The current NFL draft proves a stark contrast to days gone by

April 25, 2006

by Scott Pitoniak

Democrat and Chronicle

 

There was no hoopla or glitz surrounding the event, as there is today.

 

No wall-to-wall television coverage.

 

No commissioner stepping to the podium to tell us that the Bills have selected so-and-so from such-and-such college, and that the Jets are now on the clock.

 

No big-hair bigmouths dissecting the picks as if they were laboratory frogs in formaldehyde.

 

No, the NFL draft was quite different back in Pat Stark's day 52 years ago a gentle summer breeze rather than a full-blown tornado.

 

"Night and day," recalls Stark, the longtime Walworth resident and University of Rochester football coach who was drafted out of Syracuse by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the second round in 1954.

 

"In fact, it wasn't even called a draft."

 

Stark had a distinguished career for the Orange as a quarterback, once throwing a school-record four touchdown passes in a game against Fordham. The February after his senior season, Stark received a phone call from Steelers coach Joe Bach, a soft-spoken, deeply religious man who once played on Fordham's famous "Seven Blocks of Granite" line with the legendary Vince Lombardi. Bach said the Steelers had selected him, then drove up to Syracuse to meet Stark and his family.

 

Unlike today's NFL teams, those of the 1950s operated on a shoestring budget. There weren't any full-time scouts, so coaches and general managers relied on what they read in sports sections and feedback they received from football people they knew.

 

One of the Steelers assistants was a friend of SU assistant Rocco Pirro and called a few times to inquire about Stark before selecting him. Pirro also had connections from his playing days in the Canadian Football League, so the Toronto Argonauts also wound up selecting Stark.

 

"I was thrilled because I always dreamed of playing sports professionally," says Stark, who lettered in football, baseball and basketball at SU. "With both of them choosing me, it became a situation similar to being recruited by colleges, only in this situation there was money involved."

 

It was pocket change by today's standards, but good money back then.

 

At a time when the NFL's minimum salary was $5,000, Stark signed with the Steelers for $8,500.

 

He was going to get married that summer before heading to the Steelers training camp at St. Bonaventure, and he called the team's general manager to see if he could get a $300 advance.

 

The GM told Art Rooney about the request, and Pittsburgh's affable owner grabbed the phone and told Pat that the Steelers were going to send him $1,000 as a wedding gift.

 

Stark saw action as a backup to Steelers quarterback Jim Finks. But after the sixth game of the 1954 season, Stark's NFL career came to an abrupt halt when he was drafted by another organization the U.S. Army.

 

He spent 18 months in the service, and when he received his honorable discharge he contemplated resuming his pro playing career. Those plans changed when Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder offered him an assistant's job.

 

"Ben was a pretty persuasive guy," Stark says, chuckling. "He said, 'Boy, you are going to get into coaching eventually anyway, so it might as well be now.'"

 

So he returned to his alma mater in 1957, and three years later he won a national championship ring with the Orangemen.

After stints at Rhode Island and Harvard, Stark took over the UR head coaching reins in 1969 and spent 15 years leading the Yellowjackets football team.

 

"If the Army hadn't called back in '54, who knows what might have happened?" he said. "I definitely would have had a longer playing career in the NFL, but I still would have wound up in coaching. That's where my heart was. I have no regrets."