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Winning the Fight of Their Lives
THE EXECUTION OF A VIRTUAL DRAFT
From the time Dan Rooney assumed day-to-day control of the Pittsburgh Steelers and hired Chuck Noll in 1969, stability has been a hallmark of this franchise. Three head coaches in the 51 seasons from 1969-2019. A belief that the best way to build a championship contending team is through the draft. Physical over finesse. There are other guidelines, some that border on commandments, and they are based on the singleness of purpose that began with the rela-tionship between Dan Rooney and Chuck Noll.
Since there are six Lombardi Trophies serving as proof of concept, this business model has survived the passage of time and the changes that came with it. Dan Rooney to Art Rooney II. Noll to Bill Cowher to Mike Tomlin. Bill Nunn, Art Rooney Jr., and Dick Haley to Tom Donahoe and Tom Modrak, to Kevin Colbert and Ron Hughes. The names changed as did some of the nuances of the process, but the basic recipe endured. And so when a global pandemic struck and forced the world to adapt, the Steelers had a firm foundation to rely upon as the NFL calendar moved into the heart of this year’s pre-draft preparation.
“We were at Clemson’s Pro Day on Thursday, March 12, and the night before was when everything started to fold,” said General Manager Kevin Colbert. “The NBA was cancel-ling, the NHL, too, and you could just feel it coming. We went through the Pro Day at Clemson, and we flew back because Michigan cancelled its Pro Day before we got on the plane. We came back to Pittsburgh, and we were in the office when we made the Chris Wormley trade, and then we wrapped up some signings by Sunday (March 15).
“Over that weekend, you could feel it coming, and we knew we were going to get closed out of the office. (Vice President of Technology) Scott Phelps started working on being able to do a video-conference from our draft room, where we would be in the draft room and virtual it out to our scouts and we could hold our draft meet-ings. I told Mike (Tomlin) at that time, I don’t believe there are going to be any Pro Days, so let’s start these draft meetings, and if the Pro Days pop back up in April, then we’ll be ahead of it.”
conducting that I can’t continue the meeting because this third-party company or this other entity was down. I didn’t feel comfortable relying on somebody else. When I started to see Zooms going down in the world, and I also started to see hacks happening, I started thinking about a way to make it more secure and only running on things I maintain so I would know exactly what every connectivity was.”
Zoom crashing might have been bad because of the delay it could cause to the draft meetings and therefore to the gathering of information on the prospects, but getting hacked could be a disaster. Remember back in 2014 when a bunch of celebrities had their phones hacked and the entities responsible for it released compromis-ing/embarrassing photos of said celebrities to the world? In Phelps’ mind, there was a corre-sponding disaster possibly sitting out there at this time, and if it happened he could expect that to be engraved on his professional tombstone.
“The intel from the league was telling us lots of other companies were being hacked and Zoom-bombed, so be careful if you’re doing something important,” said Phelps. “I was reading all kinds of stuff on these issues and I started thinking, if there is video of Kevin Colbert talking about a player that somehow gets leaked because some hacker figured out a way to get into a Zoom meeting because I didn’t know every nuance of Zoom, then that would be catastrophic.”
Once Phelps relayed his reluctance to Colbert, the decision was made to have the IT people come up with another way to conduct the draft meetings. The switch was made from Zoom to meetings that were hosted and maintained in-house, and then when Direc-tor of Video & Facilities Bob McCartney made all of the video easily available and accessible – from the Combine, from the prospects’ college games, from the college all-star games, such as the East-West Game, the Senior Bowl, etc. – the Steelers were in business.
“Scott set it up where everybody had access to our scouting system and we all could be looking at the draft board,” said Colbert. “Bob McCartney did a great job of setting up the video access, and after a day or two of the meetings, I thought, this isn’t bad. And it wasn’t. The meetings were fine. It went pretty much flawlessly, because everybody paid attention.
“We were fortunate, because this was the 14th time Mike and I had done this,” continued Col-bert. “It wasn’t like, how are we going to do this, but more like, I’m here and you’re there so let’s get through it. We had Dennis call up the player, we’d read the report, and it was bang, bang, bang, just like we were in the draft room at the facility. After the second day of the meetings,
I was like, OK, we can do this.”
