Rise of the Mock Draft Empire: History of Our Obsession with the NFL Draft

By Jason Lisk
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Today, you can find a thousand mock drafts at the click of a few buttons. People study and compare them endlessly. While technology has made that explosion possible, a closer inspection of the historical record shows this wasn’t a chicken-egg situation where the increased coverage by outlets like ESPN created interest in the draft. The interest was there, incubating as the league grew in popularity in the 1960’s and ’70’s, waiting for a match to ignite the flame into public spectacle.

That match came in the form of a fledgling 24-hour sports network moving into a void, and putting it on television.

ESPN, less than a year old, televised the NFL Draft for the first time in 1980, representing a seminal moment in the rise of the draft craze. An AP article at the time, “ESPN lines up expert staff to analyze draft on television,” outlined how the network undertook the process.

It seems unfathomable now when the NFL owners seemingly squeeze every last dollar out of everything, but in 1980, the NFL did not charge ESPN any rights fee to broadcast the first draft.

“ESPN, which is spending some $100,000 on production costs, is not paying the NFL anything. The league views it as a news event, whether an organization covers one minute or the expected eight hours,” the AP reported.

That first draft show was hosted on site by broadcasters George Grande and Spencer Ross, with commentary from former Baltimore and San Francisco general manager Joe Thomas. Bob Halloran and Linda Sutter were reporters on-site, while former Patriots GM Upton Bell, Howard Balzer of The Sporting News, and Vince Papale (of “Invincible” fame) were in studio in Bristol.

“For the uninitiated, watching the draft of college talent is a lot like sitting in the gallery of Congress,” the AP wrote. “There are some moments of frenzy and many moments of people milling around and others of just plain snoozing.”

The frenzy, though, when it came to passion and interest in the draft, had been growing over time. We see it today, reflected and mixed with conveniences of modern technology We can measure it, produce it and coordinate it at lightning-quick rates. Why does everyone do mock drafts? Because people read them, in large numbers, plain and simple, and that thirst is not new.

"“Everyone, it seems, is a draft expert. From sportswriters to radio and television men to just plain fans, everyone has their own in-depth, comprehensive, never-before-seen draft analysis.”"

That quote comes not from 2017, from a time when every thought in every community is available to find on the Internet, but rather from before the 1984 draft, in an article by Steve Herrick of the Elyria (Oh.) Chronicle Telegram.

That, by the way, was written just before someone by the name of Mel Kiper, Jr. first made an appearance on ESPN, during coverage of the 1984 NFL Draft.

WHO THE HELL IS MEL KIPER?

You can’t tell the story of the rise of the NFL Draft media madness without Mel Kiper, Jr., who as a teenager began his draft business in Baltimore in 1979.

Kiper, now 56, began attending Baltimore Colts’ training camp when he was 16 years old, where he met the team’s general manager, Ernie Accorsi. Kiper began writing the first of his draft guides during the 1978 season, for the 1979 draft. Initially, he submitted them to front offices around the league.

“That was really the driving force behind the books, was the encouragement I got from people in the league,” Kiper told The Big Lead. “Ernie Accorsi said, ‘Hey, don’t just send this stuff out to me and writers. Make this available to the public, this could be a helluva business for you.'”

Kiper cited several others who gave him encouragement early and drove him forward, calling Jack Faulkner (long-time coach and front office man with the Los Angeles Rams) “one of the best friends I had in the league,” in a relationship that began in those early days. He also got letters from the likes of Don Shula, Bill Walsh and Tom Landry, which he still has at his home. “They didn’t know how old I was, they probably thought I was 40,” Kiper quipped.

Kiper went public in 1981, selling his draft guides to subscribers. “I finished ’81 with 130 people buying the book, I think it was,” Kiper said, “and then it grew significantly, substantially, every year.”

When did Kiper know that the mock drafts were going to be huge? Well, unlike today, when you can see metrics and incoming traffic and viewership data, it came from a more direct source: the readers (and some now-famous reporters) reaching out.

“For the mocks, I’d get letters. People back in those days, they called you and told you what part of the report they liked,” Kiper said. “Mock drafts were always something they wanted — ‘give me a second-round projection, give a third-round projection, can you give me every round?'”

“I remember Adam Schefter used to call me, he was with the Denver Post then, and Adam would go through every pick the Broncos had up through the seventh round and wonder who I thought the Broncos might take in every round, and he did that every year. Adam was one of the first writers to ever do that with me.”

Kiper came along at the right time, in terms of the advent of ESPN and the interest in draft coverage starting to swell, but he also succeeded because of his savant-like recall of players and minute details about them, and his willingness to grind relentlessly to succeed at something that was for many a hobby.

