Bobby Beathard, an NFL executive who built the foundation for seven Super Bowl teams during his Hall of Fame career, winning two titles in the 1980s as the general manager of Washington’s NFL franchise, died Jan. 30 at his home at Franklin, Tenn. He was 86.
The cause was complications from Alzheimer’s disease, said his son Casey Beathard.
With his blond pageboy haircut, marathon runner’s lean physique and laid-back presence of a California surfer, which he had been since childhood, Mr. Beathard did not fit the archetype of a professional team executive. He refused to don a tie and sports jacket, let alone a suit, and his everyday attire of shorts and jogging shoes or flip-flops gave him a certain rakish affability.
But that outward appearance was misleading. He was widely regarded as a master of sports administration, a skillful negotiator whose unflappable demeanor masked intense preparation and uncanny intuition about the promise of many young players.
In a career spanning almost four decades in the NFL, his teams — mostly notably the Miami Dolphins, Washington and San Diego Chargers — won 10 division titles, seven conference championships and four Super Bowls.
As head of the Miami Dolphins’ scouting operation from 1972 to 1977, he worked with coach Don Shula to build the Dolphins dynasty. In Mr. Beathard’s first season with the team, the Dolphins went undefeated and won the Super Bowl, a feat still unmatched in NFL history.
With Mr. Beathard as his talent coordinator, Shula guided the Dolphins to a collective 63-21 record with two Super Bowl trophies during Mr. Beathard’s six seasons in Miami. The team went 6-1 in the postseason.
“He’s a guy with a great eye for talent,” Shula later told The Washington Post. “Nobody has a perfect record, and you’re going to make mistakes. But Bobby made fewer mistakes than most. And he found some kids for us nobody else would take a chance on. He wasn’t ever afraid to take a risk.”
His years in Washington, from 1978 to 1988, formed the centerpiece of his legacy and one in which he cemented his reputation as a nonpareil talent scout. It was a decade in which he hired a little-known NFL assistant, Joe Gibbs, as head coach and formed one of the league’s dominant franchises, taking three trips to the Super Bowl and winning twice. By the end of his tenure in Washington (with the team now known as the Commanders), Sports Illustrated dubbed Mr. Beathard the “smartest man in the NFL.”
When he arrived in Washington, the same year as new head coach Jack Pardee, the team relied on holdover veteran players, the so-called “Over-the-Hill Gang,” who had been the backbone of the lineup under the recently departed head coach, George Allen. Despite the team’s 10-6 record in 1979, Mr. Beathard did not consider this practice an effective long-term strategy and advised team owner Jack Kent Cooke, against Pardee’s wishes, to build the team around younger players.
Cooke sided with Mr. Beathard, telling The Post he “decided to endorse Mr. Beathard’s program of a winning future.” Following a 1980 season with a 6-10 record, the team’s worst in years, Pardee was fired in an acrimonious conclusion to the standoff. By that time, Washington had also not made the playoffs in four years.
Weeks after Pardee’s ouster, Mr. Beathard sought to reinvigorate the franchise by bringing aboard Gibbs, the San Diego Chargers’ offensive coordinator who was beginning to make a name for himself with an offense built around a strong passing attack. Mr. Beathard had to sell the inexperienced Gibbs to a skeptical Cooke.
“There’s one guy, and he’s the right guy. I’m sure of it, but you’re going to have to believe me,” Mr. Beathard recounted to The Post in 2000. “He said ‘Who is it?’ I said, ‘Joe Gibbs.’ He said, ‘Who in the hell is Joe Gibbs? I’ve never heard of him.’ I kept telling him, ‘You’re going to have to trust me,’ and he kept saying, ‘They’re going to crucify us if it’s not the right guy.’”
When Gibbs started his first season in 1981 with five straight losses, there was loud grumbling among Washington sports fans. But Mr. Beathard never wavered in support of his unproven new coach. The following season, under Gibbs, the team won the Super Bowl.
In an era before the internet and advanced metrics, Mr. Beathard was lauded for his instinctual skills at unearthing talent. “Bobby Beathard changed the way people looked at players,” Clark Judge, a longtime NFL beat writer and columnist, said in a 2022 interview for this obituary. “It wasn’t just the measurables. He had intuition and he would take chances on people others would not.”
He built a network of talent-spotters around the country who tipped him off to potential NFL-ready collegiate players, and he eschewed first-round draft picks, trading them away to stockpile later-round picks in the draft. He believed there was a surplus of good players others missed whom he identified by getting out on the road, usually on his own, and seeing them play in person.
In his years in Washington, he used the team’s first-round pick just three times. The 1983 Super Bowl championship team included 26 free agents signed by Mr. Beathard.
“Bobby could look beyond a 4.4 time or a 39-inch vertical jump and tell you if the guy was a player,” former all-pro Los Angeles Rams running back and friend Jon Arnett told Sports Illustrated in 1988. “Any scout can clock or take a tape and measure a jump, which is what 90 percent of them do. All of us knew Bobby would find the real competitive guys, because he was so competitive himself.”
