Joe Thomas made the pages of Who's Who in America, 37th edition, the other day. He received word by mail from Chicago, one of the toddling tow ns he has hit a few times—100 or so—in his travels. Joe has hit so many towns that once you get to know him he is as reliable as the Mobil Travel Guide for recommending motels and places a man can go for good lasagna. Joe can also tell you about Pocatello, Idaho and Natchitoches, La. and other towns that do not toddle, and about the times when lie traveled for the Minnesota Vikings in search of football talent, and the budget was so thin that to save pennies he parked his automobile in a field a long-short walk to the airport. After one overnight trip that lasted 12 days (when Joe is on to a scent he is not one to turn back for supplies), lie returned to find the battery in his car dead. He checked under the hood, just to be sure, and saw that the battery was not dead after all. but that the engine was no longer a part of the mechanism. He could see through to the ground.
That was years ago. Now Joe is in Who's Who. which is apt because separating the whos from the whoms is what Joe has been so successfully doing since he gave up coaching pro football players in favor of finding them. As their "director of player personnel," Joe Thomas now does the shopping for the Miami Dolphins, and has since their inception. Before that he was the Vikings' first personnel director. He shops at colleges and universities, large, small and unheard-of ("To get to Western Colorado State, you drive over the Sawatch Mountains, down Interstate 85 and across and up on U.S. 50, and on into Gunnison." lot-says. "It's six hard hours from Denver, but the scenery is nice"). He shops at bowl games, all-star games and common everyday practices for the Who who can run 40 yards in 4.4 seconds or ram a wall hard enough to put a crack in it or throw a football through the crack. As he did at Minnesota, Thomas has come up with the players—Bob Griese, Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick, et al.—who have made the Dolphins a championship contender in a very short time, a snap of the lingers compared with the years others have spent in places like Pittsburgh.
Rattling off the names of star players found is sparse testimony to the effort expended, but it is usually the only way. "Personal directing" is solitary, even secretive work, not to be seen on instant replay. Most personnel directors were called scouts until some of them, like Thomas, acquired executive powers and status, and as a rule they operate in the shadows of field houses and in the darkness of film rooms. Their job tends to sprawl around; they are a nomadic tribe, addicted to rental cars, and seem always to be rushing to make an Ozark Air Lines flight at 11 p.m. Thomas visited 92 schools his first spring on the job at Minnesota.
Once when he was on the prowl for the Dolphins he attended a Thursday practice at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. He then watched films and visited with the coaches ("The social hour is very important. I like to have a friend on every staff"). At dawn Friday he was on the turnpike to Boston, burning rubber to make a morning scrimmage at Boston U. That afternoon he drove over to the Boston College practice. At 6 the next morning he was on a flight to Syracuse. He watched a morning scrimmage there, then hopped a noon night to Buffalo for an afternoon scrimmage at the University of Buffalo. He says it wouldn't be so bad if the airports weren't always on the side of town opposite the campuses.
December 13, 1971
Personnel directors, if they are as good as Thomas, are also itinerant psychologists, practicing on the fly. They are the stars of scenes never seen, like the one in the hotel room in Lafayette, Ind. in 1961, when Thomas was trying to sign Purdue Guard Larry Bowie to a Minnesota contract. The war between the leagues was on then, and Thomas was in competition with the Dallas Texans (now Kansas City Chiefs) and Ottawa of the Canadian League. Ottawa doubled Minnesota's otter. Thomas countered with prestige. "I sold Bowie the security of the established NFL. I sold the future. I was very cool about it. I told him to go see his coach. Jack Mollenkopf. 'Let Coach Mollenkopf weigh the alternatives for you.' I said.
"Bowie came back and said, 'I've weighed the alternatives. I'm going to Ottawa.' I had overlooked one detail. The head coach at Ottawa had been an assistant to Mollenkopf at Purdue.
"But as I opened the door of the hotel room to leave, I caught myself. 'Where the hell are you going? He's not signed yet.' Years ago when I was a coach at DePauw I took an insurance course. Passed all the exams for Equitable Life, I learned a lot about the pulse of a prospect from that course. When to pull back, when to clamp down.
