The Scout Is a Lonely Hunter

Feb. 02, 1976
Feb. 02, 1976

Table of Contents
Feb. 2, 1976

The Crosby
Chicago Bulls
Innsbruck 1976
College Basketball
The Scout
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

The Scout Is a Lonely Hunter

The man searching for pro football talent spends his days in empty stands, stalking prospects at scrimmages, and his nights projecting gray, flickering game films on bed sheets that he has tacked to motel walls

The scout had good reason to be tired. He had been on the road for almost four months. He had called on almost 50 colleges. He had "visited"—which is the way he described it—with a couple of hundred coaches, and he had seen, by his own reckoning, about 35 miles of football film, some of it of such murky quality that the action seemed to be going on in the depths of a fishpond. He stretched his legs out in front of him. What was going to be the best thing, he said, was getting into a different set of clothes, and especially putting the attaché case with all its scouting paraphernalia in the back of the closet where perhaps he could forget about it.

This is an article from the Feb. 2, 1976 issue Original Layout

He began talking about the trademarks of his profession—the cowboy boots, which were sensible because they could be buffed up a bit and worn in a motel breakfast room and yet were fine for standing along the sidelines of a practice field in bad weather. Most of them come from Tony Lama's in El Paso, the scout said, because the proprietor takes as much as 60% off the price of boots if a scout visits with him and talks football. Leather, that was the other sartorial telltale—soft buckskin jackets, and suede, and often stiff new leather pants that creaked when the scout walked through the motel parking lot to his car. At the practice field he often wore a stopwatch hanging on a lanyard around his neck. That marked him, unless he was a track coach dawdling on his way to practice. A scout, that magic word; the players on the field would catch sight of him on the sidelines, the helmets turning just briefly. "They really begin to perform," the scout said. "I'm surprised that coaches don't use dummy scouts—just stick some cowboy boots, a buckskin jacket and a stopwatch on a janitor and set him out there on the sidelines and point at him. 'Look, everybody, look there, the guy from the Rams!' You'd have yourself some mighty fine practices. Of course, a kid will never let on that he knows a scout's there. But he'll miss a pass in practice, and you can tell by the way he stomps around and looks shocked that he is trying to tell you that it was only an act of God that he missed it. But he knows we know."

The scout was asked about the tools of his trade. "Well, in that attaché case you'll find a stopwatch. It's for timing pro prospects in the 40-yard sprints when the colleges have what's called Pro Day in the spring. Scouts put such stock in a guy's speed over the 40 that they'd time a prospect down an airplane aisle just to get a figure written on the performance sheet. And we use the stopwatch for checking the hang-time of punts, how fast a quarterback drops back and how quickly a center can get the ball to his punter." The scout laughed. "We've got to keep our stopwatch fingers in shape," he said. "Not too many beers, because you've got to time that center's snap to an accuracy of a tenth of a second. He's doing O.K. if he gets it back to the kicker in seven-tenths of a second, but he's on the border if it's nine-tenths.

"Now let's see. There's always a tape measure. We are always measuring people. Very important. I carry an architect's plastic drafting angle to use against the wall and get the kid's height exactly right when he's standing up there, because a lot of them will strain to get an extra millimeter or so, tilting their noses back, thinking that's going to heft them up a bit. In fact, it does just the opposite. You have to watch their feet, making sure they don't curl their toes under to push themselves up. Harley Sewell, the old Detroit Lion offensive guard who scouts for the Rams, told me that he always calls out, 'O.K., let's curl those toes up, son.' That stops 'em. But most kids these days are so damn big that you need to climb a ladder to measure them.

"Let's see. Some of us carry the Otis Self-Administering Test, which is a 20-minute exam that you can give a player. It will tell you for sure if you suspect he is an exceedingly slow learner, so that you can prepare for that when he turns up at your training camp and does the 40 in 4.9 and can truly run with the football but can't figure out what he's being told in the huddle.

