Meet Mel Kiper: Fallible, Parodied, Relentless, Rich, Famous, Successful

Josh Peter@Handle hereSpecial to Bleacher ReportApril 28, 2014

Bleacher Report

Of course you know his hair. Sure, you know his voice. And you probably know his role in the legendary Bill Tobin tirade.

But as Mel Kiper Jr. enters his fourth decade as ESPN’s resident NFL draft experthaving helped transform the annual draft from an afterthought to an extravaganza, having helped to create an expanding market for salaried draft gurus and having cemented his status as the face of the NFL draftwhat do you really know about him?

Or as Tobin, the former general manager of the Indianapolis Colts, put it 20 years ago: "Who in the hell is Mel Kiper?"

Here are a few things worth knowing:

Mel Is Living Large

Far removed from Radio City Music Hall, where Kiper will serve as ESPN’s lead analyst May 8-10 for the 31st consecutive year, he grew up in a row house in Baltimore. There was just one bathroom, which Kiper shared with his parents and older sister. And to save money while starting his business, which featured his annual NFL draft book, he lived in that house and worked out of the basement until he was almost 30.

Now 53, he can choose from among four bathrooms and two half-baths in his 6,550-square-foot house in  a small town in north Baltimore County. There’s a pool out back, and Kiper and his wife, Kim, built a radio and TV studio so he can fulfill his commitments with ESPN.

Then, four years ago, he purchased a second home on the waterfront of Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. It features chestnut hardwood floors, custom stonework and cabinetry—not to mention a deck with a hot tub and a private pier enjoyed by Kiper, his wife and their daughter, a freshman in college.

Oh, and an elevator inside the home serves all three levels.

"We’re living the American dream," Kiper said during a recent interview with Bleacher Report.

But he also noted that his first ESPN contract, signed when the network hired him to work the 1984 NFL draft, paid him a grand total of $400.

He declined to say what he makes now but noted that his salary from ESPN did not reach six figures until about a decade ago. He also relayed that his annual draft book and related publications long generated most of his income.

"The thing I say to kids now, there are three words you should all put across that little T-shirt of yours," Kiper said. "Instead of the name of the school, put this across your T-shirt: 'Pay Your Dues.'"

"This notion that everything is just handed to you and everything is just given to you. It was blood, sweat and tears," Kiper said of his family's group effort to make a business out of evaluating NFL prospects. "We didn’t know if we’d ever make a penny. We didn’t know all those years when we were working 16-, 18-hour days, whether I’d ever support a family on that. It took five years before we made a penny on the (draft) books."

Mel Is Keeping it Real

On Opening Day of the 2014 season at Camden Yards, there to watch his beloved Baltimore Orioles, Kiper turned up unannounced and sat in the right field bleachers. He was with Joe Sliwka, a high school buddy who remains his best friend, and they arrived two-and-a-half hours early to watch batting practice and stayed until the last out of the Orioles’ 2-1 win.

BALTIMORE, MD - MARCH 31:  Members of the Boston Red Sox (L) and Baltimore Orioles stand on the field during the national anthem before the start of Opening Day at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on March 31, 2014 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/G
Rob Carr/Getty Images

"He could have probably called the Orioles front office and asked for tickets if he wanted to," Sliwka said. "But he’s like me. He thinks great seats are the bleacher seats. That’s where you see the real fans."

"Mel’s a blue-collar guy. He’s never changed."

Instantly recognized in the stands, Kiper signed autographs, posed for pictures and answered questions about the NFL draft, according to Sliwka. And despite Kiper's strident on-air demeanor that irks even his wife—she has implored him to lighten up—in public he comes across as warm, personable and self-effacing. In fact, he even chuckles at this impersonation of him done by comedian Frank Caliendo.

Mel Is Cynical

"I think people want to take people down," Kiper said. "I think this country is all about trying to take you down…to destroy their careers, to destroy their reputations, to destroy their credibility."

He feels he is a target.

Mel Kiper during the 2007 NFL draft.
Mel Kiper during the 2007 NFL draft.Chris McGrath/Getty Images

In a 2010 Sports Illustrated article by George Dohrmann, Kiper was accused of helping agent Gary Wichard (now deceased) sign a player. Josh Luchs, the former agent who made the allegations, also insinuated Kiper ranked some of Wichard's players higher because of their friendship.

Kiper faced similar allegations in 1996 when, in an article for the Rocky Mountain News, fellow draft analyst Joel Buchsbaum wrote, "Let's put it this way, there are certain players who Mel seems a little high on, and very often, they'll belong to certain agents." That was pre-Internet. The SI article, on the other hand, went viral. Kiper found himself under attack, with critics piling on and some calling for his job.

