Editor’s Note: Five years ago, while earning his M.A. in Sports Journalism at IUPUI, graduate assistant Cory Collins described the growth of the National Football League Scouting Combine.
By Cory Collins
INDIANAPOLIS — It wasn’t always this way.
Not so long ago, elite college football players could gather in relative anonymity, get poked, prodded, work out, and go home. It was the NFL Scouting Combine you see now, but without the cameras, the columns, the noise.
Before it became what one writer calls a ‘monstrosity,’ it was little more than an off-season whisper.
“It was sort of an underground system back then,” Mike O’Hara recalled as a wave of reporters hit high tide at the press conference for quarterback prospect Blake Bortles. O’Hara is no stranger to quarterback prospects. He has covered the Detroit Lions since 1977, with 31 years spent as the beat writer at The Detroit News before he moved on to detroitlions.com.
“Back in 1983, with that great draft class of Elway, Marino, Eric Dickerson, numerous Hall-of-Famers, they had what might have passed for a Combine in those days at the Pontiac Silverdome in Detroit,” O’Hara said. “I didn’t even know they were having it.”
“And the NFL wanted to keep it that way.”
It’s hard to believe, but this event once passed in obscurity.
According to the official website, the NFL Combine as we know it began in Tampa, Florida in 1982. Conducted by National Football Scouting, Inc., the Combine competed with two other camps, team loyalties split three ways. It wouldn’t be until 1987 when Indianapolis became the official home of medical exams and pre-draft expectations. The event hasn’t left since.
Thirty-two years ago in the Tampa sun, the Combine passed without incident.
Evidence of any media coverage: None.
Players present: 163.
This week in Indianapolis, over 300 prospects will audition for NFL teams. Over 900 media members are credentialed to cover them. In one room, the press and the prospects converge.
It wasn’t always this way. When the old Hoosier Dome first opened its doors to NFL-ready players, it shut its doors to the press.
Buffalo News Bills beat writer Vic Carucci remembers 1987, when media row came with continental breakfast.
“I want to say there were probably seven of us. And that’s just writers,” said Carucci, who now acts as a Senior Editor and radio host for the Cleveland Browns. “I didn’t see any TV cameras around or a radio station. We were over at the Crowne Plaza Hotel where players were gathered, and we were basically interviewing them in the hotel restaurant.”
Even by 1993, Carucci recalled, access was still contained to a hotel lobby and the kindness of young men. Then-rookie Jerome Bettis helped funnel players to the few writers who made the trip.
Mike O’Hara was one that stayed home.
“We just didn’t cover it back in those days,” he said. “You didn’t cover offseason workouts. You’d see the coach, shake hands with the coach at the draft and say, ‘See you at Training Camp.’”
The offseason was – imagine — an offseason. On the field, the page, and the television screen.
Even by the late 90s, interest in the NFL Combine was minimal.
“I would say that when I was first here, there were about 50 people,” said ESPN NFL Insider and Sirius XM Host Adam Caplan, who was working for Scout.com at the time. “The access was easier for the media.”
“When I first started doing this,” O’Hara said, “it was maybe … one-tenth the size of this.”
Mike Chappell, Indianapolis Star Colts beat writer since 1989, Combine chronicler since its Indianapolis inception, remembers that even a decade into its existence, the event hadn’t really changed.
“What I remember is 1998,” Chappell said. “It was the year when Peyton Manning, Ryan Leaf, all the guys were here. The Colts had the number one pick. And we talked to Peyton Manning over where the players are housed at the Crowne Plaza, at a bar. It was up against the bar and there were probably two dozen of us.”
They later found Leaf in the lobby. The biggest decision in recent draft history surrounded this mercurial college star from Washington State University. And the number that greeted Leaf? Three dozen. Four dozen tops.
“It was very modest,” Carucci said of the early days. “We described it as the best-kept secret in covering football, because you had everyone in the league in one place.”
“Initially, newspapers weren’t going to spend money to send people to a football event in February,” he added. “But once they realized what value could come from it, how football had grown into a year-round topic…that started to catch on.
“The floodgates opened and this thing turned into the monstrosity it is, today.”
