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2019 Hall of Fame: Gil Brandt rode computer revolution to modernize scouting and lead Cowboys

Nikki Baim
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The Pro Football Hall of Fame will formally welcome its Class of 2019 on Saturday. This week, Yahoo Sports is highlighting memorable moments for each member of the eight-man class, leading up to the big ceremony.

Gil Brandt was at a college in Texas watching NFL prospects run the 40-yard dash. The Dallas Cowboys scout noticed the coach recording official times wasn’t using a stopwatch. He was timing the sprints with his fingers.

It was the 1960s. The NFL scouting combine wouldn’t be incepted for another two decades and it would be even longer before the implementation of laser technology. Schools found unique ways to embellish athletes’ times on the dash. One of the common cheats was running only 38 or 37 yards, which decreased what would be a 4.9-second time to a 4.5 or 4.4.

Brandt, dismayed by the coach’s method, laid out his own towels to mark the yards. Later, he and other Cowboys scouts would bring a 40-yard wash line on scouting trips.

Gil Brandt poses for a photo in the indoor practice facility during TCU NFL football Pro Day Friday, March 27, 2015, in Fort Worth, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Gil Brandt will be sporting a gold jacket. (AP)

Brandt’s ability to think outside the box – whether it be finding a future Super Bowl MVP at a gas station or using computer technology to evaluate talent – helped the Cowboys build some of its greatest teams of all time and reformed NFL scouting.

It’s why he’ll be formally inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Aug. 3.

He once found a Super Bowl MVP at a gas station

Brandt, 86, grew up in Milwaukee. He attended the University of Wisconsin where he met Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch, a former Badger and All-Pro receiver for the Los Angeles Rams. Hirsch helped Brandt, who was then a baby photographer, become a part-time scout for the Rams in 1955.

When Rams general manager Tex Schramm left for the Cowboys in 1960, he brought Brandt and named him personnel director. Over three decades, the athletes Brandt brought to Dallas helped the Cowboys to 17 playoff appearances in 18 seasons and five Super Bowls (winning it twice).

Under Brandt’s leadership, the Cowboys participated in its first draft in 1961. They selected TCU lineman Bob Lilly, who would become one of the best defensive tackles in NFL history.

A year later, Brandt showed his creativity by seeking out a basketball player. Utah State’s Cornell Green, who had been drafted by the NBA’s Chicago Zephyrs, came on board as a free agent. In two seasons, he went from not knowing how to put pads on to a Pro Bowl.

Brandt’s willingness to search far and wide for talent brought him to Ouachita Baptist University in 1970. Division II track and football star Cliff "Captain Crash" Harris was exactly what Brandt believed a Cowboys defense, already stacked with future Hall of Famers, needed.

He was right. Harris started five Super Bowls and made six Pro Bowls.

Drew Pearson was one of Brandt’s most memorable finds. The Steelers burnout came on in 1973. He immediately connected with future Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach — another Brandt pick — and after injuries to the starting wide receivers, reignited his career. He too earned multiple first-team All-Pro honors.

Brandt’s scouting success was shaped by some luck as well. He once ran into Chuck Howley at a gas station in West Virginia. Howley was running the station after a knee injury ended his career with the Chicago Bears. Brandt offered the linebacker a chance to return to football with the Cowboys. Howley starred in Dallas, becoming Super Bowl V MVP.

Vince Lombardi scoffed

Brandt, known as one of the founding fathers of modern scouting, revolutionized football in the 1960s with computer technology. He analyzed data of players’ height, weight and 40-yard dash time and graded them.

Other teams were skeptical of computers early on. Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi jeered at Brandt when the Cowboys delayed before selecting their pick in the 1964 draft. Lombardi asked if Brandt’s computer broke down.

It didn’t, and three of the Cowboys’ selections that year (Staubach, Mel Renfro and Bob Hayes) are Hall of Famers.

After his tenure with the Cowboys ended in 1989, Brandt became a senior analyst on NFL.com and a SiriusXM NFL Radio host. Always up with the latest technology, Brandt also has a lively Twitter full of random facts and player projections.

Brandt has a special knack for finding the diamonds in the rough, but as of August, his name will be ingrained in Canton among the biggest and brightest gems of them all.

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