Pro football's 'surfer guy' team builder, Bobby Beathard: 1937-2023
Elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the Contributor category in 2018, Beathard died Monday after a lengthy illness, only six days after his 86th birthday.
“Football is my whole life,” Beathard once told the Washington Post. “It’s all I've ever wanted to do. … If I had a lot of money and I didn't have to work, I’d still want to do this.”
Pro Football Hall of Fame President Jim Porter called Beathard “one of the game’s great architects.”
“Bobby not only built winning teams throughout his career, but he also built winning cultures that lasted beyond his years with an organization,” Porter said. “He combined an eye for talent with a special gift for working with other people. The results speak for themselves.”
Born Jan. 24, 1937, in Zanesville, Ohio – roughly 90 miles south of Canton – Beathard moved with his family to California at age 4. He didn’t start playing organized football until his sophomore year in high school, but developed in the game rapidly, and as a tailback he was talented enough to receive a scholarship offer from Louisiana State University.
Shortly after arriving on the campus in Baton Rouge for summer workouts, however, he grew homesick and returned to California. His affinity for his home state would last forever and shape several career decisions and his daily habits and lifestyle.
Beathard attended El Camino Junior College for one year, then enrolled at Cal Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. As a member of the Mustangs’ successful football team (17-2 record in 1957 and 1958), he advanced from backup running back to starting quarterback and defensive back. He and a college teammate, fellow future Hall of Famer JOHN MADDEN, often discussed strategy and their shared love of the game.
Undrafted by the NFL, he snagged pro tryouts over the next two preseasons but didn’t land on a roster. He fell out of the game for a couple of years, turning to various sales jobs to make ends meet.
With his passion for the game unchecked, Beathard found a path back to football thanks to the American Football League. In 1963, LAMAR HUNT and the Kansas City Chiefs offered him the opportunity to scout part time in his home state and across the West.
“It was kind of a natural thing for me,” he told an interviewer.
Beathard left the Chiefs briefly to scout for the AFL, which at that time was engaged in a heated competition with the National Football League to find, draft and sign players. He returned to the Chiefs for the 1966 season – just as the team was ascending to the AFL title and representing the league in the First AFL-NFL World Championship Game. He is credited with helping the team find and sign future Hall of Famers CURLEY CULP and JAN STENERUD among other contributors to the team’s long-term success.
He then jumped leagues, joining the fledgling Atlanta Falcons in 1968 as a scout for three seasons. In looking back on his career many years later, he told an interviewer it was beneficial “for me to see how different organizations did things.”
That experience helped open another door a few years later.
Entering the 1972 season, Beathard joined DON SHULA in Miami as director of player personnel, with the Dolphins on the cusp of the team’s historic perfect record and back-to-back Super Bowl victories.
“Bobby made fewer mistakes than most. And he found some kids for us nobody else would take a chance on,” Shula told the Washington Post. “He wasn't ever afraid to take a risk.”
Demanding and often argumentative with his staff, Shula asked only that his personnel team come to meetings informed and that they be prepared to defend their opinions on players unwaveringly.
Beathard met that challenge.
“I probably learned more working for Shula than anybody,” he told David Spada in a post-career interview. Beathard said Shula allowed him to hire the scouting staff without any second-guessing and that “set me up for how to do things the rest of my career.”
With the Dolphins, Beathard would scout during the week, then return to the team to coach special teams on Saturdays and Sundays.
“Working for Don Shula was probably the thing that really prepared me for my career in the NFL,” Beathard said in his Enshrinement speech.
By 1978, Beathard was prepared for the position – general manager – that would become his path to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. An opening existed in Washington, where the tenure of coach/general manager GEORGE ALLEN had ended.
The biggest leap
A self-professed “beach-lover,” Beathard was happy in Miami and almost turned down the interview request. “It was more responsibility and a step up, but I didn’t want to go,” he said.
Shula encouraged him to pursue the opportunity.
