“I wouldn’t trade those days for nothin’ …
it was 1980 something”
(19 Something Mark Wills 2002)
Well, it was 1982 to be exact.
The ’82 college football season marked the high point for a style of offense that might be called the “big back” era.
Make that the big and fast back era.
Four of the swiftest, strongest, and most explosive running backs ever to grace the gridiron all chewed up yardage in 1982 – often outrunning defenders to paydirt, other times simply pounding them into the dirt. One of the four is arguably the greatest collegian ever, another in the discussion for best professional running back of all time, a third perhaps the most audacious and talented American athlete in the last quarter of the twentieth century, one an enigma worthy of having a novel named for him. All were sons of the South.
Herschel Walker, Eric Dickerson, Bo Jackson, and Marcus Dupree reeled off highlight performances throughout their storied careers … Herschel and Dickerson ending their campus games in 1982, Bo and Marcus just starting theirs.
For fans who remember, few football feats will ever match the sheer astonishment of seeing these men the size of linebackers turn on the speed of sprinters to break free for another long touchdown run. It was breathtaking and unforgettable.
The era of the big back ushered out one offensive style and soon gave way to another.
The 1970s had emphasized option offense, not nearly a new concept at the time but one that dominated the decade as college football as teams sought shifty, elusive runners to play in wishbone (Alabama, Oklahoma), veer (Houston), and power-I attacks (Nebraska). Those ground-based offenses built off the creativity of innovators like Emory Bellard of wishbone fame and veer visionary Bill Yeoman of Houston (who steered the Cougars from 1962-1986). By the mid-80s most wishbone and veer attacks faded; even bone backers like Pat Dye of Auburn and Barry Switzer of Oklahoma moved to an I-formation to take better advantage of Jackson and Dupree.
In the aftermath of the big back era, air raids exemplified the 1990s.
Steve Spurrier’s Florida Gators, the Brigham Young Cougars of LaVell Edwards, and any number of run-and-shoot schools flung footballs at record pace. Again, there was nothing altogether new going on … Dutch Meyer (TCU), Wally Butts (Georgia), Edwards (BYU), and others represent a lineage of coaches designing advanced air attacks that dates back to at least the 1930s.
The 2000s brought the spread attack to the fore. Rich Rodriquez of West Virginia and Michigan, Urban Meyer, Tommy Bowden, and innumerable high school coaches banded elements of the 1970s option attacks with the sophisticated read passing routes of the 1990s to produce dual-threat quarterbacks such as Vince Young and Tim Tebow.
Only Tebow matched the near mythical status of the fantastic four from 1982.
The first of the big backs to make an impact was also the best.
Herschel Walker stormed into Athens from tiny Johnson County High School in Wrightsville, Georgia, and promptly catapulted the Bulldogs to a national championship as a freshman. He won the Heisman Trophy as a junior in 1982 and should have won it as a freshman- losing out to George Rogers of South Carolina (another big back though much slower than the big four) despite outplaying Rogers in a late season showdown. Walker left school early after signing a contract with the upstart USFL having broken virtually every school, conference, and national rushing record.
Walker is the best and most exciting athlete I have had the pleasure of watching in person or on television and film. His long-distance runs defied physics (go to the 3:15 mark to see this fabled run against South Carolina in the showdown game with Rogers). His power changed the way defenders tackled, forcing them to cut out the knees of the big backs rather than employing the traditional hit and wrap (check out the run that made Tennessee’s Bill Bates famous in Walker’s very first game). In the thirty years since he appeared in Athens, no other Bulldog nears Herschel’s acclaim.
Eric Dickerson ran as part of the famous Pony Express backfield at SMU alongside current ESPN broadcaster Craig James. Although Dickerson set the Southwest Conference record for career rushing and tied legendary Doak Walker for career touchdowns, his time in Dallas is overshadowed and oft forgotten for two reasons.
