Like a hole in line, Kiper saw NFL niche, capitalized for score

March 22, 1998|By JOHN STEADMAN

It's not the proficiency engendered by Melvin Kiper Jr. in his specialized and highly speculative field of evaluating football playing talent that sets him apart. He turned a guessing game into a business, a broker of sorts, who has gained respect, recognition and, on occasion, been targeted with biting criticism.

Kiper is in an endeavor where it's easier to be wrong than right. But his opinions, which he can't afford to keep to himself, are considered valuable to an extensive reading and listening audience. It's compelling he have a conviction on that halfback from Prairie View or the tight end from Missouri because that's precisely what he's selling.

Kiper was a mere 17 years old, a student at Baltimore's Calvert Hall College high school, but didn't advertise the fact when he bought space in The Sporting News to alert the world that his information on college football players was available for a price. Subscribers in Dubuque, Kewanee, Los Angeles and other points, near and far, even in his own hometown, didn't realize they were dealing with a then self-professed expert not too long advanced from childhood.

But now it's 20 years later and Kiper has created a national reputation for his exceptional ability to gather, assimilate and dispense information on college football players and what their futures might hold -- be it positive or negative. He works for himself and the public -- not the teams, but they are more than passingly interested in the ratings he produces and have been known to react critically toward him.

Melvin Kiper Enterprises, Inc., includes the founder himself, wife Kimberly and two secretaries. They produce and circulate publications to "about 10,000" football fanatics who are interested in buying their personalized scouting services on an annual basis.

It includes a preview, three newsletters, a free-agency data sheet, a comprehensive look at what players will be drafted, an "11th hour" update and a review of what actually unfolded on draft day. Kiper, additionally, headlines draft coverage for ESPN and makes regular appearances on the network's college radio game show for 16 weeks during the season. He also has radio contracts with Baltimore's WBAL, Providence's WPRO, Houston's KPRC and Charlotte's WBT.

Kiper talks with such rapidity that it makes listeners believe he can deliver more words per minute than an auctioneer. What he has to say is delivered from a fountain of information, based on his own instincts and knowledge of the subjects. Plus, what is regarded as an incredible memory and instant recall.

Oddly enough, Kiper never played football on any formal level, but knows a prospect when he sees one. He is an amazing talent because of what he does and how he pursues results. He'll view tapes of more than 1,000 college games and talk to coaches and players, but, in the end, when it comes time to grade the choices, he's on his own and there's no timidity to the reports he offers.

"I'm like the 31st team at the draft table," he said. "Bill Tobin, who was the general manager of the Indianapolis Colts, before they let him go, reacted personally to my comments when he took Trev Alberts of Nebraska and passed over Trent Dilfer. He made a series of bad moves and as much as said if you weren't an ex-player or a coach, you weren't supposed to have an opinion."

Bobby Beathard, general manager of the San Diego Chargers, said Kiper arrives at his judgments after "picking the brains" of NFL team officials. Wrong. The 37-year-old analyst has his own ability to recognize what it takes to play in the NFL and is better than some personnel directors and general managers who wouldn't know a cornerback from a Chinese aviator.

Kiper had Notre Dame's Rick Mirer 30th on a previous list and another quarterback, Jeff George of Illinois, ranked 84th among potential NFL draftees, but projected the pro clubs would take them first and second. He was right on both accounts. Neither one has shown the ability to play to the expectations the clubs anticipated.

If Kiper wasn't opinionated, he'd be of no use to football followers, those who like to get involved with their own mind games regarding where specific teams will take certain players. As for this year's draft, he offers the following top 10 mock-up:

Indianapolis: QB Peyton Manning, Tennessee; San Diego: QB Ryan Leaf, Washington State; Phoenix: DE Andre Wadsworth, Florida State; Oakland: CB Charles Woodson, Michigan; Chicago: LB Keith Brooking, Georgia Tech; St. Louis: DT Vonnie Holliday, North Carolina; New Orleans: WR Randy Moss, Marshall; Dallas: OT Tra Thomas, Florida State; Jacksonville: RB Curtis Enis, Penn State; Ravens: WR Kevin Dyson, Utah.

The credibility of Kiper is of such high repute that Lloyds of London uses him as a consultant so as to know what insurance values to place on players in the draft. Two years ago, he offered the thought that even if Lawrence Phillips of Nebraska were available on the seventh round, he wouldn't take him.

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