From Austin Powers to ‘The Longest Yard’: Reliving Ravens’ epic 1996 NFL draft

NFL

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The reminders of Ozzie Newsome’s decisions from 25 years ago are featured prominently in the Baltimore Ravens’ landscape.

Every game day, fans pass by a towering 9-foot-tall Ray Lewis statue that stands outside M&T Bank Stadium. When walking inside the lobby of the Ravens’ team facility, players, coaches and staff members see the shiny replica of Jonathan Ogden’s Hall of Fame bust.

On April 20, 1996, the Ravens took their first major step in transforming the transplanted Cleveland Browns to what would become a two-time Super Bowl champion when Newsome drafted Ogden and Lewis in the first round. It remains the first and only time that an NFL team selected Hall of Fame players with the first two picks in franchise history.

How will Newsome celebrate the silver anniversary of one of the NFL’s most memorable drafts?

“Up until you told me April 20 was the day, I didn’t know,” Newsome said earlier this month. “I just looked at my calendar, and April 20 is just a blank date.”

In talking with a dozen people linked to this draft, they all pointed out how Newsome’s understated personality and leadership became the calming influence in the midst of an unprecedented offseason storm.

Owner Art Modell fired his head coach — Bill Belichick, future winner of six Lombardi trophies — after the team had scouted players at the combine. Team officials then moved their operations from modern 5-year-old headquarters in Cleveland to a dilapidated police academy outside Baltimore just 19 days before the draft.

In the midst of this chaos, there was a scenario in which the Ravens could have selected running back Lawrence Phillips and tight end Jason Dunn with their first two picks. Phillips played three seasons in the NFL and later took his own life in January 2016 while serving time in a California prison. Dunn is currently a mentor and character-building coordinator after spending 12 seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs as a blocking tight end.

Instead, in what was described as a miracle by many, the Ravens came away with a couple of franchise-changing talents in Ogden and Lewis before they even had a logo or official colors.

This is the story of the Ravens’ 1996 draft, as told by those who lived it:

‘It’s about people, not buildings’

On April 1, Baltimore’s new football team moved into the home of the city’s old one. In the 12 years since the Colts had left, the facility had been used to train law enforcement. When the Ravens walked in, there were numerous holes in the walls, space for one full-length football field and no weight room.

VINCE NEWSOME, West Coast area scout (now senior player personnel executive): We were like, “OK, this is where the Colts were? This is where the Colts were?” It was odd because everything was cramped, everything was small.

KIRK FERENTZ, offensive line coach (now Iowa coach): The first time we did a tour, I remember Mr. Modell’s office had shag carpet. It was, like, right out of Austin Powers. Mr. Modell had a great sense of humor, so he made a joke about it. But that was kind of the state of the building.

SCOTT PIOLI, pro personnel director (now NFL Network analyst): We converted the two racquetball courts into parts of the weight rooms. I remember Zeus [6-foot-7, 360-pound offensive tackle Orlando Brown Sr.] was leaning against one of the walls downstairs to stretch. He pushed himself through the wall.

KEVIN BYRNE, head of public relations: Bill T [Tessendorf] was, like, vice president of training and medicine as well as facilities and construction. He had a leather tool belt with his tools in it. I’m sure it was disconcerting to some players. “Bill, you might have to take that belt off while you straighten my back out.” Bill would be there late at night taking down a wall or putting up a wall or putting a door in. You’d walk in in the morning and be like, “Was that there yesterday?”

BILL TESSENDORF, head trainer: We didn’t have any shelving in there. We had probably 3,500 VCR tapes [of college games] that they brought over. We literally lined the hallways and stood them on end so you could see the label.

GEORGE KOKINIS, scouting assistant (now director of player personnel): If you wavered in the hallway and kicked them over, then you messed them all up. You’d hear people yelling: “Can you get me Oregon vs. UCLA?” If you didn’t put it back in the right spot, it was a crapshoot trying to find that tape. It’s not like it is now where you go to your computer and have every game at your disposal.

BYRNE: It was dirty and run-down. But it instantly became home, and we won a Super Bowl [in 2000] in that building. So it shows you that it’s about people, it’s not about buildings.