He described 20-hour workdays when the business was growing, going to bed at 2 or 3 in the morning and getting up again to begin the next day at 6 a.m. Kiper answered the phones when customers would call in (“My father always said ‘they don’t want to talk to me, they want to talk to you.'”). He spent two full days each week calling schools to get basic stats on players, because unlike today, those numbers weren’t readily available in-season. He did radio shows–20 to 25 at their peak–to promote his books. He talked to his network of connections around the league on a daily basis. At a time where the fanaticism for the draft was coming into view, he was the lead fanatic.

“Fans, even when I started this in the late 70’s and early 80’s, always wanted that. It was something they had a craving for,” Kiper told The Big Lead of draft projections and analysis.

Who the hell is Mel Kiper, as Bill Tobin famously asked in 1994 when Kiper criticized his Trev Alberts pick with the Colts? Someone who is still able to recite the obscure stats on players on command, and the living embodiment of the draft craze, spanning from the early days of television coverage to the current boom.

THE WAY-TOO-EARLY MOCK DRAFT REFERENCES

The NFL Draft began in 1936, ostensibly as a tool to distribute talent more evenly among the have-nots, but also to hold down salaries of incoming players and prohibit a free market. The NFL, though, then consisting of only nine teams, wasn’t the professional destination it has become with increasing salaries. Twenty-two of the first 40 players drafted in 1936 never played a down in the NFL, including Heisman Trophy winner and first overall pick Jay Berwanger of Chicago.

Gradually, over a 20-year period and beyond, the professionalism increased, as did the focus on the draft. After World War II, a rival league (the All-American Football Conference) increased the number of teams, with some (Cleveland, San Francisco) eventually assimilating into the NFL. The league went away from two-way football, allowing for more position specialization.

The first print reference to a mock draft appeared in a February 19, 1958 “Bob Kelley Says” article (right) in the Independent Press Telegram in Long Beach (Ca.). Bob Kelley–the “Voice of the Rams“–was the long-time radio broadcaster of the Los Angeles Rams, starting with the team in their inception in Cleveland in 1937. He also did radio shows and wrote columns, and was noted as quite the character.

Jim Murray once wrote of him: “Kelley became a major figure in the L.A. sport scene, not necessarily a universally popular one because he dealt in controversy … [he] made as many people gnash their teeth as cheer. But they listened. His mail was sulphuric. But they wrote.”

Kelley’s article relayed how the Los Angeles Rams had already started preparing for the next year’s draft, just a week after that year’s had ended. At that time, the draft took place during the season, in November, so the coaching staff had to have plenty of work done before the upcoming season.

“Then, in June, the Rams will stage a ‘mock draft,'” Kelley wrote. “They will pretend they are actually going into a regular draft meeting, and will rate–in order–the top 300 players in the country.”

The article also references the first mock draft by the Rams being conducted a couple of years earlier, and having Jon Arnett (who the Rams selected at 2nd overall), Jim Swink, and Ronnie Knox as the top 3. That was the 1957 Draft, which we should note had Jim Brown of Syracuse selected 6th overall (Swink was 25th overall and had 15 career rushing yards, while Knox, a QB, played in one NFL game). The mock draft may not have always been around, but it didn’t take long for the mock draft whiff to soon follow.

Over the next decade, other articles referenced teams using “mock drafts” to prepare for the real thing. From a 1963 article in Jefferson City (Mo.), about the Kansas City Chiefs:

“The mock draft–a prelude to the league draft in late November–is compiled in the spring. The original list of 900 prospects is boiled down to 100, then 60. By the time of the league draft, the Chiefs are ready to make their selection from a list of 20 names. These are considered exceptional players and their chances of making the pro ranks are high.”

A 1968 UPI article entitled “BLESTO Goes to Line” talked about the five BLESTO scouting members (Chicago, Detroit, Minnesota, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh) conducting a mock draft exercise to figure out who the prospects are, noting “the ‘mock’ selections will not be made public.”

Other articles appeared throughout the 1970s noting that teams were using “mock drafts” to figure out the top prospects and who might be available. All of the early references to mock drafts, prior to the 1970s, were from reporting on team activities. Media engaging in their own mock drafts would come later, but the terminology would have already been developing and becoming more commonplace, before the practice began.

FANS FROM ALL WALKS OF LIFE BECOME EXPERTS

In 1969, Pro Football Weekly began incorporating scouting draft analysis into its weekly publications for the first time. Hub Arkush, whose father Arthur started the publication, detailed how that began.

