Dallas Cowboys And The Indian: How A Computer Statistician From Uttar Pradesh Helped Create ‘America’s Team’
By Palash Ghosh
on October 25 2013 8:37 AM
The Dallas Cowboys are not only the most valuable franchise in the National Football League, they have also ascended to the status of genuine American icon. Either loved or hated by the public, the Cowboys are to pro football what the New York Yankees represent to major league baseball and the Boston Celtics to basketball — glamour, wealth, style and, above all, winning and success.
Indeed, according to Forbes Magazine’s latest evaluation of professional sports franchises, the Cowboys – worth a cool $2.1 billion – are the fifth most valuable athletic club in the world, just behind the Yankees. The next most valuable NFL team, the New England Patriots, clocks in at about $1.65 billion (or about $450 million behind the Cowboys).
While glitz and showbiz glamour don’t hurt, the foundation of the team’s enormous national (and even global) popularity lies with its winning tradition – the Cowboys have been to a record eight Super Bowls (tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers), winning five of them. Between 1966 and 1985 (a twenty-year period that witnessed dramatic changes in football as well as society), the Cowboys endured no losing seasons at all — an unprecedented reign of domination that not even the Yankees or Celtics can match.
Although the Cowboys have not appeared in the Super Bowl since 1996, flamboyant and controversial owner Jerry Jones has nonetheless enjoyed tremendous financial gains from the team – Dallas generates annual revenues of some $270 million, the highest in the league, boosted by lofty sponsorship deals and high revenues from premium seating. This prosperity allowed Jones to build the largest domed stadium in the world, the 100,000-seat behemoth AT&T Stadium, at a cost of some $1.3 billion (with significant financial assistance from the city of Arlington, Tex., of course).
However, the Cowboys’ climb to the top of the heap of Americana did not come easy. Founded in 1960 by Texas oil multi-millionaire Clint Murchison Jr., the Cowboys suffered five straight losing seasons (including a winless 0-11-1 maiden campaign), until they eked out a mediocre 7-7 record in the 1964-1965 season. The next year, the club sailed to a 10-3-1 record, before losing to the legendary Green Bay Packers dynasty of Vince Lombardi in the NFL Championship game.
That half-decade of painful evolution to success was primarily engineered by the team’s brain trust which comprised the disciplinarian, almost ascetic, head coach, Tom Landry; president and general manager Texas ‘Tex’ Schramm; and super-scout/ vice president of player personnel, Gil Brandt.
However, one figure from that long ago period has largely been forgotten – indeed, if he was ever known much to the public in the first place. One of the crucial ingredients in the Cowboys long-term success — a sophisticated player-draft system — was largely created by a man whose origins were very far away from North Texas and who initially did not even know anything about football.
In one of the unlikeliest sports “marriages” in U.S. history, the struggling Dallas Cowboys of the early 1960s – run by profane, hard-drinking, carousing foul-mouthed Texan men — reached out to a shy, studious, modest young fellow from rural India to help modernize, computerize and streamline their system of drafting eligible college players.
Prior to joining the Cowboys, Tex Schramm had worked a gig as a CBS Sports executive, helping to broadcast the Winter Olympics, where he became aware of and intrigued by the use of computers. He decided that computers could help the Cowboys choose players from the draft, including young athletes other clubs might miss.
“I decided… that I would have to find an objective method of deciding on the worth of a football player… I thought we had to find a way to judge players without emotion,” Schramm told Sports Illustrated in 1968. “We used computers to figure scores and standings when I was in charge of CBS coverage of the Winter Olympics… and I discussed using computers to evaluate football players with IBM experts then. But I didn’t get a chance to put the idea into operation until 1962, when I was with the Cowboys.”
That year, Schramm asked Service Bureau Corp., a subsidiary of International Business Machines Corp. (NYSE:IBM), to develop a method of computerizing the football draft.
