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The evolution of the NFL draft

Behind the scenes of how the draft became one of the biggest spectacles in the NFL. Jim Steeg

Print This April 26, 2012, 12:30 PM EST

It was early July in 2003, shortly after 11 PM, and I was arriving at the Akron Canton (Ohio) Airport to work on plans for the upcoming Pro Football Hall of Fame Induction ceremonies, when, out of the clear blue, someone yelled in my direction, “Hey, I know you!”

I whirled around, but I did not recognize the individual.

“You are The Voice of Day Two of the NFL Draft!” he proclaimed. Indeed, as the then-NFL Sr. Vice President of Special Events, that was one of my jobs. I announced the second-day draft picks, on site and on ESPN.

That bizarre, 15-minutes-of-fame moment crystallized for me the almost 25-year journey I had experienced with the NFL Draft.

I had always been a big fan of the Draft. When I began my NFL career in 1975, as the business manager of the Miami Dolphins, I was enthralled with the process. I had heard stories of former Dolphins General Manager Joe Thomas and his rather unscientific way of drafting, picking from lists printed in Street and Smith’s magazine. My first Draft was in 1976, and I was excited to be in the Dolphins War Room as we selected defensive end Kim Bokamper from San Jose State in the first round. For two days, I watched intently, as Coach Don Shula, Director of Pro Scouting George Young and Director of College Scouting Bobby Beathard conscientiously evaluated player after player. That is, until we came to the 17th and final round. Coach Shula turned to those in the War Room and asked, “Who should we take now?”

“I saw Jeff Grantz play at South Carolina,” I volunteered. “Even though he was a quarterback, he could make a good safety, but I think he may opt to play baseball.”

“Take him!” Shula declared.

And with that, I was indoctrinated into the Draft. Grantz was my first -- and my only -- Draft pick. Grantz did come to Dolphins mini-camp, and he looked great, but baseball turned out to be his calling.

NFL DraftICONThe NFL draft has evolved in a big way over the last 30 years.

In 1979, I joined the League office in New York City. The physical setup of the Draft was assigned to me one of my responsibilities. For years, the Draft had been held in the ballroom at The Roosevelt Hotel, an iconic building straight out of the Roaring Twenties, best known as “the Grand Dame of Madison Avenue.” But in my first year with the League, the Draft was moved to the 18th-floor ballroom at the legendary Waldorf-Astoria. For the first time, the draft picks of the NFL teams would be shown to those in the room via an internal set of television monitors provided by Glen Rock Graphics.

Previously, their names had been written on acetates and shown on a screen with an overhead projector. Linebacker Tom Cousineau of Ohio State was the first pick overall and the only player present at the Draft. (He also happened to be the first NFL player I had ever seen wearing an earring.) However, the 1979 Draft became infamous because the New York Giants selected Phil Simms with their first-round pick, and the seventh pick overall, from tiny Morehead (Ky.) State, and that elicited a chorus of boos from the small, but vocal fan contingent in the room, perhaps 200 people. The fans’ anger shocked everyone so greatly that the local New York TV stations, which had completely missed the blowup -- their cameras had been focused on Commissioner Pete Rozelle announcing the selection – ended up asking him to make the announcement a second time, which he did.

Following this Draft, Commissioner Rozelle wanted us to find another location because he wanted the fans more intimately involved in the process. I swear I scouted every hotel ballroom in Manhattan, scoured every convention site, and even studied huge spaces like the Armory. In the end, the place I liked the best was the then-New York Sheraton, in Midtown, on 7th Avenue between 55th and 56th Streets. It had an old indoor swimming pool that had been converted into a ballroom. There were certain stigmas that existed. It was on the West Side of Manhattan, which had a connotation in those days. It also was the site of mob boss Albert Anastasia’s murder in 1957 in the hotel barber shop. Despite all of this, the New York Sheraton ballroom had the ability to serve as a great site for the Draft because its balconies could hold more than 750 people, but they would hang out over the main floor.

In the fall of 1979, ESPN was just beginning, and Chet Simmons, the President and COO, was a friend of Commissioner Rozelle; their friendship dated back to Simmons’ days at the helm of NBC Sports. One of their brainstorms was to put the Draft on television – and to broadcast it on ESPN. Commissioner Rozelle took the idea to the NFL ownership group in October of 1979. It was resoundingly rejected as a television show concept. As the meeting ended, Pete turned to me and said, “Call Chet, and tell him we’re going to cover the Draft as a news event!” With that, the relationship with ESPN and the NFL began.