"Now what else?" The scout pinched the bridge of his nose. "Usually, a scout has a pair of binoculars in his kit, seven power and never the opera type—not correct for scouting along the sidelines. Doesn't look right wearing all that suede and buckskin to be holding a li'l bitty opera glass and looking at some guy who weighs 270 pounds. A tape recorder. Legal pads. Pencils. Sometimes a pocket splicer for patching films. Eye drops. A roll of Scotch tape. That's for splicing broken film if you don't have a splicer—a junior-high splice, some scouts call it, and others, for reasons no one knows, call it an Al Davis splice, after the general manager of the Oakland Raiders. Whichever, the next scout who borrows that film from the athletic department will hear the splice rattle and chatter briefly in the machine before the film breaks, and the guy, with a good bit of cussing, reaches for his roll of tape.

"Then, of course, you carry a projector, a 16mm. motion-picture projector with the football club's decal on the carrying case so that when you walk through a motel lobby people will know that you're in football, not the blue-movie business. The projector is probably the most important device the scout has. With it, often in the coaches' conference rooms, but sometimes at the motel, the scout'll look at game films, reels that each college takes from up on the rim of the stadium of every game it plays. Each scout is supposed to see four game films on each prospect, which means that he'll see a player in action well over 100 times, and that's not counting the times that you flip the switch and rerun a play maybe a dozen times to check something out about the kid. And then you see him down on the practice field, maybe in a scrimmage, which is best. You might talk with him, just a few words, or, if he is a senior, you might visit with him, which is more of a commitment. You'll be trying to figure his attitude. And then you visit with his coaches. You have to be careful. Most coaches oversell their players. Obviously, they have a natural affection for them and will recommend someone totally unsuitable for the pros because of a great play the kid made in his junior year that may have saved the coach his job."

The scout grinned. "Sometimes the coach's reputation can get you into trouble. I've always been awed by Bear Bryant of Alabama. If he said, just in passing, that so-and-so could play football, well, I'd be inclined to rate the kid high even if what I was looking at weighed 92 pounds, was five feet tall and kept walking into things.

"So you have to make your own determination. Most scouts look for different things. Roosevelt Brown, who scouts for the Giants, looks for what he calls 'constant competitiveness,' never a guy who plays a quarter and loafs a quarter, but athletes like those Selmon brothers at Oklahoma who stay keyed-up high for an entire game. Attitude is a big thing for some scouts. I can remember Will Walls—one of the great oldtime scouts, the Red Grange of scouts some people call him—telling me about Duane Thomas. He saw him for the first time in a spring alumni game at West Texas State. Thomas carried the ball eight times, four for touchdowns, for a total of 210 yards. And yet his attitude was pitiful, wasn't it? Walls could never figure what had happened—maybe somebody promised Thomas something and had not given it to him.

"I myself put a tremendous premium on toughness," the scout said. "Perhaps more than I should, because an emphasis like that might penalize players who could go on to great things. Jimmy Orr, for example. He may have been different in college, but when I saw him he certainly wasn't anyone you would ascribe toughness to—a pussycat—and yet he was one of the best pass-catchers the Colts ever had."

The scout got up and mixed himself a drink. "Toughness isn't that easy to judge. We have these prospects we call 'Tarzan-Janes'—players who look terrific, built like Tarzans, but then after a while it turns out they play like Janes." He grinned. "There's a lot of terms like that...a whole lingo that's evolved with scouting.

"Let's see. To begin with, everyone's called coach. 'Hey, Coach!' You look around and there's another scout. You shake hands and admire his leather jacket, and when you start talking football, about prospects, you begin talking in this special jargon. You use a lot of initials. 'J.O.P.' That means Jump on the Pile. Very disparaging term. It describes a guy who's never quite in the play and arrives late. 'Aw hell, that guy's just a J.O.P.' Or sometimes he's called a 'Flop-on.' Another one is 'C.O.D.' It stands for Change of Direction. 'The kid's got great C.O.D.' A word you hear a lot is 'quab.' It comes from quickness, agility and balance, which are categories on the Individual Player Form. You come up to a scout and you ask, 'Hey, Harley, how's this kid's quab?'

"The word 'numbers' refers to a guy's height, weight and speed, and you'll hear a scout say, 'I'm going to Boise, Idaho. The boss tells me a guy out there has interesting numbers.'