"I stepped back inside and slammed the door and said, 'Larry, do you know why you're not signing with us?' Bowie looked surprised. He was a big, well-mannered kid and I liked him. I said, 'Because you're afraid of the NFL. You're afraid you won't be good enough to play in the NFL. You're yellow, Larry, and I'm glad I found out in time.'
"Bowie was enraged. I've never seen such reaction. Tears came to his eyes. 'I can, too,' he said. 'I can play in the NFL.' His fists were clenched. He was ready to tear into somebody. Me.
"I said, 'Well, there's only one way to prove it, Larry'—and I took the contract out of my coat pocket. I always have one there, all made out, with the person's name, the terms and so forth. I never carry a briefcase. Briefcases scare people, especially people who are being asked to put their name on a line. Bowie grabbed the pen out of my hand, actually jerked it away. He'd been challenged, and when people get aroused they do things they might not do when they're under control. His signature was such a mess you could hard) read it."
Night flights and psychology are not what brought Joe Thomas' name into the light and onto the pages of the 37th Edition, of course. What has done that is a consistent ability to pick, say, a Kiick out of 100 running backs named Jim, to draft him out of Wyoming in the fifth round and then to wait with forgivable indulgence for the day when others awaken to recognize him as "the best all-round back in the AFC." (Any fool can draft O.J. Simpson.) What separates Thomas is an uncanny sense of feel for a player's potential. This leads him to sift through 300 letters a year from guys trying to get into (or back into) pro football and pick out. as though it were perfumed, the one marked "Garo Yepremian, place kicker." It also inspires him to trade a defensive back named Mack Lamb to San Diego for an offensive guard named Larry Little, and for Little to become a Dolphin star and be voted the best offensive lineman in the AFC in 1970 and Lamb a line of type under "players released."
Those who have traded with Joe Thomas, who have, as one described it, suddenly looked up to see him running oil' with the cake when no one even knew he was at the party, say it is not the kind of thing you care to do every day. Three years ago Miami needed a middle linebacker. Thomas wanted All-AFL Nick Buoniconti of the Patriots. Boston needed a quarterback. Thomas sent films of third-string rookie Quarterback Kim Hammond in action. The films showed Hammond at his best. Boston asked Thomas to throw in Wide Receiver Howard Twilley. "No, but I'll tell you what."" said Thomas. "You can have Hammond and [Linebacker] John Bramlett." After a week of phone calls, the deal was made. Buoniconti today is Miami's defensive captain; Twilley is a regular. Bramlett is a substitute at Atlanta. Hammond is in law school.
"It's embarrassing." Thomas says, "but I guess I never had a bad trade." In 1967 he traded Quarterback Jon Brittenum, obtained the year before as an eighth-round redshirt draftee, to San Diego for a third-round choice, with which he subsequently signed Dick Anderson. Brittenum is now out of football. Anderson is Miami's strong safety.
Meanwhile, whenever Joe goes to Cleveland he has to explain all over again to his writer friends there that the trade he made for Wide Receiver Paul War-field two years ago—Cleveland got a No. I draft choice, with which it took Purdue Quarterback Mike Phipps—was good for both sides "in the long run." "Sure. Joe." they say and roll their eyes.
What further sets Joe Thomas apart has been his ability to anticipate trends in the pro game, and then, intuitively, to find the players to make the trends work. "Trends," Thomas says, "are usually started by one man. Jackie Robinson, for instance." In 1961, Minnesota's first year in the NFL, Thomas' third-round draftee was a scrawny blond-haired preacher's boy from Georgia named Fran Tarkenton. Tarkenton was well known as a quarterback who ran around a lot. Everybody laughed and covered their eyes. Quarterbacks who scrambled were anathema to the pros. Quarterbacks were expected to drop back seven, step up two and throw—and laugh it off when the pocket collapsed on top of them. "But no matter what kind of football team you're building," says Thomas, "the first thing you need is a quarterback, and if you are an expansion club you had better have a quarterback who can move, because with the blocking you'll get there won't be a pocket fit to live in very often."
For four seasons after that, the backroom polemics between Thomas and Norm Van Brocklin, then the Viking coach, over Tarkenton were the talk of the Minnesota office. Van Brocklin was a classicist, a no-run, drop-back passer himself in his glory days with the Rams and Eagles. He kept coming up with reasons to get rid of Tarkenton. Thomas kept fending him off.
