Mel Kiper On the Clock: Baltimore's NFL Guru Goes To Work
By Kevin Heitz
Mel Kiper Jr. was not your normal high school senior. Instead of chasing girls and hitting a fungo, he was hanging around the Colts training camp at Goucher College in Towson trying to tell the big boys which college players to keep an eye on.
"There were very few trades, and no free agency," says Kiper today. "There was no movement of players. When you were drafted by the Colts, you were a Colt forever." So the kid from Calvert Hall High School, who never played a down of organized football in his life, decided to tell then-General Manager Ernie Accorsi that his draft picks were more important than he ever imagined, and some serious research would pay big dividends.
The kid had guts. And brains. And Accorsi knew it right away. The current GM of the NY Giants remembers, "The other kids were getting players' autographs. Mel was giving me draft lists. Obviously, I took notice of him because he reminded me of me."
The year was 1979, one year before the NFL draft was first televised. Young Kiper knew just how vital the draft was to a team's success and how undervalued scouting was. "I did a book with in-depth information about college players, no big deal," Kiper says modestly. "It was just typed up and copies were made. I sent it to all the teams, all the GMs, just wanted to see what they thought of it." They all responded to the kid's research and assessment of probable professional futures. The 45-year-old Kiper beams like a kid when recalling letters he received from the likes of Bill Walsh and Don Shula.
As a teen, sports became his obsession." I would eat, drink and sleep sports. I thought baseball would be something I could do, but I peaked at fourteen," Says Kiper. While he never played organized football, he Kiper noticed during numerous pick-up games that he had an analytic mind for football. "I became interested from a coaching standpoint, it was so much a technique thing."
Accorsi was duly impressed. "Mel was too good to give his talents away for nothing," he says. While matriculating at Essex Community College, studies took a backseat to Kiper's burgeoning career: Talking about the NFL draft on more than 20 radio shows a day nationwide, writing and promoting his book, and taking orders over the phone. Kiper worked out of his parents' home. At that time the books were just a means to an end. "My intent was to show these guys that I scouted the players and see if they thought I had ability, and maybe get an area scouting job," says Kiper. But once he began publishing and selling his draft reports, there was no turning back: He was filling a niche no one knew existed.
His parents were very supportive and agreed that he should put school aside to focus on the business end of sports. Mel Kiper Sr., a sports nut in his own right, played baseball and was a coach at Calvert Hall and an assistant coach at the University of Baltimore.
Little did he know his son would become the voice and face -- and the hair -- of the NFL Draft. If Mel Kiper Jr. is on the tube, you know it's football time. Like the groundhog, he appears only once year, and he always sees his shadow.
"His draft books are in every NFL draft room, whether people admit it or not," says Accorsi. "Why would you deny yourself his information? Our job is to collect every bit of intelligence possible."
Kiper's first book sold about 125 copies. Twenty five years later, Kiper Enterprises publishes a free agency data sheet each February, the draft report in April, draft review in May, a football preview in September, and a post-season prospectus in December.
Mel Kiper Sr., who died in 1988, was the brains of the business. Kiper's mother and sister also helped put out the books every year, and his wife Kim has managed things since 1989. "Kim runs the business," Kiper says. "All I have to do is write the book." And watch the games. Which he does at home. Alone. No matter how much he loves being a family man and no matter how many of his daughter Lauren's sporting events he attends -- she plays five sports -- he kicks her out of the TV room when a football game is on. After all, football is serious business.
With Kiper and his wife spending so much time together -- he does all his writing and radio interviews from their Baltimore County home -- their constant proximity could be a marital hazard. "When we got engaged, there was an over/under at ESPN of a year and half. Beano Cook took the under. He said no way somebody could be with me for 24 hours at day." If all marriages are built on trust, the Kipers' is put to the ultimate test several times a year. Kim cuts her husband's famous coiffure, but only to his specifications. That's teamwork, baby.
Before the Colts' snuck out of town in 1983, Accorsi offered Kiper a job as an assistant in the personnel department. Landing that plum job with his favorite team at the tender age of twenty-two, Kiper thought the second edition of his draft report would be his last. That summer, as the rumblings about the Colts impending departure grew louder, Accorsi did what he thought was best for the young man and told him to forget about the job. "Ernie wasn't going to bring in a 22-year-old when he knew my business was going good and he thought he and the team were going to be leaving," says Kiper.
Fate stepped in that December when Kiper got a call from ESPN: They needed somebody to cover the NFL draft, and requested he come to Connecticut for the interview. Grueling for anyone, but even more so for an inexperienced kid, Kiper recalls five guys bombarding him with questions: "Tell me about the offensive lineman for the 49ers, tell me about this team, tell me about this play – that was the interview."
He learned within days that they wanted him. Had he taken the Colts job, he is certain that he never would have had a career on ESPN. "That would have never happened and the book would have been gone forever. I don't know what I would have done if Ernie hadn't saved the day," says Kiper.
What sets Mel Kiper apart is that he doesn't just collect the information, he remembers it. All of it. His head is filled with facts, and he's ready to spill them at any time, to anyone who will listen. ESPN's Mike Greenberg, who believes Kiper "knows more about the Draft than anyone else knows about anything," most enjoys watching Kiper on draft day when the cameras aren't rolling. "He never looks at anything, not a book, not a card; it's all in his head," marvels Greenberg. That concentration is something Kiper learned early in his career, talking about different teams on numerous radio shows across the country. "In radio, you cannot use notes. You don't have time," he explains. "Doing radio shows helped me immensely."
Although Kiper has no personal agenda when it comes to his draft picks, they have sometimes lead to controversy. In 1994 Kiper criticized the Colts' picking Trev Alberts over Trent Dilfer, leading then-Colts GM Bill Tobin to comment, "Who the hell is Mel Kiper? My mailman knows more about the draft than he does." Alberts played less than thirty games in a three-season career, and Dilfer went onto be a Pro Bowl quarterback and a Super Bowl champion. Another of Kiper's best calls was when he said the Rams should have drafted Eddie George and Marvin Harrison, but they went with Lawrence Phillips and Eddie Kennison.
Always ready to speak his mind, Kiper has an uncanny ability to judge college players' potential in the pros by looking at physical skills in conjunction with productivity. He can tell you who the third top right tackle in the country is at any time. He can wax prophetic about the best backup running back in the Mountain West Conference. Kiper takes pride in his projections. He had quarterback Jeff George projected to be pick number 84 in the 1990 draft, but the Colts took him first overall and George went on to be a bust. John Elway got the highest ranking Kiper has ever given a player. He knows his stuff.
Of course, no one is right all the time. In 1990, Kiper thought Heisman trophy winner Andre Ware would be an excellent NFL quarterback for the Detroit Lions, but Ware was a huge flop in the League.
Phil Savage, senior Vice President and General Manager of the Cleveland Browns, finds Kiper's fast-talking on-air persona good for the NFL. "He stirs things up," Savage says. "He keeps the Draft in the public eye and the fans in the mix of it."
In the early days, Kiper went to New York to cover the first round of the draft for ESPN, and then returned to Baltimore while the later rounds were taking place. Now he's virtually on air for the entire weekend. And the fans outside Madison Square Garden know him at first sight. His hair is a giveaway. "If the Beatles were one side of the street, and Mel on the other, Kiper would attract more people," says Mike Golic from ESPN's Mike and Mike in the Morning.
It's the hair. John, Paul, George, and Ringo look like fifth-round picks compared to Kiper.
Issue 1.1: April 27, 2006