a person in football can get. I am just overwhelmed."
Some personal thoughts: I have railed for years about the fact that franchise architects are always left by the wayside. Polian built two Super Bowl teams and got an expansion team good in near-record time. Wolf’s job with the Packers continues to pay dividends; he trained the current 10-year Packer GM, Ted Thompson, from scratch, and also is the biggest influence on the career of the GM of the current reigning Super Bowl champs, Seattle’s John Schneider. So I’m pleased we recognized the merits of the personnel guys who’ve been too long ignored in this process.
As for those who didn’t make it, there was never any agreement or understanding that one nominee would be an architect and one from the ownership or other side of the game. Our charge was to pick the two best candidates. On this day, I was pleased with what we did, because it addresses a major need I thought the Hall had. Of course, Wolf and Polian still need to get 80 percent of the vote Jan. 31. But this was a big hurdle they jumped over Wednesday.