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NFL combine has changed drastically -- for the better

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Clayton: NFL combine has come a long way (1:20)

ESPN NFL senior writer John Clayton explains the incredible growth of the NFL Scouting Combine since he first began covering the event in 1990. (1:20)

INDIANAPOLIS -- How much has the scouting combine changed?

Now, a reporter must arrive early to an enlarged press room to get a seat and a place to write. In the old days, there were no chairs to be found.

My first combine assignment was in 1990. That was the fourth time Indianapolis hosted the combine. Media coverage of the event was so new the people running the combine didn't know what to do with us. About eight reporters hung out in the lobby of the downtown Holliday Inn. That's right, only eight. Now, more than 1,200 media credentials have been distributed.

We weren't allowed in the convention center to see the combine. Our only hope was to have contacts inside call us with 40 times, which we would scribble into our notebooks. For that 1990 combine, we weren't restricted from trying to stop Cortez Kennedy, Junior Seau or others for quick interviews.

We all knew this was a gold mine of information. Every general manager, coach and scout attended. Agents would hang with us and keep us updated on contract talks.

Then the good times vanished.

It started when reporters were restricted to being in the lobby only. A curtain blocked our view of the atrium where we used to sit. To enter, you needed credentials. So we stood in the lobby waiting for people to interview.

I will never forget Jerome Bettis. Each day, he would visit us and ask if we needed anything. After interviewing him several times, we started asking him to grab a player or two for us if he saw them. The Bus delivered, bringing a few prospects from behind the curtain to us.

It didn't take long for the combine operators to make us feel unwanted. Orders came down to take the few chairs there were out of the lobby. The next move was to turn off the heat in the lobby. Indianapolis in late February can be cold. We bundled up in the lobby and held our ground.

Each year, the media numbers grew. The NFL didn't run the combine. Duke Babb from National Football Scouting group did and he wasn't a big fan of the media coverage. He didn't want us to get the 40 times. He hoped the limited access and uncomfortable settings would make us go elsewhere. It wasn't too long before the NFL started sending public relations people to help.

With the help of Gil Brandt, the NFL PR guys would ask us for a list of players we wanted for interviews. Brandt would spot them and try to get as many to us as possible. Still bundled up in our coats minus the heat, we would interview players in the small bar area in the hotel.

That was progress.

With the NFL getting more involved with the process, the combine started warming up to us. The NFL figured out the combine was a great vehicle to promote the sport. Free agency usually started a few days after the combine, and transactions and deals made for great headlines.

That forced reporters to be more mobile. We'd roam the hotels and convention center walkways looking for stories. I remember running into Carl Poston, agent for Charles Woodson, who had been franchised by the Oakland Raiders. I said in passing how tough it would be on the Raiders' salary cap if Woodson signed his tender, eating up cap room on a one-year deal. Poston said he was walking over to the Raiders to do just that.

Patrolling the hotels allowed us to stumble into trade talks. I remember getting immediate reaction from a Randy Moss trade to Oakland or an A.J. Feeley trade to Miami minutes after those deals were completed.

We would spot agents visiting with general managers and speculate on what deals they would be trying to negotiate. Before long, coverage of the combine grew so much the NFL set up a press room in the convention center. How convenient. The location wasn't too far away from an entrance coaches and general managers would use to get onto field.

Instead of having Bettis grabbing players for us, the NFL brought players to the press room and started setting them up on podiums. We'd wait until they completed their physicals and the next thing you know a group of players would enter the press room for interviews. We not only had chairs and heat, but we could sit down with some players at tables for interviews.

While all this was going on, downtown Indianapolis started to grow. Marriott properties started springing up next to other new Marriott properties. Lucas Oil Stadium replaced the old dome. The next move was into a large area in Lucas Oil to accommodate the media contingent that was eventually going to go beyond 1,000.

Next thing you know a Super Bowl was awarded to Indianapolis and we are riding zip lines in the middle of the city.

Now, I shake my head at how different the combine is from the old days. A general manager or a coach is scheduled for press conferences every 15 minutes. There might be as many as 200 players brought to a podium or a table for interviews.

Heck, a few of us can get in and watch the quarterbacks throw on Saturday. We watch from a suite. The biggest scramble is around noon, when sandwiches are served. You don't want to be in the back of that long line.

Now, the combine is televised. We don't have to find sources to get us the 40 times. Fans can even attend some of the sessions if they apply.

The combine has come a long way since 1990. By the way, I still wonder where they hid the chairs in the Holiday Inn. At least the heat is back.