In Tarkenton's first game for Minnesota he passed for four touchdowns and ran for one as the Vikings routed the Bears. One time around and the league was amazed. It had never seen such scrambling. "When you drafted that kid," Gino Marchetti told Thomas two years later. "I thought he'd be dead before the season was en or. Now I have nightmares about having to chase him." The Tarkenton-Van Brocklin romance never did get off the ground, however, and they have gone their separate ways—Tarkenton to the Giants, where he still hasn't been knocked out of a game in 11 years, and Van Brocklin to Atlanta—but the trend was established. In 1967, when Thomas drafted Bob Griese another lightfoot, nobody laughed.
It is no accident, either, that Miami's running game, considered the best in the AFC with Kiick and Csonka as the principals, features unflashy backs who are exceptionally strong, who can brute through a pileup to a five-yard gain. who can catch passes and, as the sine qua non. can block. Thomas has leaned to that type. Time spent as defensive coach of the Colts and Rams taught him that "raw speed can be overrated. Quick feet arc more important, and with defenses as big and fast as they arc today the best backs arc the ones who can make room for themselves, and each other. If all a rabbit had was straightaway speed, there wouldn't be any rabbits left in the world." At Minnesota, he drafted much the same way (Tommy Mason and Dave Osborn), and the Vikings became a strong running team.
As executive assistant to Dolphin Managing General Partner Joe Robbie, Thomas' position cat ties with it additional powers (negotiating contracts, for one), but in many cases "director of player personnel" is still a euphemism for talent scout. The need to gussy up the title is an indication of the status the job has acquired since the days not long ago when owners and coaches arrived at the annual player draft with a stack of football magazines and a copy of the AP All-America team as their only references. Pittsburgh's first personnel man was a funeral director and sports statistician named Ray Byrne. Eagle publicist Jim Gallagher remembers that the guts of his research amounted to newspaper clippings and football guides.
Most personnel men today arc ex-professional players or coaches, some at high levels. Red Hickey of the Cowboys was the head coach of the 49ers from 1959 through part of 1963; Jim Lee Howell of the Giants was their coach from 1954 through 1960. There are exceptions. Cincinnati's Pete Brown, the head coach's son, never coached or played after he left Denison. Gil Brandt, who heads up the far-flung Dallas scouting operation in his role as "vice-president in charge of personnel development." did not play football beyond high school and was taking baby pictures in Milwaukee when he got his start by drawing up imaginary draft lists.
The search for pro prospects has become a high-budget item, with million-dollar computers and whole posses of scouts crisscrossing the country, bumping into one another. All pro teams now have the equivalent of a personnel director: some have more than one. Many subscribe to scouting groups, like BLES-TO-VIII and CEPO, which advertise the revelatory benefits of "regional" scouts and "super" scouts. The computer spits out the details—a prospect's dimensions, his speed afoot, IQ, draft rating, etc., and deals it around to the subscribers.
The hidden danger in all this high-powered, make-me-three-copies-please research is that the essential quality that elevates a personnel man like Joe Thomas can be diluted in a cascade of data. It is the same quality that separates winning college coaches from losers: the faceup evaluation of people, the ability to snap-judge raw material, to see things others do not. No matter how many hands are feeding the computer, if the information is misleading the computer will mislead. The fact is, says Thomas. that only in the most obvious cases do you get complete agreement on a player's potential.
In his fourth year at Minnesota, Thomas took a long look at an Oklahoma defensive tackle named Ralph Neely. "Our area scout in Oklahoma didn't like Neely. He said he was not a hardnosed defensive player, and in that sense he was right. But I liked Neely because he had good size, he was quick and he was smart. Defensive linemen, as a breed, have to be more aggressive; they're rough, they use their hands. They don't always have great technique. An offensive lineman has to have technique; he has to have balance, he has to have good moves. He has to learn more, so he has to be smart. Some guys can't play offense, others can't play defense. I saw Neely as an offensive tackle. We needed an offensive tackle."
But when it came to the second round of the 1965 draft, the majority of the Minnesota delegation opted for Archie Sutton, a tackle from Illinois. "The area scout was still bad-mouthing Neely, and one of our assistant coaches had seen Sutton and liked him. I'd seen Sutton, too. I'd seen him pass out on the practice field one afternoon."