Enter one A. Salam Qureishi, a brilliant young Indian computer programmer and statistician at SBC (formerly at Case Institute of Technology — now called Case Western Reserve University — in Cleveland and hired by IBM in July 1961), who was sent to Dallas to meet with Schramm.
Born in a village in Uttar Pradesh in northern India, Qureishi did not drink nor smoke nor fool around, nor did he understand anything about football (he favored cricket and soccer) – and he also spoke in a heavy accent. One can only imagine how his initial conversations with the big gregarious American Schramm must have gone.
“All he knew was soccer,” Schramm said of Qureishi. “We had trouble communicating in the English language. It took a lot of patience to teach him the game [of football].”
Nonetheless, after a rocky series of initial introductions, Schramm and Qureishi somehow learned to communicate with each other and got down to business.
“Until I was called to Dallas, I knew nothing about American football,” Qureishi told Sports Illustrated. “I had learned to enjoy baseball because of its similarity to cricket. Now I think American football is easily the most scientific game ever invented.”
Schramm explained to Sports Illustrated that, prior to Qureishi’s arrival, the Cowboys’ scouting system’s principal problem was that they had too much data on too many players.
“We would start with, say, 2,000 players in their freshman year in college and steadily accumulate information on them,” Schramm said. “By the time they were seniors the number was down to 500 or 600. That total was reduced to 300. Then each of the 300 was ranked from one to 300. Since it took a man at least an hour to read and evaluate the information on a player… I knew we had to find a quick, dispassionate judge. The computer was the answer.”
Joe Nick Patoski, a Texas-based author who wrote about the Cowboys in a book entitled “The Dallas Cowboys: The Outrageous History of the Biggest, Loudest, Most Hated, Best Loved Football Team in America,” told International Business Times that despite their many superficial differences, Schramm and Qureishi worked very well together for several years.
“Schramm was a boisterous, aggressive salesman-type of man, but he was also highly intelligent, innovative and creative,” Patoski said. “He perceived how bright Qureishi was and how important he could be to him. Moreover, Schramm’s decision to devote the Cowboys to computerized scouting was quite a radical departure in the environment of early 1960s football.”
Indeed, pro scouting in 1962 was a part-time, amateurish affair – Qureishi’s efforts would bring the Cowboys into the Space Age.
Patoski noted that Qureishi’s input also had to be approved by Landry and Brandt, or it would not have succeeded at all.
But given the diverse personalities and divergent backgrounds involved in this epic drama, Qureishi’s learning curve in the exotic and strange world of 1960s Dallas, Texas was quite long and meandering.
“We had an Indian [man] who knew absolutely nothing about football and coaches who knew nothing about computers and less about Indians,” Schramm said. “Salam didn’t know whether a football was full of air or full of feathers.”
A culture clash of enormous magnitude indeed.
“With my heavy Indian accent and his Texas accent, we understood each other poorly at first. Somehow, we hit it off after a few initial missteps,” Qureishi said.
Qureishi also explained to Sports Illustrated the massive task in front of him in choosing the best players for a sport he knew nothing about.
“At that time, the most sophisticated computer system could work with something like only 80 variables,” he said. “It was immediately evident that we would have to cut down. We reduced everything to five dimensions.”
Those five essential variables, Qureishi asserted, were character, quickness-and-body-control, competitiveness, mental alertness and strength-and- explosiveness. He also developed a questionnaire on players that was distributed to college coaches across the country.
But that was only the surface of a far more complex system that took three years to finish.
“To a statistician, the task was a selection-and-ranking problem; select the best set of players from a given universe of college players with known measured characteristics,” Qureishi stated.
In 1964, as a kind of ‘test run’ of their system, the Cowboys’ computer picked, among others, college players Joe Namath, Dick Butkus, Gale Sayers, and Fred Biletnikoff as top future prospects (all four went on to have stellar NFL careers, although not for Dallas).
“Namath [rated] ahead of [the others] because he had qualities that were held in particularly high esteem by this [computer] model,” Qureishi commented to Sports Illustrated. “He [Namath] had individual qualities that outweighed certain aspects of the… scale.”
