Media & Marketing and Sports Business

SPORTS:

February 28, 2005

After spending much of his adult life with a stopwatch, Duke Babb knows something about time.

In this case, it's his.

Having just turned 70, he says it is time to get off this "great ride" through football he's been on the past 50 years. Time to let someone else tend to this behemoth he's created, which is popularly known as the NFL scouting combine. Time to still have the energy to "kick the dog a little bit."

That's figurative speech, animal lovers.

By its official title, the combine is the National Invitational Camp Inc. The annual time-'em, test-'em, measure-'em, weigh-'em, psychoanalyze-'em, get-toknow-'em (pardon me for lapsing into Mitch Daniels-speak) has been Babb's labor of love more than 20 years, the last 18 here in Indy.

The week-long combine is another of those economic generators that critics of our sports movement in general and the proposed new multipurpose stadium in particular tend to overlook when judging whether it's all worth it.

In this case, the "worth" is estimated (by the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association) at just below $3 million annually. That's the money the players, NFL and team personnel, agents, media and assorted hangers-on bring to town and depart without.

That's a bunch of depleted wallets or inflated expense accounts, take your pick. At any rate, just try to find a table at a steakhouse during combine time.

Other cities, sensing an asset for the taking, have tried to lure the combine to their burg. It hasn't happened and Duke Babb, more than anyone, is the reason.

"Duke has always put great value on the people here in Indy and his relationships," says Bob Bedell, president of the ICVA.

"Like so many people who come to Indianapolis, he has become an ambassador for the city," adds Mike Fox, RCA Dome manager. "I know he goes to bat for us."

Swing and a hit.

"It's a great arrangement and a great situation here," Babb says. "When folks talk about moving the combine somewhere else, the first words out of my mouth are always, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.'"

There's no need to fix the structure of the combine, either. Babb and his team of more than 200-a collection of personnel from the 32 NFL teams-move more than 330 college prospects through medical, physical and psychological evaluations with precision and coordination.

"His entire focus is on those athletes because what happens can have an enormous financial impact on the rest of their lives," Fox says. "He doesn't want anything to take away from what those kids need to have."

That's because, long ago, Babb was one of them. Coming out of Austin College-"The Fightin' Kangaroos," he laughs-in Sherman, Texas, in 1957, Babb was a 19th-round draft choice (back when the NFL draft had 36 rounds) of the San Francisco 49ers. A running back, he played two years with the 49ers, went to the new Dallas Cowboys in the expansion draft, and finished his career with the AFL Houston Oilers on the other side of the ball as a linebacker.

His playing days over, Babb moved into college coaching, then eventually landed a job in scouting for the Atlanta Falcons, which eventually led him to Tulsa, Okla.-based National Football Scouting, which currently scouts for 17 NFL teams (although not the Colts). The same company, however, conducts the combine for all 32 NFL teams.

Babb admits that-despite the battery of tests, drills and interviews-there is one thing the combine can't measure.

"No question about it ... the heart is the main thing," he says. "The real evaluation is looking at the player [in the season] in the contact situation; that's where the crux of the evaluation comes from. Here is just sifting it all out."

But there's a lot of heavy sifting.

"We bombard them from the time they wake up to the time they go to bed," Babb says. "There are not many players who don't have a hole or two, so you evaluate them from the standpoint of what they can do and do well as opposed to what they're shortcomings are and [whether you can] live with them."

And Babb says no matter the thoroughness of the testing and interviews, there are always players who perform poorly at the combine who end up being great NFL players, just as there are always players who make great impressions at the combine but bomb in the NFL.

"Happens every year," he says.

In future years, it will happen without him.

"Time to move along and let someone else take this thing to the next level," Babb says.

Fine, as long as they don't take it to another city.



Benner is a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bbenner@ibj.com.
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