A priority was decided on: Sutton first, then Neely, if he were still available. Thomas angrily announced to the Viking owners that he wanted to go on record as opposing the decision, much as he did after the fact some years later when Miami gave up third-and fifth-round draft choices to get Fullback Cookie Gilchrist from Denver. "What's a third-and fifth-round draft choice?" Thomas says. "Well, a Dick Anderson and a Jim Kiick, to name two. And Cookie was trouble. It stood out like a neon sign. He was over the hill, and he still wanted credit cards, a Cadillac, all kinds of junk."
Minnesota drafted Sutton in the second round, but Baltimore grabbed Neely, then traded him to Dallas. Over the next six sears, Neely made All-Pro five times. "Sutton never even made our team," recalls Thomas. "It happens. The point is this: some people look at players differently than others."
When Thomas looks at players he looks for little things. Little things, he says, can assure you, or scare you off. One afternoon he was standing at the bulletin board in the locker room at Syracuse, checking a list of player weights before practice, when a splendidly proportioned black man came out of the shower. Curious, Thomas asked one of the Syracuse coaches, "Isn't that Jim Nance?"
"Yeah, that's Nance."
"But he just took a shower before practice."
"Yeah, he always does."
"It scared me," says Thomas, and although Nance has had some great moments since then, Thomas does not feel they have compensated for the times he reported to camp overweight, or played out his option, or in one way or another created problems. Given the chance, Thomas would not draft Nance.
There have been times, nonetheless, when Thomas" judgment—rather, the exercise of it—has come perilously close to risking his position with management. The first player he drafted at Minnesota was Mason, a halfback from Tulane who was not an All-America and whose team did not have a good record. When the Viking owners met with Thomas before the draft to find out who his No. 1 pick would be. and he told them Mason, the response was a chorus: "Who?"
" 'Tommy Mason,' I said. 'Tulane. Running back.' They were very quiet. I guess if I were a writer I would call their complexions 'ashen.' When they realized I wasn't putting them on, I tried to explain that although Mason didn't have blinding speed he could run to daylight, like Hornung, and was a great competitor. I didn't sound convincing, not even to myself. I knew what they were thinking. They were thinking it wasn't me who had made a mistake, it was them for hiring me.
"Tommy, of course, became a great player for Minnesota, and is with Washington now, but I remember so well those first days in camp that year. How I agonized over him. That's the time you suffer most, those first few days when your judgment is really on the line. I remember taking Tommy aside. Tommy," I said, 'all the guys I could have picked, and you were No. 1." That's what sold Ins parents, I think, being recognized as the No. I pick of all the players in the country, because Boston offered him more money. 'I've hung my hat on you," I said. 'If you don't make it, I don't either.' Actually it was worse than that. He had a three-year contract, mine was for one."
The story was never told, but Thomas was prepared to alienate the entire state of Florida when he drafted Bob Griese for the Dolphins in 1967. Looking back over Griese's success, it would seem a routine matter. Two-time All-America quarterback from Purdue. Fastest arm in the Midwest. Quick feet. Intelligent. Runner-up in the Heisman Trophy voting. But that was the rub. The Heisman winner was Quarterback Steve Spurrier, University of Florida. Odds were good that Spurrier and Griese would go in the first round. What if both were available when it came Miami's turn? Thomas had already made up his mind, but not in favor of home-state hero Spurrier. He had decided on Griese because of little things he had picked up in brief meetings with the subjects, one at Griese's locker after the Rose Bowl game, one with Spurrier's lawyer in Gainesville a short time later.
"Quarterback is top priority," says Thomas. "He has to be the keenest guy on the club. He not only has to execute, he has to lead. So you try to find out as much as you can about him. Grades, family, everything. You try to get a feeling. Some are obvious winners. Some you wonder about. With some there's a fine line between confidence and cockiness.
"When I talked with Griese after the Rose Bowl game, he was wide-eyed and alert. He was attentive. He was interested in what we talked about. Like Tarkenton, he impressed me right away as an aware guy. People were saying he didn't have a strong enough arm, but a quarterback's arm is a relative thing. I've found that arms get stronger as you grow in the pros anyway, and the kind you really need is the one that can pick a defense apart in the short-to-medium range. How many times does a quarterback have to throw the ball 60 yards?
