As part of the celebration of the 150th year of college football, Sporting News today published its Top 10 college football players of all time and, in a poll of 54 college football writers and former players, Georgia running back Herschel Walker was the runaway winner.
I cover the Big 12 Conference for Sporting News, and college football editor Zac Al-Khateeb asked me if I wanted to contribute to the list. That’s not one I’m about to turn down.
My top 10 was as follows:
- Barry Sanders, OSU
- Vince Young, Texas
- Lee Roy Selmon, OU
- Tommie Frazier, Nebraska
- Herschel Walker, Georgia
- Tim Tebow, Florida
- Bo Jackson, Auburn
- Hugh Green, Pitt
- Red Grange, Illinois
- Orlando Pace, Ohio State
- Dick Butkus, Illinois
First, I wasn’t about to be the one to tell Dick Butkus I left him off my list, so I submitted a top 11 and left that task to Zac.
In all, I feel pretty good about my ballot. The full list is linked above, and you’ll see I had six of the consensus top 10, and all 10 (or 11) of my list landed in the consensus top 21. I didn’t really have any outliers.
I didn’t realize 54 people would be submitting ballots, but I figured because of my proximity to Oklahoma football, I might have ranked Lee Roy Selmon higher than everyone else. And at No. 3, I probably did.
But it turns out Selmon finished ranked 21st, right behind Cam Newton, so I felt a little better about my location bias maybe not showing quite as much.
I mean, I feel pretty confident that the best player in the history of the most accomplished college football program over the second half of the 20th century deserved a spot in the top 10. Lee Roy Selmon was as fine a gentleman as you’ll ever meet, but he also was an unstoppable force in an era when football was still a brutally violent game. He’s in both the college and pro football halls of fame, and he made the latter while playing for maybe the worst franchise in the history of the NFL.
There’s probably a little regional bias built into my vote as the best player of all time, too: Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders. But Sanders inarguably had the greatest single season of any player in college football history. He had one year of all-time greatness, rather than three or four like most of the ones on the list. But Sanders finished third in the Sporting News poll, so I felt better about that vote, too.
In all, four Sooners got a spot on someone’s ballot: Selmon, Brian Bosworth, Baker Mayfield and Billy Sims.
I ranked Herschel Walker fifth behind Sanders, Vince Young, Selmon and Tommie Frazier. But I can’t argue much with Walker at No. 1. He was the greatest college player of my formative teenage years.
I may have ranked Frazier too high. He was unstoppable at the end of the Big Eight and in a couple of national championship games, and that’s what I remember most about him, but his stats were actually fairly pedestrian. Frazier was a great player on great teams, but he shouldn’t be penalized for that.
I was also pleased to see Hugh Green, who I ranked at No. 8, well ahead of Lawrence Taylor. Those two are inextricably linked because they both came out of college in 1980. Taylor became the clearly better NFL player with the Giants while Green labored in Tampa Bay, but I never doubted that Green was the better player in college.
Tim Tebow got sixth on my ballot and finished second in the poll. Tebow haters out there are just going to have to come to grips with the fact that he was the first sophomore to win the Heisman, became the first player to run for 20 touchdowns and pass for 20 touchdowns, and won two national championships. You don’t get much more accomplished than that. And he had the kind of leadership skills that Patton and MacArthur might have appreciated.
Also, Red Grange belongs on any list because he might be the single greatest player of the first half of the 20th century and, more importantly, became the game’s first legitimate folk hero, the one guy that, thanks to the prose of talented sportswriters like Grantland Rice and Red Barber, people got on trains and bought tickets and sat in the sun just to watch.
I also strongly considered Jim Thorpe — Oklahoma bias again — but decided there were so many others in the past 100 years who had surpassed Thorpe’s accomplishments. (Thorpe and Bo Jackson still get my vote as the greatest athletes of all time.)
And I was extremely pleased to see that the guy I rank as the No. 1 offensive lineman of all time, Orlando Pace, was also atop the ballots for so many other voters. Makes you think maybe that what you think you’re seeing — elite o-line play, in this case — is actually what others are seeing too.