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Love him or hate him, Mel Kiper Jr. is Mr. NFL Draft

By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 19, 2010; D01

Mel Kiper Jr. doesn't do bathroom breaks.

Perhaps that doesn't seem like an incredible feat, but it helps to realize that ESPN will broadcast a total of 15 hours of live NFL draft coverage this week, and Kiper will be under the stage lights the entire time. In 16 years as his producer, Jay Rothman has never seen Kiper sneak away for even a quick break.

Instead, he'll sit in the ready position at one end of the set, never needing to refer to any notes as the 255 names are called out. The entire time, his foot will be shaking uncontrollably.

"It goes a mile a minute, and it won't stop," Rothman says. "I swear to you. As long as we're on the air, it shakes. He's high-wired. A human adrenaline rush. He totally is."

Kiper, 49, usually doesn't notice. In church back in Maryland, his daughter, Lauren, holds his leg still. At Radio City Music Hall, though, it just shakes until the draft ends. At times, he can make the network's entire elevated set wobble. Joe Theismann, a former draft sidekick, once wondered aloud whether New York City experiences earthquakes.

It does. Once a year when Kiper makes the trek from his home outside of Baltimore and gives meaning and texture to the long list of barely-old-enough-to-drink insta-millionaires who are charged with changing a franchise's fortunes. Kiper calls it all "serious business."

"I'm not in it to be funny," he says, his words vacuumed tightly together, coming out as though each sentence is racing a stopwatch. "You can have the Comedy Channel for that."

'Who is Mel Kiper?'

This week marks the 28th year that Kiper has covered the draft for ESPN. Some might say he's seen it grow from a barely noticed Tuesday league meeting that warranted only small type in the next day's paper to an event that's surpassed only by the Super Bowl on the NFL calendar in interest, media coverage and anticipation. The truth is, he's helped it make that transformation.

His world of run-on sentences and 40-yard dash times has made Kiper more associated with the annual draft than anyone else, and an easy target for criticism.

"Who is Mel Kiper?" former Colts president Bill Tobin once asked. "He's never been a player, he's never been a coach, he's never been a scout, he's never been an administrator and all of a sudden he's an expert. He has no more credentials to do what he's doing than my neighbor, and my neighbor's a postman."

Said Mike Hickey, the Jets' former director of player personnel: "He knows about as much about football as I do about nuclear physics." And Ted Plumb, a former Eagles coordinator: "Who decided Mel Kiper was an expert, anyway?" And former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz: "I've missed somewhere along what Mel Kiper's done that makes him an authority."

Yet Kiper has managed to outlast them all.

Where did he come from?

With so much uncertainty about ESPN's carefully coiffed draft machine, it's worth quickly retracing a few steps.

His father was in real estate, his mother was in banking, and he was always in football. Kiper never aspired to be a player, though; the draft is what piqued his interest early. Just a teenager, he'd show up at the Baltimore Colts' training camp at Goucher College in the late 1970s and pass out copies of his draft analysis to anyone within an arm's length.

"All these other kids were running around getting autographs," recalls Ernie Accorsi, the Colts' general manager at the time and a longtime NFL executive, "and instead he was there giving me his draft lists, ranking college players."

Kiper talked his father into installing a clunky satellite dish atop their Baltimore home. Without the benefit of the Internet, Kiper would pile up long-distance minutes calling schools across the country for statistics and results.

Accorsi convinced Kiper that he shouldn't give away his research and knowledge for free, and in 1979, with the help of his parents, a 19-year-old Kiper published his first draft book -- a no-frills product born on a typewriter -- and mailed it off to NFL teams, media members and a handful of subscribers.

"Back then, the draft was the only avenue to improve your football team," Kiper said. "When I was coming up, that was it. There were very few trades, and there was no free agency."

Following the 1982 season, Accorsi offered Kiper a position with the Colts, essentially as an assistant and researcher. But before long, owner Bob Irsay loaded his football team onto Mayflower moving trucks, and Kiper and his fledging draft book were left behind in Baltimore.

Kiper had been doing plenty of radio promoting his book each year and he caught the attention of network executives in Bristol, Conn. ESPN brought him onboard for their modest draft broadcast in 1983.

