An overwhelming majority of the personnel experts in the National Football League braved the wrath of their fans yesterday by passing over Heisman Trophy winner Charles White of Southern California in the draft.
As expected, 1978 Heisman winner Billy Sims was the No. 1 pick, by the Detroit Lions.
Not until the 27th pick of the first round did a team express confidence that White, a 5-foot-10, 184-pound running back from Southern California, could play with the big boys.
Cleveland presented White with the challenge of proving he can dazzle the professionals as he did Trojan opponents last year, when he broke O. J. Simpson's single-season record of 170.9 years a game at Southern California.
The Lions placated their fans, restive after a 2-14 season, by using the No. 1 pick in the draft to select all-America running back Sims of Oklahoma.
Sims will celebrate his 25th birthday during the season, but he is 5-foot-11 and 210 pounds, unusually strong, and has run 40 yards in 4.5 seconds.
Pro scouts regard White's dimensions as less than reported and his speed as questionable, although he has been timed in the 40 at 4.65.
Doubts about his durability figure to spark season-long comparisons with other running backs because of his production with the Trojans against major college competition.
He scored 18 touchdowns as a senior, led the nation in rushing with 1,803 yards on 293 carries in 10 games, and set an NCAA record with 1,090 yards over five consecutive games. He carried 44 times for 251 yards against a big Notre Dame team, 38 for 243 against the University of Washington, and 39 for 247 against Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.
Yet, he was passed over by his hometown Los Angeles Rams; the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, coached by former USC Coach John McKay, and by four teams twice each, before Cleveland, whose director of player personnel is former UCLA Coach Tommy Prothro, selected him. He will be in a Brown backfield with halfback Greg Pruitt and fullback Mike Pruitt.
Marc Wilson, all-America quarterback from Brigham Young, saw 15 other players tapped before the Oakland Raiders selected him. The only other quarterback chosen in the first round was Mark Malone of Arizona State, grabbed by the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, the last team to select.
The New York Giants, who had hoped to find wide receiver Johnny (Lam) Jones of Texas available when they selected eighth, were upstaged by the Jets, who traded two first-round choices for the San Francisco 49ers' second pick in the entire draft.
The Jets made off with Jones, who won a gold medal as a member of the U.S. 400-meter relay team in the 1976 Olympics at Montreal. This means that quarterback Richard Todd of the Jets will have Jones to throw to as well as a proven blazer, Wesley Walker.
Sims was present at NFL draft headquarters at a New York City hotel and indicated a contract squabble is in the offing.
"Detroit is a great challenge," he said. "The Lions have uniform No. 20 ready and I'm ready to go. Whatever the pros dish out I'm ready to take.
"I'm just waiting for (General Manager) Russ Thomas to wake up," said Sims, who rushed for 1,720 yards in 1978 for a 7.6 average, and 1,505 for a 6.7 average in 1979. Only his pass catching is a bit suspect, because Oklahoma rarely passed.
Sims is seeking a six-year, $5 million contract, and remarked, "Thomas has made a zero effort, the way he's presented his contract offer."
The running back's agent, Jerry Argovitz, said that if Sims is not signed by May 21, "We will reveal the dollar figures Thomas has offered. They're embarrassing to the Lions. Maybe Detroit should give Billy a chance to play for another team."
Detroit has one of the highest revenues in the league from its Silverdome, capacity 80,638.
Anthony Munoz, a 6-foot-6, 292-pound offensive tackle from Southern California, was the third player selected, by Cincinnati. The Bengals' new head coach is Forrest Gregg, who would seem to be the ideal man to "school" Munoz. Former Green Bay guard and tackle Gregg was called by Vince Lombardi "the best lineman I ever saw."
The Baltimore Colts, who chose fifth in the first round, had hoped to land Munoz, Lam Jones or running back Curtis Dickey of Texas A&M, a world-class sprinter who has run 40 yards in 4.4, and got Dickey, to go in the backfield with speedy and elusive veteran Joe Washington.
All-America tight end Junior Miller of Nebraska was taken by Atlanta, guard Brad Budde of Southern California by Kansas City, running back Vagas Ferguson of Notre Dame by New England and linebacker George Cumby of Oklahoma by Green Bay.
The Rams sent four draft choices, including their first pick, to Cleveland for the Browns' first- and sixth-round selections. The Browns used the Rams' original, or 27th pick, in the first round to take White.
San Francisco used the two first-round picks from the Jets to pick running back Earl Cooper of Rice and defensive end Jim Stuckey of Clemson.
The Colts had two first-round choices and used their later one for defensive back Derrick Hatchett of Texas.
Green Bay had two first-round picks and, in addition to linebacker Cumby, took defensive tackle Bruce Clark of Penn State.
New England had two first-round choices and, besides Ferguson, tapped defensive back Roland James of Tennessee.