"OK, I see what people are doing," Kiper recalled thinking. "I see where this is headed. If I don’t say anything, I’m basically admitting guilt."

Making a series of radio appearances, Kiper denied the allegations and defended his integrity.

An ESPN spokesman said network officials discussed the matter among themselves and with Kiper, and after he responded publicly they moved on.

Mel Is Loyal

A week following the 2014 draft, after providing endless analysis on TV, radio and the Internet, Kiper will do one last Q&A—for charity, at his former high school, Calvert Hall College High, a private Catholic all-boys school.

The event is expected to raise between $15,000 and $30,000, and a portion of the money will be used for need-based scholarships for football players, said Sliwka, who served as president of the school’s football booster club.

The Baltimore Sun

Kiper never played organized football—he played junior varsity baseball before hurting his arm—but sits on the board of the booster club. He has helped raise more than $100,000 for the program, according to Sliwka.

Kiper declined to say how much he has donated, but he helped pay for the baseball stadium press box named in honor of his father. And in 2013, he was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame.

Mel Is Zealous

Spring practice. Fall practice. Two-a-days. Scrimmages. Home games. At times, Kiper is as omnipresent with Calvert Hall’s football program as he is on ESPN during the week of the NFL draft.

"Most home games during my years there, you couldn't look up to the top of the stands without seeing him and a few other guys chatting and watching the game," Kyle Levere, a standout wide receiver who graduated from Calvert Hall in 2013, wrote via Facebook. "I often found myself chatting with him when I came out to loosen up before we warmed up as a team."

Calvert Hall football coach Donald Davis.
Calvert Hall football coach Donald Davis.The Baltimore Sun

Though far less frequently, Kiper also has been seen at middle school games, scouting seventh- and eighth-graders who have caught the eye of Calvert Hall’s coaches. Calvert Hall head coach Donald Davis acknowledged he has sought Kiper’s opinion about prospective players.

Calvert Hall competes in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA), which to a large extent allows recruiting—and Kiper has certainly helped woo players.

In 2010, Kiper called quarterback Tommy Stuart, who was then a promising sophomore looking to transfer schools, and persuaded him to enroll at Calvert Hall, according to the quarterback’s father, Steve Stuart. That next year, Tommy Stuart led Calvert Hall to its first MIAA state championship, and he led the school to a 21-3 record during his two years as the starting quarterback.

Although Kiper enjoys sitting in the bleachers at Camden Yards, he has mingled with Calvert Hall recruits in a luxury box at M&T Bank Stadium during the school’s annual game against its archrival.

"You do what you can do," Kiper said. "And if (my) name lends itself to kids coming there (to Calvert Hall), so be it."

Lee Dove, Executive Director of the MIAA, said Kiper’s activities, as described above, fall within the association’s rules.

Mel Is Relentless

Gail Burton

After publishing his first NFL draft book as a high school senior, Kiper enrolled in nearby Essex Community Collegein large part so that he could juggle his studies and his fledgling home-based operation that produced the following each year: a draft preview in October; newsletters in November, December and January; a free-agency data sheet in February; his annual draft book with scouting reports in March; a draft update in early April; and a draft review after the event itself.

"It was the only way we could manage the business," said Kiper. He ran the operation with his father, who had a vending machine company.

At Essex, he majored in broadcasting and thought about the possibility of becoming a meteorologist or a high school athletic director, but he spent most of his time working on Mel Kiper Enterprises, Inc.

Most days, he said, he woke up at 7 a.m. and stayed up as late as 4 a.m. Those 21 hours were sometimes scarcely enough, as he appeared on up to 25 radio shows, filled orders for his draft book and other publications, studied tapeand squeezed in a little homework.

With his father’s encouragement, Kiper dropped out of school after a year-and-a-half at Essex to concentrate on his business full time. The only thing that ever slowed Kiper was a bout with mononucleosis in 1999.

He has maintained a breakneck schedule that grows more intense as the draft approaches each year. During a recent day at ESPN, after releasing his fourth mock draft of the year, Kiper zipped from set to set, participating in five TV segments, two radio shows and answering questions for a webchat.

Having missed lunch, he carried a boxed turkey burger as he headed to the airport. Once he was back home in Baltimore, he planned to watch sports until 2 a.m. in preparation for his Saturday morning radio show and then wake up by 5:30 a.m. to start pre-taping segments for the show.

