Each year’s College Football Hall of Fame ballot features one name that, above all else, likely prompts most fans and observers of the game to ask incredulously, “Wait, he’s not in?”
Former SMU running back Eric Dickerson falls in that category with recent notables Tommie Frazier and Brian Bosworth. This year’s vote — of which, full disclosure, I participated — should gain Dickerson entry into the more meaningful club alongside Frazier and Bosworth as a Hall of Fame inductee.
Eric Dickerson is already enshrined in Canton, part of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s 1999 class. Now, collegiate and NFL success are not necessarily always one in the same, and Dickerson finishing seventh all-time in the NFL for career rushing yards should have no bearing on balloting for his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.
However, Eric Dickerson ran with the same combination of power and breakaway speed at SMU as he did for the Los Angeles Rams and Indianapolis Colts. He was the Mustangs’ leading ball-carrier three of his four seasons there, and made an immediate impact upon his arrival as a freshman, setting the pace for rushing touchdowns in his first campaign.
Of course, Eric Dickerson spent his first two seasons sharing carries in a multiple-man backfield that included college football blogosphere favorite, Craig James. It wasn’t until Dickerson got to take over as the focal point of the offense in 1981 that the greatness defining his career, college and pro, shined through.
After flirting with a transfer to Oklahoma, which included Eric Dickerson famously calling Barry Switzer’s office but getting no answer, the running back scored 19 touchdowns in his junior season. Rushing for 19 scores is still a remarkable achievement in 2015, 34 years later. Last year, that mark would have landed Dickerson in the nation’s top 10 — in all of 11 games.
The following season, Eric Dickerson eclipsed the 1,700-yard mark and led SMU to the Cotton Bowl. Incredibly, he carried just 232 times, as his signature acceleration made for plenty of plays like this:
Dickerson had the misfortune of his monster senior season coinciding with Herschel Walker putting together what remains one of the most fondly remembered campaigns ever. Eric Dickerson finished third in the Heisman voting behind winner Walker and Stanford’s John Elway.
However, Dickerson actually outpaced Walker with seven yards per carry to Walker’s 5.2, and 17 rushing touchdowns to Walker’s 16.
His outstanding senior season put a bow on a career that remains the benchmark for all SMU ball-carriers.
Statistics only go so far in a Hall of Fame, however, as some pollsters lean on less tangible metrics. A common reference point is the impact a player had on his sport.
Eric Dickerson’s impact on college football is evident any time a promising, young running back with considerable height breaks onto the scene. Contemporary backs like Tennessee’s Jalen Hurd and Michigan’s Ty Isaac draw immediate comparisons to Dickerson because of their comparable size.
Much like Herschel Walker, Dickerson is a player who remains on the tip of fans and analysts’ tongues more than three decades after their college careers ended. That’s Hall of Fame caliber impact.
The only explicable case against Dickerson’s induction is his omission of receiving “impermissible benefits” in his time at SMU, which played a central role in the NCAA handing the Mustangs the death penalty.
“Just like anyone else, I got it,” Dickerson said of receiving money from SMU. “If I asked for $50, if I needed some spending money, they would give it to me. I never got thousands of dollars or condominiums and all that kind of stuff.”
SMU football did not recover for two decades, and has yet to approach anything resembling the success of Eric Dickerson’s tenure.
Moral high ground plays a part in Hall of Fame voting — just ask the baseball balloters who exclude Barry Bonds or Sammy Sosa. But unlike Bonds or Sosa, who are accused of using illicit drugs that enhanced their performance, Eric Dickerson’s play was not the center of any scandal.
Dickerson was part of a systemic failure at SMU that, the further removed we are from, many realize was part of an even wider failure. The NCAA is incrementally introducing steps to better compensate athletes, including unlimited meals and full cost-of-attendance.
In his own way, Eric Dickerson was responsible for helping shed some light on the matter. He said, via the same Dufresne piece:
“The things that have happened since I left are unfortunate,” Dickerson said. “But let’s face the facts. Schools can sit there and say, ‘We don’t do it.’ All of them can say, ‘We don’t do it.’ But they’re not telling the truth.
“Nebraska can say it. Oklahoma can say it. SMU can say it. All of them can say it. But I’m sure someone has. If it’s only $5, if it’s only $2, they’re giving a guy something. Even if it’s a pair of shorts, that’s illegal to the NCAA. I guess you could say my school got caught, and they really came down hard on us.”
Based on his outstanding performance alone, Dickerson is a no-doubt-about-it choice for the College Football Hall of Fame. Add whatever role he may have played in evolving the student-athlete system, and his impact on the sport is profound.