The players and coaches that transcend the game
The playing heroes of college football streak like comets across the firmament. During the span of three or four years, they progress from unknown to known to nationally known. Just as we fall for them, they leave. Here one day, gone to the NFL the next.
The coaching heroes of college football have more permanence. They win, and they are beloved for a generation. But the calendar has a way of dousing their flames as well. Once upon a time, Pop Warner and Jock Sutherland stood as giants of their profession. Today they are names in a history book.
Four players and four coaches have defied the ravages of time. Six of them remain relevant long after they left the game. The other two, who have won more games than any other coaches in the history of major college football, remain active long after their peers left the game. Meet the faces of college football.
Knute Rockne remains a giant of the game nearly eight decades after his premature death. Had he been only a master strategist, the Rockne name would not carry the weight that it does. Had he been only a master showman and salesman, he wouldn't be remembered any more than the guy who invented the homecoming parade. What makes Rockne one of the faces of college football is that he played both roles with such aplomb. As a player at Notre Dame, he starred in the 1913 upset victory at Army, the game that put the school on the national football map. As the coach at his alma mater, he built the foundation of what remains the only national team in a regional sport. The Fighting Irish are the New York Yankees of the sport. Fans either love Notre Dame, or they love to hate Notre Dame. But they have yet to ignore it. And Knute Rockne started it all.
Paul "Bear" Bryant is a face of college football because at Alabama he won six national championships during a 19-year span. No other coach sustained the level of success that Bryant enjoyed at his alma mater. He broke a record once thought to be unassailable: the 314 career victories by Amos Alonzo Stagg. Bryant broke it in his next-to-last season, and did so by beating archrival Auburn, which he did 19 times in his 25 seasons with the Crimson Tide. During that length of time, Bryant's players began with crew cuts and ended with long hair, began by submitting to authority and ended by questioning it, began in whites-only locker rooms and ended in integration. Through all the turmoil, Bryant won. It spoke not to his mastery of football but to his mastery as a leader. As Bryant's former assistant Bum Phillips said of the man, "Coach Bryant didn't coach football. He coached people."
Joe Paterno is a face of college football because of what he has meant to the game in his 42 seasons as a head coach at Penn State. When the school promoted him to head coach in 1966, no one beyond the Northeast took the Nittany Lions seriously. The disdain could be seen when the undefeated seasons in 1968 and 1969 did not win national championships. Like Rockne a half-century before, Paterno created a national power out of whole cloth. On the field, he won national championships in 1982 and 1986 with physical defense (Linebacker U) and an always-powerful running game. Off the field, Paterno won by sticking not only to the NCAA rules but also to the spirit behind them. JoePa became the conscience of the sport without sounding holier than thou. At age 81, he has maintained his zest for competition, even as a portion of his fans and his administration wonder aloud whether it's time for him to go. So far, it's 372 victories and counting.
Florida State seemed like an unlikely setting for a dynasty. When Bobby Bowden arrived in 1976, the team he inherited had won four games in three years. The bumper stickers, Bowden joked, said, "Beat Anybody." Bowden proceeded to beat everybody. The heights to which he took the Seminoles -- 14 consecutive top-five finishes and two national championships -- are dizzying when you consider the depths in which Bowden began. Bowden assembled the best coaching staff in the country. He recruited a talent-rich state. And he put to work his considerable personal talents: a nimble offensive mind, personal magnetism and simple fearlessness. He would call any play. He would play anywhere. In 1981, the Seminoles played consecutive road games at Nebraska, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and LSU and won three of them. In 32 seasons in Tallahassee, Bowden has produced 31 consensus All-Americans, 18 10-win seasons and millions of laughs. In 42 seasons as a head coach, he has won 373 games -- more than anyone in the history of major college football.
