SBD/Issue 111/Sports Industrialists

THE DAILY Goes One-on-One With Former NFL GM Ernie Accorsi

Accorsi Retires After 35
Years In Pro Football
Following his graduation from Wake Forest in ’63, ERNIE ACCORSI served in the U.S. Army before getting his start in sports business as a reporter for the Charlotte News. He later wrote for the Baltimore Sun and the Philadelphia Inquirer before moving to the athletic departments at St. Joseph’s Univ. and then Penn State. Accorsi began his NFL career in ’70 as PR Dir for the Baltimore Colts, worked on former NFL Commissioner PETE ROZELLE’s staff in the league office in ’75 before rejoining the Colts two years later as Assistant GM. He resigned as GM in ’83 after drafting JOHN ELWAY and learning that the club had traded him. He was GM and Exec VP of the Browns for seven years. Following his ninth season in the front office of the Giants, and his 35th year in pro football, Accorsi retired in January. He spoke recently with SportsBusiness Journal N.Y. bureau chief Jerry Kavanagh.

 

Date & Place of Birth: October 29, 1941, in Hershey, Pennyslvania.
Education: Wake Forest (1963).
Favorite vacation spot: Europe. My mother was born in Tuscany. My father, although he is of Italian descent, was born in Paris. I love exploring my roots and World War II sites in Europe.
Favorite Singer: FRANK SINATRA.
Favorite Song: “The Great Pretender,” by The Platters.
Favorite Book: “North Toward Home,” by WILLIE MORRIS.
Favorite Movie: “Field of Dreams.”
Best sports movie: “Pride of the Yankees.”
Worst sports movie: “The Babe Ruth Story.” I don’t think I could ever buy WILLIAM BENDIX as BABE RUTH.
Favorite Quote: Browning’s “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
Last book read: “Johnny U,” by TOM CALLAHAN and “The Precious Present,” by SPENCER JOHNSON, which RICK PITINO recommended.
Second-guesses/regrets: I don’t second-guess myself because I’m in a decision-making position and I make the call. My biggest regret in sports is that I did not see Ebbets Field.
Most influential people in career: JOE PATERNO at the beginning, Pete Rozelle in the middle and WELLINGTON MARA at the end.
Most underrated player: BERNIE KOSAR. He’s probably going to just miss the Hall of Fame. He made five straight playoffs and carried us on his back and people forget about how good he was. He was a great player for five years. He hurt his elbow and was never quite the same and had somewhat of a short career. For example, he came in with [VINNY] TESTAVERDE, and Testaverde’s still playing. Bernie’s been out what, ten years?

Q: Looking back on your 35 years in the game, what’s the most memorable story for you?

Accorsi: Probably it was the transaction, trade and drafting of Bernie Kosar in Cleveland. We made a trade for a supplemental draft choice from Buffalo for the possibility of drafting him, and Minnesota had traded with Houston for their conventional draft pick in order to obtain him. The NFL changed the rule after that so that you couldn’t trade for a supplemental choice in advance. Considering the results of that trade -- the fact that it really brought that franchise back into prominence and got us on the brink of the Super Bowl three times -- I’d say that probably was the most significant thing I was involved in from a business standpoint.

Q: You entered and learned the business from a reporter’s perspective. How did that help prepare you for the front office?

Accorsi: When I graduated from Wake Forest in 1963, in the three American-based major sports (the NBA, the NFL and MLB), the three commissioners had all been former reporters or PR men. It was really the way you had to crack the business because the NFL did not have scouting staffs. They might have had one scout, but most of the time the coaches did that. There were not that many general managers. It was the owner and the coach. So there were not a lot of opportunities in front offices in pro football; baseball had a little more. In those days, because of the relationship between the media and the clubs, which was quite different from what it is now -- it wasn’t quite as adversarial -- that was not an unusual avenue. My dream was to be a GM in baseball. I grew up in the ’50s, when baseball was the dominant professional sport. So I just immediately went to the media business. I had to overcome a bias my whole career from people in football who did not go that way, who might have had a different opinion of the media and who started off as coaches. But it gave me an edge in that I always understood that the media had a job to do.

Q: How would you characterize your relations with the media?

Accorsi: Listen, I don’t like to be criticized publicly any more than any other human being. But I understood that that was part of the business. Rarely did I ever take it personally because I had done the same thing. I had criticized athletes, coaches, general managers and draft choices, and I never felt it was personal. A lot of times they took it personally. And I swore to myself that I wasn’t going to do that if I ever got into a position of being a principal. And most of the time I was able to fulfill that promise to myself. For the most part, I had good relations with the media.

