Kudos to the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s new Contributors Selection Committee.
Entrusted with selecting two nominees under the Hall’s new guidelines for contributors, it was as on target as Bart Starr’s winning call in the Ice Bowl.
Not only was it good news for Packers devotees who believe Ron Wolf belongs in the Hall of Fame for reviving their once torpid franchise, it was good news for those who care about the integrity of the Hall and its standards for selection.
To be inducted, Wolf and Bill Polian will need to get 80 percent of the vote when the selection meeting is held on Jan. 31, 2015, in Phoenix, but their credentials surely warrant the consideration they’ll be given that day.
When the Hall of Fame changed its bylaws earlier this year to make it easier for contributors to get into the Hall, there was reason to be alarmed. One had to wonder if NFL owners weren’t behind the decision and leading interference for their own future inductions.
Out of the 19 contributors in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, there are nine owners and that doesn’t count George Halas and Al Davis, who were football men first, and Bert Bell, another one-time owner elected more for his achievements as NFL commissioner.
Only two general managers, on the other hand, have made it into Canton: Tex Schramm and Jim Finks. And Schramm held the dual titles of president and general manager and was more involved on the business side than the personnel side, at least during the last 20 of his 29 years with the Dallas Cowboys.
By comparison, of the 33 Major League Baseball executives in the Baseball Hall of Fame, there are only seven owners, and two of those, Charles Comiskey and Clark Griffith, were inducted as much for their roles as player-managers in the early days of baseball. There also are seven GMs in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
There’s no Busch or Wrigley in the baseball Hall even though those are names synonymous with the sport, and there has been no rush to induct George Steinbrenner.
Despite the preponderance of owners already in the football Hall, two more, Edward DeBartolo Jr. and Art Modell, were finalists the last two years under the old voting system and figured to be the favorites this year under the new one.
But for what?
Mickey McBride was the original owner of the Cleveland Browns when Paul Brown was hired as coach, when they led the way in reintegrating pro football following World War II, when they expanded the sport’s landscape as charter members of the All-America Football Conference, and when they won five league championships, including their first year in the NFL after it absorbed three of the AAFC’s franchises.
Modell’s resume as Browns owner pales in comparison.
DeBartolo spent money lavishly to please his players and, in turn, the San Francisco 49ers won five Super Bowls under his ownership. But as one longtime NFL executive said to me a year ago, “I don’t think you put a guy in the Hall of Fame because he had a chef on the charter.”
Nothing would cheapen the Hall of Fame honor more than if the new contributor rule leads to a parade of owners being inducted. Do busts of Modell, DeBartolo, Pat Bowlen, Robert Kraft and Jerry Jones really belong in the same room with Halas, Curly Lambeau, Bronko Nagurski, Jim Brown, Mean Joe Greene and Jerry Rice?
What’s more, it’s the duty of the Hall’s selection committee to judge candidates in the context of the league’s entire existence, not just the Super Bowl era. And the league’s most successful franchise with 13 NFL titles, four more than anyone else, is the Packers.
When they won their last three championships under Lambeau, they had a little more than 100 owners. When they won their five titles under Lombardi, they had more than 1,500. When they won Super Bowl XLV, they had more than 100,000.
Let’s be serious: How much do owners really have to do with winning other than hiring a good GM or coach and staying out of his way?
Wolf and Polian started out as scouts and worked the trenches even as general managers. They hired coaches, ran the football side of organizations and called the shots on personnel.
Wolf resurrected a franchise that some believed would never win again, spent nearly 40 years in the game, executed maybe the best trade in the history of the NFL and will be remembered as one of the finest front office mentors ever. Polian inherited a 2-14 team in Buffalo, an expansion team in Carolina and a 3-13 team in Indianapolis and, in 25 years as GM or president, led clubs to five Super Bowl appearances.
Among the other GM candidates considered by the committee, the New York Giants’ George Young would have been a comparably worthy candidate and Bobby Beathard deserves further consideration.
Gil Brandt, who was developing baby photographs for three hospitals in Milwaukee before he went to work for the Cowboys, falls into a different category. He oversaw Dallas’ futuristic personnel department from 1960-’88 and was well respected for his organizational skills and photographic memory, but he did little scouting other than to attend college games on Saturdays and didn’t pull the trigger on draft day, much less ever run a football team.
Schramm told me in the early 1980s that when he took over the expansion Cowboys in 1960, he installed the scouting system he learned during his time as GM of the Los Angeles Rams and had IBM set up a crude computer system to augment the evaluation process that he had been introduced to while working for CBS sports during a brief hiatus from pro football. Schramm also told me, “Tom Landry has always had the final word in the draft.”
The late Dick Steinberg, who rose to general manager of the New York Jets and was briefly Wolf’s boss, was a product of the Dallas scouting system. “He doesn’t go out. He doesn’t look at films. But he’s a heck of an administrator,” Steinberg once said of Brandt years ago.
There was little the Cowboys did the Rams hadn’t done under Eddie Kotal, who played for the Packers in the 1920s, coached under Lambeau in the ‘30s and then became the pioneer of scouting with the Rams in the 1940s. It was Kotal and the Rams, not the Cowboys, who established the first extensive scouting network, mining small schools and black colleges, and also the first to sign basketball and track stars.
Again, those who appreciate the history of the NFL will appreciate the job done by the members of the contributors committee on their first try. By putting Wolf and Polian at the doorstep of the Hall of Fame, they at least have validated the obvious: That it takes more to assemble a championship team than to buy one. And the committee could do worse down the road than give Kotal the same consideration.