Football paradise is, to put it tepidly, getting extremely crowded. Already there are 203 coaches, players, officials and camp followers who have made their way through the rapidly swinging gates of the Hall of Fame, and the queue is getting longer and longer. Perhaps the Hall of Fame should nail up one of those signs placed in restaurants by fire departments and rephrase it to read: OCCUPANCY BY RUN-OF-THE MILL PLAYERS IS DETRIMENTAL AND CONFUSING. Anyhow, to keep the business of football immortality in perspective, the time is ripe to thin out the ranks and select the very best college football player of all time.
It may seem unfair to a lot of dedicated and selfless linemen of the past, but it is nonetheless true that the most versatile and thus the ablest all-round football players were all backfield men, as will become clear shortly. Hence, to reduce the list of candidates to a manageable maximum, one has to start with the following: Jim Thorpe of Carlisle, Red Grange of Illinois, Ernie Nevers of Stanford, Bronko Nagurski of Minnesota, Jay Berwanger of Chicago, Byron White of Colorado, Kenny Washington of UCLA, Tom Harmon of Michigan, Nile Kinnick of Iowa, Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis of Army, Dick Kazmaier of Princeton, Doak Walker and Kyle Rote of SMU, Frank Gifford of USC and Jimmy Brown of Syracuse.
Although this list is slightly weighted in favor of prewar athletes, the reason is not merely that distance lends enchantment. The quality of college football is, if anything, far higher today than it was 40 or even 20 years ago. High school and college coaching is superior, and just about any competent player in a given position would make the counterpart of his father's generation look ridiculous. But, as we all know, this is a specialist's age. The modern player has to confine his skills to his one or two specialties at the expense of versatility.
None of us has ever seen a better straight-ahead runner than Jimmy Brown, who lifted a fairly prosaic Syracuse team of the middle 1950s to the top rank and then went on to confirm his ability by becoming the best running back in pro football. Yet we haven't the faintest notion whether Brown knows how to pass or punt or tackle. Even if he can he didn't, and we can hardly call him the greatest player of all time, despite his performance against TCU in the 1957 Cotton Bowl when he was almost singly responsible for Syracuse's 27 points.
It is this same lack of versatility that forces us to eliminate linemen from consideration. There are always a lot of people who want to tell you that So-and-so, a guard, or Somebody Else, a tackle, was the best ever. Don Hutson, the superb Alabama end, is a case in point. Hutson was undeniably one of the supreme pass receivers of all the years, both as a collegian and later with the Green Bay Packers and, with all his lack of size (185 pounds), he was a strong defensive player. What he did to Stanford's Vow Boys in the 1935 Rose Bowl must be listed as cruel and inhuman punishment, catching six passes for 164 yards and two backbreaking touchdowns. But what other accomplishments did he have besides tackling, blocking and catching passes? Could he plunge through the line? Run the ends? Punt? Pass? We'll never know, but it is a safe assumption that if he could have done all these things he would have been used in the backfield, where such talents are most needed.
The same reasoning applies to the case of Don Coleman, a 175-pound Michigan State tackle during the 1949-51 period. Around Lansing they still claim that Coleman was the most impressive player ever to wear a Spartan uniform, which is saying plenty when you think of some of the block-busting Michigan State teams of the last 15 years. Not only Biggie Munn, Coleman's coach, but also most of his opponents rated him as good a lineman as they had ever seen, but had he been a complete all-round player Munn would certainly have used him in the backfield, where he could have done more than just block and tackle.
Keeping in mind how the era of specialization has limited our view of some wonderful football players, how can any postwar player be ranked as the finest of all time?
One thinks immediately of Doak Walker and Kyle Rote, whose careers overlapped at SMU from 1947 to 1950. During a period when SMU had little other football talent to speak of, they lifted their college to the peak of southwestern football and twice took it to the Cotton Bowl. Each could perform all the offensive chores and will be remembered for years by football-proud Texans, but the beginnings of two-platoon football deprived them of the chance to display much defensive form.
The example of Frank Gifford is almost the exact opposite. A strong case could be made that Gifford was the most ill-used college player of all. Jeff Cravath, who coached USC in Gifford's time, put Gifford on the defensive unit throughout most of his college career, although he was probably the best all-round offensive player on the squad. He was its best runner and passer, he punted and he place-kicked, and yet Cravath rarely gave him a chance to do these things. It wasn't until well into Gifford's pro career with the New York Giants that he was able to prove his full potential on offense. It might be argued that if Gifford had played before the free-substitution rule and under a coach who knew how to utilize the full measure of his ability, he would have to be named the finest player the West ever produced, the maybe the best anywhere.
Dick Kazmaier was a halfback of such enormous potential that it is sad to realize one will never know what he might have been. He was another who could do everything offensively, breaking virtually every Ivy League and eastern total offense record and leading his team to its first Lambert Trophy in his junior year. But he played for Princeton in the years 1949-51, and that era of Ivy League football was hardly the severest test of a man's mettle.