Q: How do you assess the state of sportswriting today?

Accorsi: It’s different. The cliché is that Watergate changed everything when [journalism] became more investigative. I was a reporter right before that. When I broke into the business, you were more intent on being a lyricist. You were anxious to see what RED SMITH thought of a game and how he wrote about it. You wanted to break stories, especially if you were a reporter. But the columnists, more or less, almost put it to music, and it was wonderful to read. There isn’t as much of the emphasis on the lyricism today. There’s more emphasis on what information is being uncovered. There’s more reporting. The behind-the-scenes rumors or things of that nature are more important than how well you write it.

Q: You grew up in Hershey. Did you see WILT CHAMBERLAIN’s 100-point game?

Accorsi: No, I was a junior at Wake Forest. I had been to the ACC tournament semifinal that night at Raleigh and was driving back to Winston-Salem with my fraternity brothers. We were listening to the rock music of that time on the car radio, and they broke in with the news. When I heard Hershey, I figured there was a fire or explosion at the chocolate factory. Why else would Hershey command such national news! My first thought then was, well, I missed it. My second thought was of my father, who went to all those games. And he was the all-time leave-early-to-beat-the-traffic guy, which was ridiculous. In Hershey, Pennsylvania! When I got back to the dorm, I called my parents. My mother answered the phone and immediately asked, “What happened?” I said, “I just want to know: Did he stay?” And for once, he did. I had this vision that he walked out when Wilt scored his 90th point to beat the crowd.

Q: A lot more people than were present for the game claim to have been there.

Accorsi: Oh, 25,000 did [claim that]. I guess there were about 4,000 at the game. They played a couple of games there every year. They would draw 4,000. Very rarely did they draw 4,000 in Philadelphia. They did for the Celtics maybe, but otherwise drew 3,800 or 4,000. The team trained in Hershey, so they would play games there. I even saw NBA doubleheaders there. The NBA wasn’t what it is today.

Q: You rewrote the football quiz in the movie “Diner.”

Accorsi: I didn’t know who [the director] BARRY LEVINSON was. I was in Baltimore and they came to town to do this movie. They wanted to re-create the 1959 [NFL] championship game. They asked us if they could get uniforms made the way they were then. I said, “We still wear the exact same uniforms.” They showed me portions of the script, and there were questions in that quiz that I changed. It has now become legendary that I wrote the quiz. I did not.

Q: It’s the most memorable scene in the movie.

Accorsi: It is. And I always said that if the quiz was on the level, she [the prospective bride] wouldn’t have passed.

Q: What was your greatest challenge?

Accorsi: I was an assistant GM with the Colts. BOB IRSAY fired the GM and gave me the job late in the summer. The coach had stripped the team. He had traded BERT JONES and JOHN DUTTON, both All-Pros, and I had nothing but a scrappy bunch of rookies. There was a strike. We only played nine games and the team went 0-8-1. The next year, we went 7-9. No team had ever won seven games in a season after a winless season the year before. And we came within a whisker, just a whisker, of going 9-7. That was the last team in Baltimore Colts history. That was 1983. I was in the job a little over a year. The rumor was that the team would move. I didn’t want to be a part of it. Growing up within 80 miles of Baltimore, I had rooted for that team. The owner had also traded the rights to John Elway without my knowledge. Consequently, I just didn’t feel there was a commitment to win and I resigned. I got a job with the Cleveland Browns. But that was the biggest challenge: to try to put something together with very limited resources.

Q: You once said that if the Colts had kept Elway and signed him, the franchise might still be in Baltimore.

Accorsi: I think so. He claims he never would have signed. Of course, no one will ever know. We had a waiting list for season tickets and then all of a sudden it depleted before I became GM down to about 28,000. And I’m convinced that had Elway signed, season tickets would have doubled and there would have been an excitement around the town that probably would have kept him there and maybe inspired him. The city needed a new stadium, but that might have inspired the popularity to change in a political climate to build a new stadium.

Q: When you became GM of the Giants in 1998, your predecessor, GEORGE YOUNG, said, “He knows who to talk to and he knows who not to listen to.”

Accorsi: George always said that. I think I know people. Some people are smart and some are not so smart. Some have high intelligence and not great instincts. I don’t know how smart I am, but I’ve always been blessed with the instincts of knowing people. I usually can spot a genuine person and a non-genuine person quite quickly.

Q: You said that you always loved the draft part of the business the most. Why?

