KENNESAW, Ga. — True freshman Herschel Walker led the Bulldogs with 1,616 yards and 15 touchdowns in his inaugural season in Athens, leading the Bulldogs to an SEC title and a 17-10 win over Notre Dame in the 1981 Sugar Bowl to claim the 1980 national title.
If head coach Vince Dooley had it his way, Walker wouldn’t have been playing at all.
In an effort to keep education as the central mission of college athletics, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany is floating the idea of making freshmen ineligible for play in some or all sports. The “year of readiness,” as it’s being termed, would drastically change the landscape of college football and basketball.
Dooley says, “Bring it on,” as long as it makes sense.
“In an ideal world, I would like to see freshmen ineligible,” Dooley, who doubled as Georgia’s athletics director from 1979-2004, told Bleacher Report. “Particularly in basketball. It’d have to make economic sense in football, which is the biggest question. You’d have to add a large number of scholarships. In basketball, you might have to add a couple of scholarships, but not as many. So it wouldn’t be as big of a financial strain as it would in football.”
Dooley knows both sides of this story.
As Georgia’s football coach from 1964-1988, he worked in an era of freshman ineligibility until the rule was changed in 1972. During his time with the Bulldogs, players like Walker were the anomalies, not the norm.
“We always thought it would be a handful or less, primarily at the skill positions” he said. “We never really thought a freshman could come in and immediately play at the line of scrimmage, though, some are even doing that now. At the skill positions, they can go out, run routes and catch, but they still need to know how to block and do the things that you want them to do that takes time. I’d say there was always a handful that could help in some way, with one or two starters.”
Walker was a part of that small group of immediate-impact players.
The Wrightsville, Georgia, native stepped into a crowded backfield in Athens that included Donnie McMickens and Carnie Norris, but the freshman had a target on his back from the Bulldog defense.
“We had a pretty good team, and they wanted to ‘pay their respects’ to Herschel, because they have been reading all about him,” Dooley said. “We had a guy named Eddie ‘Meat Cleaver’ Weaver, who was a defensive lineman. When Herschel ran for the first time, everybody was out there watching. ‘Meat Cleaver’ did pay his respects to Herschel and spun him around.”
It wasn’t the run that got Dooley’s attention—it was Walker’s reaction.
“As soon as he hit the ground, he jumped up, put the ball down and ran quickly back to the huddle,” Dooley said. “From that point early on, he gained their respect from the way he conducted himself—you know, the proper humility and the mental aspect of it. Physically, there wasn’t any question. I knew he was going to be good; it was just a question of how soon.” It came really soon. Dooley went into the season opener against Tennessee with a plan in mind to give McMickens, Norris and Walker two series each and then evaluate the tailback rotation at halftime. “If he was going to earn the position, he was going to have to earn it,” Dooley said. Earn it he did. Walker’s first career touchdown was the foundation of his legacy, as he ran over Bill Bates and into the end zone as his Bulldogs dug out of a 15-0 hole to beat the Vols 16-15. “When it got to Herschel, there wasn’t any question in anybody’s mind who the best player was,” Dooley said. “So I started him after halftime. He earned the job on the job, and he did it in front of his teammates, his coaches and the fans, really.”
He’d go on to set the freshman rushing record with those 1,616 yards, finish third in the Heisman Trophy voting and win the trophy two years later.
Not bad for a guy who was the exception, not the rule.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on Sirius 93, XM 208.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted, and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports‘ composite rankings. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.