"Spurrier, of course, had the strong arm, and he was a winner at Florida. Tall, handsome, very popular. I talked with him in the den of his lawyer's home. Actually, the lawyer and I talked. Spurrier sat there playing solitaire the whole time. I had to interrupt to get Ins attention."
His mind made up, Thomas went into the draft. Miami was picking fourth. The Colts, by trade, had first choice: Bubba Smith, the defensive tackle from Michigan State. The Vikings took Running Back Clint Jones, also of Michigan State. "Atlanta was next," Thomas recalls, "and they needed a quarterback, but at the last minute the) traded their No. 1 pick to San Francisco, which already had John Brodie and George Mira.
"Boy, I broke out into a cold sweat. San Francisco didn't need a quarterback. I was going to have to choose, and it would be Griese, and that would bring the roof down. We were trying to sell tickets, get the franchise going in Miami, and I was about to pass up the Heisman Trophy winner and state hero. Then Pete Rozelle made the announcement from New York: "San Francisco selects Steve Spurrier, quarterback, University of Florida.... ' Phew!"
It was January 1955, and the coach of the Baltimore Colts was Weeb Ewbank. The Colts were rebuilding from their worst team. They had no offense; they couldn't move the ball. In 1954, only the defense had distinguished itself. In the last game against the Rams, the Colt defense intercepted seven passes. The defense was coached by Joe Thomas.
The night before the 1955 player draft a group of Baltimore executives, headed by Club Owner Carroll Rosenbloom, gathered with friends in a suite of a New York hotel. A Baltimore columnist, John Steadman, asked if the Colts had decided on their No. I draft choice. Ewbank said it would probably be Larry Morris, a linebacker from Georgia Tech.
From the circle of conversants, Assistant Coach Thomas suddenly heard himself blurting out an objection. "Mr. Rosenbloom," he said. "I've been reading about how we're going all-out to win in Baltimore. How we're going to get the 'best available chattel.' Those arc the words I've been reading. And 'money is no object." If we go for Morris, we're admitting that money is the object. The best football player available is Alan Ameche."
There was. Thomas remembers, a long, rather heavy silence. "They looked at me like I'd just jumped off the bench to make a tackle. It was none of my business-I was the defensive coach. But I had to say it. We had not established a running game. We needed a big tough back. Weeb already knew my feelings because he'd sent me down to the North-South game to scout Ameche and Dick Bielski of Maryland, another fullback. I liked Ameche. Finally, Rosenbloom said, "Well, we do want the best football players, and we'll go for the best." Weeb said, 'All right. Ameche it is.' "
In February of that year, Thomas went to Los Angeles to take over the Ram defense. By then the story was out about Thomas' part in the drafting of Alan Ameche. "Everybody kidded me about it. They reminded me how slow Ameche was. The nickname he had at Wisconsin was Alan The Horse. They said he would wind up playing guard.
"In the first game of the 1955 season, the first time he touched the ball, Ameche ran 79 yards. He gained 194 yards that day, and by the time the season was over he had rushed for 961 yards and was voted Rookie of the Year. Every week of the season I pinned up the clippings on the Ram bulletin board and outlined Ameche's name in red."
The exact moment of Joe Thomas' transition from coaching to "director of player personnel" is a matter of record: he was hired to put the new Minnesota Vikings together in April of 1960. But it is likely, Thomas says, that the seed was planted with the Ameche episode five years before.
"From that time on I was fascinated with the idea that getting the material was half the battle. More than half, Ask any college coach. Ask Bob Devaney how much time he spends recruiting compared with coaching and he'll probably tell you 75%. Ask Bear Bryant. It's so important, yet they used to say in the pros that scouting was a waste of money. With me they didn't have to waste money. I was single. I was a loner. I was always going someplace on my own, attending a clinic, a coaches' convention. I visited practices. I did a lot of hanging around. The Ameche thing taught me something: the great satisfaction you can have when you compete successfully for players. It was fascinating because I realized that it was as important as the coach's job in the long run and, if you win, almost as much a reflection on you as it is on the coach. The desire I had had to be a head coach wore off."