"Two classes of players that a club wouldn't want to draft are 'tweeners' and 'hammers.' A tweener is a player whose physical characteristics are just off for every position—too small for tackle but too slow for linebacker. And a hammer is a big, strong, ferocious guy who's too slow. If he gets there he really beats up people, but he can't get there.

"If you want to know how competitive a player is, you ask for a 'gut check.' 'Give me a gut check on this guy.' The answer will be that the kid is or is not a competitor. That's the biggest word, competitor. The scout will say, 'This kid is looking for something to hit; if it moves, he hits it. My God, I'm telling you this kid is a competitor.'

"The other big word is football. It's never 'This kid can run,' or 'This kid can throw.' It's always 'This kid can run with the football,' or 'This kid can throw the football'—just in case [the scout shook his head in wonderment] there was something else he might have his hands on. So you always have to specify that he's playing with a football. You get a couple of scouts on the sidelines, and one of them asks, 'Who are you looking at? Are you looking at someone who can play football?'"

" 'Number 32.' "

" 'Number 32 can't play football. There ain't but two players here who can play football. One of the kids who can play football is Number 8. He can kick the football.' "

"We talk a lot about a guy's physical characteristics," the scout said. " 'Can he break down?' It means, 'Can a player attain a good hitting position?' If a couple of scouts are standing on the sidelines looking out, one of them will say, 'Big ol' legs. Nice arms, too. What a specimen.' You hear that a great deal, a specimen. 'That specimen's got a good pop—he's as strong as train smoke.'

"There's a lot about feet. There are three categories: good, adequate and no. A scout will look out and say, 'He ain't got no feet at all.'

"There's talk about hands. He's got 'soft hands,' hands like 'boards,' or hands that ought to be 'on a clock.' If a player's hands are good they're referred to as 'claws.' The fact is scouts look so much at a prospect's physique and what he can do with it, that at times we feel like inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, getting ready to hit a guy with a rubber stamp."

The scout went on to say that the sort of information that emerges from this jargon is carefully filled in on the Individual Player Form, or the Senior Ability Form (the names vary depending on the organization the scout works for), which the scouts mail to the home office. The forms are complex, designed to make available either by analysis or computer evaluation a near-palpable specimen for the home office to consider.

The average scout traveling in his own car will journey more than 12,000 miles during a season. "We check out quite a variety of places," the scout said. "The facilities differ considerably. You might drive up to a place like the University of Tennessee, pass playing fields with yards and yards of artificial turf laid down to practice on and park in the lot behind a gym the size of an ocean liner, with wide corridors hung with near-lifesize photos of its top athletes. There's a statuary of its 1956 SEC champion team, each player carefully sculpted, and the trophy cases, and you can hear the typewriters going like 60 in the athletic department, and the game films are filed, and the scouts can sit in a conference room in comfort and watch their prospects. Or you may arrive at a little college where you park out along a muddy lane and there's nothing much have to look to find the college.

"About the two worst athletic facilities in the East are Harvard University's—that's right—and Maryland-Eastern Shore's, which is a small, mostly black college in Somerset County where the saltwater bays come in from the sea. At Harvard the scouts look at films against a wall at the end of a corridor; there's a window right there without a shade, so that films show up ghostly and pale, as if the players were going at it in a snowstorm. The students, carrying their books, walk through the beam of light from the projector, saying 'Excuse me.' It's best for a scout to go to Harvard when the day is very murky so that the film will show up better on the wall. But the coaches are good to visit. They sit with you and lean forward and point out the work of Dan Jiggetts, who is one of the best linemen in the East. Another who should rate high is Don Macek, the fine center at Boston College.

"At Maryland-Eastern Shore this year there wasn't enough money in the athletic budget to allow the taking of game films. But that doesn't keep the scouts from going out across the wooden bridges that rattle under car tires. There's a strong smell of marsh grass—hell, there are places where the scout can expect to be poled across a tidal basin in a flat-bottomed ferryboat. A guy can hardly get there from nowhere. When he does, he stands on the edge of a practice field where the grass isn't cut and it comes up over the players' shoe tops. But the scouts all go because the school traditionally turns out fine football players: Roger Brown, the 300-pounder who played for Detroit, Johnny Sample, Charlie Stukes, Emerson Boozer. This year the school had a bad season, but it had another fine player in Carl Hairston, a big, fast defensive end. The scouts stood in the tall grass and looked at him. A lot of them went down to the Central Florida Classic on Nov. 29 in Orlando to watch him when Maryland-Eastern Shore played Bethune-Cookman. Bethune-Cookman won 67-0. But Hairston was all over the place that game, knocking down the Bethune people despite that terrible score, and that got him good marks in the gut-check department."

