Ranking OSU’s Best Running Backs

While pondering whether Orlando Pace or Troy Smith would be the next Ohio State player to have his jersey number retired, I was looking at the current list of retired numbers.

Seven of them are memorialized on the Ring of Honor at Ohio Stadium, including all five Heisman Trophy winners. In addition, six of the seven honorees gained their greatest glory in Buckeye backfields, ostensibly running the ball for a program that has historically used its ground attack to win championships.

For many years, Ohio State officials were reluctant to retire jersey numbers for a number of reasons, all of which were short-sighted. Who do we honor? By what process do we make the decision? What happens if we start running out of numbers?

Only when Andy Geiger arrived as athletic director did the university finally begin to honor the tradition of which it is so fiercely proud. Two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin was the first player to have his jersey number retired when he was surprised by Geiger and members of his family on the field at Ohio Stadium during the 1999 season.

In the years since Griffin’s No. 45 went into mothballs, Ohio State quickly made up for lost time by retiring the numbers of fellow Heisman winners Les Horvath, Vic Janowicz, Howard “Hopalong” Cassady and Eddie George. In October 2004, the university honored the football program’s first major star when Chic Harley by retiring a jersey in his honor.

Last October, a seventh jersey number was retired when Bill Willis was honored just a few weeks before his death at the age of 86. Willis achieved most of his fame on the defensive side of the ball, but he was also a punishing offensive tackle who blew open holes for such running backs as Horvath and Paul Sarringhaus as well as fullback Gene Fekete, who led the Big Ten in scoring as a sophomore in 1942.

All of that got me to thinking about the best running backs in Ohio State history. There have been a lot of them and together they have produced some of the most memorable moments in the history of the Scarlet and Gray. Just the six running backs who have had their jersey numbers retired combined for astounding number – more than 15,000 rushing yards and 150 touchdowns.

I have limited my list to those who spent most of their time at either a tailback or halfback spot. (That’s why fullbacks such as Jim Otis, John Brockington and Pete Johnson are nowhere to be found. We’ll deal with that position sometime in the future.) Here is my top 10. See how it stacks up to yours.

1. Keith Byars (1982-85) – OK, he doesn’t have a Heisman Trophy even though he should have been the winner in 1984, a season during which he rushed for 1,764 yards and scored 22 touchdowns. Byars was put on this earth to run the football for Ohio State – he was big and fast and never seemed to get tired. His 336 carries during that ’84 season has never been equaled. More than just a running back, however, was the fact that Byars was such a weapon in the passing game. Because he was such an all-around threat, he tops my list.

2. Eddie George (1992-95) – The first word that comes to my mind is “smooth.” Watching George break through the line was like watching Secretariat break from the gate. The fact that he went on to such a productive NFL career was no surprise. His senior season in 1995, when he rushed for 1,927 yards and won the Heisman, is the gold standard for all Buckeyes who follow. Perhaps the most astounding thing about that season – every opposing defensive coordinator knew George was coming and was powerless to stop him. He averaged 5.9 yards per carry and 25.2 carries per game. You could flip-flop Byars and George in the top two spots and you wouldn’t get much of an argument from me.

3. Archie Griffin (1972-75) – Not the biggest and not the fastest, Archie was simply one of the those guys who maximized his talents through hard work and determination. It didn’t hurt that he played behind a massive offensive line and one of the best blocking fullbacks (Johnson) in college football history. Still, Griffin knew what to do when he broke the line of scrimmage. Comparisons of his fluid running style to the great Walter Payton are not unwarranted. And if it was production you wanted, it was production you got. His career mark of 5,589 rushing yards still stands more than a quarter-century after he played his last game at OSU – and no one has come within 1,800 yards of that record.