The second son of an immigrant Yugoslav steel-mill worker from Warren, Ohio, Joseph Henry Thomas, aye 49, has looked at foot ha 11 from all sides now. and at all levels. He played end at Ohio Northern U., from which he was graduated in 1943. He went on to get his master's in education at Indiana, and to coach there under Bernie Crimmins after logging time at DePauw and in high schools at New Albany and Rensselaer, Ind. He coached both football and basketball. At Great Lakes, where he was stationed during World War II, he jogged with Glenn Cunningham to keep in trim, and got to know Paul Brown and Ewbank. When Ewbank took the job with the Colts, Thomas was hired.
Those who played under Thomas at Baltimore and Los Angeles sang his praises. Alltime All-Ram Bud McFadin said. "Joe showed me more about playing defensive tackle than any other man. His system of reading blockers is fantastic." Les Richter said Thomas taught him how to play middle guard. In the 1957 Pro Bowl, the West line was made up almost entirely of Rams and Colts coached by Thomas.
To Thomas' greater education, he came under a regime at Los Angeles that was ahead of its time in personnel handling. "They were enlightened about scouting," Thomas said one recent afternoon, sitting at poolside at his South Miami home. Thomas, at last, has done some settling down. He has taken a pretty blonde wife, Judi, and they have a daughter. Paige, age 1½, and a mortgage, and Joe is learning life from both sides, too. The Dolphins are members of BLESTO-VIIF, and that cuts down on Joe's paperwork and. to a lesser degree, his need to be on the road so much.
When he wasn't coaching. Thomas scouted for the Rams. He found Carroll Dale in a cloud-of-dust offense at VPI, noted that Dale had good hands despite being unexposed to the forward pass, and was pleased when the Rams signed him. although Dale did not become a star until he went to Green Bay five years later. In 1957 Thomas moved on to Toronto of the Canadian League.
"There the coaches did all the scouting, what little there was of it. There were no lists. Reconnaissance was haphazard. When the season was over, we just spread out." Thomas soon despaired of Canada. "I was afraid I would get lost there." Pete Rozelle recommended him for the Minnesota personnel job. He jumped. "It was a new challenge, and really what I had been working toward without knowing it." Two days after he touched down in Minneapolis, Joe was off on his 92-college tour.
Thomas settled back to explain how he had succeeded at Minnesota by really trying. He called it the "artichoke method," now proven successful at Miami as well, and this is the way it goes:
"You build from the inside. At the core is the heart of the team: the tender young rookies, the ones you get in the draft. You build under the veterans, and then you keep peeling them off, like the leaves of an artichoke, until you're down to the heart, to the guys who are really going to help you once they're ready. Don't let anybody kid you. You don't get much to start with in an expansion draft. Depth is an illusory thing. Not many teams really have depth. The players the other teams are forced to put up for grabs aren't going to be of the highest caliber. By the fourth year at Minnesota, we only had one player left from the original expansion draft. Grady Alderman, and he had been a rookie at Detroit when we took him. Same with Miami, After live years the only active player left is Norm Evans, our regular right tackle. So I've never been big on claiming. These are exceptions, but good football players aren't usually found on waiver lists.
"The timetable for winning is five years. You better win after five years if you want to stay around. The building order is this: one, the draft. You have to do your best job there. Two, trades, Three, free agents and claims. George Allen has had success doing it in reverse order, by trading mainly, but many others have tried with no success. Pittsburgh, for one. My feeling is you can lose balance by trading away too many high draft choices because you won't have the young players coming along when you need them.
"I'd use the same approach rebuilding a veteran club, a club that has been losing. Immediately you think 'future.' You can't trade enough to fill all the needs, and a veteran club that's down is usually a collection of factions anyway. Trading will probably bring you more factions. Better oil" to start with a spring cleaning, build into the core with good young talent."
