Apart from those heady moments spent preparing for and playing in the Super Bowl, there was a time when nothing was of more importance to a pro football franchise than that two-day ordeal known as the collegiate player draft. Perhaps more than the won-lost record or the bottom line, it revealed a club's acumen. But even before last week's draft, there were indications that the race henceforth may be not so much to the wise as to the wealthy.
In evidence thereof, consider the signings that took place in the six days preceding the draft and stole the thunder from the selection rites, despite the drafting of the twin Buckey brothers, the non-twin Selmon brothers, Archie (Twin Heisman) Griffin, Joe Namath's heir apparent, and the participation of Tampa Bay and Seattle, the expansion teams that begin play this season.
The most newsworthy event took place the day before the club representatives sat down in New York's Roosevelt Hotel ballroom for a seven-round, 212-player, 14-hour opening-day session. That's when Larry Csonka, the 29-year-old fullback out of Syracuse, Miami, Memphis and three Super Bowls, signed a contract making him the highest-salaried Giant in the team's history.
While terms of the multiyear pact were not revealed by the Giants, they ostensibly had been made public a day earlier by Joe Robbie, the Dolphins' owner. Robbie, claiming his former hireling was making exorbitant demands, said that Csonka had asked for a four-year, million-dollar contract that also called for a $50,000 cash bonus for signing, an annual bonus of $15,000, a 20-year loan of $125,000, and a P.R. job with the club, with expense account, plane tickets, game tickets, a new car and a town-house apartment. (To protect their investment, the Giants subsequently signed eight of Csonka's former WFL teammates, five of them offensive linemen.)
April 19, 1976
"I don't deny those figures are astronomical," Csonka told The Miami Herald, "but you have to start somewhere." Then, in a press conference held on the first day of the draft, Csonka barely veiled his anger when he said, "Robbie made our proposal a public ax-grinding and thereby shut the door on any further negotiations I might have had with the Dolphins."
Another coup for the NFC East, in keeping with the excitement the division gave its fans last season, came four days earlier when Calvin Hill, like Csonka a 29-year-old running back, returned from the World Football League and signed with the Washington Redskins. Terms of Hill's contract were neither announced nor ratted to the press, but it is reasonable to assume that the ex-Cowboy will be similarly well-heeled. In one sense, Hill's signing was even more significant than Csonka's because in its aftermath Commissioner Pete Rozelle revealed that at least for the time being the Rozelle Rule will not be enforced—that is, a team signing a free agent does not have to compensate his former club.
The day before Csonka made his Giant fortune, Paul Warfield, his teammate at both Miami and Memphis, signed a three-year contract with the Cleveland Browns—the club on which he started his pro career back in 1964. Warfield is the fleet wide receiver whom the Browns traded to Miami in 1970 to obtain draft rights to Purdue Quarterback Mike Phipps. Now Warfield will be going after passes thrown by the man who, in effect, tossed him out of town.
The Csonka, Hill and Warfield deals were straight acquisitions of free-agent players. Perhaps frightened by the prospect of getting no compensation for Jim Plunkett, who announced he would play out his option this year, New England traded Plunkett to the San Francisco 49ers for Quarterback Tom Owen and four high draft choices.
In December 1974 Judge William T. Sweigert said that in his opinion the draft was illegal in that there must be a time limit on exclusive negotiating rights. A year later Judge Earl Larson ruled that the Rozelle Rule violated antitrust laws. Since then the league has been unable to win legal sanction for the regulations it says are necessary to maintain the competitive balance essential to professional sport. Apparently the NFL is not going to try to enforce the Rozelle Rule until its status is legally clarified.
Barring intervention by Congress in the form of legislation that would give the NFL the same antitrust exemption enjoyed by major league baseball, the NFL now has two options. One is another session in court; indeed, the NFL is appealing Larson's ruling. The alternative is for the owners to bargain compensation rules as part of a contract with the NFL Players Association.
That means that for now both groups are operating in an open market, an economic system NFL owners swear will lead their sport straight to perdition even though it seems to do all right by the rest of the free world. What the NFL owners seem to fear most is themselves. They argue that without the restraints that they have imposed on themselves and which the courts continue to declare illegal, cutthroat financial competition will arise, spelling the end of the draft, scouting, team stability, reasonable ticket prices and the competitive balance that fills stadiums and attracts TV dollars. Give us liberty, the NFL owners moan, and give us death.