Conflicting opinions

The night before the draft, there was a 45-minute meeting of the Ravens’ brain trust about the No. 4 overall pick. Ozzie Newsome told Modell that Ogden was the top player on their draft board and should be the team’s choice even though Baltimore had two starting offensive tackles. Modell wanted the Ravens to select Phillips, a talented runner considered to have character issues, because “tackles don’t sell tickets.” Newsome didn’t think there would be a decision because he never expected Ogden to get past the Arizona Cardinals at No. 3. The draft began — wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson (Jets) and linebacker Kevin Hardy (Jaguars) were the top two picks — and Newsome still thought Phillips would become his first draft pick.

JIM FASSEL, Cardinals offensive coordinator: [The Cardinals] didn’t let the coaches in when they were doing the final stuff. When I left that day, we were going to take Ogden. I was all for it. Then, all of a sudden, when they kicked us out of the room, I don’t know what happened.

OZZIE NEWSOME: Our [draft] table [in New York] was next to Arizona, and [Cardinals owner Bill] Bidwill had that person from Arizona write down Lawrence Phillips’ name on a draft card and make sure that we saw it. I got a call from them: Do I want to move up to that third spot? That gave even more credence to them taking Jonathan Ogden, because they wanted us to come up and get Lawrence.

KOKINIS: Arizona is on the clock, and they had no offensive linemen. We’re like, “OK, JO’s [Ogden] going here,” and that moment kind of felt like an hour. So “Arizona selects …” and we’re all sitting there waiting, and they say, “Simeon Rice, defensive end, Illinois.” And it was like then you could hear a pin drop because I still didn’t know what Ozzie was going to do.

OZZIE NEWSOME, vice president of player personnel: I turned to Mr. Modell, and I go, “We need to take Jonathan Ogden.” He goes, “No! We’ve done all our work, we need a running back. We need Lawrence Phillips.” He was sold on Lawrence Phillips, and the discussion went, “No, we’ve graded the board, we spent all of this time and we need to stay with the board.” He reluctantly gave in to me. It was tough because Mr. Modell was like another father to me. He had given me this opportunity, and one of the first decisions that he and I have to make together, we’re on opposite sides of the fence. That made it even tougher because I wanted to do so well for him.

PHIL SAVAGE, director of college scouting (now Jets senior adviser): I turned to Mr. Modell and said, “You’ll never regret that decision” — and we didn’t.

BYRNE: I can still remember the picture and the video with the little hat on top of JO’s ‘fro and holding up that little jacket that would have fit [5-foot-7 wide receiver] Jermaine Lewis, and this is our debut in the NFL. We’ll get better, we’ll get better.

FERENTZ: What a way to start a foundation of a new franchise. It was just like a luck from the heavens on that one.

Draft-day confusion

Belichick was gone, but he did leave an additional first-round pick behind. In 1995, the Browns traded their first-round pick to the San Francisco 49ers, who used the No. 10 overall pick on wide receiver J.J. Stokes. One of the picks received from the 49ers turned into the No. 26 overall for the Ravens. Baltimore set its sights on a linebacker with its second first-rounder, although Lewis wasn’t at the top of the list at that point.

OZZIE NEWSOME: [The Browns] were a height-weight-speed team [under Belichick]. We had a height, a weight and a speed that would make you clean. It was all about big men playing in that front seven. But this guy Lewis, who was undersized for height and weight, made every tackle. I mean, he made every tackle, and you just couldn’t deny him as a football player.

SAVAGE: Reggie Brown was one level above Ray on our board. But Detroit takes Reggie Brown at No. 17. Now [defensive coordinator] Marvin Lewis is like, “Well, who’s left at linebacker?” Well, Ray Lewis is left from Miami.

RAY LEWIS*: Drew Rosenhaus, my first agent, said, “Listen, I got inside information that the Dolphins are going to take you at 20.” Then the 20th pick came, and I sat there, and I’m waiting for the phone to ring. And the phone doesn’t ring. They said: “With the 20th pick, the Miami Dolphins take defensive tackle Daryl Gardener out of Baylor.” I said, “What the freak?”

OZZIE NEWSOME: We didn’t think about moving up for anyone in that first round. I was so new to the process. I was kind of letting the draft come to me. [If Lewis was gone], I probably would have taken Jason Dunn.

