Editor’s note: This is part of a weeklong look at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2019, focusing on plays, moments or defining characteristics of the inductees. Induction is Aug. 3 at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN.
DALLAS — The phone always rings at Gil Brandt’s home.
As Brandt’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame goes from months to weeks to days to hours away, the former Dallas Cowboys personnel chief is in demand. People want to know … well, everything, and Brandt is one of the foremost historians of the NFL.
Now, he just so happens to be taking his place alongside the game’s greats at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
For 29 years, he was the Cowboys’ guru over personnel, working with coach Tom Landry and general manager Tex Schramm as the organization grew from a winless expansion franchise in its first year of 1960 to “America’s Team.”
Brandt played a vital part in bringing nine Hall of Famers to the Cowboys as well as 15 of the 19 players currently in the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor. Those players contributed to two Super Bowl victories, 13 division titles and a record 20 consecutive winning seasons.
“We talk about this league and the essence and the moments of what this league could not have done without and get to where it is and what special people came along the way and added their special talent to this league to make it what it is, you can’t write the story of the NFL without Gil Brandt,” said Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin, who was Brandt’s final first-round pick in 1988. “When you cannot write the story of the NFL without that guy, he belongs in the Hall of Fame.”
‘Vision of what players could do’
Sitting in his favorite chair in his living room, Brandt, now 86, wears a Detroit Lions T-shirt and Arizona Cardinals shorts. An old Cowboys’ equipment bag sits near the front door a few days after he and his wife, Sara, returned from vacation in Montana.
For about 90 minutes, Brandt tells story after story. Some that can be told publicly. Some that cannot.
“Well, let me tell you what we did,” said Brandt as he spells out how the Cowboys built their organization into one of the greatest dynasties in sports.
As the vice president of player personnel, Brandt was responsible for finding players, and he found them everywhere. He did it with connections from all corners of the football world built through a limitless expense report.
“Tex knew we had to spend money to make money is what he did,” Brandt said.
The Cowboys drafted basketball players and saw Rayfield Wright become a Hall of Famer and Cornell Green become a Pro Bowler. They drafted small-school players when nobody knew where they were or if they were eligible to be drafted, such as Ed “Too Tall” Jones from Tennessee State. They drafted an Olympic sprint champion, Bob Hayes, in the seventh round in 1964 and Heisman Trophy winner Roger Staubach three rounds later, knowing Staubach had to fulfill his four-year commitment to the Navy. That came after taking another future Hall of Famer, Mel Renfro, in the second round of the same draft.
“Gil had this vision of what players could do,” said Bob Lilly, the Cowboys’ first draft choice and an eventual Hall of Famer. “He saw guys could do different things, like Rayfield. He was a tight end, but he had real potential because he had such real good balance, he was tall, a good athlete and good feet that he could be a terrific offensive tackle. He could see that ahead of time. He was cutting edge.”
So cutting edge that he introduced computers to the scouting process. In the early 1960s the Cowboys hired an IBM statistician, Salam Qureishi, to help them turn qualitative scouting statements such as, “That dog will hunt,” into characteristics that can determine success. They paid 50 college coaches $100 apiece to come up with the qualities that make a football player.
The Cowboys’ scouting reports gave number grades to character, quickness, agility and balance, competitiveness and aggressiveness, mental alertness, strength and explosion and speed. They added number grades for traits specific to each position. They added it to the computer and they had their scouting system.
“Salam didn’t know if the ball was pumped or stuffed,” Brandt said, “but what he did know is the mathematics.”
Soon, the Cowboys had a system in place that “if we would follow the computer, we’d do all right,” Brandt said, although passing on Joe Montana in 1979 remains one of his biggest regrets.
Other teams were not so enamored with the computer, including Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi. Before taking Renfro in the second round, the Cowboys delayed the draft for six hours so they could have a doctor examine Renfro’s wrist. Brandt remembers Lombardi coming to the Cowboys table and teasingly saying, “What’s the matter, is your computer broken?”
Renfro was named to the Pro Bowl in each of his first 10 seasons. He holds the team record with 52 interceptions, and he was selected to the Hall of Fame in 1996.
About a year later, Lombardi stopped by the Cowboys table again.