First, in 1983 Dickerson launched the most successful football career of the big backs by setting rookie records for rushing attempts, yards, and touchdowns. The next season he broke O.J. Simpson’s single season rushing record by churning out 2105 yards, a record still standing after more than a quarter century. So, Dickerson is remembered more for his professional accomplishments than for his outstanding years at SMU.
The other reason Dickerson’s Pony Express days are often ignored is because the SMU football program became the first to be hit with the “Death Penalty” by the NCAA (1986), a scandal that indirectly reached the top of Texas political circles. Dickerson, so memorable with his upright running style, churning knees, and tinted visor, would be ranked behind Jim Brown on most lists of the NFL’s greatest runners … calling anybody besides Brown better than E.D. would be tough.
One man with the talent to challenge Herschel as top collegian and Dickerson’s exploits as a pro was Bo Jackson of Auburn.
Bo knew football. Perhaps a shade smaller, perhaps a shade shiftier, perhaps a better pass receiver (neither Walker or Jackson could block anybody), perhaps a fraction slower and less powerful (it’s ok to disagree Auburn fans), Jackson looked for the world like a Plains version of Walker – right down to jersey #34. He won the Heisman Trophy in 1985.
Bo knew baseball. A stellar college baseball player at Auburn, Jackson once smacked a drive into a new light standard in left center field at Foley Field in Athens, a wallop that might have ended up on the UGA tennis courts otherwise. It was one of three homeruns he ripped that day, a pointed answer to the wild right field denizens of Foley who sat on a hillside ragging him the whole day. That wayward and well lubricated group cheered after he blasted out the light and Bo smiled back.
Jackson was the first pick in the NFL draft in 1986, but instead pursued a professional baseball career with Kansas City. In 1989, Bo earned All-Star MVP honors when he hit a 448 foot homerun in his first at bat, threw out a runner at the plate, and stole a base. He was only the second All-Star to steal a base and hit a homerun in the same game (the other? a fellow named Willie Mays). Bo would eventually go on to became a two-sport star (playing with the Raiders of the NFL), but his career was cut short after suffering a severe hip injury in a football game.
The last of the big four was Marcus Dupree.
A Magnolia State schoolboy legend, Dupree signed with Switzer’s Oklahoma Sooners and was a backup for much of his 1982 freshman season. In size the heaviest of the four players mentioned in this column, Dupree came on strong the second-half of the season (finishing with more than 900 yards rushing) and then exploded onto the national scene in the Fiesta Bowl against Arizona State.
In little more than a half of play (Dupree kept having to leave with injuries – a precursor of problems to come), the freshman from Philadelphia, Mississippi, absolutely ran over, around, and through the Sun Devils for 239 yards, averaging over 14 yards every time he carried the ball. I was in New Orleans that day to see Herschel and the Bulldogs play Penn State for the national title. Later, Georgia fans would face the sad reality that the Sugar Bowl was Herschel’s last college game, but Dupree certainly figured to have many more for the Sooners. And he was something to see.
However, those injury problems (and what Barry Switzer perceived to be questionable effort to stay healthy) aggravated the Sooner head coach so much that he and the blossoming star never saw eye-to-eye (even though Switzer jettisoned his beloved wishbone to better utilize Dupree).
After getting injured early in his sophomore season, Dupree decided to transfer to Southern Miss, then changed his mind and signed with the USFL rather than sitting out a season. His body never held up and he was soon out of football.
Dupree is now remembered more for a wonderful book chronicling his recruitment out of high school.
Legendary southern writer Willie Morris penned The Courting of Marcus Dupree and if you find a better sports book please let me know.
With a new season upon us, the thoughts of this college football fan wanders back to those wonder years of the big back … the big, fast back … back to 1982.
As the song says, I wouldn’t trade those days for nothin’.
(Have a great college football season and check back each week for Professor’s Pigskin Picks along with the occasional historical essay – enjoy!)