In the 1940s, some NFL teams still drafted out of college football magazines and schools’ press releases.
Others were more sophisticated and at least had scouts who solicited reports from college coaches on players in their area of the country.
But the franchise that started the comprehensive scouting that has become the bloodline of today’s NFL is the Rams, who play the Green Bay Packers on Sunday. And they did it in 1946 by hiring a former back from the Packers’ first NFL championship team, Eddie Kotal.
Kotal was the NFL’s first scout who traveled coast-to-coast year-round in search of college talent. Together with a forward-looking owner, Dan Reeves, Kotal played a major role in building talent-loaded Rams teams that played in four championship games from the late ’40s to the mid-’50s, and were the first to integrate the NFL after black players had been informally banned in the early 1930s.
“(Kotal) was the first of those scouts who was on the road like a real hound dog,” said Sid Gillman, the Pro Football Hall of Famer who coached the Rams from 1955 to 1959, to Cliff Christl and Don Langenkamp, authors of the book “Sleepers, Busts and Franchise-Makers: The Behind the Scenes Story of the Pro Football Draft.”
“Everybody in the world knew Eddie Kotal. … When you walked into Eddie Kotal’s office, it looked like a library. Everybody else drafted from magazine articles, notebooks. Nobody seemed organized like the Los Angeles Rams.”
Though an innovator, Kotal remains an obscure figure in NFL history because his role was behind the scenes at a time when the league was more on the periphery of the U.S. sports scene. When he retired in 1963, the league was only beginning to gain popularity as a nationally televised sport. By the time he died in 1973, it was just becoming the country’s most popular game.
Kotal grew up in Chicago Heights, Ill., attended the University of Illinois, then Lawrence University in Appleton and played for the Packers from 1925 to 1929. According to The Football Encyclopedia, he finished his career with 318 carries for 879 yards and four rushing touchdowns; was 57-for-96 passing for 266 yards, two touchdowns and seven interceptions; and caught 74 passes for 1,195 yards and five touchdowns. His best season was 1928, when he led the team in receiving (28 catches for 508 yards) and was second in rushing (102 carries for 298 yards).
It wasn’t a bad career, and he was part of the Packers’ first championship team, in 1929, but it wasn’t enough to get him into the Packers Hall of Fame.
After coaching football at Lawrence in 1930, then coaching football and basketball at what is now the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Kotal returned to the Packers as an assistant coach in 1942 and ’43, and became their head scout in ’44. Then in ’46, Reeves moved the Rams from Cleveland to Los Angeles and hired Kotal as his head scout and de facto general manager.
The NFL’s scouting history through the ’50s is almost impossible to pin down because there’s little contemporary documentation — the scouts don’t appear to have been the subject of many newspaper or magazine articles, and today there aren’t many people alive who worked with or know much about the league’s pioneers. But by all appearances, Kotal was the first who traveled to colleges all over the country looking for players rather than just working a section of the country or compiling reports from college coaches.
Some other, better-known early scouts, such as Jack Lavelle and Peahead Walker of the New York Giants and Pappy Lewis of the Pittsburgh Steelers, didn’t become pro scouts until the 1950s at the earliest.
Another legend in old-time NFL circles, Fido Murphy, might have been working for the Steelers and Chicago Bears by the early 1940s, but it appears he was mainly an advance scout of NFL teams, and when he started scouting college players, it was on the West Coast, or at least western half of the country, not nationwide. Also, based on a 1963 story in Sports Illustrated, it’s almost impossible to believe anything the colorful Murphy said about himself to the scouts he met on the road by the 1960s.
But starting back in ’46, Kotal worked coast-to-coast and, according to the book “The Draft: A Year Inside the NFL’s Search for Talent” by Pete Williams, was on the road 200 days a year. In the spring he’d hit all the major-school campuses, then go back during training camps and the fall to recheck his work. He’d visit as many as 10 schools a week, and during the season started mining the smaller schools where he made a career of uncovering gems.
The Rams became a premier team and appeared in three consecutive championship games from 1949 to 1951 — they won their lone title of that era in ’51 — and lost a fourth title game in ’55. From 1949 through ’56, they were 60-33-3.
By the later ’50s, other teams were emulating their scouting setup and catching up. The Packers were one of the first when they hired Jack Vainisi in 1950 to run their personnel department, and it paid off when Vainisi drafted most of the star players who became the core of Vince Lombardi’s early championship teams in the ’60s.
Kotal assembled deep and talented Rams rosters in the late ’40s and early ’50s. Among other good moves, he drafted future Hall of Fame quarterback Norm Van Brocklin in the fourth round in 1949 even though they had a Hall of Fame quarterback in Bob Waterfield who was 29 at the time; signed future Hall of Famer Tank Younger out of Grambling as an undrafted rookie in ’49; and drafted Deacon Dan Towler, who led the team in rushing from ’51 to ’53, in the 25th round out of William & Jefferson in 1950.
Kotal continued to mine small schools his entire career, and among others drafted Hall of Fame defensive lineman Deacon Jones out of Mississippi Valley State in the 14th round in 1961 and six-time Pro Bowl safety Eddie Meador in the seventh round out of Arkansas Tech in 1959.
He looked to other unusual sources and in the ’50s signed three future stars out of the U.S. military: Hall of Fame defensive back Dick “Night Train” Lane, three-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman Big Daddy Lipscomb and one-time Pro Bowl halfback Touchdown Tommy Wilson.
And in a testament to the Rams’ depth, Kotal drafted and signed a number of players who went on to be stars for other teams, such as Hall of Famer Andy Robustelli, a defensive lineman out of little Arnold College drafted in the 19th round in 1951; five-time Pro Bowl receiver Del Shofner, a first-round pick in ’57; Jesse Whittenton, a fifth-round pick in ’56 who started at cornerback for two of Lombardi’s championship teams; and two-time Pro Bowl receiver Jimmy Orr, a 25th-round pick in ’57.
“(The Rams) had more personnel in 1950, ’51 than the rest of the league put together,” said longtime NFL scout Bucko Kilroy to Christl and Langenkamp. “They’d have so many guys they let go who wound up on all-star teams. Everybody used Robustelli as an example; you could use lots more than Robustelli.”
Kotal, in other words, was at the forefront of his quickly evolving business.
None of it would have been possible without Reeves, the Hall of Fame owner who footed the bill for Kotal’s extensive scouting and allowed his personnel man to break the color barrier by signing former UCLA running backs Kenny Washington and Woody Strode in 1946.
But it was Kotal who looked anywhere and everywhere for players. He, not the Dallas Cowboys of the ’60s and ’70s, first took fliers on players from other sports. For instance, he signed college sprinter Bob Boyd, who had a seven-year career as a receiver in the NFL;, and drafted future NBA star K.C. Jones (30th round, 1950) and Olympic decathlon champion Rafer Johnson (28th round, 1959).
Kotal mined schools other scouts didn’t know of and was the first to go into historically black colleges to sign players, with Younger being the first.
“(Kotal) and the Rams were the forerunners of your present scouting system,” former NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle told Christl and Langenkamp.
Maybe that will land Eddie Kotal in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.