Included among the couple hundred or so former Mountaineer football players returning to campus for this weekend’s annual Gold-Blue spring game is Ken Herock.
The name Ken Herock may not be as recognizable as Sam Huff, Chuck Howley, Bruce Bosley, Joe Marconi and some of the other legendary figures of the 1950s and 1960s, but he has had an equally impressive career in professional football that spans nearly 40 years and involves some of the most storied players, coaches, administrators and franchises in league history.
After spending five seasons as a player with the Oakland Raiders from 1963-67 and two more with the Cincinnati Bengals and the Boston Patriots until 1969, Herock returned to Oakland as an assistant coach and personnel scout in 1970. It was later on the personnel side of the game where Herock distinguished himself, first with Oakland and then with Tampa Bay, Atlanta and Green Bay.
“I always looked at things this way – 10 years,” Herock said earlier this week from his home in Gainesville, Ga. “I was 10 years at Tampa. I was 10 years at Atlanta. In Oakland, I was more than 10 years – 15 years or so with the Raiders although it was split up time, but 10 years consecutive was about my longevity at one place.”
Just like Rod Thorn became well known for drafting Michael Jordan for the Chicago Bulls in the NBA, Herock became legendary throughout NFL circles for discovering quarterback Brett Favre out of Southern Miss and drafting him while he was personnel director for the Atlanta Falcons. But unlike Thorn and Jordan, Herock didn’t hang on to his eventual hall of famer for very long.
“When we drafted him I thought we made a great pick,” he recalled. “I thought it was a steal because I was trying to trade up to get him in the first round but I never could make the trade and my owner said ‘just be patient, Ken, because we’ve got the top pick in the second round.’ So I was able to take him with the top pick in the second round.”
Immediately, it became apparent that Favre wasn’t going to fit in with the Falcons system and Herock was asked by his coaches to make the best deal possible to trade Favre.
“I was from Pittsburgh and I always remember Johnny Unitas and (the Steelers) cut him,” said Herock. “He was such a great player and I always thought ‘how in the hell could you cut a great player like that? I would never make that mistake!’
“Well the thing is, I did, and after my first year it was obvious that Brett wasn’t going to fit into our plan and I was fortunate enough to make a trade and get him out of there. At the time when I was making the trade, my coach is saying I’m a genius to make a trade and get a first round pick for this type of player.
“Of course, everyone knows the rest of the story,” Herock chuckled.
It was at West Virginia University where Herock got his football start. After spending a year on the freshman team in 1959, Herock lettered three years for the varsity in 1960, 1961 and 1962 playing tight end and linebacker for the late Gene Corum. Herock played on one of the worst teams in school history in 1960 (WVU’s only winless campaign in school annals) and then on one of the better teams in 1962 that won eight games and only lost twice to Oregon State and Penn State that season.
“I would talk to (long-time reporter) Mickey Furfari about those years and I would say ‘that is a team (‘62) that nobody remembers,’” Herock said. “We lost to two teams, Oregon State that went to the Rose Bowl (and featured Heisman Trophy winner Terry Baker) and to Penn State. We lost to two great teams. We were a great team and we never get any credit for that.”
Indeed, it was an outstanding squad – the first in school history to ever defeat Syracuse up at old Archbold Stadium. The Orangemen that year featured future hall of fame tight end John Mackey, as well as legendary coach Ben Schwartzwalder.
“That was a big win for us,” Herock recalled. “We were going into that game and they were supposed to be better than us and all that stuff and we went up there and beat them. They had great players, John Mackey was on that team, but we survived and beat them and I look back on that and it was one of our big wins when I was there.”
Herock also fondly remembered beating Pitt in the “Garbage Game” in 1961 up in Pittsburgh. The victory was particularly pleasing to Herock because he was from Munhall, although he didn’t consider himself part of the “Western Pa garbage” that West Virginia was accused of recruiting at the time.
“Coming out of high school, I was recruited by everybody and I could have gone anywhere I wanted,” Herock said. “Pitt and Penn State were really heavy on me and (WVU coach) Pappy (Lewis) came up to our house two times with Chick Donaldson and when they came up they ate dinner and drank beer with my dad. They were like part of the family, and that was Pappy.
“At the time, Pitt had Johnny Michelosen and Rip Engle was up at Penn State – and Joe Paterno recruited me and came to my house,” said Herock. “But they just never clicked with my dad or my family the way Pappy did.”