The trade for Warfield may have been Thomas' masterstroke. It began simply enough. Miami needed a wide receiver. But the simple things in Thomas" business can be the most complex. Scouting, for example, was more difficult when college teams used a wider variety of systems than the pros. "The system can make the difference," says Thomas. "Van Brocklin was a fifth-string quarterback at Oregon until they switched to the T. Then he became a regular. For years we drafted quarterbacks to play defense because they were the best athletes coming out of one-platoon football. You might draft four or five quarterbacks a year. Ed Sharockman and Chuck Lamson were quarterbacks. Sonny Randle was playing both ways at Virginia, but he wasn't hardnosed enough for defense. He said, 'Hide me. coach." The coach said, 'We've tried, but they always find you.' St. Louis drafted him as an offensive receiver, period.
"It's easier to find the right guys now because schools have been using prostyle offenses and defenses. Two platoon. Specialists. Everything laid out for you. But watch out for the trends. Many college coaches have now gone to the Wishbone T, with the triple option. More will follow. The quarterback has to run in the triple option. The best passer on the team therefore might not be the No. 1 quarterback. We'll have to look harder to find him."
There was no hard looking for Warfield, of course: he was right there starring for the Browns. But a cycle was working in Thomas' favor, and he knew it. "At that moment." he says, "there were only one or two good wide receivers coming out of college football. Ken Burrough and Walker Gillette were the best. I wasn't interested. I wanted someone who was not just a prospect but a proven quantity. We had good receivers but we needed a legitimate deep threat. A guy with speed, a 4.6, with moves, and a guy who could catch. But I wasn't interested in a deep threat. I wanted the best deep threat."
And although it was a bad year for receivers, it was a good year for quarterbacks, most notably Terry Bradshaw and Mike Phipps. The Browns needed a quarterback. Bill Nelsen's knees were had. Ironically, the Browns had finished too high in the standings to hope for a draft of Phipps or Bradshaw. Miami. Struggling through expansion, had the third-worst won-lost record in pro football. The draft priority is in reverse order to the standing of the clubs. Thomas was due to draft third in the first round.
He let the word get out: Miami is willing to trade its No. 1 draft. Writers kept asking. "What do you need, Joe?" and Joe kept answering. "A wide receiver." Calls began to come in. Players were offered in bunches. Thomas kept saying no thank you. Homer Jones was mentioned. Al Denson's name came up. Thomas listened. The deals didn't mesh. For a while he had the feeling he might be able to get Lance Alworth from San Diego. Sid Gillman offered Dickie Post, a running back, instead. "You must be kidding," said Thomas.
In all, Thomas talked to 15 teams. Some were more eager than others. The Browns, he noted, were more eager than anybody. "There's only one player I'm interested in," he told Art Modell, the Cleveland owner. "Who, Warfield?" Modell said. "Yeah," said Thomas. Modell laughed.
But the calls kept coming. Thomas put it on the line: Cleveland wasn't going to get Phipps or Bradshaw in the draft because the Steelers were first up and they'd take one or the other. Green Bay was second and. privately, had indicated it would take Mike McCoy, the tackle from Notre Dame. Miami was third. Thomas would take the quarterback left by the Steelers, and then, since he already had Griese, take a chance on a trade for a good receiver. He indicated that if Cleveland didn't act, there might not be a tomorrow.
Thomas talked for the last time with Modell on the Friday preceding the Tuesday draft. Then he waited. The weekend dragged by. Gillman called once more, offering Post. "Can't do it, Sid, but I might have something going." "Who?" "I cant say." "C'mon. Joe, this is your old coach talking." "All right, but keep it under your hat. Warfield." "Wow." On Monday the call came from Modell: "The trade is on."
"There's no doubt in my mind that Phipps will be a great one." Thomas says now. "Cleveland gets undue criticism for the trade. It was probably the best deal we've made, but it was also one Cleveland had to make. You build with a quarterback, and the Browns needed a quarterback. Would I have made the same deal if I'd been in their position? I don't know, really. But I wouldn't have slept much that week."
In Thomas' fourth year at Minnesota, the Vikings tied for second in their conference and challenged for the title. In 1965, when Miami was granted a franchise in the AFL, Thomas was the first man hired by Joe Robbie. In the Dolphins' fifth year, under the fresh leadership of Coach Don Shula, the Dolphins made the conference playoffs and are strong Super Bowl contenders now.