“My dad met a couple of guys named Carl and Pete Marasco, the Marasco brothers, and I think they were both insurance salesman out of Philadelphia. They also, as a passion, they just loved scouting players and they were looking for somebody to publish their stuff.”

The Marasco brothers ran their first player rankings in Pro Football Weekly in the post-Super Bowl issue, with the draft approaching in February. It included a printout of player rankings, with name, sizes “whatever the college guys said because there was no website or Combine to check that stuff,” according to Arkush.

Both Carl and Pete Marasco would move from their hobby into getting jobs with NFL teams. Carl went to the league offices in 1973, and then joined the Chicago Bears as director of player personnel in 1975, a position he left after illness.

“‘Every personnel director in the league was teed off at the Marasco brothers,’ admitted Bears General Manager Jim Finks, ‘It was amazing how accurate they were just by watching TV and reading.'”

In an interesting historical footnote, Carl Marasco–the original layman draftnik– supervised newly hired director of pro scouting Bill Tobin, later famous for his outburst with Mel Kiper.

Carl Marasco also later served as USFL player personnel director, and then as GM of the Chicago Blitz of the USFL.

Pete Marasco worked for the Montreal Alouettes in 1974, then for the New York Jets for two years starting in 1975, before moving to the Green Bay Packers as assistant director of player personnel in 1977.

Pete Marasco, in his late 70’s, still puts out his draft rankings on players today, available at collegesportsmadness.com.

Two other men were also identified by Hub Arkush as being early precursors to the draftniks of today: Palmer Hughes and Jerry Jones.

“For those guys, it was a passion and a hobby,” Arkush said. Hughes, a former school teacher in New York City, moved to Pennsylvania and began publishing sports lists, including lists of draft prospects. After the Marascos moved on to the NFL, he also did some work with Pro Football Weekly.

Today, Hughes, now living in Florida, is still plugging out his draft lists while in his early ’80’s.

Jerry Jones (not to be confused with the Dallas Cowboys owner) was a pharmacist from Mariemont, Ohio, who started putting out draft lists in the early 1970’s, known as the drug store list.

Jones, who passed away in 2012, is featured in a recent story at wcpo.com.

"“It all started by accident,” said Bob Trumpy, the original Sports Talk host. “He was bored to death and started putting together his list. He sent me it. I’m like, ‘What the hell is this?’ It had Mariemont, Ohio on it. ‘Who is this guy?’ I didn’t pay much attention to it really. “It wasn’t a book. It was sheets. We would do the draft live. I’m looking at it. I’m like, ‘Holy Christ, this guy knows what he’s doing.’ When the draft was over, I called him. “I said, ‘Look, I don’t know who you are, but your list was almost perfect.’ I said, ‘Come down here. I want to meet you.’ That’s how our relationship began.”"

Jones had connections with many coaches who came through Cincinnati, and spent time in the Bengals’ war room, and continued publishing his lists until shortly before his death.

Jones, Hughes, and one other young emerging draftnik were featured in a New York Times piece in April of 1978–the New York Times was “on it” with the emerging trend of draft crazies.

THIS CRAZY GUY FROM BROOKLYN

Hub Arkush had to take over at Pro Football Weekly when his father unexpectedly passed away in the late 70s. “This crazy guy from Brooklyn started calling my dad constantly and writing him and saying ‘I’m gonna be an NFL scout, I watch all these guys and you gotta give me a shot,'” said Arkush. “One of the last things we did before my dad passed away, we sat down and he said ‘what the hell, let’s see what he’s got.’ The guy was Joel Buchsbaum and he was literally a year out of high school going to junior college in Brooklyn.”

They gave Buchsbaum an 800 word assignment and liked what they saw, and also liked the reaction that it got. He wrote 3 or 4 pieces during the season, and then the next year, in 1979, Hub Arkush decided that they might have something and be able to make some money on a draft book (up until that point, all draft content had been in the weekly issues).

“We published the first one in 1979 and used it as a subscription premium, for anyone that renewed their subscription with Pro Football Weekly they could get a free copy. We ended up doing literally 15,000-20,000 as premiums for people that subscribed, and they loved it,” said Arkush. “It was one of the more successful renewal programs we had done, and so we figured we were on to something.”

“Buchsbaum, there was nothing like him before and there is nothing like him since,” Arkush fondly recalls.

Buchsbaum had a thick Brooklyn accent and a nasal twang that gave him a unique sound. He became quite popular doing weekly appearances on both KMOX in St. Louis and KTRH in Houston. (John McClain wrote a feature on him in 1998, which he just re-published.) Buchsbaum also was as well connected as anyone when it came to draft information.