Beathard impressed ownership and got the job but soon realized he had entered “a situation where their philosophy was completely different than mine.” Over the first three seasons, results were mediocre – a 24-24 record and no playoff appearances.
He then made the most important personnel decision of his professional career: He hired JOE GIBBS as head coach in 1981. After an 0-5 start, the team went 8-3 to reach .500 for the season.
In the strike-shortened 1982 season, Washington went 8-1 and reached the Super Bowl, beating the Don Shula-coached Dolphins, 27-17 for the title. The team featured 27 free agents Beathard had signed.
“It was almost like forming a new league,” Beathard said of that unusual season, “but you had to do it in 10 days.”
As a team-builder, Beathard placed less emphasis on high draft picks than many of his peers. In 11 years, he traded down in the first round – or out altogether – in eight drafts.
“We did it a little bit different than a lot of people. A lot of people in the league thought I was nuts,” Beathard said. “Maybe that was true, because I started trading away first-round draft picks, and first-round draft picks were valuable … but we figured if it was a draft that we had evaluated … and it was rich in talent, we could get players in the later rounds.”
Two of the first-round picks Beathard didn’t relinquish became Hall of Famers: ART MONK and DARRELL GREEN, a player many considered too small for the NFL.
“It didn't matter who we brought in, whether it was a first-round pick in the draft or the last pick in the last round of the draft, each one of those players got the same chance,” Beathard said in his Enshrinement speech. “And because of that, we ended up getting to three Super Bowls.”
An avid runner, Beathard competed in several Boston and New York City marathons, some while working as general manager in Washington, and also ran a portion of the Olympic torch relay in 1984. He often ran the 6.4 miles from his home in suburban Virginia to the team’s offices. His secretary told the Washington Post in a 1981 article, “When Bobby says he’s going to ‘run home,’ he means it.”
Beathard called the decision to go to Washington “probably the best decision I made” in football.
Teams that Beathard constructed won Super Bowls following the 1981 and 1987 seasons. He also laid the foundation for the team that won Super Bowl XXVI three seasons after he left Washington.
“He could go to a small school and bring out the real talent,” said Ricky Sanders, a standout receiver at Southwest Texas State who flourished for eight seasons with Washington.
Beathard resigned from his job in Washington prior to the 1989 NFL Draft. He returned to his native California and spent one season as an NFL analyst for NBC.
Back to California
In 1990, he was hired to revive a San Diego team that had not reached the playoffs for almost a decade. By Year 3, the Chargers were 11-5 and AFC West champions. Two years later, they reached the Super Bowl for the first time in team history, defeating Miami and Pittsburgh in the AFC playoffs before losing to the San Francisco 49ers.
“Getting back to San Diego was like a dream come true,” Beathard said in his Enshrinement speech. “I got to be near my parents. And fortunately, we got enough players out there to get to another Super Bowl.”
Beathard stayed with the Chargers through the 2000 season. He retired, saying all the travel was taking a toll on his health and that he never wanted to “pick a player I hadn’t seen in person,” which was required more frequently.
He was done with football but not done with competition.
From 2005 to 2009, Beathard took first place in the men's 65-and-over age group at the annual World Bodysurfing Championships.
At a Washington team reunion, 12-year offensive tackle George Starke said: “When you think of classic football executives, you don’t think of Bobby Beathard. He’s kind of a surfer guy. He looks like a surfer guy, and he is a surfer guy, and yet somehow he has a natural feel for (football) talent.”
The first time Beathard met team owner Jack Kent Cooke at the team facility, he was dressed in what served as his usual office attire: T-shirt, running shorts and running shoes.
Mike Allman, the director of player personnel for 19 years in Washington, told a newspaper reporter: “What you see is what you get. You couldn't make up a guy like Bobby Beathard. He's an original.”
Describing himself as a lucky man who “got through life without a real job,” Beathard called his life in football “something that I loved to do every day.”
Beathard’s legacy as a talent evaluator on teams that reached Super Bowls in Kansas City, Miami, Washington and San Diego will be preserved forever at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
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