Before any fresh football recruit arrives to lift weights, unpack their cleats and footballs are aired-up, every college football team goes through the first order of business: set goals for the coming season.
On that list is usually a conference championship, playing (and winning) a bowl game, and of course securing the national championship. Players want all of these things as well. With the added publicity come more televised games; which garner face time to players and teams.
And when the season has concluded, a tribute for every college football player is an invitation to a post-season All-Star game. The most coveted invitation is one to the Reese’s Senior Bowl played annually in Mobile, Alabama.
The Reese’s Senior Bowl is a virtual Who’s Who when the NFL college draft has concluded. Each year an abundance of first and second-round draft selections will have heard their name called that spent their post-season competing against other top collegiate players in the Senior Bowl.
“It’s no secret that the Reese’s Senior Bowl features the best of the best each and every year,” said Dave Rogers, Director of Marketing and Brand Strategy. “As a result, we have had 18 straight years with a Top-10 pick in the draft and 13 straight years with 10 or more first-round picks.”
Players in the Senior Bowl are divided into two squads—North and South. The game is annually sandwiched in the two week window between the AFC/NFC Championship Games and the Super Bowl. This year’s Senior Bowl is slated for Saturday, January 30 with a kickoff for 2:30 p.m. (EST).
Live practices are broadcast on ESPN and ESPNU.
The nationally televised game on NFL Network is unique because two complete NFL coaching staffs tutor both squads. This year, Matt Rhule and the Carolina Panthers’ staff plus Brian Flores of the Miami Dolphins will tutor players during Senior Bowl week.
Players realize that this is their first true taste of what life in the professional ranks is going to be like.
“The Senior Bowl is your first game as a professional,” stated former Dallas Cowboys QB great Danny White, who played in the 1974 Senior Bowl. “All the NFL teams are there and players are watched closely as to their ability to play at the next level.”
As important as the actual game is, the entire week of practice is equally vital to the players. Because the Senior Bowl is basically an NFL convention, almost every head coach is in attendance, as well as every assistant coach and scores of scouts.
“Most every team sends all their coaches, front office and all components’ of player personnel as part of the week’s evaluation process,” stated Andy Dengler, Assistant Director of Player Personnel for the Jacksonville Jaguars. “It introduces our coaches to the players. We can thoroughly evaluate all positions and grade the players based off of their week of practice and the game itself.”
What is impressive about this contest is the number of players who earned an NFL roster spot prior to the 2020 season. On opening day over 500 players in the league were all Senior Bowl alums, which calculate to about 30% of the league’s players on active rosters and practice squads.
And this game is not just about the NFL. Also in attendance during Senior Bowl week are representatives from the Canadian Football League and several other professional indoor football entities.
”You want to go out there and show everybody what you can do,” said former Cowboys linebacker Brady James, who played in the 2003 Senior Bowl. “I don’t know how (this game) would hurt you. It’s like big business.”
Being an unofficial NFL convention with about 800 scouts, coaches and general managers in attendance, Senior Bowl week has also become an instrument that existing coaches and newly-hired head coaches utilize to fill vacancies on their staff. It is a known fact that many an assistant coach was interviewed between practice sessions and hired in Mobile to fill coaching voids.
“At no other time during the year are there that many NFL personnel in the same place to catch up with old buddies, network, plus the essential task of job searching,” expressed Scott Wright, President and Draft Analyst of DraftCountdown.com. “The week is a job interview for them and probably the main motivation for those trying to get back onto a staff.”
The Reese’s Senior Bowl rosters are formed by players who have finished all of their college eligibility. The North team is comprised of mostly northern, Pacific and Northeastern schools whereas the South team has mainly Southwest, California and southern colleges represented. Senior Bowl Executive Director Jim Nagy is the driving force behind each year’s roster with an emphasis on recruiting the top seniors in the country. Nagy had been an NFL scout for over 20 years.
From 2012-2018 former Browns’ GM Phil Savage was the executive director.
“One of the more difficult things is putting together a competitively balanced roster,” Rogers explained. “The invitation process is long. Players are invited on three criteria: interest from the NFL, interest from national media and local/regional interest.”
About the first month of the college football season is when the invitation process actually transpires. Nagy combines information from scouting services, NFL personnel, coaches and pro scouts about player candidates. As the college season goes along, changes are made regarding performance and injuries and continual updates are administered.
Because the quarterback position entices fans and a live television audience, instead of a few quarterbacks, the Senior Bowl invites six signalcallers to the contest. Consequently, the game has come through with future big names such as Dan Marino, Steve McNair, Josh Allen, Andy Dalton, Ron Jaworski, Terry Bradshaw, Phillip Rivers, Baker Mayfield, Joe Namath, Neil Lomax, Carson Palmer, Donovan McNabb, Russell Wilson, Brett Favre, Justin Herbert, Tim Tebow and Len Dawson.
“The same could be said for Joe Flacco of Delaware,” offered Rogers. “He was projected as a late second-round choice yet really impressed scouts at the Senior Bowl and later was taken in the first-round pick by the Ravens.”
Other sources agree with this process. “In many cases, NFL people fall in love with certain players during the practice week and that leads to them selecting those guys early in the draft,” said Wright. “The Senior Bowl is almost always a positive experience for the vast majority of prospects that take part.”
This means young players who are being seasoned for the NFL have an opportunity to be groomed by professional coaches in a pro football environment. The best the league has to offer have coached this game at some point: Don Shula, Paul Brown, Marv Levy, Tom Landry, Tony Dungy, Mike Ditka, Bud Grant, Jon Gruden, Bill Belichick, Bill Cowher, Lou Saban and Hank Stram.