It is conceivable that the draft—now the culmination of an expensive, highly repetitious scouting process—could lose its significance in an open market. "This draft is going to become a lot less important," one NFL spokesman said Thursday, shortly after Tampa Bay had made Defensive End Leroy Selmon of Oklahoma the No. 1 choice of the 487 athletes to be selected. "With no option compensation rule, why should you spend the time scouting a guy if you may keep him only one year? It's smarter to wait and see if he can play pro football, then sign him."
That's the NFL's way of forecasting gloomy days, but it is a self-serving and somewhat specious argument. If the legality of the draft is finally upheld, is it logical to assume that some NFL owners, so dedicated to one-upmanship in other aspects of the game, would suddenly let their colleagues monopolize first-year players? And if the owners did abandon scouting, wouldn't the money saved cover the feared increase in player salaries and perhaps even lead to lower-priced tickets?
One must assume for the present, however, that the NFL owners will continue to try to shackle their own worst instincts and revive their compensation system. And that leaves another question unanswered. If some form of the rule is reinstated, will the Giants, Washington and Cleveland be assessed compensation retroactively?
In addition to the Plunkett deal two other trades of more than casual interest prefaced the college draft by a week. In one of them, Cincinnati tried to reach defensive parity with the Steelers by acquiring Defensive End Coy Bacon from San Diego for Wide Receiver Charlie Joiner. In the second trade Houston swapped Lynn Dickey, a backup quarterback for three seasons, to Green Bay for John Hadl, All-Pro Cornerback Ken Ellis, a fourth-round draft choice last week and a third-rounder next year.
Even without the various signings, trades and a long-delayed beginning that coincided with the opening of the baseball season and the Masters golf tournament, it is doubtful that last week's college draft would have generated the enthusiasm it has in other years. Those who suspected that this year's crop was low on quality had little reason to change their opinion, especially when Friday's session began with Seattle taking LSU's Larry Shipp, listed as a wide receiver. Shipp, the NCAA high-hurdles champ, hasn't played football since high school. At that, he may have been a better choice than San Diego's 12th-round selection, Ron Lee, the second-team basketball All-America from Oregon who has never played football. Basketball also contributed Michigan's Wayman Britt and Indiana's Quinn Buckner, who opposed each other in the NCAA championship two weeks ago, to the Redskins.
With no blue-chip quarterback available among the college seniors, the 6'3", 262-pound Leroy Selmon was a predictable No. 1 choice and the fourth defensive lineman so honored in the last five years. Tampa Bay kept the Sooner defensive siblings together by taking Dewey Selmon (6'1", 257 pounds) at the end of the second round.
For quaintness, however, the Bucs' brother act couldn't match that of the Jets, who took Don and Dave Buckey, a wide receiver and quarterback respectively, the first set of twins selected by the same team in the same round (12th) of the same draft. The Buckey twins had played for Lou Holtz, the Jets' new coach, at North Carolina State.
Seattle caused one of the few surprises Thursday when its opening choice was Notre Dame's Steve Niehaus, a defensive tackle, rather than Chuck Muncie, California's superb running back.
"Niehaus is the kind of guy who can play 10 years in this league," said Seattle Assistant Coach Larry Peccatiello. "A running back isn't going to last that long." Incidentally, no less than 200 selections were made before another Notre Dame player was drafted. He was Ed Bauer, a guard who went to New Orleans.
Drafting third, the Saints picked Muncie. Along with Oklahoma's Joe Washington (No. 4, to San Diego), Purdue's Mike Pruitt (No. 7, Cleveland), Texas A&M's Bubba Bean (No. 9, Atlanta) and Wyoming's Larry Gaines (No. 16, Detroit), Muncie was one of five running backs drafted before Cincinnati selected Griffin, the two-time Heisman Trophy winner from Ohio State whose size may militate against his success in the NFL. As for the sanity of the Cleveland statistics crew, it now has the vexing prospect of Greg Pruitt and Mike Pruitt operating out of the same backfield.
Responding to tradition and the likelihood that this season will be Namath's last, the Jets drafted Richard Todd of Alabama, the only quarterback taken in the first round. It was a selection that earned loud cheers from the partisan gallery, where a fan's sign read DON'T BLOW IT, TAKE TODD #1.
The Big Ten led the draft with 51 players, while Ohio State and Nebraska topped individual schools with 11 each. In all, 258 offensive and 208 defensive players were drafted. Twenty-one specialists completed the total.
An NFL coach once said it took three seasons to evaluate the success of a draft. The way times are changing, this draft may be the last one he rates.