ESPN analyst Matt Williamson is a former NFL scout for the Cleveland Browns. He agreed to talk about a variety of topics in a three-part interview at The Rookie Scouting Portfolio. In Part I, Williamson discusses an emerging NFL offensive trend with personnel and then explains the difference between scouting for a football team and a media conglomerate. In this post, Williamson tells the story of his ascent to football’s biggest stage despite never playing the game.
Waldman: Tell me about your football background.
Williamson: I never put pads on in my life. I came from a rather nonathletic family. I played baseball and basketball like every kid, but I was never picked for an all-star game. I was never the first kid picked for a team. I am slow. But the love for football was always there.
When I was six years old and we would go on vacation I got preview guides and just read them the whole time. That’s all I cared about. I was a huge Steelers fan growing up here in Pittsburgh, and obviously football is “sort of big” in this town. I’m sure that had something to do with it.
Waldman: How did you get into scouting?
Williamson: I went to school at Pitt at Johnstown. Throughout college my neighbor owned a swimming pool servicing company. It was a really small organization all based on service. Every summer I would come home and work for him. Over those five summers I gained more and more responsibility and eventually I was running my own crew at the end.
I was a creative writing major. When I graduated, my grades weren’t great and I didn’t have a great direction. I didn’t know what I was going to do. So I bought the swimming pool company. The owner was an older guy and I got a great price on it. I was my own boss when I was 22 years old and I had an employee or two. It made money and allowed me to do whatever I wanted during the winters.
I told my wife that I wanted to do something with football. There is a company around here called Metro Index. They were one of the first high school scouting services around. They were way ahead of the game and Joe Butler and Tom Donahoe – the GM for the Bills and the Steelers who went on to bigger and greater things – started it. Joe still runs it and they were the first to ever to do high school recruiting. This started in the late `70s early `80s.
Waldman: How did you hear about them?
Williamson: Just knocking on doors for my pool business. One of my pool customers was (sports agent) Ralph Cindrich. He had a huge house with a pool. He told me to give Joe a call. So I went down and donated two winters in a row, just watching high school tape with Joe and learning the business and what to look for in players. All on the house – he’d buy me lunch.
The next winter, they needed a guy at Duquesne and I did that. I did everything. Back then they didn’t pay coaches that much. Jim Sweeney was our offensive line coach. He made $1000 and he didn’t even cash the check. He was there twice a week. If he didn’t show up I coached the offensive line.
Waldman: Were there any players of note on the Duquesne squad while you were there?
Williamson: Leigh Bodden was on our team, which was pretty crazy. I was there for his senior year (2002).
Waldman: What else did you do besides play substitute offensive line coach for Sweeney? Did they pay you?
Williamson: I filmed practices. I watched all the recruiting tape. They took me on road games. And they gave me gear. Occasionally I would get a free lunch out of it. I didn’t get a cent, but it was great.
The next year Duquesne hired a guy from Pitt as their offensive coordinator. He was the recruiting graduate assistant at Pitt. I got to know him over the week or two that he arrived at Duquesne and I realized that his old job was open at Pitt.
He recommended that they look at me. I went over there and interviewed and I got the job. I was old for a GA at this point – I was 26 or 27 – with a pool business.
Waldman: I’d imagine assistants at major programs have to work long hours. How did you manage to keep your business?
Williamson: I didn’t. I threw away the whole pool business. I came home and told my wife that I know this pool business is making a fair amount of money and doing well, but I’m going to make $1000 a month and work 90-hour weeks. I asked her if she was cool with that and she said yes.
So the pool business went away and I watched recruiting tape at Pitt for three years. I was there for Antonio Bryant’s last year and both of Larry’s (Fitzgerald’s) years. They were good years. We went to three bowl games.
We saw a ton of great players, recruited a ton of great players, and I have a lot stories about that…
Waldman: And you had a pretty good head coach…
Williamson: Yeah, Walt Harris was our head coach. We did well.
Waldman: How did you get from Pitt as a graduate assistant to director of football operations for Akron?
Williamson: Our receivers coach J.D. Brookhart became the head coach at Akron in 2004. We were Receiver U. (at Pitt) with Antonio and Larry and we were throwing the ball all over the field. Great guy. Smart.
He took me with him to be his director of football operations. So my wife stayed here in Pittsburgh in our house and I got a crappy apartment in Akron. We got to the job late and I had to put together a recruiting class and do all of the director of operations stuff like figuring out all of the travel for the next year- those types of things.
Waldman: It wasn’t very long before you landed the gig in Cleveland.
Williamson: No, I was only at Akron for six months when I heard of a scouting gig that was coming open for the Cleveland Browns. Akron and the Browns are only a half-hour away. I was trying to cultivate a relationship with them anyway.
I was dropping them lines and they were inviting us to come and watch film with them. There was an open door there. They were very receptive.
So when I found out about the scouting gig I interviewed for it because that was what I wanted to do all along. A ton of people interviewed for that job and I got it.
Waldman: What was the interview like?
Williamson: It was an all day thing. I met with five or six higher-ups with the team: Butch Davis, the Browns GM, and directors. Then we went into a dark room with the clicker and we wrote reports on a few random guys. I guess I did okay – I beat out a lot of people for that job.
Waldman: Pretty impressive considering it sounds like you you didn’t have a direct network to the Browns or any NFL team for that matter. Dave Razzano, a long-time veteran of NFL scouting, told me that entry into the business is frequently about who you know.
Williamson: Yeah. To be honest, when someone asks me how did I get to where I am the answer is luck and hard work. Really hard work. I didn’t know a soul.
It’s not an industry where they take resumes from whomever. It’s definitely an old-timer’s field where everybody knows everybody. Getting in is very very hard.
Waldman: I’ve also been told that scouting is a young man’s game and in many respects the NFL’s organizational structure influences that.
Williamson: I wouldn’t say that you’re wrong about that, but when you compare scouting and coaching it seems like coaches get fired all of the time. Where with scouts its harder to get into but once you’re in, you’re in. Everybody knows everybody.
Waldman: Why is that?
Williamson: If you’re a west coast scout there’s 32 of them and there’s only a certain number of schools they go to. You don’t see your family. You don’t see the team you work for. You don’t see anybody, but the other 31 scouts.
So if you get let go you call those guys. Everybody knows everybody. Its harder to get it, but fewer people are trying to get in compared to coaching. There are coaches at every level who want to be the head coach of the Rams.
In the next post, Williams discusses his role with the Browns as a college and pro scout, his transition to ESPN, and the resources he uses to continue learning about the game and its players.