"He came in and it was like, 'Wow.' This kind of animal just didn't exist," says ESPN's Chris Berman, who's preparing for his 30th draft broadcast this week, the past 28 alongside Kiper. "You talk about a cottage industry. It was like there were all these farmers, and here's this guy who only wants to grow boysenberries. And it didn't take long before everyone wanted boysenberries."

Along the way, Kiper has received as much criticism as he's doled out. He doesn't hold his punches, and if he spends 51 weeks a year focusing on speculation, he packs just as much energy into his instant pick-by-pick evaluations.

"You're gonna have bad misses. But you're going to have great hits, too," Kiper said. "No one's batting 1.000. There are hall of fame personnel evaluators who made huge mistakes along the way. Nobody's perfect."

What is he thinking?

His evaluations before the draft are just as ripe for controversy, particularly this year. On his "Big Board," Kiper says Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen is the best quarterback available and the fourth-best overall player in the draft while Scouts, Inc. ranks Clausen as the draft's 38th best player, 35 spots below Oklahoma's Sam Bradford.

Kiper's against-the-grain ranking has prompted some whispers about his relationships with agents. Gary Wichard, the agent who represents Clausen, is a long-time friend of Kiper's. The ESPN analyst has been accused in the past of overhyping Wichard's clients, something he vehemently denies, noting his criticism of several Wichard clients, including safety Taylor Mays in this year's draft and even pointing toward players such as Dwight Freeney in past drafts.

"I have so many friends who are agents: Tom Condon, Joel Segal, Tony Agnone, Gary Wichard. Ask them how many battles we've had on the phone over players that they've represented," Kiper said. "I don't shill for anybody."

Kiper says his credibility would take a hit if he didn't honor his convictions. "And if you listen, in the next breath they'll go on to say that I have no credibility with 32 teams. So how I can help an agent if 32 teams don't care what I say?" Kiper says.

Though teams rely on their own scouting departments for draft preparation, they don't ignore Kiper. Many subscribe to his book, now in its 33rd year of printing, and many team officials will reference Kiper's work and double-check their evaluations against his.

"It's almost an impartial checks-balance system that we use," says Eric DeCosta, the Baltimore Ravens' director of player personnel. "Obviously we use our work and go off our own list, but it does give you a little bit of indication that maybe we might want to do more work with a player or two.

"If you do this job, you find out there's so many little details, and the devil's in the details. It's painstaking to follow all those players and know everything about them. Mel seems to approach his job the same way every year with the same thoroughness and passion," DeCosta says. "It's impressive."

There's a point during every year, sometimes late in the second round, sometimes late in the third. A team will make a pick and Berman's face will go blank.

"That's where I say, 'Now comes the time in every year's draft that we say the following: Mel, who's he?' " Berman said. "And Mel winds up like the Energizer bunny for three minutes. He's the only guy who knows something on that guy, and he knows so much on him that I'll have to stop him."

Kiper says the actual draft feels like Christmas -- "It's the culmination of something I've spent every waking hour preparing for" -- but he doesn't suddenly disappear for the next 51 weeks. In fact, he counts only three Saturdays a year that he's actually off, filling the rest of his time with ESPN.com updates, radio interviews, TV spots, and of course the draft books, still the backbone of Mel Kiper Enterprises.

Since his father died in 1988, the business side of Mel Kiper Enterprises has been run by his wife, Kim. Because of her, Kiper doesn't need a BlackBerry, he doesn't text, doesn't take incoming calls on his cell, barely uses e-mail. He focuses on football, and she handles everything else, from negotiating Kiper's contracts to cutting his famous hair.

"My father seamlessly handed the torch to Kim," he said. "I married Kim in 1989. At the time, I told everyone and they didn't know how she'd stay with me. A year and a half, that's all I heard -- and everyone was betting the under."

After next weekend, he'll spend a couple of days dissecting the 2010 draft, but he'll also already have one foot in the 2011 draft. In fact, he's already ranked the current class of college freshmen. It's surely tough to predict this far out, but one name everyone knows will be ever-present is Kiper's.

"Mel Kiper is Mel Kiper," said Todd McShay, a fellow draft analyst at ESPN. "He's an institution."

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