The scout reckoned that during the season more than 150 scouts were on the road checking out the colleges. The vast organization committed to scouting is a relatively new process. The scout said that scouting in the modern sense began with the Rams out on the Coast. Until then the coaching staffs did most of the scouting themselves. They went to college games on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons; they relied on what they could gather from talking to college coaches, what they read in the papers and sporting journals, and even on their mail from college alumni. "Because it was such a very low-pressure operation," the scout said, "the clubs made some whopping mistakes when it came time to draft. In the mid-'50s the Cleveland Browns picked a quarterback in the first round, and when he got to training camp the Browns found that he stuttered. That's right. He'd stand in the huddle and the players'd look at him and he'd say, 'Fl...fl...fl...fl...' trying to say flank right something, and then finally the coaches' whistles began to shrill and they discovered what the problem was, which of course any scouting system would have turned up at the start.

"Until things like that happened, no one thought scouting was necessary. One of the main reasons was that there wasn't much need for players. The team limit for a while in the mid-'30s was only 24.

"But then Eddie Kotal, who had been an assistant coach in the Green Bay organization, was asked to scout full time for the Rams. In a couple of years the Rams had such a powerhouse that they had leftover guys like Andy Robustelli who later became All-Pros. So the other teams began to do it. Bucko Kilroy began scouting full time for the Eagles in 1955, and by 1960 they had a championship team."

The scouting process quickly became refined, and at present all the teams in the NFL with the exception of Oakland and Cincinnati not only have their own scouting systems but belong to scouting organizations whose function is to pool information for the use of the member clubs. There are four such systems: Galaxy, CEPO, QUADRA and Blesto.

Each has nearly a dozen scouts. Their services cost a member club about $100,000 a year. The operations are similar, though CEPO is the only one of the combines that pools scouting reports from all its members (the Packers, Giants, Cardinals, Patriots, Browns, Redskins and Falcons) in a procedure called "full disclosure." Each team is privy to information gathered by the others. The advantage of this system is that a great deal of manpower is supplied. Every team scout is morally obligated to tell CEPO at its meetings everything he knows about his prospects. "The CEPO people feel that they'd rather get a tremendous file on each player," the scout said. "Then it's up to the individual club to decide whether he can play Packer football, or fit into the Atlanta organization, or whatever."

The other combines do not function on a system of full disclosure. The member clubs like to think that their own scouts can find them a sleeper, a gargantuan tackle out in the sandlots somewhere, whose abilities they would want to keep very much to themselves until the draft.

Blesto (which serves the Bears, Lions, Eagles, Steelers, Vikings, Colts, Dolphins, Bills and Chiefs) is the combine especially known for its work with a computer; an optimum football specimen is programmed into the machine against which a prospect can be compared and graded. The scout matches the physical characteristics of his prospect on a chart (the computer offers six types of legs, five variations of the upper torso; for defensive tackles, say, it can bracket a height range of 5'10" to 7 feet) and when the scout has finished feeding this sort of information into the machine, it offers up a final grade on a scale of 0 to 3.1. "We call the machine Big Dummy," the scout said. "Like something that stands in the corner and needs to be fed. I've seen it work. There's an operator who pushes buttons on a control panel. A lot of other things are being figured by Big Dummy at the same time. The day I saw it operating, the computer was also figuring what was called Minimax Strategy for National Guard War Games. The stuff comes out of the machine as printouts. It keeps coming out and folding on itself in a metal basket, yards and yards of information and evaluation. The top mark in the Blesto system is 0, which is perfect. No one would ever get that. Superman himself would lose out; he'd get marked down for wearing a disguise and surely for undressing in phone booths. He'd probably end up with a mark quite a bit above O.J. Simpson, who was an 0.4 and doesn't, so far as we know, have curious habits like that."

