Steelers scouting was different undertaking in old days
Thursday, April 26, 2007
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Those who believe the Steelers' draft is a real undertaking don't know half the history of it. It became a true undertaking in the 1940s and 1950s when an Oakland funeral director took charge of acquiring all the information about every college prospect for the team.
His name was Ray Byrne. He had a full-time job working at his family's Byrne Funeral Home in Highland Park, and a sideline helping his friend, coach Jock Sutherland, get a handle on potential Steelers draft picks.
"Digger" Byrne, they called their first college personnel director, who held no title with the club. And, no, they did not intentionally draft stiffs back then.
The draft was not sophisticated in the '40s and '50s. Teams did not have scouts or personnel directors, and they did not look at film. It's not far from the truth that many of them drafted right out of Street & Smith's yearbook, or that they leaned heavily on players from local colleges because they knew them best.
Byrne gave the Steelers their first organized gathering of information. He was the Tom Donahoe and Kevin Colbert of his time, sort of. He started gathering the information when Sutherland became coach in 1946 and, while the facts are sketchy, he apparently worked at it until Buddy Parker took over as coach in 1957.
"He was a good friend of Jock's," said Dan Rooney, who worked on the draft in the 1950s with Byrne. "He would write, under Jock's name, every college in the country. And they would write back. He had a form he would send out that said, 'Who are the prospects on your team you think can play in the pros?' And then, the big one, 'Who did you play against that you thought could play in the pros?'
"That was a big thing. Because of Jock, we were very high in the drafting because of his connections. The Rams were the best; they did everything much more sophisticated than anybody."
Byrne collected the information and attached it to cards with the players' names and information on them. There was no draft board then, Rooney said, although he put one together on his own.
Rooney also was in charge of calling potential future Steelers before they were drafted.
"We would call the top kids we really wanted," Rooney said. "I called maybe 30, 40, 50 kids over a period of time. What you could do in those days -- it was so different from today, the telephone company does nothing for you now -- I would call up and give the operator a list of 5-10 names with their phone numbers. She was your secretary. I'd say, 'Can you make these calls? I want to talk to these people.' "
Byrne also would do a little legwork investigating the prospects.
"I found in those days your best check was not so much coaches for recommendations ... but the bars and local newsstands because the people in town knew who the good players were," Byrne told Cliff Christl of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 1979.
Christl, who has written a number of books on the NFL draft, wrote that Byrne took credit for drafting Johnny Unitas in the ninth round in 1955.
"You had to figure, here's an undertaker who was so statistical minded in football," said Ed Kiely, the Steelers' public relations director when Byrne was doing his thing. "He was so in love with doing the work he was doing, I don't know anyone else who could have done that. I could never have done something like that. He was a little, wee guy."
If the Steelers paid him, it wasn't much.
"He probably worked for peanuts because he loved the job," said Art Rooney Jr., who would become the first real, independent head of the Steelers' player personnel office in 1963. "He was a tremendous office personnel guy. He'd get the information from the [colleges] and releases and news clippings and organize these things.
"He really wasn't equipped to be a road guy -- he had a job. He told me once, 'You have to talk to the people and really know the player. Guys I like to talk to are trainers and equipment guys and people like that.' That's so true. He had the right instincts for it."
Today, scouting players is a multi-million dollar business for each team. The Steelers have seven full-time scouts, one part-time scout, one scouting intern, two full-time secretaries, one college scouting coordinator, one pro personnel coordinator and their boss, Colbert, the director of football operations. Video specialists work virtually nonstop on the draft once the season ends.
They also belong to the Blesto Scouting Combine and have security people who check out backgrounds, as well as computers to keep track of everything and to break down the mounds of video of virtually every play and workout for each prospect.
"It's such a vital part of the thing now," Kiely said in wonderment. "It came from nowhere to a point it's become almost like it's part of the season."
There is so much interest leading up to the draft that many fans follow it as closely as did Ray Byrne, a one-man show who started the whole thing for the Steelers more than 60 years ago.
LEFT -- Steelers coach Jock Sutherland in 1947.It's such a vital part of the thing now. It came from nowhere to a point it's become almost like it's part of the season."
-- Ed Kiely, Former Steelers public relations director on scouting