USFL Draft 2022: Exclusive look inside Maulers' draft room
Coach Kirby Wilson collaborated closely with his staff and players to help Pittsburgh land its inaugural draft class, RJ Young writes.
By RJ Young
FOX Sports Writer
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — When Pittsburgh Maulers coach Kirby Wilson makes a fist with his left hand, he makes an impression.
Burn scars from a fire 10 years ago at his home in Pittsburgh cover his hand and nearly half his body. In the middle of that fist, a ring fit for a Super Bowl champion glistened as sunlight came through downtown Birmingham Wednesday morning.
Minutes before the start of Day 2 at the United States Football League Draft, Wilson and general manager Chris Watts were double-checking with each other about who their first pick would be.
"If Jeffery Thomas is there, we want to take him?" Wilson said.
"Yup, we want him," Watts said.
"All right. That’s gonna make Kyle [Lauletta] happy. Kyle liked him a lot."
Lauletta was the duo’s first selection for the franchise, and the quarterback was bullish on the former New England Patriots and Miami Hurricanes wide receiver. Wilson and Watts spent much of Day 1 conferring with Lauletta at their draft table, asking what the QB thought about picks being made and what kind of players he wanted to play with.
USFL President Brian Woods reminded coaches and their staffs about the rules and protocol for rounds 13 through 35, as each of the eight teams began filling out what will become the core of their football teams when the season opens April 16 at Protective Stadium.
On the 15th floor of Regions Harbert Plaza building downtown at Balch and Bingham LLP, Watts leaned over the conference room table and spoke into the office phone connecting the team to the assembly room down the hall, which was acting as USFL Draft central.
Dressed in a black suit and blue button-up open at the collar, Watts was ready to make the pick.
"The Pittsburgh Maulers select number 5090, Jeffrey Thomas, Miami."
As Watts announced the pick, Wilson, wearing his white Maulers hat, purple plaid shirt and khaki pants, leaned back in his chair and took his phone off the table.
"I’m gonna text Kyle," Wilson said.
Wilson was intentional about making his quarterback as much a valued voice in the draft process as his coaching staff.
"I want him to feel like he was important and part of it," Wilson told FOX Sports.
Moments later Wilson received a text back from Lauletta with an enthusiastic thank you for selecting Thomas.
Unlike Day 1, which took place at Protective Stadium in one large room, each team was separated Wednesday and taking advantage of privacy to not just talk through players, but get a read on the prospects, too.
With the selection official, Watts called Thomas. One of the first questions Watts asked players was about their health and weight.
After congratulating Thomas and taking down his jersey number, he passed his phone to Wilson, who followed by asking Thomas to bring his best and let the staff make him a better player.
"You’re part of this now," Wilson said. "We’re in this together now."
That has been his philosophy since becoming head coach.
Wilson is running his team the way he has seen it work best: delegating authority and empowering his staff and players to speak up, be heard, giving them agency.
"It’s got to be our football team, our selection," he said. "I’m learning from everyone on my staff, but I’m also patting them down," Wilson said. "I’m in their pockets, making sure we get their best ideas, their best players. I want the good stuff."
Among the eight head coaches in the USFL, Wilson is the only one who has never been a head coach at any level.
That’s why he’s here, in the USFL, just six months after "retiring" following 37 years as an assistant coach at the college and pro level, including 25 seasons coaching NFL running backs.
"I woke up one day and told my kids I decided I didn’t want to go to work anymore," Wilson said, "and they said, ‘Good! Don’t go.’"
He chuckled thinking back on it because he’d been offered the only kind of job that he knew would get him out of retirement.
"You never know what you can do until you’re given an opportunity," he said.
And Wilson has seized it — while also committing to developing other coaches and staff members to prepare them for their own chance to lead a franchise some day, too. It’s why he has hired men he not only trusts, but men he believed deserved to be elevated.
All three of his coordinators, John Tomlinson (offensive), Jarren Horton (defensive) and Marc Hull (special teams) are Black. The coordinators stayed in communication with Wilson all day, going over selections from receiver to kicker, while ultimately giving Watts authority when building out the roster.
Between Wilson and Watts, there are four Super Bowl rings.
Wilson is the only head coach in the USFL who has won a Super Bowl as an NFL coach — let alone two. Michigan Panthers coach Jeff Fisher won a Super Bowl as a defensive back on the 1985 Chicago Bears squad.
Watts, who graduated from Langston University, an HBCU just outside of Stillwater, Oklahoma, won two as an area scout for the New York Giants in 2007 and 2011. Wilson owns two rings as an assistant for the Tampa Bay Bucs in 2002 and the Steelers in 2008.
Wilson wears the Super Bowl ring he won in Pittsburgh most days on his left hand.
"It’s just jewelry," Wilson said. "That’s what you do with jewelry. You wear it."
Indeed, Wilson took his ring off and offered it to me.
Watts feels the same about his "jewelry." When he’s out and people spot the ring on his finger, he’s more than willing to allow them a moment to appreciate it.
"Why not make somebody’s day?" Watts asked.
"Besides," Wilson said, "we’re trying to win this championship this year."
Building a team capable of winning a championship is the first step in doing so.
Shortly after the Maulers selected former San Jose State receiver Bailey Gaither, New Jersey Generals coach Mike Riley walked into Pittsburgh's draft room to tease Wilson.
"You stole my guy, Bailey Gaither," Riley told Wilson. "Don’t run quarters against him."
Wilson knew what Riley was referring to. Gaither made a living eating up safeties in the middle of the field against quarters coverage, and Wilson appreciated not just the compliment but from whom it came.
Riley is the first coach Wilson ever played professional football for. When Wilson played defensive back for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Riley was his position coach.
Gaither was ecstatic when he learned he’d been selected by the Maulers. At SJSU, he was one of the best players in school history, ranking second in receiving TDs (18) and fourth in receiving yards (2,227) in school history.
"I didn’t know how soon it was gonna happen, or even if it was gonna happen," Gaither said. "I’m just excited to be playing pro football again."
"That’s the fun part," Wilson said. "Getting to make someone happy with that phone call. I’ve been a part of a bunch of drafts, and this never gets old. I’m a draft junkie."
Wilson, who worked for Steelers coach Mike Tomlin for seven seasons, also has earned a reputation as one of the best running back coaches of all time.
He has coached three running backs who are among the top-six rushers in NFL history: Emmitt Smith (No. 1 at 18,355 yards), Adrian Peterson (No. 5 at 14,918) and Curtis Martin (No. 6 at 14,101).
Wilson also coached former Iowa State running back and Heisman finalist Troy Davis in each of his 2,000-yard rushing seasons.
"I learned so much from players like them," Wilson said. "Guys who early in my career said, ‘Get on my back, Kirb.’ I learned from those guys and coaches around me what it takes and how to get it done."
He also has developed rookies into Pro Bowl players. Wilson was running backs coach for the Las Vegas Raiders when they selected Josh Jacobs in the first round.
When it came time to select running backs in the 27th round, Wilson and Watts decided to go with another Vegas running back he’d coached in former Wisconsin Badger Garrett Groshek.
"He’s one of those dudes who, when he gets off the bus," Wilson said, "you go, ‘I want him.’"
Groshek was Wilson’s first free-agent signing with the Raiders.
"He made play after play after play," he said. "You can’t ignore a guy that makes plays if you want to win, and we came to win."
RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast "The No. 1 Ranked Show with RJ Young." Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young, and subscribe to "The RJ Young Show" on YouTube. He is not on a StepMill.