In the 1981 draft, Mr. Beathard plucked future Pro Bowlers such as guard Russ Grimm, defensive pass rusher Dexter Manley and wideout Charlie Brown in later rounds. That same year, he signed the undrafted lineman Joe Jacoby, who earned four Pro Bowl selections.
When he did use his first-round pick, Mr. Beathard found the likes of receiver Art Monk and cornerback Darrell Green, both Hall of Famers, and Pro Bowl offensive tackle Mark May. May, Grimm and Jacoby were key members of the renowned “Hogs” offensive line that became one of the best in NFL history.
Asked about his intuition, Mr. Beathard, a former college star at Cal Poly, told the Canton (Ohio) Repository: “Even in college I seemed to have a feel for who the really good players on our team were. Whether it was loving the game, playing it, watching it. I don’t know what it was.”
Mr. Beathard left Washington for San Diego after the 1988 season, but Washington won another Super Bowl in 1992 laden with Beathard-era players. He built San Diego’s only Super Bowl team (now the Los Angeles Chargers), which lost the 1995 game.
As the third general manager inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2018, Mr. Beathard was introduced by Gibbs, who was enshrined in the Hall 22 years before Mr. Beathard. “In the NFL, you’re measured by Super Bowls,” Gibbs said. “The bottom line was, if you hired Bobby Beathard, you got Super Bowls.”
For all his success at spotting football talent, Mr. Beathard made one of the greatest draft blunders in NFL history in 1998, when he selected quarterback Ryan Leaf for the Chargers. Leaf was out of the league within three years and was later convicted on burglary and drug charges. An NFL documentary proclaimed him “the No. 1 draft bust” in NFL history.
“During my career I’ve never seen a player that had so much talent do so little with it,” Mr. Beathard told ESPN.
Robert King Beathard Jr. was born in Zanesville, Ohio, on Jan. 24, 1937. His father managed a tile factory, and his mother was a homemaker. At 4, the family moved to El Segundo, Calif., near Los Angeles. Their home was a half mile from the Pacific Ocean, where Bobby indulged in surfing and swimming. By 11, he had earned a shelf full of swimming medals, but football was where he excelled.
As a sophomore at El Segundo High, he became the starting single-wing tailback, and despite his comparatively diminutive stature — 5-foot-9, 170 pounds — he received a football scholarship to Louisiana State University. Before the season started, he grew so homesick that he returned to California and enrolled in El Camino Junior College for a year.
At California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, he became the starting quarterback and defensive back for the 1957 and 1958 seasons, during which the team went 9-1 each year. Among his teammates was John Madden, the future Hall of Fame NFL coach and broadcaster.
Mr. Beathard was “one of those real tough hard-nosed guys,” Madden told The Post in 1981. “He was little, but he really could throw the football. A lot of guts.”
Mr. Beathard’s younger brother Pete also became a star college quarterback at the University of Southern California, leading the Trojans to the national title in 1962. He went on to a lengthy pro football career.
Undrafted upon graduation, Bobby Beathard signed with Washington as a free agent but didn’t last long. After a brief stint selling insurance and chemical supplies, he became a part-time scout in 1963 with the Kansas City Chiefs, working the western states. One of his finds for Kansas City was kicker Jan Stenerud, who kicked for the Chiefs for 13 of his 19 seasons and is one of just four kickers selected for the Hall of Fame.
Starting in 1968, he signed on with the Atlanta Falcons, where he continued to spend weeks at a time on the road. That led to the dissolution of his first marriage, to Larae Rich, with whom he had four children.
In 1978, Mr. Beathard wed Christine Van Handel, a flight attendant. In addition to his wife, survivors include four children from his first marriage, Kurt, Jeff, Casey and Jaime; his brother; and 13 grandchildren, including C.J. Beathard, a quarterback for the Jacksonville Jaguars; and seven great-grandchildren. Another grandson, Clayton Beathard, was murdered outside a Nashville bar in 2019.
A passionate body surfer and serious marathoner whose best time was an impressive 2 hours, 30 minutes, Mr. Beathard missed meetings in order to get in his training runs. But football remained his consuming drive.
His devotion to the game was graphically illustrated when he married Van Handel at a friend’s home in Marina Del Ray, Calif. The wedding was delayed because Mr. Beathard and his friends were upstairs watching an exhibition game between the Los Angeles Rams and Oakland Raiders.
At halftime, he raced downstairs for his wedding and was back upstairs before the marching band had left the field.
“It was the fastest wedding I’ve ever seen,” Ted Grossman, a Hollywood stuntman and close friend, told the Los Angeles Times. “I was just turning around when Bobby’s putting the ring on Christine’s finger. The next thing I know, we’re going back upstairs to watch the game.
“I remember Christine saying, ‘Is this the way it’s always going to be?’ Bobby said, ‘I’m afraid so.’”