The reclusive Buchsbaum died suddenly at age 48 on December 29, 2002, sending shock waves through the league.

Arkush relayed a story of flying out to help Buchsbaum’s mother and attending the funeral in Saddlebrook, N.J.

“There were maybe a dozen people there, and I look over and see four people I recognize: Bill Belichick, Scott Pioli, Joel Bussert [of the NFL offices], and Ernie Accorsi.”

Arkush spoke with Belichick about setting up a memorial service for Buchsbaum at the NFL Combine that year. “I called Bill, and he said, ‘okay, I’d like to speak. He said ‘Joel Buchsbaum was my best friend. We started every day and every evening, 5:30 a.m. and midnight, and we would check in with each other on the phone in the offseason.'”

MEDIA AND A MOCK DRAFT: A PERFECT CREATION

Our final piece to the birth of mock draft craziness takes us to Tampa in 1979–the same year that Mel Kiper was beginning to send his draft books out to teams, the same year that Pro Football Weekly began publishing a separate draft guide, months before ESPN was born, and a year before Paul Zimmerman (Dr. Z) published a piece entitled “Man Here Feeling the Draft,” a longform version of what would now be considered a mock draft, in Sports Illustrated.

That year, Ray Mull and sports director Mark Champion at WDAE in Tampa came up with idea to do a mock draft, live on the air on their nightly sports show, using writers and sports personalities from each NFL city.

You might recognize Mark Champion’s name if you live in the Detroit area. It’s the same Mark Champion who, after serving as a radio announcer for Tampa Bay Bucs games, went north to serve as an announcer for both Detroit Lions and later Detroit Pistons’ broadcasts. He is currently still serving as radio play-by-play on Pistons’ games, and is also known for being the voice in the Super Bowl Disney World commercials.

Ray Mull, who was in his early 20’s at the time, and was hired on at WDAE because he kept calling in and winning every trivia night contest, is still in the Tampa area and serves as part of the Gameday Stats crew for Tampa Bay Buccaneers games, and also works as a statistician for University of South Florida football.

The idea came from the local market being relatively new with Bucs fans, and there being a large segment of fans living in Tampa who rooted for other teams, who would have interest in projecting the draft. According to Mull, they went through the NFL Black Book and found media members in each NFL city, and it took about 10 days to set up.

According to Champion, it was he and Mull juggling being on air and updating the next selectors as the draft proceeded, as radio production crews were not what they are today when it came to sports. “You’d have one guy on, and one or two guys lined up. Whatever the pick was, you’d have to fill in the guy.”

The first pick in the mock draft, just as in the real draft, was Tom Cousineau (pictured above) of Ohio State to the Buffalo Bills, by Mike Dodd of the Buffalo Evening News. The second pick also matched up, with Wayne Larrivee selecting Mike Bell for the Kansas City Chiefs. Former Bengal tight end Bob Trumpy made the selection for Bengals, correctly tabbing their interest in Charles Alexander (who they would take with a later pick), though the Bengals would have been wise to avoid Jack Thompson so early (the Throwin’ Samoan went much later in the media mock draft.)

The logistics of such an undertaking in 1979 were immense compared to today, where you could keep a group updated in a group message board or e-mail chain. Then, they had to try to reach each contributor spread across the country by phone, and fill them in over the phone with all the other selections.

According to Mull, it was very well-received: “The listenership based on the ratings over that two night span was probably the largest for the show over the two-year period.” It also got picked up because of all the writers involved, and accounts published around the country.

It wasn’t necessarily the first mock draft, but it was an idea far ahead of its time. I found a reference, for example, to Cliff Christl (who represented the Packers in the WDAE mock draft exercise) doing one in the Green Bay Press Gazette a few years earlier. (Chicago Bears fans should be happy that his first incorrect projection involved Walter Payton).

It does appear to be the first example of a mock draft carried out by multiple people, and in a different medium like television or radio.

The passion for mock drafts and draft rankings was clearly rising well before our current internet boom. All the accounts, from Kiper talking about his customers’ eagerness for more mock drafts, to Pro Football Weekly’s overwhelming response to running a draft guide, to listeners at a radio station responding to a media mock draft on-air, show that.

The modern technology merely allows that boom to happen at breakneck speed, and in a way where everything gets shared, and people in Tampa do not know what is going on in Wisconsin.

The draft, despite the drab outside appearances, gives us what we always want in sport–uncertainty as 32 teams create an ever-changing script, and the promise of greatness.

[photo credit to ESPN for 1980 Draft Photo, USA Today Sports Images and Pro Football Weekly for others]

 

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