Stephen Austin, Director, NFL Regional Combines
First, can you let readers know how you got started in the combine business?
I got into it by chance. I was working in DC for an insurance company giving a presentation to employees. I was twenty-eight years old then and two retired football players were in the audience. I didn’t know they were players – they looked athletic but that was all I knew.
Those guys were Frank Grant and Dennis Johnson – former Redskins. After the speech, they asked me to visit with them. They told me they wanted to be agents and needed a business man to help them. Well, my business was not that great and I loved football, so I jumped at the chance.
I worked with them in their agency for a couple of years. In ’84, I decided to try to be an agent on my own. At the same time, the USFL had just come into being. So, I jumped into it. Back then, becoming an agent was easy. There was no certification – you could wake up one day and decide you want to be an agent.
I found I was more of a manager than an agent of the players., I had to make sure they were ready. I found out their workout numbers were not what they told me they were. They all ran 4.4, no matter if they were receivers or linemen (laughing).
I recommended a player to George Young – New York’s GM. The player was a tight end and told me he was 6’5″ and ran a 4.6. Well, it was the biggest mistake and best thing I ever did. The player ran a 5.0 flat and was 6’2″. I got an earful from George and vowed after that that I would never recommend any player until I measured them myself.
So, how did you do so?
The USFL’s San Antonio team called me and said they had twenty guys they wanted me to get together for them to take a look at. Their GM and head coach were coming in. Well, word got out, and by the time they got there we went from twenty to 120. Then, I was in the combine business.
I had an epiphany and wrote down the words “Scout camp”. I had the combine title. What I did was different than others at the time. I introduced pre-registration. Instead of half players and a bunch of drunks guys, I just had football players. We were going to run six combines with a target of 300 players. Well, we ended up with 740 and ran them in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago, Tampa, Rutgers and Houston.
Twenty years later, the NFL bought me out and hired me.
How did you plan those first regional combines and fund them?
I was an agent then. When it took off I wouldn’t take on new players – I just let my current players retire. My life was the combine. My regional directors were players and clients who were popular in their cities. We needed about ten guys for each combine to get and receive the equipment, to be the eyes and ears of the combine. Then we got Wilson Sporting Goods as our national sponsor which gave us credibility right off the bat.
I was $80,000 in debt then. I went to my banker friend to borrow another $5,000. I told him if he didn’t loan me the $5,000 he’d never see the $80,000. Worst case, I would owe him $85,000….He said ok, and I used every penny to launch those pre-registrations by mail. When we got those $85 checks back, we went from there.
How were the regional combines accepted by the NFL front offices?
We didn’t do more than what was needed. these were qualifiers for the Super Combine. It didn’t mean teams didn’t come and look – but we never advertised them to the general public. This was supposed to be a substantive view of these players and the evaluation process. We didn’t want to make it a function of entertainment or commercialize it. We had no clever awards or prizes. We wanted to be a part of the NFL and to be taken seriously.
The older GM’s and front office people were reluctant to accept us. They were stuck in their ways. They weren’t fans of technology and I was. We had streaming videos in ’96 before most people had email. The guys who got it then were today’s bosses now.
Do you think the older teams viewed this as cutting into their scouting edge over some of the poorer teams in the NFL?
That’s a good point. That was a philosophy shared by some teams. Bobby Beathard’s view of scouting was the beat the bushes and find the diamonds-in-the-rough. he and others didn’t want a centralized staging of players. They viewed it more like a treasure hunt, while others wanted it all out i front of everybody.
I took a lot of negative “communication” from clubs not wanting me to stick my nose in their world. It took years for many of them to retire, get fired or lose power. I had to outlast them.
When did you know you succeeded?
The watershed moment was when we launched the first online, searchable database of players. We did it before the NFL Teams would use it and tell us they weren’t, but they didn’t know we were tracking their usage – they had to key in a username and password. I told the GM’s who weren’t using it that they looked at a number of player profiles, and they just let the conversation end (laughing).
Ray Anderson – the Executive VP of the NFL, was a friend of mine then and still is. As was Tony Dungy, Ozzie Newsome and the players’ union. I became a known person in the NFL.
When NFL Europe shut down and the Arena League went dormant, they needed a player development system. Ray said, “Why reinvent the wheel?” They bought out my combines. Ray stuck his neck out and it went well for everybody.
What would surprise readers most about the combines today?
How quiet they are. There are 250 kids and you can hear a pin drop. We’re highly focused. It’s scientific measurement – we need to be accurate to capture the data on that day. We identify size, speed. quickness, strength and lower-body explosion. We run players through the Indy style drills by position after and film it all. teams can see all the results and footage online the next day.
Now, they can go into the database and, say the need a wide receiver. They can search by position, minimum height and weight, speed …basically create their own player and it will produce a list of only those players that meet or exceed those requirements. Complete with a profile, picture, video, contact information, their agent, coaches, college infomration….everything….
We don’t do drug or Wonderlic tests – those are left for the Super Combine.
How do you select who of all of those players go to the Super Combine?
We start off with 2,500 kids across the regional combines. It’s very structured. After each regional combine the NFL flies in three former NFL scouts. They meet with three of our combine scouts – usually former players who conducted the drills. And one consultant - John Beake – the former GM of wo Super Bowl winning Broncos teams. So there are seven guys, and me.
We all go to a room at a hotel after the combine and discuss each position one at a time. We go around the room and settle on one of three classifications for every player: A – invited; B – on the bubble; C – rejected. We present the list for John Beake to sign off on. The “B” players may end up being added later if we have room after all the regionals are done.
If we have more “A” players than we expected, we don;t limit it to 150 invites. We can go to a day two, and we’ve done that.
As the level of play in college improves over the years, how do you redefine what an “A” player is?
The best player in the last group scouted becomes the standard. All the guys in the next combine have to be at that level. The bar changes, but we know what we are looking for. It’s the small things that separate scouts from fans. Fans could probably pick out 90% of these guys to invite to the Super Combine. But scouts know the finer points of the last ten percent.
Ever run one in Pittsburgh?
I did years ago. I planned it too early and it snowed. We were all wondering what we were doing there. I’d like to comb back to Pittsburgh but we want the clubs to reach out to us and tell us as we use their facility. We don’t invite ourselves. But you better believe the next time we do it will be indoors!
What’s next on the horizon for you and the regional combines?
It was the general vision of Ray Anderson to start with the regional combine and make sure they were successful first. The next step is to deal with the fact there is more talent than there are spots for on the clubs. You don’t want to waste that talent by sending players home where they lose their skills and real football conditioning. Where their only workouts are at the local gym.
The next step we are looking at is to organize an Academy. If a player is ont drafted but is a rock solid guy, he can live and work out and the NFL Academy and will be game ready as clubs suffer injuries during the season and need players. This way they aren’t coming in off the street.
We could have twenty-five to thirty to start with and build to a hundred or so guys. Then you can start a grapefruit league and they can play games against each other and be really game ready. This would begin to supplant NFL Europe. It’d be much less expensive and much more manageable.
We’re also talking about more network broadcasted content – shows like “Undrafted” and “Dream Chaser” may or may not come to pass.
I would also like to resume the clinics we had for players on how to become a scout, how to be a trainer, how to be a coach….There’s a lot of content and things we can spin-off from the combines.