Our Ron Lippock caught up with Joe Horrigan, the executive director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
First, let me know how you got started with the Hall of Fame?
Well, I’ve been with the Hall of Fame now for 42 years in a variety of capacities. I started in 1977. I got an opportunity and the time was right. I grew up on football. My father was a sportswriter and publicist with the AFL then the Buffalo Bills until 1977 when he passed away.
I had my first paid position when I was 13 working for the AFL working on clipbooks on the weekends. I was one of five people working there. The NFL wasn’t much bigger. It only had 12-to-15 people at the time.
I always had a historical bend. My father talked about and knew athletes that played in eras long before me. So I always had an appreciation for the history of the game. I visited the Hall of Fame two years before I got an interview and threw my hat in the ring. I told the person then that I’d do his job for nothing. Little did I realize they’d hold me to that! when they hired me as the curator!
I worked over 42 years and headed the research and communications then worked up to the executive VP position managing the selection process, then to the executive director position.
What are some of the big plans for the Hall of Fame in the next few years?
The Hall of Fame has changed dramatically including planning for the Hall of Fame Village. It’s a 90-acre campus including a new stadium they rebuilt and 11 fields with a heavy emphasis on youth football. It’s a massive expansion and we’re getting to phase two now which includes an indoor facility for events and performance excellence for training coaches, officials, and health matters. It also has a retirement community for players and others who have been around football and that environment, and will also include a football-themed center with two hotels and an amusement park and centered around the Hall of Fame building, which will be like the castle in the middle of the park if you compare the park to Disney.
So, it’s a very exciting time for those coming in behind me. I just retired but will still be active, just not as involved.
You are also doing a lot of distance learning and education.
The technology is there now. Hall of Fame players can interact with students via technology. We have the ability to do that – to take our living assets — our Hall of Famers — and help others. The rewards are that they are seen as humans who gave their lives to the profession – who experienced the challenges and rewards of the game and can share them with others.
Another thing we are proud of is our archives. Anyone who has ever played — even just one game, or coached — we have a file for every single one of them in our archives. From cradle to Canton the archives encapsulates all aspects of the game.
One thing we hear is that the Hall of Fame process sometime comes down to who has the best sales pitch from their presenters. How much of that is accurate?
That’s sometimes misrepresented. Like other hall of fames, it’s a year-round process. There are 48 media-based selectors that represent the 32 franchise cities plus 16 at-large media that represent the more league-wide coverage. No team is over- or under- represented.
The process starts off with nominations that can come from anyone and we get hundreds that usually end up accounting for abut 130 players. Many nominations end up being for the same players. We challenge the selectors an ask them to pick their top 25 and then ask again to get them down to 15 semi-finalists.
They are asked to provide materials to support those 15 selections, usually with things like letters of support from those that have intimate knowledge of the candidates. There are 18 candidates that end up being discussed at the annual meeting that occurs the Saturday before the Super Bowl, and that meeting lasts 10-to-12 hours.
And that’s where that “sales pitch” occurs?
Yes, each of the 18 candidates has a presenter that begins the discussion on them. These are more like starting remarks to get the conversation started from the selector closest to the candidate. It’s the most logical person to begin the debate. They often provide information they are best suited to share: things like locker room perspectives or other intimate insights on the candidate. The other selectors are expected to be knowledgeable about the candidate so they can debate the selection.
How does the onset and reliance of statistics affect the process?
Selectors are wise enough to know that you can’t compare statistics of today to those of, say, the 1940’s. And they know that a player with four sacks can’t be compared with another player with many more if he plays a different position, like defensive back. Passing and receiving yards is another thing. The rules are much more liberal now. A player with 69 catches in the 1980’s was a Pro Bowl player, but now he’s not a lock to make a roster.
Any other changes to the game that you like or dislike?
I don’t mind some of the changes as long as they make the game more exciting or protect players.
I do have a harder time with the way the game has seemed to be viewed by younger audiences. Fantasy football has people watching for all of the wrong reasons. Fans now watch for the fantasy numbers. Many don’t follow teams any more. It’s like a board game. Sometimes you can hear rumbling in the stands during games but nothing’s happening on the field. It’s because they are watching their phones and something happened to their fantasy team during a different game.
I like that the players are faster. They train year-round. They don’t come to camp to get fit anymore. But the fact they are human is lost on many now, with emotions and feelings and desires like anyone else. It’s easy too be critical of them. But it’s that aspect of the game and players that makes it great to me.
Milestone events — when players break records — those are just the cap of their performance. That all started at childhood until they reached the apex of their career. That’s lost on many people.
Any moments or players stand out personally to you?
The Buffalo-Houston shootout where Frank Reich led Buffalo to that great comeback over Warren Moon and Houston, that was the greatest game I saw and it had personal interest to me as a Buffalo fan.
As for individual performances, I marvel at [Tom] Brady and [Bill] Belichick. Love them or hate them, it’s remarkable what they have accomplished.
As for players, Jim Brown still lights up a room. And Jim Kelly’s perseverance through personal challenges of late are an inspiration. And guys like [Joe] Montana, who quietly remain in the conversation as the best of all time — Otto Graham too — those players helped my love of the game stay so strong.