The men who change the rules of college football every year may not have wanted to make their game look exactly like that of the pros, but they could not have done a keener job of it in 1964 if they had ordered Tulsa's Jerry Rhome to throw a few passes for every school in the country. Platoons specializing in offense and defense have come back in full vogue after a decade of creeping free substitution. And the quarterbacks, led by the record-smothering Rhome, have put the ball in the air more times than the drum majorettes have dropped their batons. The result has been a showy season of offense in which the passers have loosened up—and then splattered—defenses, creating in the process even broader gaps for the splendid array of runners already on hand. Precious few teams which have not adopted the prostyle game have been able to cling to their honor. There has been no slackening in the tide of weekly upsets. Typical of the dizziness is this sly round robin: UCLA defeated Penn State 21-14, Illinois defeated UCLA 26-7, Ohio State defeated Illinois 26-0 and last week Penn State defeated Ohio State 27-0. Now in November the unbeaten survivors are few. But among them are Notre Dame and Arkansas, who have platooned and thrown from the start. They have helped reshape the season and have made every September rating look like an inside joke.
No team has benefited from the new rules quite so deliciously as the University of Tulsa, however. Before the past three weeks that school had struggled along for years with only spotty distinction in the quiet, clean oil town on the banks of the Arkansas River. But now the university and the town are booming with the kind of excitement Oklahoma normally reserves for a new field of gushers, or that other team, the Sooners. And behind it all is the convergence, quite by accident, of the right player, the right coach and the right set of rules, all in the same season. Together the three have produced the grandest aerial show in the history of major-college football.
The show revolves around Jerry Rhome, a calm, smoothly built (6 feet, 181) young Texan who left Southern Methodist in his home town of Dallas—after playing brilliantly as a sophomore—because he was a passer and wanted to find a place where his passion was not considered a sin. He is a fluid thrower with that natural, old-fashioned posed-photograph delivery. He works hard at learning to pass when things are not going right, throwing off balance, while falling, on one knee or with the wrong foot forward. He throws to all distances and he knows when not to throw. "You can't wish it in there," he says. "Sometimes you've just got to eat it." His pass, thrown in the classic way with one finger on the lace, travels in a fine spiral and settles, Bobby Layne style, softly into the hands of his receivers. In one game (against Louisville) Rhome threw seven touchdown passes, a national record. In another, two weeks ago, he completed 35 of 43 for 488 yards, and four more national records fell. This modest feat occurred against Oklahoma State, a favored team that went into the game with the second best pass defense in the U.S. and came out with a devastating 61-14 loss.
Last Saturday, as Tulsa defeated Memphis State 19-7 and began looking like an attractive bowl team (the record is 5-2 and only North Texas State, Toledo and Wichita remain), Rhome proved he can even throw a damp football while sliding around on mud, sand, sawdust and cottonseed hulls. Tulsa's cramped, antique Skelly Stadium is owned by the city, and the city did not have a canvas to cover the turf during a day's and a night's rain. Moreover, a high school game was played in the stadium on Friday night, so the field looked something like a World War I no man's land before play ever started. But under such strenuously unsuitable conditions Rhome completed 25 of 35 passes for 264 yards, breaking his sixth and seventh national records and tying another. He passed for two touchdowns, ran for a third and pushed his streak of consecutive tosses without an interception to a stunning 111. In his last 177 passes, in fact, he has had only one intercepted, and only four all year.
After the Oklahoma State game, a pro scout said: "We couldn't complete 35 of 43 if we were only playing catch." The speaker was Dallas Cowboy Assistant Coach Ermel Allen. Dallas drafted Rhome as a future last year, and the New York Jets drafted him in the AFL. Since Rhome's ambition has always been to play pro football, he will no doubt get his chance—and either the Cowboys or Jets will pay handsomely for his arm, which has never been sore since he threw his first pass at the age of 4, a two-footer to his dad. Allen's opinion of Rhome is not helping keep down the bonus.
"He has uncanny accuracy when the receiver is in tight quarters," says Allen. "He has a fine football mind because he's the son of a coach. [Jerry played for his father, Byron Rhome, at Dallas' Sunset High] and has studied it all his life. He kills a team with audibles. Reads and anticipates a defense. And when he misses a pass, he misses by inches."
No matter which pro league Rhome chooses to play in, the decision will be far easier for him than the one he had to make when he left SMU three years ago.
"All my life I've worked to be a pro quarterback," says Rhome. "Well. I chose SMU because it was a passing team. Then after my sophomore year [he completed 74 passes for 693 yards, 11th in the nation] they changed coaches. Hayden Fry replaced Bill Meek, and he said they were going to develop the running game and defense. Suddenly it was just like I'd gone to Oklahoma or Texas."
Rhome worked hard through SMU's spring training but wound up no better than Hayden Fry's No. 2 quarterback. He felt like a pre-law student slowly sinking to the bottom in a chemistry course. "It was a tough summer," he says. "I was disappointed and mixed up and looking at Nebraska, Ole Miss and Tulsa but not knowing really whether I'd leave SMU. At the last minute, practically, I made what has turned out to be the right decision. But it sure has been a long haul."
