Green: With human touch to scouting, BLESTO helped build Lions in late 1960s, ’70s

Detroit News
By Jerry Green |  Special to The Detroit News

Detroit — They opened the doors and let us into the headquarters back then. We scampered in, littles squirrels, ready for action.

The other guys — my friends from memorable nights on the road — didn’t have to be as ready as I was.

The NFL Draft was normal 1960-70s style from Philly or Pittsburgh or Buffalo in those years. There was no musical gala with revelers dancing in the streets — and ESPN-created drama. Gee, there was no ESPN. And there were no mock drafts.

The league muckamucks sealed us into a workroom, and every 15 minutes or so, a coach or general manager would drop in to tell us how great Terry Bradshaw or Mean Joe Greene or O.J. Simpson was going to be in the NFL

The newspaper guys would jot the quotes into notebooks and start pounding their typewriters. But I’m from Detroit, and, well, the assignment was to cover the Lions — and the athletes to build them back to championship quality.

And pretty soon the Lions couldn’t fake it anymore. The head coach did not trust the general manager. The general manager did not trust the head coach. It was not a secret that they were enmeshed into an office feud. The entire town knew of the bickering between Joe Schmidt and Russ Thomas.

The Lions were members of a scouting combine called BLESTO. It translated to Bears, Lions, Eagles, Steelers — Talent Organization. The Bills joined the group after the AFL-NFL merger.

It was the Lions’ turn to host BLESTO for the 1968 draft. The media mob gathered at the Lions’ offices on Michigan Avenue, kiddy-caddy across the red bricks from Tiger Stadium.

It was Schmidt’s second draft as head coach. He was involved in building a team pretty much from scratch. Joe had Hall of Fame credentials as a linebacker. And his team was nearly ready to be a contender again.

Schmidt was determined that the Lions vitally needed defensive help. He wanted an outside linebacker, and the most appealing was Mike Hull from Southern California.

Thomas, unwisely, considered himself wiser and believed the Lions must draft a young quarterback for the future. His target was Greg Landry, out of Massachusetts. The Lions had a veteran QB on the roster in Milt Plum. And a deal to trade for Bill Munson with the Los Angeles Rams was looming. Plus the Lions had seasoned, and often wild, Karl Sweetan on their roster.

The Lions went for Landry.

Thomas had won the round.

When it soon was time for the Lions’ head coach to visit the journalist captives to rave about the draft choice, Schmidt was an absentee.

“Joe’s gone,” somebody on the Lions’ coaching staff tipped me off. “He’s ticked off. He left the building. He’s gone home.”

Schmidt had not been in view of the journalists when, in rage, he escaped out of the back door of the Lions’ building and into the parking lot — destination Bloomfield Hills.

“I was halfway home up the Lodge before I turned back,” Joe would tell me later.

“Then, I came back.”

Truth is, Thomas’ choice worked out fine.

Two years later, Landry would quarterback the Lions in the last games of the 1970 season in a remarkable run. They would reach the playoffs. In Dallas, they would lose the lamented 5-0 Super Bowl-playoff game.

Young Greg was not quite ready — then — for the combativeness of the NFL playoffs.

Setting a foundation

It was at a previous BLESTO draft that the Lions built the offensive foundation to surround Landry later in the 1970s.

Indelibly, it was my first draft, in Philadelphia.

Two years ago, the NFL preened that it had managed a draft remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Commissioner Roger Goodell made it work to the satisfaction of ESPN.

But the ESPN preened about its brilliance, a so-called virtual draft.

ESPN believes it created history. But that was not the first time the NFL staged its drafts remotely. Goodell, from his home, controlled the draft.

But truth is, Goodell borrowed from the blueprint of Pete Rozelle’s drafts in the 1960s and ‘70s and into the ‘80s.

That was how the Lions, within BLESTO, drafted in 1967 when I went to Philly. The Lions had a table in Rozelle’s draft headquarters at the Gotham Hotel in New York with several telephones. An emissary there was hooked to Lions brass and some scouts in Philadelphia. The guy in New York received a bulletin from a colleague in Philly with the Lions’ choice.

The choice was relayed to Rozelle.

He walked to a microphone and announced:

“The Detroit Lions, with the seventh pick in the 1967 NFL-AFL draft select Mel Farr, running back, UCLA.”

In Philly, Thomas or a Lions’ scout announced the selection to the journalists. We were informed how brilliant the Lions were with their selection of a wondrous rookie runner. And he was. Mel, with his toughness and competitive desire, was a marvel until he was so battered and bruised his career was shortened.

That first draft for me was novel for pro football. It was the first combined two-league draft after the announcement of the merger. My responsibility carried beyond the Lions. The first two athletes selected in 1967 were from Michigan State — Bubba Smith and Clinton Jones. In all, Michigan State’s greatest of all teams of the Duffy Daugherty era — produced four of the first eight selections. George Webster went fifth and Gene Washington eighth.

And there was an additional draft rarity.

The Lions, on the second round with the 34th pick, selected via the remote two-city method selected an unknown.

The Lions employed the legendary Will Robinson to moonlight as a scout to discover rarities from black schools. Will had discovered a kid at Jackson State who could play cornerback.

The kid Will hugely praised was Lem Barney.

It was 30 years ago that I stood up at the Hall of Fame selection meeting in Minneapolis and gave one of my monotonal monologues in favor of Lem for election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Lem made it, voted in by a tough group.

Another year, the Lions picked off Charlie Sanders on the third round. Charlie, too, made it through the frequently sarcastic, belligerent screeners in the Hall of Fame voting.

The 1969 draft was a hop, skip and jump for me. All-America knew the identity of the first pick months before the selections.

It would be O.J. Simpson, one of the greatest of the great running backs.

BLESTO would draft in Buffalo. I met Jack Kemp on the plane. Jack, once a Lions’ draft choice, and a star for the Bills, was Ralph Wilson’s No. 1 adviser. Wilson lived in Grosse Pointe Shores, so Jack was over here often.

On the plane, Kemp and I talked about O.J. and what an impactful runner he would be. Kemp then talked politics. And about the ills of American society.

Funny, O.J. was one most accessible the athletes I covered during my years of chasing down such stuff. He would return phone calls.

There was, during my years of attached coverage, only one running back who could match him on the field. Maybe even a swivel better.

The Lions drafted Barry Sanders, third off the board, in 1989.

A human touch

All these years later, with the draft a Las Vegas show, BLESTO remains in operation this weekend. It is one of two NFL scouting combines. It employs real human beings to provide insight into athletes, as Will Robinson did about Lem Barney, who came to Detroit unheralded.

The human scouts add heart which the analytics cannot provide. And as the draft becomes more of another NFL-managed show — a party for Cleveland or Vegas and Detroit in two years — it cannot rub out history.

Mike Hull, rejected by Russ Thomas way back then, lasted seven decent seasons in the NFL. Greg Landry lasted 17 seasons in the NFL and USFL.

It is my notion more than a half century later the friction between Schmidt and Thomas had an enduring negative impact on the negative Lions. The aura cannot be scrubbed away.

They are still weighted with scars from back then.

Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sports writer.

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