The Senior Bowl began in Jacksonville, Florida in 1950 with the South squad taking home a 22-13 victory. Jimmie Pearre, a Nashville businessman, had the inspiration of a post-season bowl game of strictly senior All-Star players. He secured the Gator Bowl stadium in Jacksonville as the first game with the notion that this game should be coached by actual NFL coaching staffs instead of college coaches. In the inaugural game, Bo McMillin of the Detroit Lions coached the North squad while Steve Owen of the New York Football Giants took the reins of the South squad.
Citing poor attendance, Pearre sought other venues. Several Mobile businessmen, led by Finley McRae, were able to persuade Pearre to move the contest the following year to the Gulf Coast, a college football hotbed. The carrot dangled to Pearre was that the City of Mobile had recently constructed the 36,000-seat Ladd Stadium.
Just as Super Bowls were once played in southern locales exclusively in the winter, the Alabama coastal climate was perfect for the January contest timeframe. Along the way, Pearre transferred ownership of the game to the Mobile Arts and Sports Association (MASA), a non-profit organization.
Rea Schuessler, known as “Mr. Senior Bowl”, continued the idea that the development of the relationship between the game and the NFL was crucial, and became the game’s General Manager soon after the game was moved to Mobile. Schuessler theorized that invitations to the nation’s very best collegiate football players would make the Senior Bowl a success year-after-year. And for the best players to want to become a part of this particular game, they needed inspiration.
And what better inspiration is there than to have every NFL team’s entire coaching staff watching every practice and talking to players at the hotel with one-on-one face time?
“The Senior Bowl is the first time scouts, coaches, and front office personnel get together as a whole organization to watch and evaluate the players,” stated Jeff Shiver, college scout for the Bears. “You get to know the player on-and-off the field in a big way. It gives you an opportunity to interview, watch, and know all about the player— and then some. Most of all, you get the player’s correct cell phone number.”
Ladd-Peebles Stadium has been the home field for the Senior Bowl since the game’s relocation. This year, the game has been moved to the brand spanking new Hancock Whitney Stadium on the campus of the University of South Alabama which cost $78 million to construct.
The Reese’s Senior Bowl has yet another function: as a charitable endeavor. Every year, different local and regional groups become the recipients of funds generated by the game. To date, over $7.8 million in donations have found their way into organizations that deserve something extra.
If the Reese’s Senior Bowl could be summed up in one phrase, it would be this: as a player you are auditioning for one of the greatest jobs in the world; and the entire NFL has assembled in one location for a solid week for your interview.
Without a doubt, this one game can help a player’s draft status. Denver’s Von Miller played in the 2010 contest and became the second overall pick in the draft.
The main reason that a player’s draft status can improve as a member of the Senior Bowl is because there aren’t any weak or horrific players competing. For example, a defensive back accepts an invitation to play. During the week, one-by-one the best wide receivers are lined up across from him every play. If he can dominant, what message does this convey to the watchful eyes of NFL personnel about his coverage abilities?
“The Senior Bowl is one to take very seriously and play the best football of your life,” surmised White. “Of all the bowls, it is the most important from the standpoint of improving draft status.”
“If a player comes (to Mobile) and really has a strong week, they will absolutely elevate their status,” Rogers added. “It also affords them an opportunity to meet with the hundreds of NFL scouts and other front office personnel in attendance that week.”
With a gaze at past Senior Bowl rosters, one could assemble some of the greatest NFL teams of all time. Players such as Walter Payton, Ray Nitschke, Art Monk, Bo Jackson, Mean Joe Greene, Joe Namath, Alex Karras, Derrick Brooks, LaDainian Tomlinson, Frank Gifford, James Lofton, Brian Urlacher, Sam Huff, Morten Anderson, Clay Matthews, Bubba Smith, Thurman Thomas, Jim Taylor, Franco Harris, Steve Largent, Doak Walker, Jack Youngblood, Lynn Swann, Christian Okoye, Lee Roy Jordan and Brett Favre are just some of the NFL stars that have graced the playing field in Mobile.
Bringing in the Best-of-the-Best is a tough assignment for the organizers of the game, but a testament to the job that Nagy does in not only doing his homework on these players, but also recruiting them and getting them to actually participate.
“I was a small-school guy. It was the only place for me to really showcase myself,” explained former Cowboys and Broncos defensive end DeMarcus Ware. “I think (my draft status) went up there. I was able to go against some of the top offensive tackles and was able to beat them. I wasn’t a starter when I first got (to the Senior Bowl), but I got that starter position and I got to sort of showcase myself in front of the scouts.”
For the players that compete during Reese’s Senior Bowl week, they will never have a better opportunity to display themselves in front of so many NFL scouts and draft conscience coaches. For some players, there is also a competition factor to prove themselves against the best of the best.
For the fans in attendance, the game brings into the fold dozens of NFL futurestars at one location with forthcoming memories. What a thrill it becomes the following season while watching an NFL match and see players who played live in Mobile before they were household names.
For the NFL universe, this one contest is a place to utilize every coach, scout and player personnel to gather more insight as they get to interact with the players at the practice field, in meeting rooms and in normal everyday environments. It’s an opportunity to see over 100 of the best players in the country going head-to-head in actual football situations for an entire week.
“For many NFL decision-makers, the Senior Bowl is their first real exposure to the top prospects,” Wright concluded. “In many cases guys who will be calling the shots during the draft don’t even begin to look at tape until their season is over. The Senior Bowl gives a chance to get an up close and personal look at many of the top prospects in one place, so the bang for your buck factor is huge.”