Before any fresh football recruit arrives to lift weights, unpack their cleats and footballs are aired-up, every college football team goes through the first order of business: set goals for the coming season.
On that list is usually a conference championship, playing (and winning) a bowl game, and, of course, securing the national championship. Players want all of these things as well. With the added publicity come more televised games; which garner face time for players and teams.
When the season has concluded, a tribute for every college football player is an invitation to a post-season All-Star game. The most coveted invitation is one to the Senior Bowl played annually in Mobile, Ala.
The Senior Bowl is a virtual Who’s Who when the NFL college draft has concluded. Each year an abundance of first and second-round draft selections will have heard their name called that spent their post-season competing against other top collegiate players in the Senior Bowl.
“It’s no secret that the Reese’s Senior Bowl features the best of the best each and every year,” said Rob Lehocky, director of public relations. “As a result, we have had 15 straight years with a Top-10 pick in the draft and 10 straight years with 10 or more first-round picks.”
First NFL exposure
Players in the Senior Bowl are divided into two squads — North and South. The game is annually sandwiched in the weekend between the AFC/NFC Championship games and the Super Bowl. This year’s Senior Bowl is slated for
Saturday, Jan. 28 with a kickoff for 2:30 p.m. ET on NFL Network. The nationally-televised game is unique because two complete NFL coaching staffs tutor both squads. Players realize that this is their first true taste of what life in the professional ranks is going to be like.
“The Senior Bowl is your first game as a professional,” said former Dallas Cowboys QB great Danny White, who played in the 1974 Senior Bowl. “All the NFL teams are there and players are watched closely as to their ability to play at the next level.”
As important as the actual game is, the entire week of practice is equally vital to the players. Because the Senior Bowl is basically an NFL convention, almost every head coach is in attendance, as well as every assistant coach and scores of scouts.
“Most every team sends all their coaches, front office and all components’ of player personnel as part of the week’s evaluation process,” said Andy Dengler, assistant director of player personnel for the Jacksonville Jaguars. “It introduces our coaches to the players. We can thoroughly evaluate all positions and grade the players based off of their week of practice and the game itself.”
On opening day 2016 more than 500 players in the league were Senior Bowl alums, about 30 percent of the league’s players on active rosters (plus practice squads).
And this game is not just about the NFL. Also in attendance during Senior Bowl week are representatives from the Canadian Football League, Arena League and several other professional indoor football entities.
”You want to go out there and show everybody what you can do,” said former Cowboys linebacker Brady James, who played in the 2003 Senior Bowl. “I don’t know how (this game) would hurt you. It’s like big business.”
With about 800 scouts, coaches and general managers in attendance, Senior Bowl week has also become an instrument that existing coaches and newly-hired head coaches utilize to fill vacancies on their staff.
“At no other time during the year are there that many NFL personnel in the same place to catch up with old buddies, network, plus the essential task of job searching,” said Scott Wright of Draft Countdown. “The week is a job interview for them and probably the main motivation for those trying to get back onto a staff.”
Senior Bowl rosters are formed from players who have finished all of their college eligibility. The North team is comprised of mostly northern, pacific and northeastern schools whereas the South team has mainly southwest, California and southern colleges represented. Senior Bowl Executive Director Phil Savage is the driving force behind each year’s roster with an emphasis on recruiting the top seniors in the country.
“One of the more difficult things is putting together a competitively-balanced roster,” Lehocky said. “The invitation process is long. Players are invited on three criteria: interest from the NFL, interest from national media and local/regional interest.”
Savage was once the GM of the Cleveland Browns and also the director of player personnel with the Baltimore Ravens.
Savage combines information from scouting services, NFL personnel, coaches and pro scouts about player candidates. As the college season goes along, changes are made regarding performance and injuries and continual updates are administered.
Because the quarterback position entices fans and a live television audience the Senior Bowl invites six of them to the contest. Future big names such as Dan Marino, Steve McNair, Andy Dalton, Ron Jaworski, Terry Bradshaw, Philip Rivers, Joe Namath, Neil Lomax, Carson Palmer, Donovan McNabb, Russell Wilson, Brett Favre, Tim Tebow and Len Dawson have played in the game.
“In many cases, NFL people fall in love with certain players during the practice week and that leads to them selecting those guys early in the draft,” said Wright. “The Senior Bowl is almost always a positive experience for the vast majority of prospects that take part.”