Mel Kiper takes notes on a folder before the 2006 NFL draft.
Mel Kiper takes notes on a folder before the 2006 NFL draft.The Baltimore Sun

Mel Is an Anomaly

He has never written a check. He has never used an ATM card. "I wouldn’t even know how to," Kiper said.

Only recently did he start to use a cell phone and text, in part to keep in touch with his daughter, Lauren.

"I’ve been slow to get into this new age," he said.

Gail Burton

His mind is encyclopedic, which allows Kiper to work the draft broadcast with minimal notes and makes him capable of retrieving data about obscure players from long ago.

"Once I offhandedly mentioned the name of a childhood friend from my hometown, a small place in western Maryland," Kim Kiper wrote in a story for ESPN.com. "Mel immediately started spitting out his college stats and telling me how good a player he was.

"But if I ask Mel to recall anything else, forget it. He couldn't get 10 miles down the road to the store without detailed directions, even if we drive it 50 times a day. It's like all of his memory is taken up by football."

Mel Is Right

Bill Tobin, reached by phone, ended an interview before it even began. "I’m not talking about something that happened 20 years ago," he said. But if he were being honest with himself, he would have to admit something painful for Kiper’s critics and delicious for Kiper’s fans:

Mel was right.

He skewered Tobin for picking linebacker Trev Alberts rather than Trent Dilfer with the No. 5 overall pick of the 1994 draft. Although some might find it implausible, Kiper points out delicately—yes, delicately—that Alberts played in the NFL for only three seasons and Dilfer won a Super Bowl with the Ravens. (Of course, it's worth noting that Dilfer was never considered an elite quarterback, and that Super Bowl run was fueled by an outstanding Ravens defense.)

"Hits," Kiper calls them—projections that proved spot-on. Some of his favorites:

  •  He rated quarterback Jeff George, the top pick of the 1990 draft, as the 84th-best player available. Those howls of protest have long since died, with George widely considered a bust.
  •  He rated quarterback Rick Mirer, the No. 2 pick of the 1993 draft, as the 33rd-best player available. The backlash from Lou Holtz, then Mirer’s coach at Notre Dame, became sweet music to Kiper’s ears. Mirer proved to be a disappointment.

Mel Is Wrong

Along with the "hits" come what Kiper calls "misses." And Kiper never missed so controversially as he did in 2010. The SI story alleging he was in cahoots with agent Gary Wichard only magnified the mistake.

Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen, represented by Wichard, was widely considered a second-round pick. Yet Kiper rated him as the fourth-best player (subscription required) in the draft and predicted greatness.

Jimmy Clausen on the bench for the Carolina Panthers.
Jimmy Clausen on the bench for the Carolina Panthers.MIKE MCCARN

Clausen spent three forgettable seasons in the NFL and, now recovering from an injury, is trying to get back in the league. Other misses:

  • He had quarterbacks Brett Favre and Dan McGwire rated evenly heading into the 1991 draft. Dan who, you ask? Exactly.
  • In 1990, he predicted Andre Ware (No. 7 overall pick) would be a "great" quarterback. Andre who, you ask? Exactly.

Mel Is Tracked

"Every year you’re wrong," Kiper said. "You just hope you’re right more than you’re wrong."

How often is he wrong? How often is he right? How does he stack up against other analysts?

Well, someone is keeping track.

The Huddle Report (subscription required) grades mock drafts and top 100 lists each year for accuracy, offering empirical data to show who is doing the best job of projecting which players will be picked by which teams and which players will be among the top 100 picks.

In the past five years, based on The Huddle Report data, Kiper has accurately predicted a team’s first-round pick 23 percent of the time; accurately predicted which players will be picked in the first round, regardless of team, 85 percent of the time; and accurately predicted which players will be picked among the top 100, regardless of team, 78 percent of the time.

By comparison, Kiper’s first-round projections ranked fifth out of the 37 mock drafts graded over the past five years, and his top 100 projections ranked 20th out of 27 top 100s graded over the past five years, according to The Huddle Report.

Saying he was unaware of the website, Kiper expressed skepticism about ratings because he puts out five mock drafts each year and thinks some people are using earlier and less accurate versions. But Robby Esch, who has run The Huddle Report website since 2001, said he uses Kiper’s final mock draft, and others being graded use it as a barometer.

"If they beat Mel, they’re happy," Esch said.

There’s no data from The Huddle Report about how Kiper’s rankings compare to his on-air foil, Todd McShay, who joined ESPN in 2006. McShay has not submitted his final mock draft before the deadline of midnight before draft day. But when it comes to McShay, Kiper said he wants to make something clear.

