Commentary

Growth of combine is quite a story

Can't-miss event for media and fans evolved from humble beginnings

Originally Published: April 1, 2013
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Over the past 25 years, the NFL scouting combine has grown from a whistle stop on the sports calendar to the Grand Central Station of destinations.

The combine moved to Indianapolis in 1987. I attended my first in 1990 and haven't missed one since. At that time, the center of the combine was a Holiday Inn located underneath a train trestle across the street from the old RCA Dome.

For the combine's organizers, Indianapolis was perfect. The medical facilities in Indy allowed doctors and trainers to get all the MRIs, X-rays and other data in a one-stop-shop location. Back then, the convenience of the medicals was the most important element of the combine.

[+] EnlargeJim Harbaugh
AP Photo/Johnny VyAccess to coaches, such as Jim Harbaugh, is part of the combine's allure to reporters.

All general managers and coaches wanted the prospects to do their 40-yard dashes and workouts at the combine, but often agents wouldn't let that happen. That was a struggle. What also was a struggle was the interview process.

The early years of the Indy combine were like the Wild West. Structure was missing. Each team had a suite set up to conduct the interviews, but no system was in place for scheduling. Staffers would pounce on players returning from physicals and try coaxing them into their team's suite. The staffers would try luring the players with free team gear. There often were physical confrontations between staffers from different teams as they competed for a player's attention.

In 1990, there were only about six or seven reporters covering the combine. Initially, we felt like insiders. We'd wait near the elevators of the Holiday Inn and hope we could recognize a player and stop him for a five-minute interview.

Once word got out that the combine offered the chance to grab coaches, general managers, agents and players, the number of media members increased. That became a problem for the combine. Back then, the combine was run by Duke Babb, head of the National Football Scouting service, which included a majority of the NFL teams.

Babb wasn't an ally of the press. He wouldn't allow anyone covering the combine to watch the workouts. Even worse, he hated us being there. First, he put curtains up and security to make sure we didn't get into the atrium area where players were available. To cover the event, we had to hang out in the hotel lobby. Babb didn't like that, either. There were years he took chairs out of the lobby, turned down the heat and cut off the lights, hoping the press would go away. That didn't happen. Each year, more reporters came.

As the combine gained popularity, the suggestion was made to televise the event. Babb's answer was no. He was protective of the teams that paid for the combine to get exclusive information.

Just to get 40 times, we had someone slip into the RCA Dome, go to a quiet corner where no one could see him and phone in the results. We'd fill in the rest by grabbing front-office people and coaches after the workouts were over.

What a difference now. The NFL Network covers the workouts. Players are brought to a podium for 15-minute interviews. Coaches and general managers have a rigid schedule of interviews from Thursday through Saturday. More than 800 credentials were handed out in 2013, and the league is considering alternatives because the media portion of the combine has outgrown the area allotted in Lucas Oil Stadium.

Things have grown so much that workout times are posted at NFL.com immediately and then updated within two hours with verified times.

Over the past couple of years, the league has opened the door to a select number of fans who register to attend and watch the workouts. The league does the same thing for Super Bowl media day.

This year, there was even discussion about making the combine more of a spectator event. Instead of having prospects running the 40, there are thoughts about matchup races. That might be a little much, but, as you can see, the combine has come a long way since just being a convenient way of getting shared medical reports and individual team interviews.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer