The greatest Miami Dolphins draft was orchestrated by the cagiest personnel pro in franchise history, a man whose profound influence here predates Don Shula and whose decisions seeded the roster with talent enough to grow a Super Bowl dynasty.
That’s saying a mouthful, especially for a former executive who gets no mention in the Dolphins’ various honor rolls and walks of fame, but Joe Thomas earned every bit of it.
He died of a heart attack in 1983 at the age of 61. At the time he was responsible primarily for negotiating skinny player contracts on behalf of Dolphins founder Joe Robbie. It was Thomas’ second stint in Miami’s front office, following a colorful career that got him hated in Baltimore for trading away Johnny Unitas and ridiculed around the NFL for hiring and firing numerous head coaches at a positively dizzying pace.
Look, however, at just one of the drafts that Thomas ran for the Dolphins in 1968, by my estimate the best ever for Miami.
Start with Larry Csonka, a Hall of Fame running back. Add Doug Crusan, who started four seasons at left tackle, Dick Anderson, a Dolphin Honor Roll member, and Jim Kiick, a fifth-rounder who forged a fine career as Csonka’s plucky running mate. Later in that same draft came FSU quarterback Kim Hammond, who never played much but was packaged in a trade to get linebacker Nick Buoniconti, another Hall of Famer, from the Patriots.
Other Thomas drafts brought Bob Griese (1967), Bill Stanfill and Mercury Morris (1969) to Miami, plus eventual Super Bowl MVP Jake Scott (1970) and three additional starters on the perfect 1972 Dolphins (Mike Kolen, Curtis Johnson and Lloyd Mumphord).
Oh, and don’t forget Thomas’ trade of the Dolphins’ first-round pick to Cleveland in 1970 in exchange for Paul Warfield, the Hall of Fame wide receiver.
INSURANCE COURSE PAYS OFF
Thomas put it all together and Shula, so much better than George Wilson, the original Dolphins coach, quickly made it work with five consecutive playoff appearances, two Super Bowl victories and the all-time highlight of a 17-0 season in ‘72.
“Joe Robbie doesn’t get a lot of credit for the things he did during his tenure as owner,” Griese said recently from his Jupiter Hills home. “The stadium is one of them. Bringing Coach Shula down here is another. One of the best things he did when he started this franchise, though, was hiring Joe Thomas and letting him do the drafting part and the trading part.
“Shula openly admits that trade for Warfield was in the works before he got here. He gives credit to Thomas for that trade and also for bringing in Jake Scott from Canada.”
Yes, things were very different in those days before the full NFL-AFL merger. Scott was playing for the British Columbia Lions when Miami drafted him, and it took some talking by Thomas, plus some bonus money, to switch him.
Once, when Csonka and Kiick were ready to end a training-camp holdout, they came to sign their new contracts at the Miami Heart Institute. Thomas, recovering from bypass surgery, accepted their signatures right there at the hospital.
“When I was a coach at DePauw, I took an insurance course,” Thomas said in a 1971 Sports Illustrated article. “Passed all the exams for Equitable Life. I learned a lot about the pulse of a prospect from that course, when to pull back, when to clamp down.”
That training, combined with Thomas’ supreme confidence in judging football talent, made him a formidable force on the scouting trail and a frequent irritant in the draft room. He drafted stars such as Fran Tarkenton and Carl Eller and traded for Jim Marshall while building the expansion Minnesota Vikings from scratch in the early 1960s but felt slighted when coach Norm Van Brocklin insisted on final say in personnel decisions. That’s when Thomas applied for the new Miami job, an expansion start-up, which suited his needs until Shula was hired in 1970 and given complete control over football operations.
Thomas resigned in February 1972, just one month after the first of three consecutive Super Bowl appearances by the Dolphins, and moved on to become general manager of the Baltimore Colts. That, as a matter of fact, was all part of another colossal trade, with Thomas working behind the scenes to prod the owners of the Colts and the Los Angeles Rams into swapping their entire franchises.
‘LONE RANGER’ KIND OF GUY
“He was a ‘Lone Ranger’ type of guy,” Shula said when asked last week for his memories of Thomas. “He liked to do the scouting, relied on his own reports. He didn’t like it when we joined BLESTO (an early scouting combine). Wanted to do it himself.
“Obviously he was a good talent evaluator. He was responsible for a lot of the talent I had here.”
Shula’s philosophy on the role of the head coach, however, is unchanging.
“Every place I’ve ever been,” said Shula, “I’ve always had control of the players that played for me. That’s my responsibility. If I’m going to be judged by winning and losing, I want to be able to make the decisions on who comprises my team.”
Howard Schnellenberger, a key assistant on Shula’s Super Bowl teams, remembers Thomas’ departure from Miami as “probably a mutual decision.”
“Shula came in as part-owner, vice president and the coach of the team,” said Schnellenberger,” but I don’t think Thomas reported to Don. I think he reported to Robbie. As time went on, that changed and he actually left us before the championship year.”
Thomas finally got a taste of the other side of it in 1974 while serving as the Colts’ general manager. He became an emergency fill-in as Baltimore’s head coach, going 2-9 after Schnellenberger was shockingly fired by Colts owner Robert Irsay on the sideline in the middle of a game.
“I thought Thomas was a good general manager,” Schnellenberger said. “He helped me. My problem was not with Joe Thomas. My problem was with Irsay. Joe tried to keep that firing from happening.”
DIDN’T MAKE MANY MISTAKES
Through the years, Thomas fired three coaches himself at Baltimore and three more as general manager of the San Francisco 49ers. Soon Thomas, the architect of all those great old Dolphins teams and the NFL Executive of the Year with Baltimore in 1975, was out of football altogether. He came back to the Dolphins near the end only because of his friendship with Robbie, who made Thomas his first Dolphins hire in 1966 before the organization had signed a single player.
“He (Joe Thomas) didn’t make too many mistakes with us,” Griese said. “In that business, you’re going to make some mistakes, but he made a heck of a lot more positive moves than he did negative moves. He was kind of high-strung, talked real fast, very bright.”
Griese recalls the unexpected nature of his first meeting with Thomas. Purdue had just beaten USC 14-13 in the Rose Bowl, with Griese leading two touchdown drives and kicking both extra points for the winners, when Thomas appeared at the quarterback’s locker prior to the admission of reporters or any other outsiders to the room.
“This guy comes over to me in a suit and tie and shakes hands with me,” Griese said. “He said ‘Before I ever draft a player in the first round, I always want to talk to him right after he’s played, just to get a feeling. If you lose the game, what is your attitude? It wasn’t my fault? Could I have done more? Or after a win, where do you put the credit? Was it all me or could I have played better?’ ”
Thomas must have liked what he heard and saw that day. In any event, it was his own way of doing business, and for a long time in Miami, under the direction of a talent scout more comprehensively productive than Shula, Bill Parcells, Nick Saban and all the rest, business was historically good.
Highlights of 1968 Miami Dolphins draft
1a. RB Larry Csonka, Syracuse: Pro Football Hall of Famer is Miami’s all-time leading rusher.
1b. OT Doug Crusan, Indiana: 4-year starter; Thomas traded QB John Stofa to get this bonus pick.
3b. S Dick Anderson, Colorado: NFL All-Decade Team member for 1970s; bonus pick acquired in trade.
5. RB Jim Kiick, Wyoming: Miami’s No. 5 all-time leading rusher was two-time Pro Bowl choice.
6a. QB Kim Hammond, FSU: Included in trade bringing Hall of Fame LB Nick Buoniconti to Miami.