Gil Brandt, pioneering Cowboys exec who helped create 'America's Team', dies at 91

Gil Brandt, the pioneering NFL executive who helped turn the Dallas Cowboys into "America's Team," has died at 91.

Cowboys team owner Jerry Jones released a statement on Thursday morning announcing Brandt's passing and celebrating his numerous contributions to the sport.

"We are so deeply saddened by the passing of Gil Brandt — a true icon and pioneer of our sport. Gil was at the very core of the early success of the Dallas Cowboys and continued to serve as a great ambassador for the organization for decades beyond that. His contributions cemented his spot in the Ring of Honor. He was my friend and a mentor not only to me, but to countless executives, coaches, players and broadcasters across the National Football League, which rightfully earned him a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame where his legacy will be celebrated forever.

"He was an innovator and set the standard for excellence in player acquisition. From the creation of the NFL Combine to revolutionizing the NFL Draft, Gil finished his over six-decade NFL career with an eye towards the future of the league and teaching fans about the sport he loved as a radio broadcaster. Gil was as good a storyteller as it gets, with a memory as sharp as a tack. His dedication to, and passion for, this game left a lasting impact on generations of Hall of Fame players and coaches. There are very few people that have been able to have the kind of generational impact that he did. Gil was as dedicated to growing this league and sport as anyone ever was, and we are all grateful and better for it.

"Our hearts go out to Gil's wife, Sara, his son Hunter and all of Gil's family and friends."

Brandt was born in Milwaukee in 1932 to Loretta, a housewife, and Gilbert, a district manager. He played football in high school and then went on to the University of Wisconsin, but stayed for just two years and moved back in with his parents in 1955. He began selling baby pictures, but also began working part time for the Los Angeles Rams as a scout after a family friend recommended him for the job. That family friend happened to be former NFL player, soon-to-be-executive, and future Hall of Famer Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch, and Brandt fully credits him for his start in the NFL.

Selling baby pictures would be Brandt's last non-football job for a very, very long time. He was hired as a full-time scout by the San Francisco 49ers in 1958, and then, in 1960, he landed a job with the club that would be his home for almost the next 30 years: the Cowboys.

Gil Brandt used innovative scouting strategies to help the Dallas Cowboys become a powerhouse from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s. (AP Photo/Greg Smith)
Gil Brandt used innovative scouting strategies to help the Dallas Cowboys become a powerhouse from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s. (AP Photo/Greg Smith)

The Cowboys were a brand new team, and Brandt was one of the first people hired. He served as vice president of player personnel and was in charge of scouting, drafting and acquiring talent, and spent the next three decades innovating the NFL scouting process. He pioneered the use of computers in scouting, and created a scouting and talent evaluation system that numerous teams would copy. He was one of the first people to look beyond the U.S. and Canada for players, and to use the pool of undrafted free agents to find talent.

He even pioneered taking a flier on long-shot guys in the later rounds of the draft. By making off-script, gut feeling picks in the closing rounds, he found guys like Chad Hennings and Roger Staubach, and now every team does that kind of thing.

Brandt was let go from the Cowboys in May 1989, just over two months after Jerry Jones bought the team. During his tenure, the Cowboys posted 20 consecutive winning seasons (1965-85), made five trips to the Super Bowl and won two rings. On his way out the door, he even helped Jones pull of his first draft as Cowboys owner. The big name they drafted that year? Troy Aikman.

Truly an NFL lifer, Brandt continued to stay involved after his break with the Cowboys. After spending a few years on his ranch in Montana, he was hired to write for the NFL in 1995, and was one of the first featured contributors on the NFL's brand new website, which launched that year.

Brandt was inducted into the Cowboys Ring of Honor in 2018, and finally received the call from the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2019.

“You can’t tell the story about the success of the Dallas Cowboys and their two-decade run of winning seasons from the mid-1960s to mid-1980s without mentioning Gil Brandt,” said Jim Porter, President of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“His innovative approach to scouting and player evaluation helped the organization find players others overlooked. The result was discovering future Cowboys from smaller colleges, or even off college basketball or track teams. He is credited with advancing the use of computers in the front office of pro football teams, but the real computer was the one in his own head, where he stored an incredible amount of information that he loved to share with anyone who appreciated the game like he did.”