Between 1964 and 1970, when the Cowboys won consistently, but failed to bring home the championship, Qureishi’s computer model helped select such players as Mel Renfro, Bobby Hayes, Roger Staubach, Craig Morton, Jethro Pugh, Walt Garrison, Rayfield Wright, Larry Cole, Calvin Hill, and Duane Thomas, among others, all of whom went on to have significant careers in the NFL and help to maintain the club’s dominance and growing popularity.
For example, Patoski noted the highly unusual selection of Bobby Hayes, the wide receiver who also participated in track and field at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 and was called “the fastest man in the world.”
“Other clubs thought the Cowboys were crazy to pick Hayes,” Patoski explained. “Even though he was a high profile track-and-field Olympic athlete, he had never really played football before and went to a small, obscure black college called Florida A&M University, which was better known for its marching band.”
But Hayes went on to have a spectacular, game-changing career that eventually landed him in the Hall of Fame.
In July 1967, Cowboys owner Murchison launched a new company called Optimum Systems Inc. which would hold rights to the player-selection computer program developed by Qureishi. The firm was equally owned by the Cowboys, Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers, New Orleans Saints and Qureishi himself. Optimum would expand beyond football to help corporations, municipal governments and other entities with data selection problems.
Meanwhile, Qureishi’s refusal to join the Cowboys owner and senior management in their endless bacchanalia created some humorous moments. At Super Bowl V in 1971, played between the Cowboys and the Baltimore Colts in Miami, Murchison (low-key and mild-mannered on the surface, but really a wild-living, licentious playboy) invited Qureishi to stay in a luxurious suite.
“There was much drinking and lots of girls,” Qureishi told Patoski about Murchison’s lavish parties in exclusive hotels across the country. “People drank like fish, there were hookers everywhere.”
But Qureishi would not participate in such shenanigans.
“I think people like Murchison were put off by Qureishi’s attitude, but I don’t think they were necessarily shocked by it,” Patoski told IB Times.
There were other odd moments – Patoski told of a long flight on an airplane where Murchison and Qureishi sat next to each other for hours, without saying a word to each other.
Patoski said that Qureishi had no direct contact with the Cowboy players and it was unclear to him if he was even a fan of the game.
As such, perhaps this bizarre partnership between the shy, unassuming observant Muslim Indian and the big bad Cowboys was not meant to last. The end of Qureishi’s tenure with the club centered on his problems with Murchison over the running of Optimum Systems. Eventually, Murchison forced Qureishi into resigning.
In 1972, Qureishi formed Sysorex, an international computer company in Silicon Valley, which he still serves as chairman (the firm is now called Sysorex Global Holdings Corp.)
Qureishi would not return to the Cowboys until 1986 when the world had changed drastically for the NFL. The Cowboys were now the laughingstock of the league, having made one failed draft pick after another. Also, Staubach had retired, Landry was under pressure to quit, Murchison went bankrupt and was near death and the team was in the doldrums. Schramm was still with the club (now owned by businessman Bum Bright) and asked his old friend Qureishi for help — and he complied.
However, the magic was simply not there anymore. “By this time, all the NFL clubs had sophisticated computer draft systems in place, so it was really hard for the Cowboys to stand out from the pack,” Patoski told IB Times. “Qureishi’s time with the club at this juncture was very brief.”
What is intriguing, however, is that, soon after Qureishi’s departure, (and roughly coincident with the emergence of new owner Jerry Jones), the Cowboys started making very smart draft picks again – including wide receiver Michael Irvin (1988), quarterback Troy Aikman (1989), and running back Emmitt Smith (1990). Those three superstars would, of course, generated three memorable Super Bowl victories during the 1990s.
“Qureishi is virtually unknown to the average football fan,” Patoski said. “But he was instrumental in the Cowboys’ success. The team is now a hugely profitable international ‘brand’ and he helped lay the foundation for that.”