Accorsi: There’s such a brotherhood to it. I have great empathy for the scouts. They are the unsung heroes of the franchise. For the most part they live in different parts of the country. They don’t see the team play. They’re on the road from August until February. They may scout 1,000 players and we may not draft any of them. It’s sort of a lonely life, and when they all come together in April to gather and study the prospects and rate them in meetings, it all culminates in incredible tension in two days at the draft. It’s not even the tension of “Am I going to make the right choice?” It’s the tension of “Are the players that we really want, are they still going to be there for us to pick?” You have differences of opinion, but there’s just a bonding that occurs that’s different with the coaches. The coaches are in the action, they’re on the field. The scouts basically walk through their lives in anonymity, but they mean the world to us as a franchise.

Accorsi Sees Selection Of
Umenyiora As Memorable Pick

Q: You have been through 35 drafts, with the big names being Kosar, Elway and, most recently, ELI MANNING. Any sleeper gems that you are most proud of?

Accorsi: EARNEST BYNER, in the tenth round [in 1984 by the Cleveland Browns], turned out to be an outstanding player. Just recently OSI UMENYIORA, who [the Giants] picked in the second round in 2003. People laughed at the pick. They thought it was a reach. But what difference does it make if you want the player and think he’s going to be outstanding? Does it make any difference where you pick him? The only thing that determines is how much money the guy gets. Get him if you really believe in him. There have been others, but those two are bookends at the two ends of my career.

Q: Eagles Owner JEFFREY LURIE said that you have to draft well because your most efficient use of the salary cap is with younger players.

Accorsi: Very, very profound statement. Because you can’t re-sign all your veteran players. It’s economically impossible under the cap. The only way you’re ever going to be able to deal with the cap is to understand that you’re going to lose players. And the only way to replace them is through the draft. So, not only do you have to draft well, but [the draftees] have to play faster. The old days of “Well, we have five years to get this player ready” are gone. You can’t afford to wait that long. By that time, they’re free agents. You have people who have to step in and play. You need to draft well and the coaches need to develop them faster. I’ve always felt the coaching position is a teaching position anyway, and there’s even more pressure on them now to develop these players and get them ready to play because free agency and the cap cause you to lose players.

Q: What’s the best thing about working in sports?

Accorsi: EDWARD BENNETT WILLIAMS called it “contest winning.” I guess with him it was winning a trial, and then he became the owner of the Redskins. There’s no high like the moment when you’ve just won a game. You watch the players file into the locker room and you look at each one’s contributions. The euphoria in the locker room after a win, particularly on the road, because there is no sensation like silencing the road crowd. And then you are together for the trip home. There’s nothing like that plane ride home after a great victory.

Q: What’s the biggest change in the business of football since you became part of it?

Accorsi: It’s easy to say free agency. That’s structural and that obviously has changed it. If you took what I consider one of the greatest teams in history, personnel-wise, the mid-’70s Steelers, there was no way they could have kept that team together. The salary cap would not have permitted it. They would have lost two or three Hall of Famers. They would have had to. They had, what, eight or nine?

Q: What about changes to the game itself?

Accorsi: To me, the biggest differences in the game are the scripted mass substitutions. It looks like rush hour at Penn Station: players coming on the field and players coming off the field. You have these coaches with what I call the “Denny’s menu” [color-coded play charts]. And you have quarterbacks pointing all over the place and driving you crazy because the clock’s running down and you’re thinking, “Get the snap. Get the snap.” It has just become a very high-tech, very intelligently directed game.

Q:
The game was different when you first joined the NFL.

Accorsi: I loved the game the way it was. There was a uniformity and a beauty to it. You had the two backs behind the quarterback. You had a flanker and a split end. You had a 4-3 defense. Everything was neat. Because of that it became a match-up game. It became an athletic game. I have to beat you all day or you have to stop me all day. Those days are gone. It has now become a scheming game.

Q: I’ve heard you before refer to the “Denny’s menu.” What about the coaches we see now in every sport who are afraid of lip readers? They hold their play card up to their mouth to hide what they are saying.

Accorsi: Oh, yeah. I’ll tell you an incident that actually won the divisional title for us in 1977. We had an assistant coach named BOBBY COLBERT, who had been the head coach at Gallaudet school for the deaf in Washington. He had been educated in lip-reading. There’s a science to it. That was the only way he could communicate with his players. We were losing to the Patriots in the last game of the season in a game we needed to win to win the division. If we lost, we’d be out of the playoffs. We had third-and-18 at our own 12. Their defensive coordinator was yelling, “Double safety delayed blitz.” Colbert read his lips with binoculars, got the word to [Colts QB] Bert Jones, who checked off and threw a pass down the middle of the field to RAY CHESTER for an 88-yard touchdown. That basically broke the game open and won the championship for us.

