CLEVELAND — Former Cleveland Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar was known for his football IQ. His ability to read the field and pull off the most remarkable of plays was legendary. But it was the read he made in the spring of 1985 to take advantage of a little-known and rarely used NFL rule so that this Northeast Ohio kid could end up in Cleveland that may be his greatest.
It was March of 1985, and Kosar was coming off his second season with Miami, meaning, playing-wise he was still an underclassman. At the time the only players who could enter the NFL Draft were seniors and those who had graduated.
As the spring semester started, Kosar wasn't thinking NFL, but his father identified a way for Bernie to enter not the regular draft but the supplemental draft, a move that would stand a better chance of him landing with the Cleveland Browns.
"My father came up, was the one talking to me about the supplemental draft and the possibility of that," Kosar said in his new podcast Journey with Bernie. "The rule had always been there, but no one had ever thought about it. The supplemental draft to that point hadn't really been used with people that maybe were worthy of a first-round pick back then."
"He talked with me about it, but not to be disrespectful to anybody or my dad, I didn't want to talk about it. I had convinced myself there was no way I was leaving the 'U,' no way," he said. "They are my brothers and that was my team. We won a National Championship in '83, we went to New Year's Day Bowls each year and we were going to be even better the next year in '85-'86."
He also knew the college game had slowed down maybe too much for him.
"College football had become so easy, no disrespect to anybody, but I wasn't challenging myself. I had seen how just easy it was to play top-tier dominating football, and I had kind of been there and done that already," Kosar said.
It was also at this time that his academic picture was coming into view in that he could graduate by summer, which would make him eligible to graduate and turn pro. At the same time spring practice had already started with the Hurricanes and he was the starting quarterback ahead of Vinnie Testaverde.
“I just didn’t think it was looking to be overly fair for the team, my brothers, my teammates and for Vinnie Testaverde. Spring practice is incredibly important to me to the growth of a football team to get ready for the fall," he said.
So on March 14, 1985, Kosar held a news conference in Miami to announce he was foregoing his final two years of college eligibility and going into the NFL, though even at the time he wouldn’t commit to the April 30 draft. Still, that's what the NFL was focused on because that's the way it was always done.
That year the Buffalo Bills held the No. 1 pick, but they had already committed to and signed future Hall of Famer defense end Bruce Smith out of Virginia Tech. The Bills had the rights to Jim Kelly, who was in the USFL, so they had no need for a quarterback.
The Houston Oilers had the No. 2 pick but had acquired Warren Moon the previous year so they didn't need a quarterback, leaving the Minnesota Vikings at No. 3 and the likely landing spot for Kosar. Cleveland attempted to engage in trade talks with Houston for the pick, but the Oilers weren’t about to hand a star quarterback to an AFC Central Division rival.
Not wanting to miss out on Kosar, the Vikings on April 9 entered into a trade with the Oilers to swap spots. Undergrads had until April 15 to submit the needed paperwork to declare for the April 30 draft, but Bernie did not.
It was at this time the Browns became aware of the supplemental route and they quietly entered into a trade with the Buffalo Bills who, because they were picking first in the regular draft also held the first pick in the supplemental if they chose to go that route and forego their 1986 first-round pick. The Browns gave the Bills their first-round picks in 1985 and 1986, a third-round pick in 1985 and a 6th round pick in ’86 in exchange for the pick.
When Houston and Minnesota got wind of the deal it was immediate chaos as they turned to NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle on April 23 who in turn left it up to Kosar to decide which draft he would enter but gave Minnesota a week to change Bernie’s mind. So they flew Vikings head coach Bud Grant and new assistant coach Marc Trestman, who was one of Kosar's coaches at Miami, to meet with Bernie in an attempt to win him over.
At the same time, Houston was threatening to sue to stop the draft unless Kosar was in it.
"It was complex enough trying to talk to Bud Grant, and the attorneys from Houston were trying to hold up the Draft, and now all of a sudden I'm feeling like responsible for my friends who aren't going to get drafted, you know," Kosar said. "I realize now that this is getting way deeper and way over my head than I had wanted, and I'm now dealing with other people and relationships that are getting out of hand here, and I don't want to string anybody along."
Kosar made it clear to the Vikings that it was not personal, it was family.
"I just said I wasn't coming and it wasn't because I didn't like you. I actually love you, it's just I love my mom, my dad and my family more," he said.
Houston would eventually drop the suit after Minnesota refused to join in, clearing the way for the draft to go forward without Kosar and for him to land with the team of his childhood, the Cleveland Browns.
"We talked earlier about the Cuyahoga River being on fire, the city going into bankruptcy in the '70s, the butt of national jokes. We needed (to be) healed. We needed help back then, just not from a football team, from a family, from a community, and I wanted to be part of bringing us back," said Kosar.