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Saints horrible at the draft from the start
April 03. 2005 12:25AM
MIKE DETILLIER'S FOOTBALL WORLD
SaintsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ draft-day blunders: Part I
There is no question in my mind the New Orleans Saints have had more bad day-draft occurrences than any team since their inception in 1967.
Almost from the very start, the Saints have been cursed by poor draft information and a dizzying array of bad draft-day decisions.
When New Orleans was awarded the franchise in November 1966, the Saints were given the first and last choices in each of the 17 rounds of the 1967 draft.
That year, the most highly-coveted college player was Michigan State defensive end Bubba Smith, and a host of teams were calling the expansion Saints to see about the possibility on landing the most sought-after college defensive player in the country.
Among those suitors were the Minnesota Vikings, and they had a high-profile player to dangle in the front of the Saints.
Jim Finks, the VikingsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ general manager at the time, had just fired coach Norm Van Brocklin and replaced him with Canadian Football League veteran coach Bud Grant. But Finks said that was not the only major change he had in store for the Vikes.
"Van Brocklin and our quarterback at that time, Fran Tarkenton, had a very stormy relationship and for the betterment of our team, I felt it was the right thing to do to get rid of both of those parties," said Finks, who serve as the SaintsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ GM from 1986-93. "I called the Saints to see if they were interested in Tarkenton and to my surprise they were lukewarm to the idea of dealing for him.
"Maybe it was just my impression, but (Saints Director of Player Personnel Vic Schwenk) didnÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t seem to know that much about Tarkenton and he had been in the league for quite some time," Finks recalled. "Matter of fact, Schwenk asked me if Tarkenton had started for us in 1966, which I found very odd.
"I thought it was a natural fit because of the fact that he was from the South (Tarkenton played at the University of Georgia), and he was very mobile," Finks continued. "With an expansion club and a ragtag offensive line in front of him, you really needed someone with his running and scrambling skills. I, like everyone else, really was intrigued by the idea of obtaining Bubba Smith. But Schwenk, didnÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t seem interested in Tarkenton."
Finks, who passed away from lung cancer in May 1994 said he was shocked to see the Saints obtain veteran quarterback Gary Cuozzo and center Bill Curry from the Baltimore Colts in exchange for the rights to the top pick in 1967, which turned out to be Bubba Smith.
"I received a call from Pete Rozelle, the (NFL) commissioner, and he told me that the deal with the Saints and Colts was on the verge of being completed and that I should call the New York Giants and see if they were interested in Fran Tarkenton," Finks said. "The Saints completed the deal on March 6 and two days later, we sent Tarkenton to the Giants for a couple of draft choices. I liked Gary quite a bit, but for an expansion team he was the wrong fit. Matter of fact, I traded for Cuozzo the following season once the Saints seemed content with Billy Kilmer as their quarterback."
Longtime sportscaster Buddy Diliberto, who covered the Saints from the 1967 season until his death in January, said he knew exactly why the team dealt for Cuozzo instead of Tarkenton.
"The owner of the Saints, John Mecom, was young -- 29 years old -- and highly influenced by other owners in the league," Diliberto said. "Carroll Rosenbloom, who was the owner of the Balitmore Colts at that time, really was close to Mecom and he convinced him that Cuozzo was the second coming of Johnny Unitas. They even went to the extent of splicing film together showing Cuozzo throwing the ball and then Unitas throwing the ball. And to be honest, you really could not tell the difference.
"But the Colts had a great offensive line at that time and no one came close to getting to Cuozzo," Diliberto continued. "That was totally different once he came down here. To think this franchise could have had Fran Tarkenton instead of Gary Cuozzo just goes to show that this team has been cursed since the outset."
The nightmare continued for the Saints on draft day, 1967.
According to Diliberto, on the night before the draft, then-Saints coach Tom Fears told Diliberto he had informed Schwenk he wanted the team to use its first two picks on the best defensive back and either the best middle linebacker or running back in the draft.
"Believe me, Fears got none of what he asked for come draft day," Diliberto said. "The Saints picked (fullback) Les Kelley from Alabama with the last pick in the first round. Schwenk told me he was the next (Hall of Fame and former Green Bay Packers fullback) Jimmy Taylor.
"Well, Kelley was so bad at running back that within two weeks of training camp, they moved him to linebacker and he was basically a back-up player and a special teams performer during his stay here" Diliberto continued. "They passed on Willie Lanier, who the Kansas City Chiefs took in the second round, and he turned out to be an NFL Hall of Fame linebacker."
With the first pick in the second round, the Saints selected Bo Burris from the University of Houston.
"Burris was a quarterback at Houston, and they were going to convert him to cornerback," Diliberto remembered. "Burris had little-to-no interest in football. He would sleep through every meeting session. He was out of the league in two seasons.
"The Saints passed on (cornerback) Lem Barney, who is in the NFL Hall of Fame, and he played his college ball right up the road at Jackson State in Mississippi, to select Burris," Diliberto added. "The two players they selected next, (wide receiver/running back) John Gilliam and (defensive tackle) Dave Rowe, turned out to be good players, but they were good with other teams because the Saints dealt them away after just a couple of seasons. The start for this team come draft day was a disaster. "
In late January 1970, Diliberto received a phone call from Fears inviting him into the SaintsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ draft room to see how things work when it comes to selecting players on draft day.
"Fears invited me because he wanted me to see first-hand just how bad Vic Schwenk was at picking players," Diliberto recalled. "That season, the Saints selected Ken Burrough, a real good wide receiver prospect from Texas Southern, in the opening round. And to be honest, there were no real fireworks there until the Oakland Raiders selected Raymond Chester, a tight end/fullback from Morgan State.
