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From sardines and crackers to the Rams
By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Wednesday, Aug. 02 2006
In 1994, Scott Linehan and Tony Softli stood side by side at the University of
Washington. Linehan was in his first season as Huskies wide receivers coach;
Softli was a graduate assistant coach.
"You can probably find a picture of Tony and I standing next to each other on
the sideline," Linehan said. "He sent in the (hand) signals, and I called in
the plays. Isn't that funny?"
Twelve years later, they're working side-by-side with the Rams, with Linehan as
head coach and Softli as the team's new vice president of player personnel.
Although Softli's hiring was announced June 20, Tuesday was his first day on
the job at Rams Park.
"Tony's greatest characteristic is he's a people person," Linehan said. "When
you work in a business like this, and you're in charge of a group of scouts and
a personnel department, you've got to deal with a lot of things. You've got to
really have an ability to get along."
Linehan and Softli worked together one year at Washington. Softli left in 1995
to become an area scout with the expansion Carolina Panthers. But he and
Linehan stayed in touch over the years.
"Obviously, Scott was going to hire the best man for the job, which is the way
it should be," Softli said. "But our relationship didn't hurt anything."
When Linehan was hired by the Rams in January, he wanted input on any
restructuring of the personnel department. "It was crucial," Linehan said. "But
it was never one of those things where if you hire me I want this guy."
Whether formally or informally, the Rams interviewed several candidates for the
job before and after Linehan was hired. It turned out to be Softli, a
46-year-old native of Bellevue, Wash., who has risen quickly through the ranks.
In the mid 1970s, Softli was a highly recruited fullback out of Newport High
School in suburban Seattle. He was getting calls from Texas and Oklahoma, and
getting recruited by Washington and several Pacific-10 schools. But late in the
fourth quarter of his final high school game, Softli suffered a serious knee
injury trying to score on a pitch right.
"They weren't even sure if I was going to walk right," Softli said. "It was
pretty devastating. And I lost all those scholarships."
He spent two years at a junior college, then transferred to Washington, finally
making it to Division I football. But his knee wasn't right.
"I played there a year and a spring, and I couldn't limp through any more,"
Softli said. "I was done."
Burned out on school and football, and frustrated over the knee problems,
Softli left school without his degree.
In the 1980s, he worked at Nordstrom's, the University of Washington purchasing
department, and then as a systems analyst in computers for Boeing. All along,
he kept his hand in football, first playing and then coaching semipro football
in the Seattle area. That coaching experience helped land him a job in England
in 1990, coaching the Blackpool Falcons semipro team.
Next came a huge career break, when Washington Huskies coach Don James agreed
to hire Softli to his staff. Softli actually finished his undergraduate degree
- an art major with an emphasis on photography - by this time and had begun
work on a master's degree in business administration.
In four seasons on the Huskies' staff, part of Softli's job was to help NFL
general managers, coaches, and scouts when they came in to evaluate prospects.
Not only did this help Softli establish contacts, it whetted his appetite for
scouting and personnel work.
"When the scouts would come in, they'd sit in my office behind me and watch
tape," Softli said. "So I would hear what they were talking about, and I would
say, 'Now, this is interesting as hell.' "
He found it so interesting that he decided to make it his career. During that
first year as a regional scout for the Panthers, Softli put 37,000 miles on his
van, tracking college players in a vast territory that included Texas, the
Dakotas, Wyoming and Colorado. He picked up a lot of good advice from NFL
personnel men along the way, including current Rams scout Dick Daniels.
Daniels told Softli to avoid traveling at night, and to always carry some food
in case everything was closed in some small college town.
"He said to grab a couple of cans of sardines and a big pack of crackers,"
So, he got in the habit of carrying in the back of his van some clothes, his
files, and sardines and crackers.
"Always, to this day, I have the sardines and crackers," Softli said.
At Carolina, Softli was promoted to director of college scouting in 2000,
overseeing some very successful Panthers drafts.
"They've had a lot of first-round Pro Bowlers," Linehan said. "I mean they've
been hitting on everybody. I think Tony's a great evaluator."
Evaluating talent, Softli said, "is like playing football or anything else. You
have to have a knack for it. I can tell a guy what to go look for, but you've
got to kind of have a feel for it. I've kind of been raised around the sport.
I've coached it and played it. It made it a little bit easier for me."
After 11 seasons with Carolina, the opportunity to run an entire personnel
department - both the pro and college scouting sides - was too good to pass up
in St. Louis.
Charley Armey, who had been the Rams' general manager, now will work under
Softli as vice president of pro personnel.
"What I look for in a player is to make sure he's smart, tough, competitive,
with good football instincts," Softli said. "I like him to have a little bit of
a chip on his shoulder. Not so much something to prove, but just kind of a
mean, nasty type attitude. But I would think production is huge. ... Those are
the things that Coach Linehan and I have talked about."
While in Carolina, Softli developed what he calls a digital draft board,
putting his computer knowledge learned at Boeing to use in football.
"It's all the information at your fingertips," Softli said. "Instead of running
to a binder: 'OK, what do the scouts say about this guy?' Now, you click on,
and boom! His highlights, everything, are right there."
Interestingly, Softli said that only "Phase 1" of this computerized information
system was installed in Carolina.
"The Rams are going to get Phase 2 and 3," he said.
What are Phase 2 and Phase 3?
"I'm not going to tell you," Softli said.
With the Rams, Softli said, "My plan is to have it up and running for '08, all