With all due respect to the Gipper, the Galloping Ghost and Old 98, it is again time to declare another group of college football running backs the best in history. Whether they really are is not as important as the fact that they seem that way to statisticians, coaches and professional scouts. Today's runners are faster, stronger, bigger and longer lasting. They confound more defenses, accumulate more records and inspire more clichés. But in addition to their neon numbers there are more heroic virtues. They have overcome nearsightedness and baldheadedness. They whisper prayers after every touchdown and sing hymns every Sunday. They dab paint on their shoes and stick decals on their helmets. They do it all.
And what they do more than anything else, and more successfully than anyone who cradled a handoff before them, is run for a lot of yardage. Just see how they run:
Of the 10 leading ground-gainers of all time, five are on display right now—Ohio State's Archie Griffin, Pitt's Tony Dorsett, Oklahoma's Joe Washington, Kentucky's Sonny Collins and Wisconsin's Bill Marek. Griffin, the little big man who could become the only player in history with Heisman Trophies as bookends, tops everyone with 5,131 yards. USC's Ricky Bell is 142 yards away from Ed Marinaro's single-season mark of 1,881 yards. Dorsett is one year short of becoming the first player from a major college ever to gain 1,000 yards in four consecutive seasons.
A 100-yard-per-game average is now as commonplace as a four-minute mile: a record 28 players will top that this year. Because of the great land rush of 1975, the National Collegiate Sports Services declares that teams are running more often for more yards than at any other time in history.
Only last Saturday, California's much-admired Chuck Muncie averaged a first down a carry in gaining 144 yards, while Bell had 190. But the topper for the week, and the season, came when Dorsett demolished Notre Dame with 303 yards in 23 carries, a Pittsburgh record and the most ever against the Irish. "I don't believe it myself," Dorsett said.
Buried beneath this statistical avalanche are the accomplishments of a few backs you may have heard of. The 200-yard game, which was never achieved by Doak Walker or Charlie Justice, has been accomplished twice this season by Herb Lusk, nicknamed the Praying Tailback, of Long Beach State. Doc Blanchard did not gain as many yards in his three-year career at Army as Bell has this season. Red Grange, Tom Harmon, Glenn Davis, Hopalong Cassady and Jim Brown never gained 1,000 yards in a season, a routine event nowadays. When Ike Forte of Arkansas was asked several months ago if he had set 1,000 yards as his goal, he answered, "No. That won't be anything this year. Maybe 15 guys will make that." Thirty-three is more like it, and Forte, despite an injury last Saturday, will probably be among them.
Professional scouts are calling the current senior class the best they have ever seen, and the junior class at least as good. For that matter, the sophomores aren't so bad, either. The bespectacled Muncie is coming on like the next superback, and Bell is being compared to—who else?—O.J. As for the multi-decaled Griffin, he should be another of those good little NFL runners who have sprouted like mushrooms the last few years.
"They're all over. Every college team has them," one dazzled scout said recently. "There will be guys drafted in the fourth round who would have been first or second a few years ago. Every NFL team that is looking for good backs is going to find at least a couple."
Another scout says that his list of the country's top 100 seniors includes 19 running backs. The players mentioned most often by scouts are Muncie, Griffin, Washington and Collins. After that take your choice among Jimmy DuBose of Florida, Tony Galbreath of Missouri, Bubba Bean of Texas A&M, Wayne Morris of SMU and Forte. Lesser-known prospects include Mike Pruitt of Purdue, Jim Jensen of Iowa and Lusk. For the draft selectors, it's like holding nine different tickets in a nine-horse race. They can't lose.
Not everyone agrees this is the best fall harvest ever, of course. Some argue that the times have made the man, that today's players are different, not necessarily better, because the game is different. "There is no way you can compare a player today against a player of the past," says Glenn Davis.
True enough, college football has undergone substantial changes in recent years. The return to two platoons in 1965, the first-down time-out introduced in 1968 ("We're playing five quarters," says Arkansas Coach Frank Broyles), the 11th game added in 1970 and freshman eligibility in 1972—all of these have given backs more opportunities to carry the ball. And when a well-drilled runner in a ground-oriented offense like the veer, the wishbone or the I is carrying the ball 25 to 35 times a game on a fast artificial track, no record is safe.
"I would imagine today's backs are better," says former Nebraska Coach Bob Devaney. "For one thing, they get a better start in life physically. They don't have polio, scarlet fever or whooping cough. They have vitamins. And today's kids don't work after school."
Alabama's Bear Bryant contends that "The greatest backs 10, 20, 30 years ago would be great now, too." Harmon, Michigan's Heisman Trophy winner in 1940, agrees. "A thousand yards would have been nothing for Red Grange, Glenn Davis or Jay Berwanger. Give a guy like Grange the football 40 times under two-platoon rules and he'd kill you. He might be running yet."
Yesterday or today, a player's best public-relations man is his coach.
"Archie Griffin is the greatest running back I've ever seen in college," declares Woody Hayes, who has coached, among others, Hopalong Cassady, Vic Janowicz and John Brockington. "In fact, I've never seen a greater football player."