In the Roaring Twenties, America just wanted to have a good time. In a time when the country began to fall in love with college football, the sport had no greater star than Red Grange. He burst onto the scene with four touchdowns in the first 12 minutes of the 1924 game against Michigan. In three seasons at Illinois he rushed for 2,071 yards, passed for another 575 and scored 31 touchdowns. By the time that Grange completed his senior season in 1925, this is how big a star he had become: Ten days after his final game for the Illini, a crowd of 73,651 fans went to the Polo Grounds to see Grange and the Bears beat the New York Giants, 19-7. The typical NFL crowd of the day barely climbed above 10,000. "I will never have another Grange," his coach, Bob Zuppke, once told Grantland Rice, "but neither will anybody else."
Archie Griffin's stature as a college football player has grown in the 33 years since his senior season at Ohio State, if only because he is still the only man ever to win two Heisman Trophies. The wonder, however, is that he didn't win three. As a sophomore in 1973, Griffin rushed for 1,577 yards and averaged 6.3 yards per carry -- a full yard more than the Heisman winner, John Cappelletti of Penn State. Griffin finished fifth. His career didn't start that way. As a freshman, he fumbled his first carry and got yanked out of the huddle for the rest of the game. A week later, he rushed for a school-record 239 yards. Griffin finished his career with 5,177 yards, then an NCAA record. In his four seasons, the Buckeyes went 40-5-1 (.880), and not one of those losses came to Michigan. Not only that, Griffin played in four Rose Bowls, not to mention those two Heismans.
Herschel Walker made college football safe for freshmen. Walker made college football take note in his first game in a Bulldogs uniform, when he ran over Tennessee safety Bill Bates. Let's face it: In some cities in the Peach State, you can still get most folks to agree that Herschel Walker made college football, period. No one combined size and speed in as forceful a manner as the 6-foot-2, 222-pound Hush-ul. As a freshman in 1980, he carried Georgia to the national championship and, in a head-to-head matchup, outgained Heisman winner George Rogers of South Carolina 216 yards to 168. In three seasons, Walker rushed for 5,259 yards and 49 touchdowns. The Dawgs went 33-3, won one national title and played for another. After his junior season, Walker signed with the upstart USFL. He may have made college football safe for freshmen, but he also made pro football safe for seniors.
When senior Tommie Frazier led Nebraska in 1995 to a second consecutive national championship, he stood as the best college quarterback in a generation. No one ever ran the option better. Frazier mixed speed, smarts and a competitiveness that radiated from him throughout the locker room. If Frazier's greatest feat had been to lead the Huskers to coach Tom Osborne's first national title, he would be remembered. Frazier missed half that season with blood clots in his leg. He returned as a senior and directed one of the most prolific offenses in history. In 1995, Nebraska averaged 399.8 rushing yards, 556.3 total yards, and 52.4 points per game. Frazier -- the quarterback, mind you -- averaged seven yards per carry. The last of his 33 victories in 36 starts, a 62-24 rout of Florida in the Fiesta Bowl, will be remembered for his 75-yard touchdown run that encapsulated his career. Seven Gators attempted to tackle him. Frazier ran through them all.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
MORE COLLEGE FOOTBALL HEADLINES
- Saban: Talks with Peyton, Gase not together
- NCAA prez Emmert: Food rule was 'absurd'
- NCAA proposes hardship transfers sit 1 year
- Texas AD: Union push 'smells' of attorneys
MOST SENT STORIES ON ESPN.COM
Face of the Program
Every football school has a Face of the Program, that iconic image you think of when talking football on campus. ESPN.com and SportsNation have weighed in on all 120 schools, plus we take a look at the faces of the decades and the faces of college football. Face of the Program Index
Team by team
• Air Force through Iowa State
• Podcast: Maisel, Dinich, Low on ACC, SEC
Team by team
• Kansas through Pittsburgh
• Podcast: Maisel, Griffin on Big 12
Team by team
• Purdue through Wyoming
• Podcast: Miller, Rittenberg on Pac-10, ND
Video• Watch: Maisel, Dinich on ACC
• Watch: Maisel, Griffin on Big 12
• Watch: Maisel, Low on SEC
SportsNation• Vote: Face of college football
• Vote: Faces of the decades
• Compare selections: Experts vs. Users
• Talk about it: Conversation Index