4. Howard “Hopalong” Cassady (1952-55) – Cassady has become a larger-than-life figure over the past 50 years, but many of today’s fans don’t know that he was a little guy by today’s standards. The freckle-faced, redheaded kid from Columbus Central High School was only 5-10 and about 170 pounds, but he could fly. He scored three touchdowns in his first college game and went on to become one of the greats in college football history. In 1955, he won one of the most lopsided Heisman votes in history, polling 2,219 points, nearly three times the total of the second-place finisher. Cassady was also the consummate teammate, leading Woody Hayes to say, “Hop is the most inspirational player I have ever seen.” Good enough for me.

5. Vic Janowicz (1949-51) – On sheer athletic ability alone, Janowicz had few equals. He could run, throw and kick a football with the best of them and had enough talent to become one of the few players to enjoy professional careers in both the NFL and Major League Baseball. The coaching change from Wes Fesler to Hayes in 1951 – and the philosophy change that went with it – robbed Janowicz of possibly becoming the first two-time Heisman winner. But those who remember his 1950 season remember a blur who ran past opponents and scored touchdowns in bunches. Oldtimers still talk in hushed tones about his performance in an 81-23 win over Iowa – he scored three touchdowns – two rushing and a 61-yard punt return – threw for four scores, recovered two fumbles on defense and kicked 10 extra points. Not a bad day’s work.

6. Chic Harley (1916-17, 1919) – Simply put, Harley was the catalyst for what eventually became Ohio State football as we know it today. I could list his statistics, some of which would pale in comparison to the numbers average players put up these days. Rather, I’ll list just a handful for Harley’s accomplishments – Ohio State’s first three-time All-American, the first man ever to lead the Buckeyes to a victory over Michigan, the first to lead them to an undefeated season and the first to lead the Scarlet and Gray to a conference championship. The fact that he played nearly a century ago and still makes this list is probably all you need to know about Chic Harley.

7. Tim Spencer (1979-82) – Spencer would likely have been higher on this list had he not served as a fullback for his first two seasons. And he was an excellent fullback, too, blocking for Calvin Murray and also carrying the ball with authority (back when OSU allowed the fullback to carry in tandem with the tailback.) Once Spence got the tailback spot to himself, though, he blossomed with a combination of speed and upper-body strength that blew through would-be tacklers. He totaled 1,217 yards in his first year as a starter and then upped that total to 1,538 in his senior year of 1982. That figure is still the fifth-best single-season total in school history.

8. Antonio Pittman (2004-06) – Largely the forgotten man in an offense that featured Troy Smith and Ted Ginn Jr., Pittman’s workmanlike approach to the tailback position allowed the Buckeyes to become a more multifaceted offense in 2005 and ’06. He was remarkably consistent during his two seasons as the starter – 1,331 yards as a sophomore and 1,233 as a junior – and turned himself into a pretty good receiver as well. Pittman would likely be higher on this list had he returned in 2007 for his senior season.

9. Robert Smith (1990, 1992) – If you have read anything that I have written about Smith in the past, you’ll know I am not his biggest fan. Nevertheless, the guy was an extremely gifted running back. Striding like a gazelle, he set the OSU freshman record in 1990 with 1,126 yards and had the look of a potential Heisman Trophy winner. Unfortunately, his career got off-track for a variety of reasons – some of Smith’s own creation – and he never fully realized his great potential. Nevertheless, the all-too-brief flashes he showed in Scarlet and Gray make him deserving to be in my top 10.

10. Raymont Harris (1990-93) – This is probably as close to sentimental as I’m going to get. If you’ve ever met “The Quiet Storm” in person, it is practically impossible not to like him. On the football field, his enthusiasm bubbled over and made him a very dependable back in the early part of the 1990s. Many historians will likely downgrade Harris because he played during a time when the Buckeyes were struggling. And the fact that he had to contend with Smith and Carlos Snow for playing time much of his career kept him out of the starting lineup until his senior year. Still, Harris managed 2,649 yards for his career and that still ranks ninth all-time in school history.

That’s my top 10, a list that doesn’t even include guys like Pepe Pearson, Jeff Logan, Michael Wiley, Don Clark, Ron Springs, Maurice Clarett and Murray. But you have to cut things off somewhere.