So later, when Pitt end John Kuprok was overheard by a Pitt student newspaper writer referencing West Virginia players as “Western Pa garbage”, Herock was put off by his remarks for reasons different than some of his other teammates.
“You were a little offended to hear that because I went to West Virginia, not because I couldn’t go to Pitt or Penn State,” he said. “I went there because of the way the coach recruited me.”
One of the most memorable – and most foolish – experiences of Herock’s WVU playing career was a midseason trip the Mountaineers made all the way out to Corvalis, Ore., to face Oregon State. Back then, air travel wasn’t what it is today and the journey from Morgantown to Oregon was more like a trip to Afghanistan.
“That was just a nightmare,” he laughed. “It took us all day – morning until evening - to fly out to Oregon, and we picked up three hours, too, on the way out there. We get there and we can’t even work out so we have a walk-through at this minor league baseball stadium and half the lights don’t even work in it.
“The next day when we’re getting our asses kicked at halftime and the coaches are chewing us out, I’m thinking we’re fatigued and nobody is really playing very well and that was the reason,” he said. “In those days, you didn’t really think about those things that much but there was no recovery time at all. We got there in the evening time and had to turn around and play the following afternoon.”
Herock actually played well that afternoon, catching five passes for 80 yards, and he also played well enough in other games to land a free agent contract with the Raiders, although he felt he was good enough to be drafted after his senior year in ‘62.
“When I was there I was really upset because I wasn’t drafted,” Herock said. “And then when I went to training camp, I thought ‘oh, maybe I’m not as good as I thought I was.’ I go in thinking I’m going to play linebacker because I thought I was a better linebacker than I was a tight end, but they switched me after a week to tight end and I became the starting tight end my rookie year.”
Herock owns the unique distinction of being the first Mountaineer player to participate in the Super Bowl, his Raiders dropping a 33-14 decision to Green Bay in Super Bowl II at the Orange Bowl in Miami in 1968. A lot of what Herock learned about how to build championship football teams came from his experiences playing and working for Al Davis.
“It was always like a family with the Raiders,” he said. “I only played there for five years, but I felt like I was a part of the family and then I came back and became a scout, coach, personnel director and I always felt that Mr. Davis was a guy that trained me and prepared me to take over teams after I left there.”
Today, Herock is still involved with the game as a consultant to elite college players through a service he provides to help them become prepared for the NFL draft. His company, Pro Prep, offers counseling and training for players during the interview process with general managers, player personnel directors, coaches and scouts. Herock has developed an impressive client list working with more than 500 collegiate players since the creation of his business eight years ago.
“I really enjoy it because it keeps me involved,” Herock said. “I work January and February preparing the guys and it’s become a nice little business that I started. I get a lot of satisfaction because I know the kids are getting something out of it. I know how they should be prepared and I know that when the players that I’ve worked with, when they are going in to meet the general manager or the head coach, they are ahead of the next guy.”
Herock said he still keeps up with his alma mater and takes in as many games as his schedule will allow. He has had a long friendship with Donnie Young and is making the trip up to Morgantown this weekend to help recognize Young’s 46 years of outstanding service to the University. Through his pro contacts and his relationship with Young, Herock has continued to maintain an outstanding knowledge of the Mountaineer football program.
“It’s a very solid program and I’d like to see them get to that next level,” Herock said. “They’ve got everything going for them. (Athletic Director) Oliver Luck is a magnificent guy and can help them in any way to get to that level. He’s got the facilities to make it– everything is there to go to that level, now they just have to have somebody get them to that level and we’ll see if Dana (Holgorsen) is able to get them there.”
What Herock means when he refers to West Virginia getting to “the next level” is his alma mater becoming a dominant football program that can attract the top-quality prospects on an annual basis.
“I want the best,” he said. “I want to have the reputation of an Ohio State and that type of program. You just have to be able to recruit good players. If they can recruit and get some of the best players … and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t get some of the best players. It’s an attractive campus.
“They have attractive facilities and I don’t want to hear this stuff about ‘oh, it’s just Morgantown.’ There are a lot of places just like Morgantown around the country (that are highly successful) so I just don’t buy into it.
“I went down there because I wanted to go there.”
Herock said he enjoyed his four years at West Virginia University and he always looks forward to his return trips to campus.
“I always felt great about the place,” he said. “I never had a moment when I said ‘oh, this place, I don’t want to be here.’ I never felt that way, and I always look forward to going back and seeing some of the old guys.”
Tickets are still available for Saturday's spring game and can be purchased online at WVUGAME.com.