He stands off to the side during practice, wearing baggy burgundy shorts, a T-shirt and a hat pulled low over his head. A day-old stubble creeps from his deeply tanned face, and he stares intently at the team roster he has marked with scribbled notes. Vinny Cerrato, the Washington Redskins' new director of player personnel, is using the early days of training camp to put names and faces together with all the numbers he keeps studying.
"Won't take me long," he says. "I'm just about there."
These days, Cerrato is exactly where he wants to be, running the personnel operation of a storied NFL franchise that is trying to reclaim a place among the game's elite. With the moving aside of Charley Casserly, who soon will be serving as a team "consultant," Cerrato, 39, has been charged with adding the players who can make the Redskins a playoff contender this year and a Super Bowl team sooner rather than later in impatient new owner Daniel M. Snyder's win-now scheme.
Cerrato's pedigree seems to be in order--overachieving Iowa State quarterback, graduate assistant at the hometown University of Minnesota, recruiting coordinator at Notre Dame under Lou Holtz from 1986 to '91, the San Francisco 49ers' director of college scouting for four years and their director of player personnel from 1995 until he was fired when Bill Walsh was hired as team president in January by then-owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr.
Yet, in some corners of the NFL, and even back at Notre Dame, there is a negative undercurrent toward Cerrato. One longtime league personnel executive who would not be quoted by name described him as "nothing special." Another league official said, "He did a lot of talking and took a lot of the credit [in San Francisco] that didn't really belong to him."
There also are questions around the league about the wisdom of hiring a man whose recent drafting record with the 49ers generally is regarded as average, and whose hiring as a consultant last winter by Howard Milstein, who was rejected by the NFL in his attempt to become a team owner, did not sit well with some of his colleagues.
In interviews this week with NFL scouts, general managers and league executives, as well as with athletic department officials at Notre Dame, a portrait emerges of a dedicated, driven young man, sometimes lacking in tact, whose entire being revolves around football.
South Bend Sojourn
At the moment, Cerrato's home is his dorm room at Frostburg State. He doesn't have a car yet, though he's looking for a house in Reston, 10 minutes from Redskin Park, so his girlfriend, a medical student at the University of Chicago, can have an easier commute when she transfers to Georgetown.
Cerrato has many loyal supporters and a number of detractors, some going back to his days as the man who helped fuel a national championship team at Notre Dame in 1988.
Much has been made of Cerrato using a cell phone to call recruits from the field at several bowl games, including the national title contest against West Virginia in 1988, and telling them they were being counted on to replace the players they were watching on television. The NCAA subsequently wrote a rule against such practices several years later.
"I call it the Vinny Cerrato Rule," said Lou Holtz, who had Cerrato as a graduate assistant coach when both were at Minnesota and brought him to Notre Dame when he took over there in 1986. Eventually, when Cerrato was ready to move to the next level, Holtz strongly recommended him to the 49ers' DeBartolo, a Notre Dame alumnus and heavy financial supporter.
"In my opinion, he's the best, a very hard worker, very talented, can evaluate talent with the best of them," said Holtz, now South Carolina's coach. "He's committed, he's dedicated, it's his life. I'm a very big fan of his. I made him my recruiting coordinator when he was 23, that's how much I think of him. Sometimes, it appears he may be a little helter-skelter, but that's an illusion. And he's not one to share information with a lot of people. He keeps it inside his head. But he gets it done. All he wants to do is win. Everything else is secondary."
For some people at Notre Dame, that was a problem. "When he first came here, he wanted to do things that were just not the Notre Dame way," said one longtime athletic department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Cerrato makes no excuses for what he did at Notre Dame, saying he was simply trying everything in his power within the NCAA's rules to get the country's best players to come to South Bend. He recalled telephoning Rick Mirer, then an outstanding high school quarterback prospect, from a bowl game while Cerrato was standing on the sideline next to Notre Dame's offensive coordinator.
Mirer "was sitting in his living room with his buddies and I'd tell him what the play was going to be before we ran it," Cerrato said. "Then I'd ask him what he would have called in that situation. I'd do a lot of things to get their attention. I sent kids a whole ton of information, I was real big on that.
"Before the season, I'd go to all the hotels we would be staying at the next year and pick up the hotel postcards. I'd spend all summer writing notes on the cards, and the week of that particular game, I'd mail 'em a card just to let 'em know we were thinking about them. You did everything you could to make it a personal touch. I wanted to get in so good with them, they couldn't say no."
Holtz said he always knew Cerrato's dream was to go to the NFL, and he promised he would try to help Cerrato get there when he thought Cerrato was ready.