The list of top 10 running backs is a continuation of what I started a couple of weeks ago with my top 10 Ohio State quarterbacks of all time. In case you missed that list, click on this link: My Top 10 OSU Quarterbacks.

TURKEY DAY REVISITED

In case you missed it, the Big Ten has released its conference football schedules through the 2012 season, and thanks to the 12-game seasons and the desire of coaches to get a week off somewhere in the middle of the grind, the end of the regular season has been moved back a week beginning in 2010.

That means the traditional season finale between Ohio State and Michigan will be played two days after Thanksgiving in 2010, 2011 and 2012. OSU head coach Jim Tressel has always been a proponent of having that holiday weekend off so that his players and coaches can go home and enjoy it with their families. But the desire to get that extra week of rest during the season seems to have won out.

For the record, the dates for the next five OSU-Michigan games are:

  • Nov. 22, 2008 in Columbus (the Saturday before Thanksgiving)
  • Nov. 21, 2009 in Ann Arbor (the Saturday before Thanksgiving)
  • Nov. 27, 2010 in Columbus (the Saturday after Thanksgiving)
  • Nov. 26, 2011 in Ann Arbor (the Saturday after Thanksgiving)
  • Nov. 24, 2012 in Columbus (the Saturday after Thanksgiving)

Mark your calendars accordingly.

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Among those celebrating birthdays today are actors’ John Mahoney (“Frasier”) and John Goodman (“Roseanne”); Beach Boys founding member Brian Wilson; TV handyman Bob Vila; Canadian songbird Anne Murray; multiple Grammy winner Lionel Richie; former Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony; Duran Duran bassist John Taylor; Cincinnati Reds catcher Paul Bako; Houston Astros outfielder Carlos Lee; former Penn State and NFL linebacker LaVar Arrington; PGA golfer Charles Howell III; Iowa State wrestling coach Cael Sanderson; director Robert Rodriguez (“Sin City,” “Spy Kids” and “The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl”); and a trio of Academy Award winning actors – Olympia Dukakis, Martin Landau and Nicole Kidman.

Also celebrating today is former Kansas City Chiefs star quarterback Len Dawson, who was also a standout at Purdue. Born June 20, 1935, in Alliance, Ohio, Dawson was recruited heavily by Ohio State head coach Woody Hayes, but Dawson was reluctant to become a Buckeye because of the program’s run-oriented Split T offense. Also, Dawson had formed a friendship with a certain Purdue assistant coach named Hank Stram. Stram, of course, would later have a Hall of Fame career in the NFL as a head coach, thanks in part to a win in Super Bowl IV with Dawson (also a Hall of Famer) as his quarterback.

AND FINALLY

** The NCAA Tournament is looking for a few good cities to host future Final Fours and the same names keep popping up. The next three years are set – Detroit (2009), Indianapolis (2010) and Houston (2011) – and the NCAA has already received bids from cities wishing to host Final Fours for the subsequent five years. Indianapolis, which has already hosted five Final Fours, is back in the mix along with San Antonio, New Orleans, Phoenix, Atlanta, Minneapolis, St. Louis and Dallas. Phoenix is the only city on that list never to have hosted a previous Final Four. Finalists will be announced in August and the five winning cities will be revealed in November.

** Antonio Henton is seeking a transfer to Division I-AA Georgia Southern. And this is news? Henton can read, can’t he? He knows that Terrelle Pryor is coming this fall with his eye on the backup quarterback spot in 2008 and the starting position in ’09 and beyond. Returning home with three years of eligibility remaining seems like a pretty cogent idea to me. Here’s wishing Antonio the best of luck.

** Ohio University needs a new basketball coach after Tim O’Shea bolted after seven seasons to head the new program at Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I. Don’t worry about the Bobcats coming to raid Thad Matta’s staff for one of his assistants, though. The odds-on favorite to replace O’Shea in Athens is longtime assistant and OU alum John Rhodes. Aside from the fact Rhodes is more than qualified, promoting an assistant is practically a foregone conclusion in the MAC. Kent State, Akron, Western Michigan and Miami (Ohio) all have head coaches who were promoted from the assistant ranks.

