The "War Room" was buzzing when the team selected cornerback Mike Rumph of Miami.
By TOM WILLIAMS
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Four hours into the slowest first round in NFL draft history, positive vibrations began to emanate out of the San Francisco 49ers' "War Room."
Holding the 27th pick, the three-dozen-or-so 49er staffers with access to the huge conference room that is the team's nerve center during draft weekend had little to do except chart who went where during the first 21 selections.
But a buzz kicked in after pick No. 22 when the New York Jets selected defensive end Bryan Thomas of the University of Alabama-Birmingham.
"That's good" could be heard in the hallways of the Marie P. DeBartolo Sports Centre.
The Jets' selection meant that there still were two cornerbacks available that the 49ers considered worthy of a first-round pick.
And if the next three teams picked players at other positions, the 49ers were going to get a player they coveted.
The positive vibrations turned into elation after the Oakland Raiders took a linebacker (Napoleon Harris), the Baltimore Ravens selected a safety (Ed Reed) and the New Orleans Saints took a defensive end (Charles Grant).
When the Saints went on the clock, The Vindicator sat in for an exclusive look at what happens inside the secretive War Room as the first-round pick drew near.
The 49ers' top braintrust -- general manager Terry Donahue, coach Steve Mariucci and executive consultant Bill Walsh -- paced next to a bank of telephones.
Owner Dr. John York of Canfield stood by chatting softly with Massillon native John McVay, the team's director of football operations.
Swirling about them were anxious coaches, scouts and front office staffers.
Across the room, a conference call telephone linked the War Room to the 49ers' representatives at Madison Square Garden.
The room fell silent as Commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced the Saints' selection.
Mariucci, wearing a dress white shirt and red tie, thrust his arms into the air as if the team had just scored a touchdown as a few staffers clapped.
"We're going to get a cornerback," one scout said to no one in particular.
In the days leading up to the draft, the 49ers (with 22 offensive and defensive starters already in place) made it no secret that adding to the defensive secondary's depth was a primary concern.
After five hours of waiting and sweating, the 49ers knew they would be able to select Miami's Mike Rumph or Florida's Lito Sheppard.
Minutes later, the voice on the NY speaker phone said, "Philly's taking Sheppard."
Instantly, Donahue said, "Call Mike."
Talked before pick
The sound on the widescreen television monitor was muted as Donahue spoke to Rumph by telephone, asking him if he's healthy and ready to go.
"In a few minutes, you're going to be a member of the San Francisco 49ers," Donahue said before handing the phone to Mariucci.
Donahue then crossed the room to the New York phone line and told team representative Norb Hecker to take Rumph.
A round of applause followed as Rumph became the fifth member of the collegiate champion Miami Hurricanes to be selected in the first round.
Before going down the hall for an ESPN satellite interview, Donahue shook York's hand and patted his shoulder, saying, "Congratulations John, we got one. Only eight more to go."
Had the Eagles taken Rumph, Donahue said the 49ers would have taken Sheppard.
However, the 49ers are happier the bigger, stronger Rumph fell to them.
At 6-foot-2-inches tall and weighing 205 pounds, "Rumph is a physical cornerback who loves to hit," Donahue said.
"Going into the draft, we had an urgency to upgrade our nickel and dime [pass defense] teams," Donahue said. "It's what we need to cover the Rams and the other teams in our division who use four-receiver sets.
"One of the things we wanted was more physicalness, more size at corner," Donahue said, noting Sheppard's 5-10, 191 size.
"Mike Rumph is long-armed and more angular, and he can get up and press [receivers on the line of scrimmage]," Donahue said.
Because of Rumph's size, Mariucci said the 49ers will use him to play right corner in the nickel scheme, moving starter Jason Webster inside.
Donahue said no one relaxed after the Jets' pick because they weren't certain a cornerback still would be available until the Saints picked.
"It's a nerve-wracking process," said the former UCLA coach who became the 49ers' GM last May.
Had alternate plan
Had Sheppard and Rumph been taken, Donahue pointed to "the hot board" where the names of several other players had been posted.
"We had a plan in place if they were both gone," Donahue said.
Despite the secretiveness that surrounds the NFL draft, about three dozen front office personnel, coaches and scouts have access to the War Room.
Eighteen are seated around a large conference table in the center, talking notes as ESPN announces the selections. The rest are seated at work stations along the long walls of the rectangular room.
The side walls' bulletin boards are filled with rectangular cards listing players' names, a brief scouting report and statistics.
Positions are divided into grade rankings -- players good enough to be drafted are identified by round. Others are listed as (undrafted) free agents, training camp invitees and rejects.
The draftable players are divided into positions and cards are color-coded (seniors are on white cards, juniors are on green ones). Players whose talents include special teams skills get a blue card.
The front wall contains the names of the players who have been selected. Opposite that is where Donahue and Walsh man telephones.
The room buzzes with activity until Tagliabue appears on the television monitor to announce a selection. Then the room becomes silent almost instantly as the strategists listen to the selection.
Noise quickly resumes -- no one pays attention to what Mel Kiper Jr. and the other ESPN analysts say.