DULUTH, Ga., Feb. 21 -- In a conference room of a La Quinta Inn not far from Interstate 85, there operates an NFL draft preparatory course so unique that no one has been able to duplicate it. The course runs just one session, for eight hours of one day, and unlike all other draft preparations there will be no sprints or weightlifting, nor will a football ever be thrown.
There won't even be a written test.
Rather, to those who attend it, the eight-hour session might best be described as a football charm school in which players learn the best salutations, are told how to wear their shirts and discover the art of writing thank-you notes to coaches for interviews at the NFL's annual draft combine, which begins in earnest today in Indianapolis. All of it is learned with a few gentle nudges from the instructor.
"Hello, Mr. Gruden, it's nice to meet you," former University of South Florida linebacker Stephen Nicholas said enthusiastically in a mock introduction to Tampa Bay Buccaneers Coach Jon Gruden.
"Coach Gruden!" thundered Ken Herock, a onetime NFL executive who is the course's inventor and lone instructor.
"Um, hello, Coach Gruden, it's nice to meet you," he said.
It may seem to be a small thing, but names and titles can be worth thousands of dollars in today's NFL. "Those coaches like to hear their names," Herock reminded the three players gathered in the conference room on this day. "Don't just call them 'Sir.' "
In a league climate where, more than ever, a player's time in handcuffs matters more than his time in a shuttle drill, character will have an impact on the draft, which this year will be held April 28-29. Teams can't afford to make mistakes at the combine, which runs through Tuesday and gives teams the chance to evaluate college players. With many first impressions being made at the combine as teams interview prospects in the evening after workouts, the right walk, answer or handshake could send a candidate zooming up the draft board in a coach's mind.
For the past six years, Herock has made the 50-mile drive from his home to the La Quinta to sit in this room two or three days a week from December through February, preparing giant men to dazzle grizzled old football coaches. Sometimes, at the request of an agent, he travels to do the same thing in a different motel in Phoenix or Newark or Fort Lauderdale, Fla. But the lesson plan almost always is the same: a couple hours of group preparation on what to expect from teams at the combine, and several more hours of personal instruction with a video camera and lists of nearly every conceivable question a player will be asked.
"The most surprising thing was how much I had to sell myself," Jemalle Cornelius, a wide receiver from the University of Florida, said after a recent session. "I came off with a little bit of a swagger. That was uncomfortable. I try to speak modestly about myself."
But the players in the room listen. They do this partly because Herock, a former tight end for Oakland, Cincinnati and New England, has a presence, even at 65 years old, with white hair and a black sports jacket over a black sweater. His voice booms. But he also was a player personnel director or executive for four NFL teams -- Oakland, Tampa Bay, Atlanta and Green Bay -- for close to 30 years before retiring in 2001. It also doesn't hurt that he ran the first combine, in 1982 in Tampa.
"Remember, you are being evaluated. Even I'm evaluating you," he tells the players. He tells them that lasting impressions with teams can be made the moment a player walks in the door. For instance, one executive he worked with was instantly turned off by a player who gave a cold fish of a handshake.
Herock, himself, remembers sitting several times as an executive in the makeshift offices that teams create in hotel rooms at the combine and watching with dread as a player he coveted buried himself in the 15-minute interview.
"As soon as the player left the room, the coach would go, 'I don't want that [guy] on my team,' " Herock said. "I think I can help that guy."
Agent Pat Dye Jr. raves about the work Herock did with one of his clients, New York Giants wide receiver Tim Carter, who in 2002 went from being shy and withdrawn to assertive in an afternoon.
"It was a personality transformation," Dye said. "The Giants brought him in for a visit before the draft and they were blown away. He wound up being the second senior wide receiver drafted that year [in the second round]. I think it absolutely helped in Timmy's case."
As word of Herock's class has gotten around, agents have brought him their troubled clients, hoping he can work magic on bad attitudes or long rap sheets. Last year, former Virginia Tech quarterback Marcus Vick walked into the La Quinta, already scarred by a number of college incidents that led to his dismissal from the team. Upon meeting Herock, he did little to change that impression by saying, "Ahhh man."
" 'First of all, I don't like you,' " Herock said he told Vick. " 'I'm emulating an NFL GM now and I don't like you. Now you have to change that.'
"I think that helped him right away," Herock said. Vick eventually got an invitation to try out for the Miami Dolphins and wound up making the team.
Herock does not hold back when talking about the players he hates. None bothers him more than Maurice Clarett, the former star running back from Ohio State who got into academic troubles and never played beyond his freshman year. Clarett, Herock said, sat through the class smiling, arguing that he didn't need the interview preparation because NFL teams were going to be so overwhelmed by his speed and workouts that he would rise through the draft on football alone.
Clarett was drafted by the Broncos in the third round in 2005 but was cut at the end of training camp after a summer of ineffective performances and run-ins with assistant coaches. A year later, he was sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison after pleading guilty to robbery and concealed weapons charges.
To this day, Herock calls him "that little punk."
But the one player who sticks in Herock's mind is not one he trained but one he helped draft in the mid 1990s -- cornerback Ron Davis from Tennessee. Then with the Falcons, Herock loved Davis's ability to cover receivers but was troubled by his college suspensions for marijuana use. Still, Atlanta brought Davis into its hotel room at the combine for an interview.
Herock started by asking Davis to stand before the room and tell everyone from the team about the drugs. And for 15 minutes, Davis stunned them by eloquently apologizing for the problems at Tennessee and promising they would never happen again. When he was finished, the room was silent. Football men who had become accustomed to insincere expressions of regret were astonished. They decided to move him onto their draft board and eventually picked him in the second round.
But soon there were problems. A positive drug test, then another, and suddenly Davis was suspended for a season. He bounced around, trying to make comebacks, always giving heartfelt declarations of a new, clean lifestyle before finally walking away from the Packers in 2000, while Herock was working in Green Bay.
"He said, 'I can't do it anymore,' and I knew what he meant," Herock said in his class. "If I could dress up Ron Davis and put him in a coat and tie and send him up there and talk and have it work, what can I do for the good guys?"
In a way, it might have helped give Herock the idea to start this class after he left the Packers after the 2001 season. Left with nothing to do but wanting to do something in football, he called agents he had known over the years (including Dye), wondering if they would be interested in him training players on preparing for the combine. The response was overwhelming. No one had thought of such a thing.
A few sessions were put together, always with groups of no more than three players. And the business grew from there, with the only real addition being the fact that Herock tapes the mock interviews so players can see and correct imperfections. In Cornelius's case, the wide receiver moved a little too much as he spoke. Herock asks personal questions about drug and steroid use because he knows the players will be asked about it in their team interviews. The answers remain private, as do the individual sessions in which not even the players' agents who hired Herock are let in the room.
Herock won't say what he charges, though he hints that it pays like a full-time job for the three months that he does it. He has heard that league executives have been complaining about his course, concerned that it is leaving many players too polished for their interviews and not giving teams an unvarnished look at their personalities.
"You can't be a con man all of the time," he said. Eventually, the player's true personality -- if flawed -- would come out. "I'm just making the communication better."