MOVING FROM TALKING AND GRADING TO THE ACTUAL PICKING
The difference between draft meetings vs. the actual picking of players and making trades while on the clock is no more significant than a training camp practice vs. a playoff game. Make a mistake during the former, and maybe it doesn’t even matter based on the way things unfold. But make a mistake during the latter, and it could mean the end of the season and/or people losing their jobs.
“Once we were working completely from home and once we understood that the whole draft was going to be virtual, it still hadn’t been deter-mined whether teams’ IT guys would be given the green light to be in our peoples’ homes,” said Phelps. “But I had to start planning ahead of time, so I started spit-balling through different technologies that could connect people. I was talking with (Network and Security Manager) Craig Pelat and (Business & Football Systems Manager) Jon Pugliano, and I said, ‘What if
we just got a suitcase, or one of those Pelican cases, or a briefcase, where we had everything inside of it already configured and set up, and then all we had to do was drop these off at their front doors so they could take them inside and then they would have to plug one thing into their home router and the whole thing lights up and everything is already configured and connected right inside the box for them?”
That was decided on as the plan for executing the draft, and Pelat began by assembling all of the pieces they would need. He bought the Peli-can cases off Amazon, and whatever equipment Phelps didn’t have on hand also was purchased, and all of it was shipped to Pelat’s home. Then the IT guys went to work, cutting holes in the Pelican cases and customizing the foam in them so that everything each individual needed was contained and configured and protected within one case.
There still was anxiety, because the procedure was completely new and foreign to guys who had done things one way their entire profes-sional lives. For the Steelers, a typical draft day always had gone something like this:
In the Bill Nunn Draft Room, Colbert would sit on one side of one of the tables and Tomlin would sit on the other side of the same table. Rooney would be between them, in the middle. Omar Khan and Brandon Hunt would be close by at all times, because they were the ones charged with working the phones in the event of a trade – whether the Steelers were in the market of wanting another team’s pick, or whether another team was trying to trade into the Steelers’ spot in a particular round. Mark Gorscak, one of the team’s college scouts, also was close by because once the Rooney-Colbert-Tomlin triumvirate decided on the player to be select-ed, that decision would be communicated to the Steelers’ staffers at the site of the draft by Gorscak and then the people on site would turn in the pick to the corresponding NFL official there. Also on hand in the draft room in Pittsburgh, or very close by, were Head Athletic Trainer John Norwig and the Steelers’ medical team, usually orthopedic surgeon Jim Bradley, and neurosurgeon Joe Maroon, along with internal medicine specialists Tony Yates and Mark Duca.
In the virtual world of 2020, Gorscak’s role was eliminated because there was no site of the NFL Draft and therefore nobody waiting there to write down a player’s name on a card. Norwig was plugged in at his home and had access to the doctors if a medical opinion was needed. McCartney’s end had been set up and opera-tional from the start of the meetings. And the internal scouting program built by Applications Developer Joe Veltri, another member of Phelps’ crew, handled a lot of the rest.
On Monday, April 20, the NFL held a mock draft involving all 32 teams, with the dual pur-pose of working with the new technology and with calming team executives. During this mock, each team was required to go through the pro-cess of picking a player as well as the process of executing a trade, and so by April 21 – some 48 hours before showtime – the league office had a better level of understanding and comfort that it could pull off a virtual draft seamlessly.
But the Steelers had an extra advantage. Their first-round pick of the 2020 NFL Draft had been used to bring Minkah Fitzpatrick to Pittsburgh, and that meant they already had added a first-team All-Pro safety to their mix. Not only did that provide an added level of comfort, but sitting out the first round also allowed the Steelers to ob-serve 32 picks in real time, which helped them go into the draft’s second day with confidence.
A procedure that had evolved from their draft meetings was completely operational on the Fri-day and Saturday of the 2020 NFL Draft. Phelps was plugged in to everyone and everything from his home, and he operated as a de facto air traffic controller. And the analogy is appropriate, because his most important job was avoiding a disaster .
“During the meetings process, once Kevin got rolling – and he was good after the first hour, because like every other entity in the world right now, he initially was trying to have a group of 30 people have a conversation as if they were in the same room when they weren’t,” said Phelps. “So what ended up happening was a lot of me muting people during the meetings, and eventu-ally what it turned out to be was Kevin was the maestro of the meetings, and he was calling on individuals and telling them when it was their turn to talk.
“When we got to the draft,” continued Phelps, “I essentially ended up playing air traffic controller (from my house). For example, Mike would say, ‘I need a view of X-Y-Z,’ and I’d get