The scout motioned with his glass. "But you still need the man who says, I don't give a damn what Big Dummy says; this kid can play football.' He'll probably be right.

"The computer misses them. Every free agent who makes a team—and 32 did last year, kids like Johnnie Gray, the rookie who made it as a safety with the Packers—shows the system isn't perfect. There's so much a machine can't define properly. A kid can be a great football player without looking anything like the optimum programmed into the computer. There's no way a computer can field the data fed into it on a player like Don Nottingham, the 'Human Bowling Ball' who plays in the Miami backfield, and not shudder and come up with the same recommendation it did in 1971—that he should be picked just where he was in that draft, number 441, the next to the last guy chosen. Would you draft a Lee Roy Jordan or a Nick Buoniconti? A machine wouldn't. I would. I played against them. The main trouble with Big Dummy is that it can't tell you anything about a guy's heart. So many good-looking football players turn out to have hearts the size of marbles. If a scout could only tell, if there was some way that heart could be measured—a white spot in the middle of a player's forehead that gave some indication." He shrugged. "Of course, that would finish off the need for scouts."

Cincinnati and Oakland feel that they can better prepare for the draft by concentrating on their specific needs rather than by digesting computer reports. Much of what a scouting combine provides can be of no use to a team—for example, all that energy to supply information about the nation's quarterbacks when the Cincinnati Bengals have two fine ones of their own (Ken Anderson and John Reaves). So the Bengals and the Raiders fend for themselves. The Cincinnati organization has eight weekend scouts, most of them originally Ohio-based and personal friends of Paul Brown, the recently retired head coach. The operation is marked by a strong family bond. Among them are a tennis-club manager from Nashville, Tenn., a dynamite salesman from Cleveland, an Arkansas cattle rancher and a humanities professor from the Colorado School of Mines who is called "Professor" by his fellow scouts and twitted for the patches he wears on the elbows of his tweed jacket. During the season each scout calls in to Cincinnati on Monday and reports his availability for the next weekend. He will be paid an average of $50 for each college game he scouts. One weekend last fall the dynamite salesman was stuck in Alaska, but he called on the University of Alaska where he had his photograph taken outside the athletic department building. He wanted the home office to know that he was on the job (even though football is not played at the university) and that if there were rumors of an Eskimo placekicker out on the tundra he was in a position to check it out.

The most vociferous disparager of the combine system that the Bengals and Raiders avoid is the legendary Fido Murphy, a Runyonesque figure who scouted on his own for the Bears with considerable success for many years, though he is perhaps best known in football circles for his ceaseless self-promotion. He claims that he invented scouting back in 1933. In fact, he claims responsibility for the combine system itself (he calls the organizations "combos"), which he says he originated in 1965 when Buddy Parker, the Steelers' head coach, suggested that he scout for Pittsburgh as well as Chicago. "That was the start of Blesto," Murphy says. (Actually, the Cowboys, Rams and 49ers had formed a scouting partnership three years earlier.)

Fido also claims the invention of the T formation (he says George Halas brought in Clark Shaughnessy to run it), the blitzing maneuver known as red-dogging, and even to have been the first to establish the 40-yard-sprint distance that scouts use to time prospects. He says, "In 1938 timed Bill Osmanski at Holy Cross in shorts at 40 yards and in the fall of that year in full football gear. Forty yards seemed right for Osmanski and everybody else."