LEWIS*: Five picks away [from the Packers’ No. 27 pick], I was on the phone with Green Bay, and they said, “We’re taking you.” I’m telling everybody in the suite, I’m like, “I’m going to Green Bay. I’m going to Green Bay.” When the 26th pick came up, I heard: “University of Miami, Ray Lewis,” and the phone rang. Ozzie called me at the same time the pick was going off.

OZZIE NEWSOME: He did go, “Who?” “It’s Ozzie Newsome from Baltimore.” He was like, “Really?” I go, “Yeah, we just selected you.” He goes, “Who?” There was a little give-and-take there.

SAVAGE: We thought he was a good player, but we had no idea he was going to be a franchise-altering player because of the leadership and the passion. A lot of that is still held true to this day. I mean, “Play Like a Raven,” the Raven Way. All of that emanated from Ray’s years there.

The Mean Machine

The Ravens were the eighth (and most recent) team to select multiple Hall of Fame players in the same draft, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The only other team in the Super Bowl era to draft two Hall of Fame players in the same round was the 1995 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks). Still, one national reporter at the time gave the Ravens’ draft a grade of C. “Passed on the draft’s best player, and where does Ogden play?”

PIOLI: There was no reason to celebrate [after the draft]. Everyone was still wondering if we were going to have jobs. And then there was all the other stuff. We didn’t know if the stadium was going to be ready. We couldn’t get lines straight on the field for practice. There were so many other things that needed to be done. It was like a last-minute expansion franchise.

BYRNE: When we first practiced, we were the Mean Machine from “The Longest Yard.” We didn’t have a logo on our helmets. We had white helmets with black jerseys. We had to kind of hurry the process.

SAVAGE: That first rookie camp, Ray showed up to do the towel pullup. You throw two towels around the bar, grab them with your hands and do pullups. Ray asks, “What’s the record?” Lionel [Vital, scout] and Jerry [Simmons, strength and conditioning coach] looked at each other and said, “We don’t have any records. We’re a new team.” Ray moves his arms back and forth and says, “Let me set the record.” He jumps up there and rips out however many there were. Lionel comes upstairs and said: “This Ray Lewis is special. You talk about a leader. It’s just dripping from this guy. He’s going to take control of this team and take control of this defense.”

KOKINIS: That was the first time we all learned under Ozzie the phrase “This guy’s a football player.” We’re like, “He was born to play the game.” All the intangibles, the football mentality — that’s what we try to find in players now. As a young scout, we had a picture of what the pinnacle is.

BYRNE: The first time I met JO is when somebody brought him to my door, and I look up and I go, “Holy cow!” He fills the frame of the door. At that time, he was like 320 or so. He looked like Karl Malone. I remember a one-on-one early in camp with [defensive end] Rob Burnett, and I see Rob going back to some of the veterans on defense saying, “That guy’s pretty good.”

Legacy continues

The selection of Ogden and Lewis spurred an unbelievable run of success in the draft for Baltimore, from Ed Reed to Terrell Suggs on defense and from Jamal Lewis to Lamar Jackson on offense. The Ravens’ first-round picks have been to a combined 64 Pro Bowls, nine more than any other franchise, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Ravens are also the only team with three draft picks inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame since 1996 (Ogden, Lewis and Reed).

SAVAGE: Ozzie already had a career because he’s a Hall of Fame player, but for the rest of us, that day, a lot of us honestly made a career off that day. That whole draft gave us the confidence that, “OK, we really know what we’re doing.”

VINCE NEWSOME: When you start reaching the latter years, I look over at George [Kokinis] and at Eric [DeCosta, current Ravens general manager], and I say, “We helped build this.” It’s really incredible to see where it went — and that’s something that no one can ever take away from you.

TESSENDORF: It’s just like raising a child. You instill some values in there, and they come out, and all of the sudden they’re doing this and doing that. The one thing that I’ve always been impressed with that organization is that everybody pitched in because they were working for a common goal. You feel that’s part of your team more than the paycheck.

OZZIE NEWSOME: We still talk about that first draft and how there was so much uncertainty, but we do it with a little bit of a great feeling. We were able to pull it off against all the types of things that we had to come up against. So there’s a sense of satisfaction. But the other thing that became paramount to myself and everybody else: Stay with the process.

*From an ESPN interview in 2018.

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