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."