After Gil Brandt began scouting for the Dallas Cowboys in 1960, his competitors laughed at him for using a computer to evaluate talent.
That was back in the dark ages when NFL coaches and scouts would glance at an all-conference team in a newspaper or make a last-minute call to a college coach and make a draft pick.
Brandt was clearly ahead of his time in developing a system to evaluate NFL prospects. Along with coach Tom Landry and general manager Tex Schramm, Brandt was a major reason why the Cowboys became one of the most successful franchises in pro sports.
“Tex gave me a lot of freedom to do what I wanted to do, and because of Tom’s ability to evaluate players we became a pretty good football team,” Brandt said. “I was very fortunate to be with the Cowboys and in the state of Texas because football is so revered here.”
Brandt will join Landry and Schramm in the Texas Sports Hall of Fame on April 9. It’s an honor the 82-year-old Brandt doesn’t take lightly.
“I’m ecstatic about it,” Brandt said. “No state has more to be proud of as far as a sports hall of fame. I’ve been an admirer of the hall of fame and what they have gone through over the years and where they came from and where they are now.”
In today’s NFL, franchises invest millions of dollars into scouting every year, exhaustively studying every aspect of pro prospects’ college careers and personal backgrounds. The months leading up to the NFL draft are saturated with media coverage, and the draft is a major event in itself.
Brandt still keeps his hand in scouting by analyzing talent for NFL.com. He writes about “pro days” where players at colleges across the country work out for NFL scouts as the draft approaches.
Brandt has probably been to more pro days than anybody since he helped put on some of the first with the Dallas Cowboys in the early 1970s.
“Gil was way ahead of his time,” said former Cowboys safety Cliff Harris who will also be inducted in this year’s class of the Texas Sports Hall of Fame. “He knew how to analyze players and was an innovator. What was so unique about him was that he’d do things that seemed impossible. He took a chance on a free agent like me and brought in guys like Cornell Green and Bob Hayes (who specialized in other sports).”
Once a baby photographer, Brandt began his career path as a part-time scout for the Los Angeles Rams in the 1950s.
Brandt attended the University of Wisconsin and got to know Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch, a former Badgers player who had become an All-Pro receiver for the Rams. Hirsch told Schramm, the general manager of the Rams, about the eager, young Brandt’s football knowledge.
“Elroy would come back to campus at Wisconsin and he went back to the Rams and told Tex Schramm about me and my enthusiasm for football,” Brandt said. “So Tex hired me.”
When Schramm became the general manager of the new NFL franchise in Dallas in 1960, he hired Brandt as his player personnel director.
“When I went to camp the first year, I was a scouting team of one,” Brandt said. “Tex said to steal everything you can from the Rams, and then come up to New York and we’ll start signing players.”
The Cowboys didn’t participate in the 1960 draft but built their first team by selecting unprotected players off the rosters of the 12 other NFL teams. With their first draft pick in club history in 1961, the Cowboys chose TCU All-America lineman Bob Lilly who went on to become one of the best defensive tackles in NFL history.
While choosing Lilly was a no-brainer, Brandt quickly showed his ability to think outside of the box in 1962 by signing Utah State All-America basketball player Cornell Green as a free agent.
Green had never played college football, and it showed during his first training camp with the Cowboys. He had also been drafted by the Chicago Zephyrs of the NBA.
“Gil talked Cornell into coming to training camp because basketball training camp wouldn’t start for a while,” Lilly said. “I’m sure he didn’t know how to play football because he didn’t put his thigh pads on right. He came in one day and said, ‘Bob, I can hardly run.’ I told him he’s got his thigh pads in backwards. About a week later, Coach Landry said he’d never seen so much improvement in a player in a week.”
Green went on to become an All-Pro cornerback and one of the cornerstones of the Cowboys for more than a decade.
Long before it became fashionable, Brandt began using computers to evaluate players. He’d crunch data like players’ height, weight and 40-yard dash times and grade players by positions.
“The first thing we had to do was understand what a football player was made of,” Brandt said. “We’d look at things like strength, explosion, competitiveness, agility and balance. Then we’d come up with things that were specific to positions. Mental alertness was high for quarterbacks while strength and explosiveness had to be high for defensive linemen. We had to put a value on what we were looking for.”
Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the draft was primitive by today’s standards. Most teams were literally flying by the seat of their pants on draft day.
“Guys came to the draft with 10 rolls of quarters,” Brandt said. “When it was Pittsburgh’s time to pick, they’d call Pappy Lewis at West Virginia and say, ‘We need an offensive lineman. Who do you have for us?’ (Former Baylor coach) John Bridgers would have been called a lot because he had been an NFL coach.”
Many NFL coaches and scouts were skeptical of the Cowboys’ use of computers to evaluate talent. When the Cowboys stalled before selecting Oregon’s Mel Renfro in the second round of the 1964 draft, Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi walked by their draft table and said, “What happened? Did your computer break down?”
That 1964 draft proved to be a breakthrough, as the Cowboys picked three Pro Football Hall of Fame players. Renfro became an All-Pro defensive back while seventh-round pick Bob Hayes from Florida A&M would revolutionize the NFL with his speed after setting the world record in the 100 meters at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.
The Cowboys’ 10th-round pick was Navy quarterback Roger Staubach, who had to serve a four-year commitment in the service before playing for the Cowboys in 1969.The Cowboys’ foresight paid off as Staubach led the Cowboys to Super Bowl championships in the 1971 and 1977 seasons.
The Cowboys picked both Hayes and Staubach as “futures” picks. They both had one year of college eligibility remaining but could be drafted since they were four years out of high school.
“Roger had gone to New Mexico Military Institute for a year before Navy and Bob had redshirted a year,” Brandt said. “We told Roger that we respect his commitment to the service. We signed him right after his last college game and gave him a stipend every month that he was in the service. He always wanted us to send him footballs. One time, a mortar shell hit his footballs in Vietnam, and he needed us to send him another one.”
Brandt hired high school coaches to evaluate film of college players which helped them find some hidden gems from smaller colleges.
The Cowboys brought more free agents to camp than most NFL teams. One of those was little known Ouachita Baptist defensive back Cliff Harris, who became an All-Pro safety for the Cowboys after starting as a rookie in 1970.
“Gil just seemed to know how to get information on small college players,” Harris said. “He took that knowledge and got free agent guys like me. I bow down to Gil every time I see him.”
With great draft picks and some innovative free agent signings, the Cowboys made the playoffs 19 of 20 years from 1966 through 1985. The Cowboys’ first pick in the 1975 draft, defensive lineman Randy White, and their first pick in the 1977 draft, running back Tony Dorsett, became Pro Football Hall of Fame players.
The Cowboys made five Super Bowls in the 1970s, the most in the NFL during that decade.
“In our Super Bowl loss to Pittsburgh (in 1975), we had five players who had never played a down of college football,” Brandt said. “We had four basketball players. Our kicker Toni Fritsch’s claim to fame was that he was a soccer player from Austria.”
Brandt’s career with the Cowboys ended in 1989 when Jerry Jones took over the franchise.
But Brandt has continued to follow the draft and keep his eye on scouting.
The draft has become much more sophisticated over the years but Brandt’s innovations helped pave the way for what it is today. C.O. Bracato, a 41-year NFL scouting veteran who is now with the Tennessee Titans, has seen how Brandt was always on the cutting edge of scouting.
“He progressed NFL scouting in so many ways,” Bracato said. “He was a tremendous director of scouting for the Cowboys for so long. He was always one of the top ones. At his age, he’s still in a little bit of everything.”