"We have our fights, battles on the air about different players," Kiper said. "But it’s not personal. So this notion of you’re jealous of Todd, never. ... I don’t feel like Todd’s going to steal my deal, or he’s going to take my place. Ridiculous.

"I encouraged everybody here, and they’ll tell you, to bring Todd in and give Todd more of this, give Todd more of that. He’s done a great job building his reputation. He’s a great guy, and we’re good friends. Todd’s like part of the family.’’

McShay said he wasn't sure what to expect when he was paired up with Kiper.

"I, like everybody, thought Mel thought he had all the answers coming in," McShay said. "And when I got to know him, I realized he’s so much more humble than you would maybe ever believe and a lot of people believe or think of him. And I think that’s the biggest misconception with Mel. He really is a humble, humble human being...

"Everyone always wants to make it about Mel versus me and all that, but I can honestly tell you that I will be one of the least happy people out there when Mel decides he doesn’t want to do this anymore because he’s been great for my career, and I thoroughly enjoy having him around, I really do."

Mel Is Respected

In 1994, when Bill Tobin snapped, "Mel Kiper has no more credentials to do what he’s doing than my neighbor, and my neighbor’s a postman," it left the impression that NFL decision-makers considered Kiper to be wholly incompetent.

Not true, based on a survey of former and current NFL executives and coaches.

Jerry Angelo, director of player personnel with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1987 to 2000 and general manager of the Chicago Bears from 2001 to 2011, said Kiper’s annual draft book helped him strategize—trading up, trading down, staying put—to get a player he wanted.

Jerry Angelo
Jerry AngeloNam Y. Huh

"He could be a good resource in terms of letting teams know what the consensus was on players, which in itself has real value," Angelo said, adding that Kiper’s information was particularly helpful for first-round selections. "We were always curious to see what (the draft book) said. He always did his homework. Very meticulous. Worked very, very hard."

Others downplayed the usefulness of Kiper’s information, but everyone contacted by Bleacher Report said they respected his work ethic and basic knowledge. The list includes:

  • Rich McKay, president and CEO of the Atlanta Falcons.
  • John Shaw, former general manager of the Los Angeles Rams.
  • Bill Polian, former general manager and team president of the Indianapolis Colts.
  • Vinny Cerrato, former executive vice president of football operations for the Washington Redskins.
  • Ernie Accorsi, former general manger of the New York Giants.
  • John Wooten, former assistant director of pro and college scouting for the Baltimore Ravens.
  • Marv Levy, former coach of the Buffalo Bills.
  • Tom Flores, former coach of the Oakland Raiders.
  • Barry Switzer, former coach of the Dallas Cowboys.
  • Dick Vermeil, former coach of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Ernie Accorsi confers with Roger Goodell.
Ernie Accorsi confers with Roger Goodell.BILL KOSTROUN

Accorsi, who was assistant general manager of the Baltimore Colts when he met Kiper—then a teenager handing out scouting reports to anyone who would take them—said he considered hiring him as an assistant in the mid-1980s when Accorsi was general manager of the Cleveland Browns. Accorsi said Kiper would have been valuable identifying NFL prospects, namely the obscure ones that might have escaped the attention of his scouts.

"I always read his book," Accorsi said. "It had a lot of information in it. I think that he does know a player if he sees one. Even if he didn’t, he’s listening to people who do."

At the time Accorsi reached out, Kiper already had joined ESPN and was focused on selling the annual draft books that also were distributed to all of the NFL teams.

"I don’t want to work for one team when I can work for 30," Accorsi said he remembers Kiper saying.

Mel Is a Trailblazer

When it comes to NFL draft analysts, Kiper will not be universally remembered as the best or even the first. Because there was Joel Buchsbaum.

Buchsbaum, who worked for Pro Football Weekly, in 1979 wrote the first draft book. That same year, Kiper produced something called The Draft Report, but his book was unavailable to the public until 1981.

Buchsbaum dissected game tape relentlessly and apparently rather well, because Bill Belichick has said he tried to hire him when Belichick was head coach of the Cleveland Browns and again when he became head coach of the New England Patriots. Like Kiper, Buchsbaum apparently liked the idea of being available to all teams rather than aligning with just one.

But even if Buchsbaum was the superior scout, Kiper had a bigger impact.

Buchsbaum was a recluse, whereas Kiper emerged from his parents’ basement, overcame his shy nature—yes, Kiper says he was a shy kid—and before the 1984 draft headed for ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut. The network was looking for a draft analyst, had heard about Kiper and brought him in for an interview. About a half-dozen ESPN officials functioned as a firing squad, and Kiper, then 23, recalled the frenzy.