Q: I wonder how many coaches know that story.

Accorsi: That is an extreme example from a person who had tremendous expertise in it. But now teams have so many coaches -- some have 21 -- that they have people assigned on binoculars to try to read lips. They do! You used to send the plays in with players. Now the offensive coordinator or the head coach is calling the plays in his headset. The quarterback is listening to it in his headset and the coach has to mouth it [the play call]. That’s why he’s obscuring his face.

Q: In referring to what you called the “Super Bowl hangover,” you said, “It’s a one-game huge event. When you lose it, the emotional setback is incredible.” But you have seven months to recover from that hangover.

Accorsi: Yeah, but that doesn’t do you any good. I was in four championship games and lost three of them. And that is a devastating effect, too, because you’re one game away from the Super Bowl. I realized that when I came to the Colts in 1970 and they were still reeling from the loss in Super Bowl III. Granted that was probably the most devastating of all Super Bowl defeats because that was the first one the NFL lost to the AFL, it was JOE NAMATH rubbing it in and the Colts were 17-point favorites.

Q: You don’t see the same aftereffects in baseball.

Accorsi: There are teams that celebrate pennants. You go to training camp in Lakeland this spring and I’m sure it will say “Home of the American League Champion Detroit Tigers.” They don’t do that in football. Because it’s a one-game thing, and if you lose, you’re almost branded a loser even though you’ve just played in the Super Bowl. If you’ve played in the World Series, you’re heralded for that. If you lose the Super Bowl, you’re not. Look at poor Buffalo. Four straight Super Bowls! They should go down in history as one of the great dynasties ever. And no one even talks about them other than they lost four straight Super Bowls. So that’s what I mean. And seven months doesn’t do you any good because when I got to the Colts, they still had the hangover.

Q: The salary cap sometimes requires hard choices. What was your toughest personnel decision?

Jurevicius One Of Hardest Personnel
Decisions Accorsi Says He Had To Make

Accorsi: Oh, I had so many players that I had to let go. JOE JUREVICIUS, who was one of my first draft choices [with the Giants] and turned out to help Tampa Bay win the Super Bowl, was really tough. MORTEN ANDERSEN, the great kicker, who will probably go to the Hall of Fame. I could not sign him. He said he was willing to wait but I told him, “It’s your age. I cannot afford to call you and say, ‘Look, I made you wait and now you don’t have any place to go.’” I had to let him go because I didn’t know if I’d be able to raise the money. And CHAD BRATZKE, who had 16 or 17 sacks with [the Giants]. I had two All-Pro defensive ends, Bratzke and MICHAEL STRAHAN, and I had to pick between the two. Now, I picked the right one, but I told his agent -- the same agent, by the way, for both -- TONY AGNEW, “I cannot even compete for him because then I won’t be able to re-sign Strahan.” Here was a player we drafted down the line and the coaches did a great job of developing him, and now we developed him for someone else. It breaks your heart. It flies in the face of the whole concept of this business, but there’s nothing you can do.

Q: AL MCGUIRE said, “Super intelligent people can’t be good athletes. They’re too aware.”

Accorsi: I know what Al was getting at. They’re probably not as coachable (laughing) because they question too much, and sometimes you don’t want to be questioned as a coach. What he means is, “Go do this. Don’t ask me why. I’m the coach. I’m telling you go do this, and do it this way.” But I don’t buy that. TIGER WOODS and JACK NICKLAUS are the two greatest golfers of my lifetime, and they’re both super intelligent in my opinion. Elway was very intelligent. So was Unitas.

Q: About your retirement, your friend PAT WILLIAMS said, “I’m wondering if, a year from now, does he get antsy? Does he make a grand return?” What about that?

Accorsi: No, I won’t. There are so many things I want to do that I’ve not been able to do. It’s not that you’re indispensable 24 hours a day. But you have to be on call 24 hours a day. I tried to go to Europe in 2001. By the time I landed and drove to the place I was staying in Tuscany, one of our players got in an automobile accident and another decided to have foot surgery in June, which was going to knock him out of the first half of the season. My vacation was already ruined. When you have children, you’re never going to have personal piece of mind. But I want professional piece of mind. I don’t want that burden weighing on me all the time. My basic passion is baseball. But I’ve never lost a golf ball in the autumn leaves, and I just want to do it once. Meaning since I was a kid, I’ve never got the chance. October is the best time to play. And believe me, I’m sure I’ll lose plenty.

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