Ask Gil Brandt about the NFL Draft and he’ll illustrate its growth by explaining the practically unrecognizable way it was done 63 years ago.
Few people have a longer history than he with the draft or the analytics that turned it into a television phenomenon, drawing 5.5 million viewers in 2018.
When the Dallas Cowboys became a franchise in 1960, Brandt was the organization’s first vice president of player personnel. Not long after his hire, with help from IBM, he oversaw development of a computerized system for evaluating college talent that pro teams still emulate. After four decades with the Cowboys, Brandt helped NFL.com launch the first live internet content produced during its professional draft.
At 86 years old, he remains an analyst for NFL.com. He has 127,022 Twitter followers, lives in Highland Park, Texas, and he can guess your exact age using a complex formula involving the number of days per month you’d like to perform your favorite hobby; your birth year; area code; and the last four digits of Brandt’s personal cell phone number.
Brandt spoke with the The Transcript recently:
I was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. My mother was a housewife, I had a sister, and my father was an executive of a food chain. I went to school at the University of Wisconsin.
After school a friend of mine was in the baby photography business. What we did was, we had a camera at the hospital. So when these babies were born, the hospital took the pictures and we charged $10 for the pictures and the hospital took 25 percent for collecting for us. In 1957, I think, I made $14,000 off of it, which was utopia. I don’t even know how to work a camera.
I started in football with the Los Angeles Rams, then I got a call in November 1959, and it was [the original president and GM of the Dallas Cowboys] Tex Schramm. He said, ‘Gil, I want you to come to work for me.’ I said, ‘Tex, I don’t know anything about television.’ He said, ‘No. We’re gonna have a franchise in Dallas and I want you to come be with us.’ I said all right.
We had to get some contracts. We went to all the undrafted free agents in the country, and the first guy that I signed was a guy named Jake Crouthamel who later became the athletic director at Syracuse and Dartmouth. He’d been the first-round pick of the L.A. Chargers, who were also new. They were in the American Football League. So I’m battling [Chargers GM] Frank Leahy for this guy. I’m 26 years old. We sign him for $7,500, no signing bonus or anything like that. I called Schramm and said, ‘Well, we just signed our first player.’ And his first question was, ‘How much did we pay?’ And I said $7,500, and he said, ‘My gosh, I can’t trust you. We’ll be broke. We’ll be out of business.’ That’s kind of how I started.
What we did in 1961, we developed a computerized system for the draft in Dallas. What we did then was so unique, and it wasn’t a sorting process, like, here’s the defensive ends, here’s the offensive tackles. We had a uniquely tailored system that rated players. We had characteristics and position specifics from players’ histories. People laughed at us. But we found a way that instead of flipping a coin and being right half the time, found a system that we could be better than right most of the time.
After the Cowboys I went to work with the NFL. This thing called the internet had started. I did the first internet broadcast of the NFL Draft. There were just some computer terminals on a tablecloth. Expectations were not very high. They said, ‘Well, how many hits do you think you’ll have?’ And we said, ‘Oh, if we get 2,500 we’ll be happy.’ We had about 25,000. We took questions from fans, they’d ask questions of me, like ‘Who do you think the Rams will draft? Where do you think of this Michigan tackle will be picked?’ And it went from that to what it is today.
I’ve been to Norman probably 100 times. If you talk to coach [Bob] Stoops, he will tell you that Lincoln Riley was recommended to him by me. [Stoops] started laughing when I said that, and I said, ‘Why are you laughing?’ And he said because he’s standing outside my door right now. [Riley] was I guess waiting to interview. Incidentally, Lincoln Riley is off the charts. The best way to describe Lincoln Riley is he’s a young Tom Landry. I say that because he understands offense, he understands defense, he’s a fabulous playcaller. He’s a guy that never stops expanding. He’s really, really good.
Past: Dallas Cowboys vice president of player personnel (1959-1989)
Current: NFL.com analyst