"Tell me about the 49ers offensive line! Tell me about the Steelers organization! Tell me about this GM! Tell me about that quarterback! Tell me about this defensive line!"

The grilling lasted for more than an hour.

He returned to Baltimore. A week later, he got a call.

The job was his—for $400.

"I would have paid them to have me on," Kiper said.

On May 1, 1984, he made his draft-day TV debut, and eventually millions of fans were watching the fast-talking, strongly opinionated Kiper, who later toured the country as part of the radio portion of ESPN’s College GameDay.

ESPN's College GameDay.
ESPN's College GameDay.Ted S. Warren

"Kids would come up to us after we did some of our taped stuff and they said, 'I want to do what you're doing. I want to be like you,'" Kiper said. "And all the co-hosts were amazed at that’s what they said."

Now look.

The Internet is littered with websites devoted to mock drafts. The airwaves are clogged with self-appointed draft experts. Major media outlets are paying handsome salaries for their own gurus.

Josh Norris, 25, a draft analyst for rotoworld.com, captured the prevailing sentiment when he said, "I saw the fact he could do this full time and I thought, 'Why not me?' Everyone has to start somewhere, and he shows it’s possible."

"I don't think my job would exist without him," said Matt Miller, draft analyst for Bleacher Report. "He kind of laid the groundwork for that role of analyst-evaluator."

Mel Is Indebted

Three names top the list.

Mel Kiper Sr.

Kiper’s father, who dabbled in real estate in addition to running his vending machine company, bought a satellite dish so Mel could watch a parade of college games and every NFL game. He provided the money needed to start the business. And he believed in the business.

"He was the only one," Kiper said. "He was taking a financial risk."

Mel Kiper Sr. died of a heart attack in 1988—a year before his son married—but knowing the business and his son were headed for success.

Kim Kiper

When Kiper lost his father, his older sister, Diane, and mother, Rheta, now 89, pitched in to ease the burden. About a year later, Kiper married his wife. Not long after, Kim left her job in pharmaceutical sales, took over the business end of Mel Kiper Enterprises, negotiated Kiper’s contracts with ESPN and helped put together the self-published draft book.

"Oh, my God," Kiper said. "She’s phenomenal."

Ernie Accorsi

One night, Accorsi said, he was driving and heard Kiper doing an interview on a 50,000-watt radio station. Kiper, then an aspiring draft guru, was emptying his encyclopedic mind of analysis, and later Accorsi called him.

"Are you getting paid for this stuff?" Accorsi recalled asking Kiper. "You can’t live on the publication of this book. If you want to raise a family, you have to start selling your services."

Media Mel took flight, and Kiper has credited Accorsi for helping him turn a hobby into a profession.

Chris Berman and Mel Kiper at the 1987 NFL draft.
Chris Berman and Mel Kiper at the 1987 NFL draft.Rick Labranche and ESPN

Mel Is...Gulp, Leaving?

No, he never wanted to be a general manager. No, he never wanted to be a scout. And no, Kiper insisted, he never strived to be the absolute best at what he does.

"How are you going to determine that?" he said. "This is a speculative business.

Mel Kiper (far left) during the 2008 NFL draft.
Mel Kiper (far left) during the 2008 NFL draft.Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

"There are going to be critics and there are going to be supporters. At the end of the day, you just hope they’re going to listen to something you’re saying.

"...But the bottom line is, no, it never entered my mind about trying to be great at what I did, trying to be the best at what I did; I just did it. It’s not perfect."

It’s good enough for ESPN, which in 2012 awarded Kiper with a contract that will take him through the 2018 draft, when he will be 58. After that, Kiper suggested, he might slow down and, who knows, maybe even buy a boat to use from his house on the Chesapeake Bay.

"I don’t worry about anybody saying goodbye, we don’t need you anymore," he said. "It’s going to come a time when that’s the case, maybe. I don’t know.

"Maybe I’ll walk away. I’m not going to be on the draft until I’m 75. You never know what your status is going to be with everybody. At some point in time, I think I will walk away. ... I do not need to work another day in my life."

Mel Kiper, not working on the day of the draft? What’s next, a crew cut, equivocation and on-air levity? Seriously, Mel Kiper, not working on draft day?

Clarified the face of the draft: "If I didn’t want to."

Josh Peter is an award-winning writer who lives in Los Angeles. He is the author of "Fried Twinkies, Buckle Bunnies & Bull Riders: A Year Inside the Professional Bull Riders Tour,'' co-author of "Death to the BCS'' and has covered everything from the Super Bowl, NBA Finals, Olympics, College World Series, Ryder Cup, Bassmaster Classic and Indian Stickball.