The 1980 Draft began on a Tuesday morning at 10 AM Eastern, and it broke after three rounds to resume on Wednesday morning. ESPN’s anchor desk was tucked away in a ballroom corner with the network’s George Grande and Sports Illustrated’s well-respected NFL writer Paul (Dr. Z) Zimmerman as the hosts. All day, almost everyone of note dropped by the Draft. It was less about the analysis and more about the buzz; it was a Who’s Who of Football. ABC’s Howard Cosell made his presence known, entertaining the crowd with his comedic and blustery antics. We added drama to the ballroom by creating a clock to track time remaining on the picks (it was used for more than 30 years). Fans began lining up outside the New York Sheraton late Monday afternoon to get their spots in the ballroom and camped out overnight on the sidewalk. We issued numbers to the first 750 and created a separate room where the next group of fans could wait and view the Draft on TV. Oklahoma running back Billy Sims was the first overall pick, but he was upstaged as the New York Jets traded up to the second spot to take Texas wide receiver Johnny “Lam” Jones.

The 1980 Draft also was special because it was the advent of the “draftnik,” most notably Joel Buchsbaum, a small, frail, bespectacled Brooklyn native who created the industry of evaluating talent, producing a voluminous fan’s guide analyzing the top 600 players, still being used today as the format for Pro Football Weekly. (Buchsbaum, the original draftnik, was a Draft fixture until his death in 2002 at the age of 48.)

Yes, in the blink of an eye, the NFL Draft had become a “happening.”?

The experience at the New York Sheraton was very memorable over the years. Time and again, we kept innovating. It is hard to believe, but there were no computers in the early years. The League’s officiating department was enlisted to fill out three-by-five inch index cards on each player, in different colors, so that lists could be compiled for schools, conferences, positions, team selections, etc. In 1984 and 1985, the NFL Owners decided that the Draft would go around the clock as there was a fear that the United States Football League (USFL) would “scoop up” the later round players, if we paused. So, we started at 8 AM on Tuesday and went until 10 AM Wednesday in order to complete all twelve rounds of the Draft.

The NFL did not receive TV rights fees for the draft until 1984. It was in 1983 prior to the Draft that an ESPN executive told USA Today’s TV-Radio columnist Rudy Martzke that the network was making well into six figures on the Draft. With that revelation, a year later ESPN became responsible for all costs involved in the Draft.

One issue in that I remember well occurred in 1982…the Tampa Bay Bucs had the 17th overall pick, and like most teams, they filled out multiple index cards, then waited until the last possible moment to submit the card with the name of the player they truly wanted. Unfortunately, they ended up submitting the wrong card…Sean Farrell, G, Penn State. The League rules are, once the index card is handed to the “runner,” the selection is final. After Commissioner Rozelle read Farrell’s name, the Bucs panicked. They had actually wanted to select Booker Reese, DE, from Bethune Cookman. They disputed with the League staff, but rules are rules, and Farrell is the player they got. He had a pretty good career… And the Bucs traded up in the second round and got Reese.

That wasn’t the only standout moment in 1982. As the Draft was winding down, the Los Angeles Rams started passing at the end of round 12. They wanted to set themselves up to snatch the final pick, better known as “Mr. Irrelevant,” an award created by former San Francisco 49er Paul Salata, who honors the player with an annual celebration in Newport Beach, Calif. The last pick belonged to the Los Angeles Raiders, and suddenly we were at an impasse. Both wanted that pick. Finally, we had to call Commissioner Rozelle in the office, who ruled that the two teams had to draft in the proper order. Tight End Phil Nelson from Delaware became Mr. Irrelevant for the Raiders.

Throughout the years, we were inspired to try new things to make the Draft fun and exciting for the fans. For the 1982 Draft, we worked with Nardi Enterprises, and they developed NFL helmet phones to use at each team’s draft table. We later developed small radios that could receive the ESPN broadcast, so fans in the ballroom could feel even more part of the action. One great line happened when the ESPN crew forgot to turn off the “dirty feed” from the production truck, and anchor Chris Berman yelled, “I can’t hear you!” to the truck, only to have the crowd in the ballroom respond in unison, “We can hear you, Chris!”

