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 clich�s. 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.