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Game Plan

Bruce Lemmerman, director of college scouting for the New Orleans Saints, uses a database to record both statistical and subjective information about prospective NFL players.
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It's 7:30 on a crisp September morning, and Bruce Lemmerman, director of college scouting for the New Orleans Saints, is circling the parking lot at San Diego State University. Finding a space at last, he parks his rental car, swallows the last crumb of a fast-food breakfast sandwich, snatches up a spiral notebook, and heads for the coaching office. Once inside he spends a few minutes joking with the university's professional-football liaison about the state of the NFL while he flips through a file stuffed with statistics about SDSU's star players.

Most businesspeople face crises, crossroads, and momentous decisions on a daily basis, and organize their lives accordingly. Lemmerman, conversely, spends 363/365ths of his time preparing for just two days in April. On those days--when the NFL holds its annual college draft--the Saints will have a few short minutes in which to choose new players for the next season. Everything Lemmerman does--how he travels, how he works--is aimed at ensuring that his team emerges from that crucible with stellar picks. And this year the Saints are praying for more than one superstar. "You name it, and the Saints need it," said a recent profile by Pro Football Weekly.

The scout's unusual cycle poses a challenge to Lemmerman's ability to work efficiently. Enormous amounts of data come into play in each draft decision, and while some of that information is statistical, much of it is highly impressionistic: for instance, what Lemmerman thought or felt about a player while watching him slam into opponents on the field. Yet because so much time elapses between Lemmerman's gathering of that information and his use of it, he needs a system that records both the subjective and the objective--spunk as well as size. It's the same kind of information--intelligence really--that smart businesspeople collect when they're interviewing potential hires or meeting with prospective customers, suppliers, or business partners. "These are imperfect people," Lemmerman says. "We are not evaluating robots. We have to keep track of those intangibles."

To that end, Lemmerman designed a database that in many ways mirrors his thought processes. In his mind, "X + Y = Big Show" (football slang for the NFL). X represents a player's tangible attributes such as speed, height, hand size, and ratio of fat to muscle. Y is personal qualities, such as "football intelligence," leadership skills, work ethic, competitiveness, and off-season workout habits.

As Lemmerman travels from school to school--visiting as many as 70 in four months--he enters all that information into fields on an IBM Thinkpad 600 laptop computer and then uses Remote Access Service from Microsoft to send it back to the network in his New Orleans office. But the laptop presents another problem: given that Lemmerman spends his days on fields and in locker rooms instead of in field offices and boardrooms, lugging around a bunch of equipment is the last thing he wants to do. So he generally leaves his laptop locked in his car and uses a pen to fill out forms attached to a clipboard; he also dictates his impressions of players into a microcassette recorder. (Handheld computers don't work for him because each screen may contain 30 or more fields of information--a selection that is tough to navigate while he's jogging up and down the sidelines.)

Later, on a plane or in his hotel room, Lemmerman will transfer information into the computer while his observations are still fresh. That practice forces him to think systematically about what he's seen that day, and consequently to reinforce--or to question--his initial impressions, which in turn helps him recall those details more vividly months down the road.

After a morning spent watching videotaped games in SDSU's conference room and chatting with trainers, coaches, and doctors, Lemmerman finally gets to do what he likes best: get out on the gridiron, where the players are running through their drills. He's particularly interested in Kyle Turley, an offensive tackle whom he first saw three years ago. At the time Lemmerman felt that Turley had "heart and spunk" but was a bit underweight. But Turley has filled out since then, and Lemmerman watches him intently and tape-records his impressions.

Five hours later Lemmerman is on a plane bound for Newark, picking at the chickenlike substance on his tray and typing in the day's data haul. He begins by entering Turley's basic biographical information; he then clicks over to "stats" and types in weight, speed, and vertical leap. Under "personal attributes" he notes that Turley is a tenacious player with a nasty streak who always finishes his blocks. Under "football intelligence" he types that in college Turley was coached by former Viking and Charger guard Ed White and, not surprisingly, plays like him.

Lemmerman may not read that file again for months, by which time dozens of young prospects will have charged across his field of attention. But when decision time comes, the scout will simply push a button and be reminded of his gut reactions, the most ephemeral--and often the most reliable--basis for any decision. He takes a forkful of wilted lettuce and starts on the next entry just as the sun dips below the airplane window.

Here's Lemmerman's game plan for staying focused and productive:

Gooooo Paperless! The Saints' offices used to be awash in folders. Player profiles in blue binders lined the shelves of a conference room; medical evaluations lived in the trainer's office; scouting reports were stacked somewhere else. "If you wanted to find something about a player, you had to walk into five different places," Lemmerman says.

The disarray wasn't surprising. For years the Saints had outsourced some of their recruiting and, as a result, had a decentralized, inefficient system for managing player information. When Lemmerman came on board, in May 1994, he and his administrative assistant, Debbie Gallagher, launched the database project. A programmer did the actual development, but Lemmerman helped design the interface. "It was originally based on looking for the best and most efficient way of doing my job," he says.

Simplify, Simplify. Lemmerman is home so rarely (one night a week during football season) that he may be the only New Orleans resident who can't recommend a good place for jambalaya. But his scouting missions are about scouting only: he resolutely strips them of nonfootball-related considerations. For that reason he grabs meals on airplanes or in fast-food restaurants, and stays repeatedly in the same hotels.

Plan the Work, and Work the Plan. Every April, after the draft, Lemmerman and his scouts draw up a plan of action for the following year, including detailed travel schedules for each scout. After that strategy session the group will meet only six or seven times during the year. "We simply can't meet any more than that--we're on the road so much," says Lemmerman. "We plan a whole year to make about 20 primary decisions. And some of those are million-dollar decisions."

Just as in a football game, creating such a plan and sticking to it--while remaining flexible enough to accommodate new developments--is critical, says Lemmerman. In the course of four months he will personally visit 65 to 70 colleges, watch 400 games (either live or on video), and interview more than 100 people. Without exhaustive scheduling and logistics, covering so much ground wouldn't be feasible.

Lemmerman puts it this way: "Imagine it's the fourth quarter, and you're dog-assed tired. You want to quit, but you suck it up and play anyway. At times like that it's easy to be less sharp and to take shortcuts. But if you have a clear game plan, you know what to do."

Editor's note: In April the Saints made Turley their first draft pick.

Emily Esterson is the associate editor of Inc. Technology.




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