SI Vault
John Underwood
December 13, 1971
As director of player personnel, Joe Thomas built the Vikings and the Dolphins into powerhouses. How does he do it? Well, if the artichoke method doesn't work, try a right cross
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December 13, 1971

This Joe Had Better Be Good

As director of player personnel, Joe Thomas built the Vikings and the Dolphins into powerhouses. How does he do it? Well, if the artichoke method doesn't work, try a right cross

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"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!"

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