Cerrato became a fixture in a 49ers personnel department that Walsh had structured in the 1980s to find the type of player the head coach and his assistants wanted. Even after Walsh left in 1988 with three Super Bowl trophies, the personnel system essentially remained in place as George Seifert won two more Super Bowls and then was replaced two years ago by Steve Mariucci.
Cerrato said he will try to implement a similar system in Washington, and will continue to rely on the coaching staff to define the sort of player that will fit the team's style of play. His scouts in San Francisco, for example, knew that offensive line coach Bobb McKittrick preferred lighter, more mobile linemen in the 280- to 290-pound range, rather than 300-pound-plus players.
The Redskins have three first-round draft picks next year, a luxury Cerrato never had in San Francisco, where the team usually picked in the lower portions of every round because of its winning record. The 49ers also made a living manipulating their salary cap figures through the renegotiation of existing contracts so they could acquire high-priced veteran free agents to fill critical gaps. That pattern likely will continue with the Redskins.
San Francisco Years
During the past five years with the 49ers, Cerrato became a significant decision-maker, running the personnel meetings, coordinating the scouting department, making up the final reports on potential draft choices and free agents. But he never had the final word. Also heavily involved were former team president Carmen Policy, former general manager Dwight Clark and, of course, the head coach and his assistants.
The best draft of Cerrato's tenure with the 49ers occurred in 1994, when he still was the director of college scouting. The 49ers took defensive tackle Bryant Young, now an all-pro, with their first pick and used another first-round selection on fullback William Floyd. In the sixth round that year, they got Lee Woodall, now a standout starting linebacker. All three players started as rookies on a team that won the Super Bowl.
Gary Wichard, a longtime agent whom Cerrato considers a close friend, said one of Cerrato's most important deals was the acquisition of middle linebacker Ken Norton Jr. as a free agent in 1994. Norton had anchored the Dallas Cowboys' Super Bowl team the previous year, and the 49ers felt if they could sign him, the move not only would improve their defense for years to come, but also would hurt the Cowboys and perhaps allow San Francisco to return to the Super Bowl.
"Vinny fought hard for that one," Wichard said. "That's when I first got to know him. We were pretty much stalled, and a lot of people in that organization pretty much had given up on it. Carmen was one of them. But Vinny kept saying, 'Hang in there, we're going to get this done,' and eventually we did. He deserves a lot of credit for that."
Still, some in the 49ers organization felt that Cerrato may have allowed his relationship with Wichard to cloud his judgment on several draft picks that were used on players Wichard represented. The 49ers took Southern California linebacker-defensive end Israel Ifeanyi with their second-round pick in 1996, and Virginia Tech quarterback Jim Druckenmiller with their first-round pick in 1997. Druckenmiller was selected even though Arizona State quarterback Jake Plummer, now a budding superstar with the Arizona Cardinals, was available. Ifeanyi was a bust, and Druckenmiller has started one game in two years.
Cerrato and many of his scouts have no problem defending the decision to pick Druckenmiller, and all say the rest of the organization also agreed he was the best quarterback available. Said scout Mike Faulkiner: "Bottom line is, Druckenmiller hasn't had a chance to play because Steve Young is still there. If we'd taken Plummer, he wouldn't have played either. Everyone agreed on that pick, including Carmen and Dwight."
Cerrato and Policy had an extremely close relationship. Both lived in Palo Alto, Calif., and they became good friends, jogging together four or five times a week over the years until Policy moved to Cleveland to work for the expansion Browns. Cerrato said he spent almost every holiday--Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving--at Policy's home, often helping Gail Policy prepare the Italian dishes they all loved.
Clark, the former 49ers wide receiver famous for The Catch, which launched the 49ers into their first Super Bowl in 1981, was, in Cerrato's words, "a very good friend. . . . We were almost like brothers."
And yet, when Policy and Clark left the 49ers to take over the Browns' front office last year, Cerrato never was offered a job in that organization. Cerrato also was not offered opportunities by other former 49ers colleagues who became head coaches for other NFL franchises--Seifert in Carolina, Mike Holmgren in Seattle or Ray Rhodes in Philadelphia and then Green Bay.
"That's what you have to ask yourself about the guy," one NFL personnel man said. "If he's so good, how come Carmen didn't take him? How come none of those other teams were interested? Why were the people who knew him best, even Bill Walsh, staying away?"