As gifted a thrower as Rhome has turned out to be, and as permissive as the rules have become—-fortunately for Rhome and unfortunately for SMU—they could not have added up to so many records and raves if Tulsa's coach were merely adjusting to a trend. He was not. Coach Glenn Dobbs Jr. is a former pro quarterback himself (the old Brooklyn Dodgers and the Los Angeles Dons). He believes in the pass and welcomed Rhome with delight. A tall, soft-voiced, slow-talking ex-rancher with touches of gray in his hair, the handsome Dobbs looks like he ought to be posing for Marlboro commercials. He agreed to become Tulsa's head coach four years ago only because it was his alma mater and the school begged him to. Believing that football should be fun for the players and spectators alike, he says he would coach nowhere else. "We leave the practice field laughing every day," he says. "And we entertain 'em on Saturday.
"If I ever run out of passers," says Dobbs, "I'll go back to my cattle. But, sir, I'm not gonna run out of passers."
Not in the near future anyway. Jerry Rhome is a senior, but Rhome's understudy is a 6-foot-6, 190-pound sophomore named Glenn Dobbs III who can, says his father, "throw the length of the field," and who is patiently waiting until next year to take over as Tulsa's quarterback. And then, at Tulsa's Nathan Hale High School, there is a 16-year-old lad of 6 feet 3 and 190 pounds who can also throw—Johnny Dobbs, another son. Fans of the Golden Hurricanes believe that if he, too, does not wind up at Tulsa there is something seriously wrong with the oil-locating seismic maps in downtown offices.
"I kind of think that all three—Jerry and my two boys—might be lockin' horns in the pros some day," says Dobbs, with a vision of rare extravagance.
The odd fact that the coach's oldest son is currently playing behind the nation's best passer, an almost certain All-America and the possible Heisman Award winner, has presented an unusual problem at times this year.
Against Louisville, Rhome had the game safely put away and was sitting on the bench watching Glenn Dobbs III move the team when the coach got a call from the press box informing him that Rhome was within easy reach of a national record.
"We don't go into a game to set any records," says Dobbs. "We start every game with one idea in mind—that we want to win by one point. Well, Glenn was doing fine when I got the call. They said Jerry needed a touchdown pass to tie the record of six. I sent him in and he got it. Then I put Glenn back. Now, Glenn can use the experience, that's for sure. And he took us down there again. So I got another call. Jerry needs one more to break the record. So I put him in and—bang!—he got it."
Dobbs sighed. "Same darn thing against Oklahoma State. Jerry's on the bench and Glenn's in there getting experience, and here comes the phone call from upstairs. Jerry needs 28 yards for 500, they said. Heck, I didn't know 500 what, but I figured it was something important. Turned out it was total offense, or something. Anyhow, I put him back in and he got it."
Said Dobbs, "Here's how I feel about it. And my boy understands. Who am I to keep Jerry from doing what nobody else has done, from setting records to prove he's the greatest passer of all time? What kind of fellow would I be if I denied him that when he was so close?"
Rhome's flirtation with a bushel of records has had a bristling effect on the Tulsa team. "The defense wants to get the ball back again so Jerry can get another record," says Dobbs. "The line blocks real hard for the same reason."
Tulsa's line is perhaps the best passp-rotecting line in collegiate football. Dobbs thinks it is, and this is what he has worked toward. "Some coaches build from defense," he says. "We started building on pass protection." The formation is a pro spread—two receivers split wide, two running backs with varied spacing. The backs have been chosen as much for their blocking as for their running. Everything is geared to Rhome getting the ball quickly to the two outside men—or picking at a defense that covers them. "We have 12 plays, that's all," he says. "We throw first, run second. Something has to be open, and Jerry can usually find it." A hefty, seven-man pocket gives Rhome time to look. But even against a quick, furious rush, Rhome has done well. He hit 20 of 27 against Arkansas and had the unbeaten Razorbacks 14-0 before a series of sad punts gave Arkansas field position for enough second-half points to survive, 31-22. Tulsa can play anybody.
It is a team quilted from players described by a local newspaper as "misfits." There is End Howard Twilley, a quick, tough junior from Galena Park, Texas who, partly because of his size (he is only 5 feet 11, 180), was ignored by Southwest Conference recruiters but will set a national pass-catching record this season as a byproduct of Rhome's success. There is Tailback Bob Daugherty, a junior from Mountain View, Calif. who broke Joe Bellino's freshman scoring and rushing records at Navy, then left because he did not enjoy wearing a uniform and running to class. There is Defensive Tackle Willie Townes, who is 6 feet 5 and 263 and comes from Hattiesburg, Miss, and did not like Indiana University. Tulsa, in fact, has players from 13 different states plus Canada and renegades from Indiana, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and, of course, SMU. As one might suspect, Dobbs treats them like pros. There are frequent water breaks, and they work in sweat clothes all but two days a week. But then on Saturday, with both the coach and the new rules encouraging him, only one of them always plays like a pro. That is Jerry Rhome. He was born to do so.
THE RECORDS JERRY RHOME HAS—OR CAN SOON HAVE
MARKS ALREADY SET
Most touchdown passes in one game
Most completions in one game
Most yards passing in one game
Most yards total offense in one game
Most points responsible for in one season
Most completions in varsity career
Most touchdown passes in one season
23 (ties Babe Parilli)
Highest percentage completions in one game (25 or more attempts)
35 of 43
MARKS HE STILL SEEKS
Most completions in one season
Most yards passing in one season
Most yards total offense in one season
Most consecutive passes without interception
Most yards passing in varsity career
Most yards total offense in varsity career
Most passing and rushing plays in one season
Most passes attempted in one season
Most touchdown passes in varsity career
Highest average total offense per game
record is 266.7
Highest accuracy percentage in one season
record is .665
Career accuracy percentage
record is .610