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.
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.
"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."