No longer does a professional football scout take to the highway with a road map, an NCAA guide and a headful of dreams. It's now a more sophisticated concept. Players are evaluated year-round and scouting combines produce a bulk list of eligible names along with their own evaluations. Then, if desired, it's up to the teams to check on the players' abilities and move in for a closer, more refined look.
The evolution of the National Football League draft and preparation for it has changed dramatically, as witness the career of Fred Schubach, one of the most respected of all pro scouts. He's a man who maintains his own counsel, keeps a low profile, looks at talent and makes a projection as to each individual's potential to earn a place on the roster.
Mistakes are minimized with a system of cross-checking so it's rare when the opinion of one man determines a draft selection. For Schubach, in his sixth year representing the Kansas City Chiefs and, before that, with the Baltimore Colts and Buffalo Bills, it's a serious challenge, fed by a burning desire to be right and the realization that what he's doing is correlated to the future success of his team -- the one he works for -- on the field.
"There are no geniuses in this business," he says. "Not even so-called geniuses. We all have 'skeletons' in our closets. There's the player you were high on who didn't measure up or the one you didn't think much of who made the grade. You can never let yourself get gun-shy. That's the advice Don Shula told me in 1965 when he made me a scout [with the Colts].
"The Colts once drafted guard Butch Allison of Missouri on the second round. He cost the team a lot of money and was a disappointment. The man who recommended him felt badly. You can't let it defeat you, any more than a quarterback throwing an interception can stop putting the ball in the air. You can, though, examine what happened and learn from the experience."
Schubach admits football players today are stronger, because of intensive weight programs, but are no smarter or tougher than their predecessors. He believes if a Chuck Bednarik, Gino Marchetti or Art Donovan, to mention only three Hall of Fame members, were playing now, they would avail themselves of the latest training methods and become standouts in this era.
"The difference today from 25, 30 or 40 years ago in the NFL," continues Schubach, "is the time spent on football. Virtually every day amounts to eight or 10 hours of involvement, films and meetings. In the early days of the Colts, players would leave practice and be drinking beer and eating hamburgers at Kusen's Cafe in Waverly in late afternoon. Not now."
The public has an ongoing fascination for the so-called "sleeper" to emerge from the draft, as witness a Harlon Hill from Florence (Ala.) Teachers College or an Alex Sandusky from Clarion. They were intriguing surprises but that, too, is in the past. "The day of the sleeper, the player no one else knows about, is dead. It has been for a long time," says Schubach.
With so much attention given the NFL draft by 28 pro teams, plus Canada and the World League of American Football, it's almost impossible to hide a reasonably-skilled performer, regardless of the size of his school or the quality of the schedule his team is playing.
Schubach is right now engaging in another phase of talent appraisal as he observes the scouting combine camp held in Indianapolis over the span of eight days. It's a cooperative project as general managers, coaches, personnel directors and scouts from the majority of the teams watch the players and attempt to measure them against the reports they have in hand.
Teams today review what the combines give them and may utilize their own scouts to provide more in-depth reports. It often becomes a second or third opinion process. Schubach, in his role for the Chiefs, is assigned to cover Kentucky, Virginia, Florida and checks on Penn State as an individual focus. Through the season, he watches practices on-campus and sees at least 16 college games, plus all-star contests such as Blue-Gray, Senior Bowl and East-West.
A month before the April draft, teams meet with their scouts for final talks and hold mock selections, attempting to pre-determine, via calculated guesses, what rival clubs may do and measure their own chances of getting who they want. It's a massive wish-list.
A team making a surprise choice opens the way for another player to be available to a rival when it's his turn to draft, so projections lose validity. It's expensive, averaging over $1 million per club, to operate a personnel department. Long gone are the times when pro football teams, as used to be the case, clipped newspaper stories and on draft day relied on the pages of Street & Smith College Football Preview, a magazine selling for the grand sum of 50 cents.