The All-Time Small College Team
By Steve Barnes
I recently overheard a couple of fathers having a conversation in a restaurant. One dad was bragging because his son just started his first job as a high school football coach. The father was proud that his son not only earned a job in the profession he wants for his life's work, but he also had earned his degree by playing college football. The son had attended an NCAA Division II school, made the dean's list a few times and his team reached the playoffs three times.
The other father was either jealous or just tired of hearing the boasting and he said something I couldn't believe.
"If my son got recruited by a small school, I would be insulted," he said. "My kid will either play for an SEC team or he won't play."
I wondered if the man really meant that he would rather write Alabama or Vanderbilt a check each semester rather than see his son play at Grand Valley State or Valdosta. He elaborated.
"No player worth anything ever comes from schools like that," he said. "None are any good."
I pulled out a pen and grabbed a napkin and started to scribble. As I left, I stopped by the table and congratulated the proud father on his son's accomplishment. I dropped the napkin in front of the other dad. On it I had written down a few names.
"These guys went to small schools and they turned out pretty well," I said. "At least the Pro Football Hall of Fame thinks so."
The man's comments stuck with me all day. I have covered a lot of college football in my career, from Nebraska and Kansas State to West Alabama and McNeese State. There is talent at all levels. I began putting together a team in my head of the players who did not play "big-time" college football.
I set a few perameters. First, I discounted Ivy League schools because their best players came in the '30s and '40s. I also did not include the iconic players, so don't look for Jim Thorpe from Carlisle or Jay Berwanger from Chicago. Finally, I didn't include players at schools that moved up to FBS during their careers, so Randy Moss from Marshall and DeMarcus Ware of Troy didn't make it.
This is the team I agonized to assemble:
QB: Doug Williams, Grambling. I went with him as he set the foundation for Cam Newton, Robert Griffin Jr. and others to play the position.
I hated to leave out: Steve McNair, Alcorn State; Kurt Warner, Northern Iowa; Neil Lomax, Portland State; Phil Simms, Moorhead State; Ron Jaworski, Youngstown State.
RB: Walter Payton, Jackson State. Is there anyone else?
I hated to leave out: Emerson Boozer, Maryland Eastern Shore; Willie Gallimore, Florida A&M; Ollie Matson, San Francisco; Wilbert Montgomery, Abilene Christian.
FB: Larry Centers, Stephen F. Austin. A Giants great, he might be one of the best fullbacks of the last 30 years.
I hated to leave out: Christian Okoye, Azuza Pacific.
WR 1: Jerry Rice, Mississippi Valley State. Simply the best ever.
WR 2: Bob Hayes, Florida A&M. The first real deep threat in the modern era.
I hated to leave out: John Stallworth, Alabama A&M; Charlie Joiner, Grambling; Don Maynard, Texas Western; John Gilliam, South Carolina State; Donald Driver, Alcorn State; Otis Taylor, Prarie View; Freddie Solomon, Tampa; Terrell Owens, Chattanooga.
TE: Shannon Sharpe, Savannah State. A close call, but Sharpe was a receiver and a blocker.
I hated to leave out: Jackie Smith, Northwestern State.
OL: Larry Little, Bethune-Cookman. Anchored the offensive line of the only undefeated team in NFL history.
OL: Gene Upshaw, Texas A&I. Great lineman for the Raiders, just like...
OL: Art Shell, Maryland- Eastern Shore. Another Raider.
OL: Rayfield Wright, Fort Valley State. He kept Roger Staubach upright.
OL: Jackie Slater, Jackson State. Probably the most underrated offensive lineman in history.
I hated to leave out: Jim Langer, South Dakota State; Nate Newton, Florida A&M.
DL: Deacon Jones, South Carolina State/Mississippi Vocational. The man who invented the sack.
DL: Joe Greene, North Texas State. He is the reason NTSU is called the Mean Green.
DL: Richard Dent, Tennessee State. Super Bowl MVP on the best defense in NFL history.
DL: Michael Strahan, Texas Southern. Not only a sack machine, he was a leader.
I hated to leave out: Buck Buchanan, Grambling; Willie Davis, Grambling; Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Tennessee State; John Randle, Texas A&I; Pierce Holt, Angelo State; Mark Gastineau, East Central Oklahoma; Gary Johnson, Grambling, Merlin Olsen, Utah State; John Matuzak, Tampa; L.C. Greenwood, Arkansas-Pine Bluff; Jethro Pugh, Elizabeth City State; Howie Long, Villanova.
LB: Harry Carson, South Carolina State. The on-the-field coach for Bill Parcells' defense.
LB: Jack Lambert, Kent State. The heart of the Steel Curtain.
LB: Willie Lanier, Morgan State. The first linebacker with a combination of speed and strength.
I hated to leave out: Sam Mills, Montclair State; Gary Reasons, Northwestern State; Jesse Tuggle, Valdosta State; Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson, Langston; Bryan Cox, Western Illinois.
DB: Darrell Green, Texas A&I. During his career, he was the fastest man in football.
DB: Lem Barney, Grambling. One of the best defensive backs in the 60s and 70s.
DB: Willie Brown, Grambling. An ageless wonder.
DB: Mel Blount, Southern. Anchored the Pittsburgh secondary during its dynastic run.
I hated to leave out: Ken Riley, Florida A&M; Aeneas Williams, Southern; Everson Walls, Grambling; Rodney Harrison, Western Illinois; Donnie Shell, South Carolina State.
K: Adam Vineterri, South Dakota. Most clutch postseason kicker ever.
I hated to leave out: Jan Stenerud, Montana State; Lawrence Tynes, Troy.
P: Sean Landetta, Towson. Punted for like 150 seasons.
I hated to leave out: Greg Coleman, Florida A&M.
KR/PR: Billy "White Shoes" Johnson, Widener. The man was Deion before Deion.
I hated to leave out: Dave Meggett, Towson.
If I ever see the dads again, I will tell them to pick any college team in history to take on this one and I'll spot them two touchdowns.
Thank you for visiting our site Leslie.
Wow, what a great article. Made me think of all of these great players, half of them that I didn't even know played at smaller schools. There is absolutely nothing wrong with playing at a smaller school. Some kids can play college football and realize that they don't have the potential or talent to make it to the next level, but still play for the love of the game. Awesome that he got his education doing something he loved and isn't in debt. Also makes me think about the BCS schools that are not so well known, but big stars have emerged from, the one I can think off the top of my head is Doug Flutie from BC.
wow, it just occurred to me i missed linebacker greg lloyd from fort valley state.
thank you amberlic. i hope you enjoy the site.
good point dseigs. i was doing the list from memory. i also forgot hugh douglas, central state (ohio). he was a monster.
I love that you approached the fathers. Good character Steve and a very interesting challenge you set before yourself.
Joe Jenkins - Football com
Great list, Steve. I do think we're seeing the trend lean more heavily on the brand-name schools recently, though. Especially with nearly 25% of the 2013 NFL Draft coming from the SEC. This, of course, doesn't mean they'll pan out to become all-time greats. No love for Buffalo Bills WR Andre Reed out of Kutztown University?
That's a good list. Although Larry Allen of Sonoma State deserves a shout out, especially the week he's being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Good stuff, Steve. This is a great list but doesn't even scratch the surface of the talent at small schools - especially Division II. I remember Titus Dixon at Troy and Mike Turk running the bone...Johnny Shepherd at Livingston (West Alabama) along with Charles "Too Mean" Martin who is most famous for his infamous hit on Jim McMahon. I saw so many guys that never got a chance at pro ball but whose talent was stuff of legends. Good job, as usual, my friend.