This year the full coaching staffs of the Browns and the Chicago Bears are challenging the newest draft prospects. This means young players who are being seasoned for the NFL have an opportunity to be groomed by professional coaches in a pro football environment. The best the league has to offer have coached this game at some point: Don Shula, Paul Brown, Marv Levy, Tom Landry, Tony Dungy, Mike Ditka, Bud Grant, Jon Gruden, Bill Belichick, Bill Cowher, Lou Saban and Hank Stram.
The Senior Bowl began in Jacksonville, Fla. in 1950 with the South squad taking home a 22-13 victory. Jimmie Pearre, a Nashville businessman, had the inspiration of a post-season bowl game of strictly senior All-Star players. He secured the Gator Bowl stadium in Jacksonville as the first game with the notion that this game should be coached by actual NFL coaching staffs instead of college coaches. In the inaugural game, Bo McMillin of the Detroit Lions coached the North squad while Steve Owen of the New York Giants took the reins of the South squad.
Citing poor attendance, Pearre sought other venues. Several Mobile businessmen, led by Finley McRae, were able to persuade Pearre to move the contest the following year to the Gulf Coast, a college football hotbed. The carrot dangled to Pearre was that the City of Mobile had recently constructed the 36,000-seat Ladd Stadium. Just as Super Bowls would be played in southern locales in the winter, the Alabama coastal climate was perfect for the January contest time frame. Along the way, Pearre transferred ownership of the game to the Mobile Arts and Sports Association (MASA), a non-profit organization. Rea Schuessler, known as “Mr. Senior Bowl,” continued the idea that the development of the relationship between the game and the NFL was crucial, and became the game’s general manager soon after the game was moved to Mobile.
Schuessler theorized that invitations to the nation’s very best collegiate football players would make the Senior Bowl a success year-after-year. And for the best players to want to become a part of this particular game, they needed inspiration.
And what better inspiration is there than to have every NFL team’s entire coaching staff watching every practice and talking to players at the hotel with one-on- one face time?
“The Senior Bowl is the first time scouts, coaches, and front office personnel get together as a whole organization to watch and evaluate the players,” stated Jeff Shiver, college scout for the Bears. “You get to know the player on and off the field in a big way. It gives you an opportunity to interview, watch, and know all about the player — and then some. Most of all, you get the player’s correct cell phone number.”
Ladd-Peebles Stadium has been the home field for the Senior Bowl since the game’s relocation.
If the Senior Bowl could be summed up in one phrase, it would be this: as a player you are auditioning for one of the greatest jobs in the world and the entire NFL has assembled in one location for a solid week for your interview.
Denver’s Von Miller played in the 2010 contest and became the second overall pick in the draft.
“If a player comes (to Mobile) and really has a strong week, they will absolutely elevate their status,” Lehocky said. “It also affords them an opportunity to meet with the hundreds of NFL scouts and other front office personnel in attendance that week.”
One could assemble some of the greatest NFL teams of all time from past senior Bowl rosters. Players such as Walter Payton, Ray Nitschke, Art Monk, Bo Jackson, Matt Forte, Mean Joe Greene, Patrick Willis, Alex Karras, Derrick Brooks, LaDainian Tomlinson, Frank Gifford, James Lofton, Brian Urlacher, Sam Huff, Morten Anderson, Clay Matthews, Bubba Smith, Thurman Thomas, Chris Johnson, Franco Harris, Steve Largent, Tiki Barber, Jack Youngblood, Lynn Swann, DeMarcus Ware, Lee Roy Jordan and Ozzie Newsome are just some of the NFL stars who have graced the playing field in Mobile.
“I was a small-school guy. It was the only place for me to really showcase myself,” explained Denver Broncos defensive end DeMarcus Ware. “I think (my draft status) went up there. I was able to go against some of the top offensive tackles and was able to beat them. I wasn’t a starter when I first got (to the Senior Bowl), but I got that starter position and I got to sort of showcase myself in front of the scouts.”
Players who compete during Senior Bowl week will never have a better opportunity to display themselves in front of so many NFL scouts and coaches. For NFL teams, this is an opportunity to gather more insight as they get to interact with the players at the practice field, in meeting rooms and in normal every day environments.
“For many NFL decision-makers, the Senior Bowl is their first real exposure to the top prospects,” Wright said. “In many cases guys who will be calling the shots during the draft don’t even begin to look at tape until their season is over. The Senior Bowl gives a chance to get an up close and personal look at many of the top prospects in one place, so the bang for your buck factor is huge.”