The 1960 Winter Olympics were held from Feb. 18-28 in Squaw Valley, California, with medals being awarded in 27 events. However, there was little evidence at the time that an innovation introduced at those Games would turn out to have such a profound impact on the success of an NFL expansion franchise and would help ignite a revolution in how teams evaluate talent.
A young television executive named Tex Schramm was working for CBS Sports in the late 1950s and helped orchestrate that first-ever television broadcast of the Winter Olympics. A graduate of the University of Texas School of Journalism, he previously had worked his way up to general manager of the Los Angeles Rams. Needless to say, television and football were integral to his career.
During those broadcasts of the Winter Games in 1960, computer giant IBM and CBS collaborated to insert a computer chip in the tip of skis during the competition to measure the speed of a run. The innovation so fascinated Schramm that he wondered if such technology might just help him in his new job – running the recently created expansion team in Dallas.
As the Cowboys president and general manager, one of the tasks Schramm gave Gil Brandt, his chief scout, was to find some way to use computer technology similar to what IBM did at the Olympics, so that the upstart team might gain an advantage when it came to acquiring football players.
The task was the beginning of two NFL pioneers collaborating to build the foundation of what would become one of the game’s iconic franchises. And both Schramm and Brandt went on to be honored in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for helping innovate many aspects of building a successful football team from the ground up, as well as for their overall contributions to the sport.
NFL scouting at the time the Cowboys came into existence consisted of scouts using contacts and relationships to find players. The job was more subjective and antidotal than analytical.
“(The Cowboys) started using computers as far back as 1962. Our stuff was computer driven and we had a ton of data,” remembers the now 90-year-old Brandt during a recent telephone interview. “The first thing we did was we wanted to find out what were the characteristics that made up a good football player.”
From that, Brandt began devising a rating system based on attributes such as quickness, strength, agility, balance, mental alertness and personal character. Each position had its own set of criteria. To help quantify the data, the Cowboys consulted with IBM, which led them to a young mathematician/data analyst named Salam Qureishi.
Qureishi came to the United States from India in 1959 to accept a teaching fellowship at Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland (currently Case Western Reserve University). IBM then recruited him to work in statistics and analytics.
When he came to Dallas to meet with Brandt, he had no idea what football was let alone how he could help a professional team identify talented players. In the short film The Cowboys and the Indian, Qureishi said, “I thought football was about people piling on people.” He went on to say the biggest challenge was they had to figure out a way to “quantify a human being.”
Brandt said the process was not primarily to identify the best and the worst players but to find the hidden gems languishing somewhere in between.
“We think a housewife can give you who’s going to be great. We think a housewife can tell you who’s going to be bad,” said Brandt. “So, we wanted to find all those guys who are in the middle.”
Collecting data using the character traits developed through extensive research and then inputting that data into the computer gave the Cowboys several advantages. Athletes at smaller schools could be run through the system and identified as potential NFL players despite the lack of competition or visibility afforded those at the major college level. The system could also help identify athletes in other sports with the right characteristics that could translate into success on the football field. Statistical evaluations also helped eliminate bias influenced by personal relationships scouts might have with a particular school or coach.
The Cowboys were also one of the first teams to dedicate resources to historically black colleges. “We assigned [Cowboys scout] Dick Mansperger. I told him his only job was to cover those 45 schools,” says Brandt.
The dedication to small schools began to pay off in 1965 when the Cowboys selected a defensive end from tiny Elizabeth City (N.C.) State named Jethro Pugh. Pugh became a stalwart on the Cowboys defense and was part of two Super Bowl championship teams. He played his entire career with Dallas before retiring in 1978.
Two years after they found Pugh, the Cowboys used a seventh-round selection (182nd overall) on a little known offensive lineman from Fort Valley (Ga.) State named Rayfield Wright. Wright went on to become a six-time Pro Bowl selection, a member of the NFL’s 1970s All-Decade Team, an inductee in the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2006.
But Wright wasn’t the only future Hall of Fame selection the Cowboys’ analytics helped uncover. Florida A&M wide receiver Bob Hayes was better known, but not for football. He was a world-class sprinter on the track team. He earned the title of “Fastest Man in the World” after setting world records in the 100-meter dash. At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Hayes won gold medals in the 100 meters and as part of the 4×100 relay team.
When Hayes’ athletic characteristics were put into the computer, it detected a high probability of his talents transferring to the NFL. With the intel, the Cowboys were able to take a flyer on Hayes in the seventh round of the 1964 NFL Draft (88th overall). The analytics just couldn’t ignore the potential of all that speed on the football field. “Bullet” Bob Hayes was inducted into the Cowboys Ring of Honor and was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009.
Schramm and Brandt also believed the analytics could help identify athletes in sports other than track. Basketball players have skills that can sometimes translate well on the football field, and with the computer it really didn’t matter that there wasn’t any film of them on the gridiron. Of course, the Cowboys did have to get creative when it came to gathering the data they needed on these hoop stars.
“We had a great relationship with college [basketball] coaches because we’d have a little party every year for them at the Final Four,” says Brandt. “The only way they could come to the party was if they answered our questionnaire. They all wanted to go to the party, so they answered the questionnaire. Even [legendary Indiana and Texas Tech head coach] Bob Knight answered the questionnaire.”
While several of the Cowboys’ draft picks came from the basketball ranks, including future NBA head coach Pat Riley who passed on the opportunity to try football in order to pursue basketball, the most notable to actually play with the team was undoubtedly defensive back Cornell Green.
Utah State basketball coach LaDell Anderson told the Cowboys about Green, who had never played a down of college football. But Green was also drafted by the NBA’s then Chicago Zephyrs, and though he was invited to Dallas’ training camp in 1962, he was planning to join the Zephyrs once he got cut from the Cowboys. He never made it to the NBA.
Green not only wasn’t cut by the Cowboys, he became a starting defensive back and was named to the All-Rookie Team. He played in five Pro Bowls and was a three-time All Pro during his 15-year NFL career.
The collection of data to evaluate football players might have started with the Cowboys, but eventually the rest of the league began to catch on to the processes, many of which remain in wide use in today’s analytics driven NFL.
Brandt was also the driving force behind pooling scouting resources rather than every team scrambling to collect information on players. The concept of working together is credited with helping kick-start the development of the NFL Scouting Combine, now held annually in Indianapolis. And many of the tests and drills performed at the combine, such as the 40-yard dash, are designed to showcase the type of data that the Cowboys began collecting in the early 1960s with the help of a mathematician whose first impression of football was “people piling on people.”
“(Qureishi) helped put the shovel in the ground to dig out what we had to do,” says Brandt. “He did a great job. He was just as important as Dick Mansperger was in discovering all these guys from small black schools.”
Even today, Brandt believes the process he helped build is still paying dividends.
“Our whole team are the ones who started it. I was just the one who implemented it. The system is working again and that’s thanks to [current Cowboys owner] Jerry [Jones] for funding it and the coaching staff for coaching it and thanks to the scouts.”
And to IBM for deciding to put a computer chip in a ski.
The Official 2022 Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine Draft Guide has comprehensive scouting reports on 110 players with more than 500 top prospects listed overall. Available in both print and digital, visit DallasCowboys.com/star for more information and to purchase yours today!