** I leave you with something to think about: “What was the best thing before sliced bread?”

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17 Comments

  1. Awesome…….amazing TY

  2. […] Top 10 OSU Running Backs […]

  3. “I could list (Harley’s) statistics” …Dude, totally meaningless, it was a completely different game, even a different shaped ball. Harley was picked ahead of Red Grange by the sportswriters who’d seen them both for the first 50 years team and when he was healthy dominated almost every game he was in on both sides of the ball. Walter Camp would go out of his way to come through Columbus to see Harley play. Way under rated, too bad there’s no film. By the way, what’s your source for those statistics?

  4. By your post, I’m not sure whether you think Harley should be on the list or not.

  5. […] Top 10 OSU Running Backs […]

  6. how is Chris Wells not on this list yet Harris is? Makes no sense

    • Maybe because that list was published last year.

  7. You didn’t list Robert Smith’s stats after his freshman year. I would think most Buckeye fans would want him in their bacfield before Pittman.

    I loved Keith Byars but Eddie was better.

  8. […] OSU’s Top 10 Tailbacks […]

  9. where is chris wells paul warfield

    • As I have written before, my running backs list was compiled last year and before Wells’ senior season. Would he be in my all-time top 10 now? Probably. As for Warfield, he played a halfback position during a period when fullback was the main ball-carrier and he never caught more than 20 passes in a single season. However, there is no doubting he was a great all-around performer. When I get to an all-time top 10 in special teams personnel, you’ll probably see him there.

    • As I have answered before, I compiled my list of running backs last year before Wells’ senior season. Would he be on my all-time top 10 now? Probably. As for Warfield, there is no doubt he had a much more productive NFL career. He was never the featured ball-carrier at Ohio State and he never caught more than 20 passes in a single season. That said, he was still a great talent and when it comes time for an all-time top 10 special teams performers, Warfield’s name will likely appear on that list.

  10. BS. In 1950, Chic Harley was voted by the Football Writers of America the top college football player in the first half of the century — over Red Grange, Jim Thorpe, Nile Kinnick, Doak Walker and every other GD player who played. So you’re saying ANY of those players in the top 5 are better than Red Grange, Jim Thorpe, Nile Kinnick, and Doak Walker? You’re crazy. Chic Harley is EASILY the greatest Buckeye of them all.

    • No one thinks more of Harley than I do. However, what made Chic so great was that he excelled on defense and on special teams as a kicker and punter. The case can certainly be made that he is the No. 1 Ohio State football player of all-time. But strictly as a running back, others who have come after Harley have had more productive careers.

    • It’s not true that Harley “was voted by the Football Writers of America the top college play in the first half of the century.” In fact it’s a myth that Harley was voted over Grange by the AP for that 1950 half-century team, iirc he may have made honorable mention but DEFINITELY not a starter, Thorpe & Grange got the call. The mistake seems to stem from hazy memories and a series of pieces that appeared in the 1940s on the top legendary players and their feats. It’s also doubtful, btw, that Chic actually had 4 ints in that 1919 win over Michigan, we can document 3 (including one on the last play of the game) but he also threw at least 2 himself. Camp did go out of his way to see Chic’s games, though, as did several others.

      • I have the play-by-play from the 1919 OSU-Michigan game and Harley did indeed have four interceptions. As for the assertion he was on the half-century team, I will be more than happy to do more research on the matter. Thanks.

      • Wow I would love to see that play-by-play, I have one also but it shows Harley with 3 ints and one break up of a pass (no change of possession).

        RE the 1950 AP team, check with Bob Hunter, he discovered the truth while researching his recent bio on Chic.

        Seriously I would love to see that play-by-play (email?) or maybe an authoritative source or time / point in the game? This has been driving me crazy, TIA if you get a chance.


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