Pitt Coach Johnny Majors has. He calls Dorsett "the best college running back I've ever seen," while Cal's Mike White says that Muncie "has the ability and balance of Jim Brown." Barry Switzer of Oklahoma is not about to be one-upped. "There isn't a better all-round player in the country," he says of silver-slippered Joe Washington. And here comes Kentucky's Fran Curci, who had Chuck Foreman at Miami, with the news that baldheaded Sonny Collins is "probably the best pure runner I've coached." Tony Galbreath? Why, only "the best all-round back" Al Onofrio has had in his 18 years at Missouri.
The list goes on. Accolades pour in like the yardage that inspires them. But while many pro scouts agree that the overall quality of today's backs is the best they have seen, they are not as free with their praise for individuals. When one of them calls Muncie a "bigger version of O.J." he is assuredly not saying Muncie is better, is he? "Oh, I wouldn't put anybody in that class," he says. The runners the pros like best, future O.J.s or not, are:
Chuck Muncie, California. 6'3", 220. Pro-set tailback. Averaging 129 yards per game and 6.5 yards per carry with a single-game high of 208. Combines outside speed, inside power and pass-catching ability better than any other back. Although his dedication was once suspect, that is no longer a problem.
Archie Griffin, Ohio State. 5'8", 182. I tailback. Averaging 131 and 5.8 with a 160 high. His 31 consecutive 100-yard games make him the most consistent back in history. Quick, powerful and a good blocker but would benefit from more size and breakaway speed. Glamour name could appeal to a team seeking a gate attraction.
Joe Washington, Oklahoma. 5'10", 185. Wishbone halfback. Averaging 84 and 5.2 with a 166 high. Disappointing senior season because of foot injury. Bad habit of running out of bounds when he should try to turn upfield. Although small, is fast, very elusive and a game breaker.
Sonny Collins, Kentucky. 6', 190. Veer halfback. Averaging 109.7 and 4.7 with a 192 high. Quick, deceptively strong, finds hole well. Lacks blocking and pass-catching experience.
Jimmy DuBose, Florida. 6'1", 218. Wishbone fullback. Averaging 122 and 7.0 with a 204 high. Fine blocker, quick, follows interference well. Has first-round credentials and halfback speed but also halfback size.
Tony Galbreath, Missouri. 6'1", 230. Power I tailback. Averaging 76.7 and 3.9 with a 120 high. After great start, never completely recovered from ankle injury that caused him to miss two games. Punishing runner and good pass catcher but unexceptional speed.
Ike Forte, Arkansas. 6', 199. Veer running back. Averaging 107.4 and 5.7 with 161 high. Flat-footed and bow-legged but has quick acceleration and fine inside skills. Blocks, catches and throws well. Probably better suited to tailback than fullback although he's played both.
Bubba Bean, Texas A&M. 6', 194. Wishbone halfback. Averaging 83.4 and 6.8 with 180 high on nine carries. Fast, durable and good blocker.
Wayne Morris, SMU. 6'1", 195. Wishbone halfback. Averaging 84 and 5.0 with 202 high. The school's alltime leading rusher. Has endurance, balance and ability to shed tackles but is not a breakaway type.
Mike Pruitt, Purdue. 6', 206. I fullback. Averaging 86.4 and 4.1 with 162 high. Fast, strong and quick but needs a lot more experience after playing tackle in high school and irregularly in college. Considered to have untapped potential.
Jim Jensen, Iowa. 6'5", 233. I halfback. Averaging 49 and 6.1 with 202 high. Combines 4.4 speed with good size and blocking ability. Bruised thigh limited his carries, but is worth the risk of a high-round selection.
Herb Lusk, Long Beach State. 6'1", 195. I tailback. Averaging 141.3 and 4.9 with 259 high. Leaped to prominence after a mediocre junior year. Could become another Terry Metcalf, although he will not be drafted as high as others.
Many of the country's best backs are underclassmen like junior Mike Voight of North Carolina and sophomore Earl Campbell of Texas. Neither, however, ranks with Bell and Dorsett, both juniors. The top juniors are:
Ricky Bell, Southern Cal. 6'2", 215. I tailback. Averaging 173.9 and 5.4 with a 258 high and two others exceeding 200. Size, strength and durability similar to Simpson's but at 4.6 lacks O.J.'s outstanding speed. A former fullback who is an excellent blocker. Compared with Muncie, he lacks only proven pass-catching ability.
Tony Dorsett, Pittsburgh. 5'11", 183. Veer halfback. Averaging 141.9 and 7.1 with 303 high. Fast, quick and tough. Has put on 30 pounds since his freshman year and should be even bigger next season.
There are more out there, to be sure, younger, undiscovered, perhaps even better. Give them a few more rule changes and a few more slugs of Gatorade and an offense more potent than the triple option and the statistics will climb higher and the mouths gape wider.
Someone has already figured out that a freshman need only average 136.4 yards a game over four years to hit 6,000 in his career.