"The guys that were in the war-room looked at the big board and ChesterÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s name was nowhere to be found," Diliberto said. "I mean there were 600 names on the board and he was not in that number. Right at that time, I noticed that Fears had walked out of the room. I followed pretty close and I could see he was on the phone. Before he walked back in the draft room, he told me that he had just gotten off the telephone with Raiders head coach John Madden and they had Chester rated as the 12th best player in the draft.
"When Fears walked back in that room, he told Schwenk what he had told me, and Schwenk said if he wasnÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t on the SaintsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ board, he was no football player," Diliberto continued. "Well, all hell broke loose after that comment. Fears was punching the daylights out of Schwenk and they actually called security to break things up. It was so bad, John Mecom had to be called out of a meeting at a local hotel to calm things down. Needless to say, I was never invited back into a Saints war room come draft time."
In 1973, the Saints had the second overall pick in the draft.
Diliberto recalled that if the Saints would have kept that pick they would have selected running back Chuck Forman from the University of Miami. But they traded the pick to the Colts in exchange for defensive end Billy Newsome and a fourth-round pick (Stanford linebacker Jim Merlo).
"I got wind that a trade was going to happen the night before it occurred," Diliberto said. "Harry Hulmes was a pretty good scouting director, but he would never stick his neck out for a player he really liked, like say Chuck Foreman. I called a friend of mind, John Steadman, who was the top beat writer for the Baltimore Colts at that time and he told me an unbelievable story.
"Steadman told me that Colts General Manager Joe Thomas had him in his office to listen in on the trade talks," Diliberto continued. "When Thomas called the Saints, he told Steadman he would have given up the moon to get LSU quarterback Bert Jones, and when he asked Saints head coach J.D. Roberts what he wanted in return, he said Billy Newsome and a fourth-round pick.
"Steadman told me the room went dead silent, and Thomas made Roberts repeat the comment," Diliberto added. "Within seconds, Thomas told J.D. ÃƒÂƒÃ‚Â«WeÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ve got a deal,ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ and he hung up the phone and immediately called the league office to make it official. The crazy thing was that the Saints had already called in the deal. The commissioner, Pete Rozelle, called Joe Thomas and asked him what else was part of the trade. Thomas told him that the deal was complete and Steadman said that Rozelle seemed very upset over the phone. I later learned from Rozelle that he tried to get John Mecom to get more in return for the second-overall pick, but Mecom said that they got a great player in Newsome and he stood by J.D.ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s decision to trade for him.
"Steadman told me immediately after the commissionerÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s call the room bust into applause and everyone was shaking hands and hugging one another like they had won the Super Bowl," Diliberto said. "The Colts took Bert Jones, and while Newsome played OK for two seasons, he was really something else. One game he just flat out refused to play in because he said it was too cold, and he was in a hospital for a minor operation and he decided to flash every nurse that was in the hospital. Giving up Bert Jones and getting virtually no value for him had to be the worst deal this club has ever made and that is really saying something."
MORE HORROR STORIES
Things continued to get worse for the Saints as the years went on.
Former Saints offensive line coach C.W. Hewgley, who is now a part-time scout for the Oakland Raiders, said that when he was with the Saints, coaches had no say on who was selected come draft time.
"I had coached in the Big Ten before John North hired me with the Saints, and in 1974, we selected (Ohio State linebacker) Rick Middleton and (Michigan tight end) Paul Seal," Hewgley said. "I didnÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t like either one of those picks and I expressed my dislike to Coach North, but he had no real control of the picks. It was obvious to everyone that (Ohio State linebacker) Randy Gradishar, who the Denver Broncos selected one pick after we picked Middleton, was the better player, but we passed on him.
"There were other coaches that lobbied hard for (Notre Dame tight end) Dave Casper over Seal, but the scouting reports said that Casper would have to play along the offensive line, because he didnÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t have the speed and quickness to play tight end in the NFL," Hewgley added. "Bad information was written on virtually every page on our scouting reports and it is obvious from the results of Gradishar and Casper (a Hall of Famer) that we really didnÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t know what we were doing."
Hewgley said the next season was just as bad.
"Every one of the coaches lobbied for (Grambling defensive tackle) Gary ÃƒÂƒÃ‚Â«Big HandsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ Johnson with our top pick," Hewgley recalled. "North listened to us, but Mecom made the call that season. He picked (Purdue wide receiver) Larry Burton. Burton could run fast, but he couldnÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t catch anything.
"John (Mecom) did what he thought was right at that time, get a fast receiver for (Saints quarterback) Archie Manning, but our scouts never figured out that Burton couldnÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t catch the ball," Hewgley said. "He was a track sprinter, who played a little football."
With the other first-round pick in 1975 the Saints took Ohio State offensive tackle Kurt Schumacher.
"Kurt was a good kid, hard working and he tried real hard, but he was too small to play tackle and not physical enough," Hewgley remembered. "The day we drafted him, a coaching friend from Ohio State told me we drafted the wrong guy. He said we should have drafted their tight end, Doug France, instead. France was not even on the board to be selected within the first 100 selections by our scouting department. The Los Angeles Rams picked him in Round 1, and he started at offensive tackle for them for about twelve seasons.
"Our scouting department had no clue who to pick," Hewgley said. "We would have been better off buying a preseason college football magazine and picking out of the book instead."
Hey, thatÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s just the start.
Next week, I will give you some modern version draft-day horror stories.
NFL analyst Mike Detillier is based Raceland.