After five years, we outgrew the Sheraton. The Marriott Marquis opened in Times Square in 1986, and the Draft was the first event booked for the new hotel. The balcony could fit almost double the crowd, and we were able to set a VIP area for the floor for another 250. Strange as it may seem, back in those days, one of the most difficult struggles was getting the sponsorship group of the NFL to be involved in the Draft. It was difficult to get sponsors for the Draft, and it was equally as difficult to get the NFL’s sponsorship group to bring League clients to the Draft. Having clients drop by became almost impossible when the Draft moved to the weekend.

Sam BradfordMoving the start of the first round to Thursday night has dramatically increased viewership.

In 1987, I thought that there was a good reason to move the Draft to Sunday/Monday from the traditional Tuesday/Wednesday. The concept was discussed with the League’s and teams’ Public Relations Directors, and they were universally opposed to the change. About a month later, we were at an Owners’ meeting at the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego, and I was working in the office, when I was suddenly summoned to the main meeting room. Commissioner Rozelle was announcing that we were moving to a Sunday/Monday Draft the next year. Despite objections of the vast majority, he saw the value of getting off Tuesday morning broadcasts. Ironically, moving to those days reduced our ballroom rent by 75% because of the lack of events that normally book ballrooms in Manhattan on Saturdays and Sundays. But we still had a problem…since the PR staff was so adamant, we no longer held the Sunday/Monday dates and now we had to get another group to move.

In 1990, the Draft had outgrown the Marriott Marquis. We looked for another site and decided to move to the old Felt Forum at Madison Square Garden (later to become the Theatre). We were able to grow the crowd to 3,000 fans. They literally lined up around the block the night before. We were able to really design a set for the announcements backdrop and create a design look. We went to rear projection screens to flank the podium. We created a mini-press box for the media, a Green Room for potential draft picks and media interview rooms. It took several years to grow the number of draftees who attended. There was opposition in the office to have more than a handful of players present. Finally, by 1996, we had about 15.

But that year, we encountered a problem. As the number of players invited grew, there always was a risk that one (or more) would drop down in the Draft. Well, running back Leeland McElroy from Texas A&M came to the Draft, and he dropped and dropped, finally going to the Arizona Cardinals at the beginning of round 2. It had to be a long six-hour wait for him.

In 1999, as the draft came to a close, we had reached the time for Mr. Irrelevant. We let Paul Salata make the pick, and he announced running back Jim Finn from Pennsylvania. Squeals and screams permeated the ballroom. Lo and behold, there was Jim Finn, sitting in the audience. The Bergen Catholic (N.J.) alum had come to watch day 2.

In 2003, the Vikings ended up passing through two picks (quarterback Byron Leftwich and offensive tackle Jordan Gross) as they made up their minds to take defensive tackle Kevin Williams. Ensuring the proper sequence and being careful not to skip a beat when the Vikings jumped back into the draft made for some very tense moments. There is no time that draft chieftan Joel Bussert gets more tense that when someone passes…well maybe if we didn’t get him his “dirty dogs” from the cart on the street.

After 2004, the Draft started looking once again for a new site. The fight between James and Charles Dolan, owners of Madison Square Garden, and New York Jets owner Woody Johnson over the site of the then-proposed Jets’ West Side Stadium made working at the Garden politically untenable. I left the NFL before the final choice was made. Interestingly, the ultimate choice,  Radio City often was discussed years earlier, but the sheer size and cost to rent the facility for six days made it impractical at the time. Since then, it has developed into the perfect site.

For me, I have countless Draft memories, but it took one embarrassing moment to teach me a lesson. One year, in between announcing the second day Draft picks, I took off my glasses, rubbed my tired eyes and relaxed. Just for a split second. Little did I know ESPN has a camera isolated on me in case a pick was made that they wanted to record. Well, that night when I got home, I turned on Sports Center only to see my worn-out self captured, in slow motion, at the top of the show.

Former NFL Head of Special Events Jim Steeg was responsible for changing the Super Bowl from a championship game into the event it is today.  He also was the man who turned the NFL Draft from a behind-the-scenes meeting into a televised spectacle.

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