The Miami lineup is a testament to Thomas' drafting ability, his consistency in making first-round choices count (Griese, Csonka, Offensive Tackle Doug Crusan, Defensive End Bill Stanfill), his ability to draft quality in depth. Among the starters. Safety Jake Scott of Georgia was a seventh-round choice and had gone to Canada to play, but Thomas kept after him. Twilley was a 12th-round choice, as was Linebacker Mike Kolen. Cornerback Lloyd Mumphord was a 16; Guard Bob Kuechenberg and Defensive Tackle Manny Fernandez were free agents.
"You should be willing to try anything once," said Thomas, pouring coffee, "even if you don't think it'll work. There are no real guidelines. In 1967 we conducted a tryout camp. Eighty-six guys came out. What a collection! Some of them had three or four kids. Most were in pitiful shape. None made it. I got a letter from the wife of one of them. She said, 'Ever since the Dolphins came to town, my husband has said he can play better than the guys you've got. You gave him a tryout, and he proved how good he is once and for all. Thanks for shutting him up.'
"The big thing is still the draft, and you draft two ways: for needs at certain positions, and for the best athletes regardless of position. I have them rated both ways. I make lists on separate sheets—the best athletes regardless of position, the best athletes by position, Linebackers, 1-2-3; halfbacks, 1-2-3, and so forth. I go in looking for what we need, but if I get a chance to get a player who is tougher to find, a skill position player like a quarterback or a receiver, I grab him. For example, in 1968 we were into the fifth round, looking for a defensive back. We had drafted Csonka No. 1. We felt secure at running back. We had three or four pretty good ones, and now Csonka. But in the fifth round I looked up and Jim Kiick was still sitting there undrafted. I'd been watching Kiick for three years. Ed spent two days at Wyoming practices his senior year and he'd impressed me. Van Brock I in said he was too fat and too slow when Kiick was in the All-Star camp later that year, but my answer for that is: can the guy run with the damn football? As far as I was concerned Kiick was a winner. We drafted Kiick. He was too good to pass up. And if I knew then what I know now, we'd have grabbed him sooner."
And if he knew what he knows now, he might have used different tactics to get Linebacker John Kirby for the Vikings. But one should bear in mind that the year in question was 1964 and the AFL-NFL war was never hotter. Anyway, there was Thomas, high up in the press box at the Orange Bowl as the Auburn-Nebraska game wound to a conclusion, and there was a San Diego scout standing on the sidelines with what appeared to be a contract stuffed in his top pocket. The scout's name was Al LoCasale, and Thomas knew that the Chargers were after the same prize—Kirby of Nebraska.
Thomas hurried to the press elevator, and was on the field before the game ended. He went over and stood within a short plunge of LoCasale. They exchanged nods. Suddenly the game was over and LoCasale was sprinting onto the field, brandishing the contract and a pen. When Thomas, reacting slower, got to them, Kirby had the pen in his hand. "There was only one thing to do, of course," says Thomas. "I was really sorry later. LoCasale is a little guy."
No one has been able to put together all the details, what with the confusion of the milling crowd and all, but LoCasale wound up on the ground. It was some time before he regained his senses. Thomas led Kirby to a sideline, instructed an assistant to "keep an eye on him." and rushed over to the other sideline to sign an Auburn player.
"Two Minnesota executives were there, and they were supposed to officially sign Kirby. But when I got back to the hotel he wasn't there. The executives were having a drink and moaning in their glasses. 'What happened.' I said. 'He won't sign.' 'Like hell he won't.' I said, 'Where is he?" 'At the Indian Creek Country Club. The Orange Bowl party.' I grabbed a cab and hustled over to Indian Creek. One of John's teammates was coming down the steps. 'He doesn't want to talk to you,' he said. 'Oh, yeah?' I went in and took Kirby by the elbow and directed him outside. He said he had to catch a plane. I said all right, we'll talk it over on the way to the airport. When we got to the airport, I told the driver to keep driving. John still didn't want to sign. A lot of kids were mixed up like that during the war. Finally, he relented. 'Let's go back,' he said, 'and I'll talk it over with my coach. Then I'll sign.'
"And he did, Too, in the lobby of the hotel in front of our two executives, who couldn't believe their eyes, and a Minneapolis columnist named Sid Hartman. Sid, of course, wrote it up well. That's what I call timing. Life is timing." Yeah, and the artichoke method is line unless life calls for a right cross.