Walsh insisted in an interview that Cerrato's firing last January was ordered from above. Cerrato, he said, had aligned himself with Policy and Clark. DeBartolo and Policy had been feuding for months before Policy's departure more than a year ago, and Cerrato was considered part of the Policy group by DeBartolo, who has since sold his interest in the team to his sister, Denise DeBartolo York.
"Look, there was a changing of the guard here," Walsh said. "Vinny not being asked to return was not related to his effectiveness as an administrator or as a talent scout. It was a personal thing with Eddie. I think he [Cerrato] is an excellent personnel man. He's one of the most dedicated, hard-working, persevering men in the game.
"There was also a falling-out with Dwight, and that could be part of why he didn't go to Cleveland. You'll have to ask them. All of it actually imploded before I rejoined the club. I spoke to the Washington ownership about Vinny. I had no problems with doing that."
Clark declined through a Browns spokesman to talk about his dealings with Cerrato. But other sources in the 49ers organization indicated that there was increasing friction between the two. Cerrato "totally alienated so many people here," said one 49ers executive. "Getting rid of him had to be done."
Said Cerrato: "People can say what they want to say. I know what we did there, and I'm proud of what we accomplished. It was a team effort with a lot of people involved. Everyone had a hand in our success. I'm going to try to use the same kind of system in Washington. The only thing that counts is winning--that's the bottom line."
Policy said in an interview that he still considers Cerrato a friend. "It's still tough to talk about what happened to all of us in San Francisco," he said. "There was confusion and indecision and there were major changes being made out there. Things were in transition and there was a lot of uncertainty. We didn't know who was coming or who was going."
Policy described Cerrato as "a very talented guy who lives, breathes and eats football. It's his cause for existence. You'll always get a full day's effort. He just loves it."
He said Cerrato is not in the Browns organization "because I think he wanted to move in a different direction than our system would have had him going. We're more organized here than we were in San Francisco. Dwight ran that [personnel] department with the 49ers and he will here, too. I think Vinny was looking to do more, and I think he has a chance to do that in Washington. I don't think he'd have been happy here.
"If he mixes in well and has the kind of personality correlation with Dan Snyder that allows both of them to work together and like each other, I think he can be a big help to them in Washington."
Next Stop: Washington
Cerrato initially became involved with the Redskins when Milstein was attempting to purchase the team from the estate of the late Jack Kent Cooke, with Snyder as a minority partner. David Seldin, Milstein's point man in his ultimately failed effort, hired Cerrato to consult on personnel matters.
Milstein had no intention of keeping Casserly, but when the league said John Kent Cooke would remain in control of all matters regarding the team until the sale was approved, Cerrato was denied an office at Redskin Park. Instead, he lived out of a hotel room near Dulles Airport for five weeks, spending many bleak winter days analyzing videotapes of potential free agents he requested and received from Casserly's office.
He also occasionally hit the road looking at college prospects in case the sale was consummated before the draft. That didn't happen--the sale to the Milstein group was rejected by league owners in early April. Cerrato was out of a job, but hardly devoid of hope.
He had never even met with Milstein before or after his hiring, but he did spend some time with Snyder, a native Washingtonian who met with him several times during the sale process.
"I was never consulted by the Redskins before or during the draft," Cerrato said. "In fact, I watched the draft on TV at my buddy's house. Of course, I had done my own mock draft, and I have to admit, it was kind of strange not being involved. That's the day you're in the heat of battle, you're talking trades, moving up and down. For me, it's my game day, and you're not there. It was kind of a downer."
Casserly declined to be interviewed for this article, but he has told friends he believed Cerrato kept in touch with Snyder until he was formally approved as the Redskins' owner. Cerrato insisted that was never the case, that Snyder only came to him when it became apparent early in his stewardship that Casserly and Coach Norv Turner could not work together.
"When Dan Snyder got the team, I left him a few messages, but that was about it," Cerrato said. "Charley and I got along fine; we had no problems. What happened there was between Mr. Snyder and Charley. I just know what they want me to do here, that's all I'm concerned about.
"To me, titles aren't important. It's all about winning. I don't have an ego to where I need to be the general manager or anything else. This has got to be a team effort. I see us doing everything possible to improve this team. If there's someone out there who's going to upgrade the 49th player on the roster, we'll do it. We've got a nucleus here. We've got to make it bigger. When you get that nucleus to 40, 45 players, that's when you're in the Super Bowl."
Asked whether he thought his new team could win right away, he smiled and said: "We'll just have to wait and see. I just know Norv and I get along great, we hit it off right from the get-go. I think we get along so well because we have a great passion for the game. We're not always going to agree on everything, but at the end of the day, we're going to be on the same page, I guarantee you that."