Ten years ago, the game changed. The NFL Network, resident floodgate locksmiths, decided the Combine was no longer don’t-see business, but must-see television.
“It has now become a huge media event,” said NFL Films Senior Producer Greg Cosell. “I think the NFL Network had a lot to do with that when it started televising it.”
As Carucci said, the Combine started to catch on. The NFL realized it could command coverage in the lull of winter. With cameras always rolling, and fans always watching, an offseason disappeared.
“Now, National Football League, it’s 15 months a year, 565 days a year, 72 hours a day,” O’Hara said. “If [Commissioner Roger] Goodell had his way, instead of having nothing from July 1st to July 31st, he’d have 32 days of national cheerleader tryouts or something like that.”
By 2009, when the Combine transitioned into Lucas Oil Stadium, Vic Carucci, once at the will of The Bus in a lobby, had arrived in a world almost unrecognizable.
“Since the first year [the Combine] moved to here, and this space became the media center,” he said, “It dawned on me that this thing was growing into a huge monstrosity.”
That overwhelming growth, according to O’Hara, happened quickly. The world was changing, and the NFL was a microcosm of the world.
“It’s sort of like the internet,” he explained. “The growth is exponential. When I first really started doing this, I remember people telling me that they used to have to stake out the hotel lobbies here, would stand out there in the cold and grab people as they’re walking by to the hotel. Even then, they were trying to discourage people from talking to the media.”
Today, it’s required. Today, it’s part of a prospect’s unwritten assessment.
Today, everyone is watching.
And for that reason, even for the reporters and analysts sometimes lost in the milieu, this coverage, this circus, is warranted.
“On the surface, it’s height, weight, measurement, how fast you run, how high can you jump, how far can you leap…if you really break it down to what the activity is, you probably say ‘no,’” Carucci said. “But to feed that insatiable appetite that people have for the NFL, then absolutely, it’s warranted. They can’t get enough.”
Caplan agreed. “I think it does warrant it because it’s the biggest deal out there.”
And for Greg Cosell, it can only boost the brand. “Quite frankly, anything that continues to put football as an all-year sport is good for the NFL,” he said. “It’s big. People come…It’s just a good place for everyone in the industry to get together.”
But does the increased coverage come with a price tag? With all that has been gained –eyes, revenue, fan interest –has something been lost?
On one side of the press-player divide, says Cosell, nothing has changed.
“The only way it is different is the coverage,” he said. “The Combine, itself, is exactly the same. What actually happens as far as the players, that’s no different. The only difference is that it’s now a huge media event.”
And Chappell feels there are positives to the enormity of the modern NFL Combine. For one, it delivers access to each team’s coach and general manager, which he calls the “biggest difference” of the last decade.
It also bolsters the city.
“The city thinks this is huge,” said Chappell. With over 4,000 NFL personalities in town, including the most influential, it serves as “a great selling point for the city.”
And Chappell, most certainly, doesn’t want to go back to Crowne Plaza scrums.
“The harder part was being in the lobby,” he said. “You’re waiting all day. You usually didn’t know what the schedule was. And sometimes, you didn’t even know who the players were.”
Once, Chappell says, he and other reporters spoke for 20 minutes with a dreadlocked young man they thought to be Ricky Williams. It was Edgerrin James.
But there is an ironic pitfall of the increased access that took the Combine from a hidden gym to the NFL Network’s February gold mine.
The writers, who once waited in hotel lobbies for a chance interaction, who waited years for a seat at the table, a pass to the field, once again find themselves disconnected.
Just when the world can connect to a stream, writers can’t connect with the human beings beneath the spandex and forty-yard dashes.
“It’s definitely more chaotic,” Carucci admitted. “You’re not getting a real interaction with a Johnny Manziel.”
O’Hara remembered 2001, when an announcement came over the speakers in the media room. He remembered hearing, “’Quarterback Tony Romo. Table three.’” Before Romo became a Dallas Cowboy, four reporters, including O’Hara, talked face to face with the man who would one day lead America’s team.
“It’s hard to get that kind of connection with someone, now,” O’Hara said as he watched a team of handlers lead Blake Bortles through a crowd of clicking cameras and unanswered questions.