Fido Murphy's monologues, punctuated with an occasional "Got it?" have a certain Stengelese quality: "The combos are worthless. Their scouts rely too much on the computer. They don't know what you're talking about if you say that the trouble with the guard is that he leaves his foot in the trap. Imagine that! The college coaches know they're no good. They say to me, 'Hey, Fido, nine Blesto scouts were here yesterday and they all want to know who Fido likes.' 'Fido's been around? Oh God, who's he like? Please tell me who he likes?' Got it? I know where there are two defensive linemen like elephants. The Bears won't draft them. They rely too much on Blesto. The computers are beating the Bears. I tell them to stay out of the combos. I know where there's a football player better than Archie Griffin who's an easy first-round draft pick, but the combos won't have the guts to rate the kid high. Of course I'm not going to tell you his name, but I'll tell you he's like Mike Thomas, the little running back for the Washington Redskins. Got it? I know where there are two centers better than Rik Bonness, that kid at Nebraska. The best field-goal kicker I've seen is a mule called Gus who kicks a field goal in the last minute of a Walt Disney film starring my wife. She's made 188 films. Gus plays for a team called the Atoms and he wears a red blanket. The combos'll never pick him up. They rely too much on stopwatches and computers. You have to have the personal touch, to find out if the kid's got heart and character. I rejected Joe Namath when he was at Alabama. I didn't like the way he took his eye off me when a coed went by. I knew O. J. Simpson was going to be great when he ordered a grilled-cheese sandwich in the dining room of the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. No pretensions about the guy. Character. Got it? I sent that grilled-cheese sandwich back to the kitchen and ordered him a New York cut steak. I called up John McKay and told him there was this kid at City College of San Francisco, and that's how O. J. went to USC."

The scout laughed. "So you talked to Fido Murphy," he said. "Everyone who is a scout knows Fido. Great character. My theory has always been that Art Rooney of the Steelers and George Halas of the Bears set him up to needle people in the business." The scout grinned and stretched. "You meet all sorts in the scouting business. I like it. Of course, some scouts leave it. I remember Carl Brettschneider, the linebacker who later scouted for the Lions, telling me that one time he took a look at all these scouts—a lot of them ex-head coaches who'd had their day in the sun. They had gathered around a huge tureen of shrimp at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, a rain drifting against the window outside. It always seems to rain when that game is played. And he suddenly knew what these big men with shrimp clutched in one hand and booze in little paper cups in the other were talking about—quabs and Tarzan-Janes and C.O.D.s and whether this guy could hit, and then after a while they would begin talking about why they weren't head coaches anymore and how their careers had been soured by the press and the fans and their players. Losers, that's what these men were, and Brettschneider got so upset thinking about it that he quit scouting and went into the jewelry business.

"Aw, it must have been the rain in Mobile that did it," the scout went on. "It's a good fraternity of people. There's glamour in it. You can stand around at a cocktail party with a lot of automotive VIPs and if it gets around that you're a football scout, you've got instant-celebrity status. The pay's good—$18,000 and up. But you've got to love football. If you are around scouts, what else is there to talk about except football? Sometimes you pick an all-star team of the worst players in the NFL and you kid a guy if he touted any of them. They're good people—great ex-head coaches like Jim Lee Howell of the Giants and Red Hickey of the 49ers, great players like Harley Sewell, Rosie Brown, guys who got into it from high school and college coaching and built their reputations as scouts by having great eyes for talent, and then there are the people just starting off, like DonnyAnderson and Bill Curry from the Packers.

"You meet them on the road and you sit and visit. It makes the travel easier. That's the worst thing about scouting, the travel. Motels. Not a surprise in any of them. No 30-year-old 19-year-old blondes in the lobbies. No surprises in the motel rooms either. The purple bedspreads. The paper band across the toilet. Those huge brown lamps. I finally reckoned, after years of staring at those lamps, why they're so big—it's to keep scouts from taking them apart, packing them up and bringing them home. They're mammoth. An average Ramada Inn lamp would rate an easy 0.9 in the Individual Player Form in several categories: stamina, toughness, balance—they are nailed down half the time—durability, poise...."

The scout began to talk about the more agreeable aspects. It was awkward for him. The best moments were when someone he had seen on a practice field, or among the welter of shapes moving against the screen, or the pinned-up sheet in the motel room, made him lean forward, the words already forming in his mind how he would describe this phenomenon to the home office, play after play verifying what he had in mind. And then having his opinion realized and perhaps hearing the name of the player coming over the car radio a year or so later, perhaps the star player now and being interviewed before a Sunday afternoon game, and the scout would say aloud to himself as he drove (there was never anyone else in the car, so he could not be embarrassed), "I'm telling you that kid would hit anything that moved, always did, and I said from the very first time I ever saw him on that crazy little practice field that he was a competitor."