“Hey, Gil,” Brandt remembers the Packers legend saying, “‘I wouldn’t mind coming in with you on that computer thing you got.’ ‘Well, Vince, the start-up fee is $3 million.’ And he said, ‘I guess I’m not that interested.'”
In 1977, the Cowboys made a trade with the Seattle Seahawks to get the No. 2 overall pick. In their pre-draft meetings, the Cowboys discussed the qualities of players Ricky Bell and Tony Dorsett. One of Dallas’ top scouts, Red Hickey, liked Bell. Brandt liked Dorsett. Landry said it was time to go to the computer guide.
“He said, ‘Read me Ricky Bell’s numbers,’ and Ricky Bell’s chances of being an All-Pro was 0%, chance of being a Pro Bowler, 2%, chances of being a starter on a winning football team, 39%,” Brandt said. “Now he said, ‘Read me Dorsett’s.’ Chance of being an All-Pro, 75%, chances of being a Pro Bowler, 100%, chances of being a starter on a winning team, 100%.
“Red threw up his hands and said, ‘Stop. Stop. I bow to the machine.'”
Dorsett was selected to the Hall of Fame in 1994.
Gil Brandt ‘was the heavy’
Will McClay, Cowboys’ current vice president of player personnel: “It was a completely different world because, first of all, the number of places they had to go to gather all the information and the work they had to do with a small staff. I’ll look at some of their stuff and I can’t believe it. We overcomplicate everything now. There’s a lot of genius in the simplicity of the way they did things. They had their own code as far as the grades and things, but the things you were looking for then are as important as the things we’re looking for today. Sometimes, we get lost in trying to find different ways in saying the same things.”
Michael Irvin, Cowboys’ first-round pick, 1988, University of Miami: “I remember when he came down to visit us and wanted to work us out and we come out, and there’s Gil Brandt. Gil Brandt was a star then, the Dallas Cowboys. It was, ‘Gil Brandt’s here today, we better be ready.’ And being drafted by him and Tom Landry, all of that means a great deal, and I say it every time I see Gil to this day: Thank you. I thank him for making that decision for drafting me.”
Cliff Harris, undrafted out of Ouachita Baptist, Cowboys Ring of Honor, member of the NFL’s 1970s All-Decade Team: “He found me. He talked to small-college coaches and found me at Ouachita, and that was when other teams never gave small-college guys a second look. I was having a good [rookie] year and all of a sudden my National Guard unit got called up to go to basic training, so I had to leave halfway through my first year. I had to go to Louisiana and I became a platoon leader. Well, Gil goes to San Antonio to the head of the Fourth Army and worked his way into seeing this general in a steam room, and he talked him into them allowing me to get to come out on weekends and play. During the week, I was in the Army. I had my head shaved, helmet on leading this platoon. Then on weekends, I’d go fly to where we were playing. What can you say? If he hadn’t gotten me back, I don’t know where I’d be.”
Drew Pearson, undrafted out of Tulsa, Cowboys Ring of Honor, member of the 1970s All-Decade Team: “He was the contract guy. He was the heavy. If anybody didn’t like anybody, it was Gil because he handled the money. We all felt we were underpaid, but Gil made it seem like we were getting more than even what the contract would call for simply because we were with the Dallas Cowboys. You might’ve come out of those negotiations owing them money. He’d use this line, ‘What makes you think you’re worth X amount? I can shake a tree and catch 10 receivers before they hit the ground.’ So, you take the money and you forget about it. When I left the Cowboys and [went] into business, some of the things I learned from Gil as far as negotiating skills, I implemented. He taught me a lot about that, but you don’t appreciate that until you’re away from the game, because when you are playing, you’re trying to get as much money as you possibly can.”
Lee Roy Jordan, first round, 1963, University of Alabama, Cowboys Ring of Honor: “Gil was major in getting me signed. He came to Excel, Alabama, to my parents’ house. When I was selected, a new car was part of my bonus out there in Dallas. It was when the Buick Rivieras were in their first year. They were on the production line, so he was going to drive the car back. I had some occasion I had to get back for, so he drove the car, and in Mississippi, he hit a cow on the interstate and wrecked my car. Gill called me and asked me if I still had my old car so that it could cover this wreck. I did. They got it fixed, so I had a new, wrecked car for my bonus.”