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Spotting talent, recruiting champions

As director of player personnel, Tim Ruskell spends his days seeking the best players around the nation for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

By BILL COATS
Published September 19, 2003

LUTZ - At least officially, Tim Ruskell lives with his wife, Linda, and their two kids in Lutz. Unofficially, he lives near the football field of the moment.

Most of the time, it's One Buc Place. But Sunday, it was Raymond James Stadium. The prior Thursday, it was Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City. The Monday before that, it was Philadelphia's new Lincoln Financial Field.

Ruskell, responsible for college and pro scouting for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, studies football players day and night. This time of year, 13-hour work days aren't unusual. During the training camp in Orlando, they sometimes lasted 17 hours:

-6 a.m. Get up, clear e-mails.

-7:30 a.m. Breakfast.

-8-11 a.m. Study players during practice. The roster must shrink by nearly half before the regular season begins. Coaches, scouts and General Manager Rich McKay will decide who makes the cut.

-11 a.m.-2:15 p.m. Lunch and studying film of morning practice.

-2:15-4:30 p.m. Study players during practice.

-4:30-10 p.m. Dinner and studying film of afternoon practice.

-10-11 p.m. Participate in coaches' meeting, comparing notes on players, planning the next day.

"It's an all-consuming job," Ruskell said.

Now the Bucs are whittled down to a 53-man roster. Yet Ruskell studies them more than any other team. He watches all games from the press box and most practices from the sideline.

"You can never critique your team too much," he said. "You need to see how guys are playing. You constantly assess your own team.

"It shouldn't happen, but all the time, we're seeing teams playing the wrong guy or letting go of a guy they shouldn't have."

Ruskell has worked with the Bucs for 15 years and landed his current job two years ago, when his predecessor, Jerry Angelo, was hired away to become general manager of the Chicago Bears.

"I'd rather have Tim Ruskell than a No. 1 draft pick," Angelo said a few months after leaving. "He has excellent instincts. He has the ability to cut through all the fluff and get to the core of a player. And he has to do it in one day. Some guys have players for a year and don't figure them out."

Ruskell manages 10 full-time scouts. The group divides responsibility for all the nation's top football teams, by college conference and NFL division.

This week, they have been on campuses, watching film of top players and interviewing coaches about them. They'll attend games Saturday, studying top prospects.

Ruskell, 46, never planned to do this for a living.

He loved music, and as a student at the University of South Florida, deejayed rock and jazz shows on the Underground Railroad, the campus radio station. He got a mass communications degree.

Ruskell also worked part-time at Budget Tapes and Records, where John Herrera, the Buccaneers' first scout, was a steady customer. Herrera invited Ruskell to become a ballboy. Ruskell, an avid Dallas Cowboys fan in childhood, jumped at the chance.

John McKay, the Bucs' first coach, fired him three hours into the first practice.

"I was holding two balls in each hand," Ruskell said, grinning. "And the play started to come to my side of the field. There was another ball in the way. I wasn't sure of much, but I was sure Coach McKay didn't want his players to break an ankle on an extra ball. So I kicked it out of the way."

McKay simply saw a ballboy kicking a football in the middle of a play. He fired Ruskell on the spot. And rehired him. And fired him during another practice. And rehired him. And again.

Eventually, Ruskell took on more responsibility, including breaking down films for Herrera, the scout. When Herrera became general manager of the Saskatchewan Roughriders in Canada, he hired Ruskell as a scout.

Ruskell spent three seasons there and two more back home with the Tampa Bay Bandits. Then Ruskell landed a job with the Buccaneers' Angelo.

It was an era when an 8-8 record was a good year. The Bucs often had top draft choices and often squandered them.

"We probably didn't evaluate them properly," Ruskell said. "There wasn't great communication and cooperation among the scouts and coaches and general managers."

That began to change in 1996 when the Buccaneers' new owners hired Tony Dungy as coach. Ruskell was director of college scouting by then. He had urged the team to judge college players by their achievements, not by perceived potential. Moreover, Dungy, McKay and the scouts vowed to carefully develop young players, and in choosing them, to place as much importance on character as playing ability.

"We wanted guys who would become leaders, role models, policemen for the younger guys," Ruskell said. "We steered clear of the troublemakers."

A prime example was Derrick Brooks, one of the fastest linebackers in the 1995 draft. Many teams considered Brooks too small. Ruskell went to bat for him.

"Everybody you talked to went right to his leadership and intangibles," Ruskell said. "That stuck out about him."

The Bucs snared Brooks with the 28th overall choice. Last season, he was the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year.

Two years earlier, Ruskell had made a similar pitch for John Lynch. He acknowledged that Lynch was an average athlete, but noted, "This is a big-play guy who's bigger than the sum of his parts."

The Bucs chose Lynch in the third round of the 1993 draft. Since then, he has been to five Pro Bowls.

In 1996, the Ruskells moved to a new, small neighborhood in Lutz called Crystal Cove.

The Bucs were a factor, Ruskell said. The team was considering moving its headquarters to the USF area.

"We said, "Let's get something that's close, but not too close, with a little bit of land,' " he said. "We wanted some space."

The Ruskells, with kids Samantha, 7, and Jack, 4, have come to enjoy the local schools, parks and gatherings, such as the Independence Day parade, he said.

"Lutz is kind of just a little bit laid back and not quite as frenetic as some of the other places closer to town," Ruskell said.

Home in Lutz, Ruskell clicks on the TV and watches football. Despite doing it for a living, he still enjoys it.

"If that goes away," he said, "then I'm in trouble."

- Bill Coats can be reached at 813 269-5309 or coats@sptimes.com This article contains material from a 2001 Gary Shelton column.

Ruskell milestones

- October, 1956. Born in Yokohama, Japan, where his father was stationed in the Army.

- May, 1987. Interviews for a scout job with the Bucs by critiquing film of nose tackle Jerry Ball and cornerback Rod Jones. Likes the footwork of the rotund Ball; dislikes Jones' instincts. "It was uncanny," said Jerry Angelo, who hired Ruskell.

- December, 1994. Calls Warren Sapp, then a Miami Hurricane: "The finest college player I've seen this year regardless of position."

- Draft Day, 1995. The Bucs trade down, and in a sequence of deals, obtain Sapp and Derrick Brooks, future Hall of Fame players, in the same afternoon.

- June, 2001. Promoted to Bucs' director of player personnel, replacing Angelo.

- January, 2002. Interviews for general manager of the Washington Redskins, where his old pal, Steve Spurrier, is the new coach.

- March, 2002. Interviews for general manager of the Atlanta Falcons, but puts talks on hold after the decision drags out.

- January, 2003. Bucs win the Super Bowl.

[Last modified September 18, 2003, 10:36:32]

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