I was honored this spring when asked to be part of a 16-person panel tasked with the responsibility of choosing the best players in the 50-year era of Athlon Sports.
It was humbling to have my opinion considered with those of peerless press box friends Tony Barnhart, Ivan Maisel, Bruce Feldman, Tom Luicci, Bud Withers, Stewart Mandel and TMG’s own Herb Gould.
This wasn’t about the time or work involved and I accepted this invitation, immediately, upon hearing Athlon was paying me a Founding Father (Benjamin).
The magazine released its top-50 in its annual preseason kickoff edition in May.
TMG was curious to see how it stacked up against the final Athlon rankings. Herb Gould, vacationing in Wisconsin, emailed me his top-50 from a rubber dinghy on Lake Koshkonong. I was commissioned, presumably, to provide west-coast context to a fan-mag printed not far from a Civil War monument commemorating the Battle of Shiloh.
Athlon didn't need TMG's Jersey Guy (Mark Blaudschun) on its panel, apparently, because it already had the east region covered with a Jersey Guy panelist (Luicci, Piscataway) and the eventual naming of two (TWO!?) players from Pitt in the top 10.
Gould, no doubt, was tabbed for his deep ties to the Big Ten. In fact, one of Gould Standard's post-vote concerns was leaving Tony Mandarich out of his final 50.
"Michigan State, all-galaxy OL, SI cover boy," Herb reported. "Great college player. Total washout with the Packers."
I assured Herb that Mandarich was a fraud and only belonged on the all-steroid team.
So much for me, though, stuffing the ballot box. Athlon's top 10 did not include a single player from the Pac 6, 8, 10 or 12. Had Larry Scott's master plan succeeded in creating the Pac 16, however, it could have claimed two Texas Longhorns.
USC did lead all schools with six players selected. Yet, the highest Pac player was probation-producer Reggie Bush (No. 14), who isn't even supposed to exist in the official NCAA accounting of Trojan football history.
This statement from West Coast corporate offices says it all: "Typical anti-time zone, anti-save-the-whales, anti-Jane Fonda bias from a football night in America that receives its talking points from Auntie Em."
Bush was banned from my top 10 for one reason only: that boneheaded lateral he made against Texas in the national title game at the Rose Bowl.
Incredulously missing from Athlon's top 50 is any player from the venerable University of Our Mother (Notre Dame), although Brian Kelly assures everyone this is his best recruiting year ever. You can't pin this top-50 Nada Dame on TMG. I voted Ross Browner while Herb Gould offered up Rocket Ismail.
I tried to be geographically fair and honest and consider all players since 1967, the 50-year cut off (sorry, USC great Ron Yary). In hindsight, though, maybe my final list was a bit too quiet on my western front.
USC defensive back Ronnie Lott, at No. 5, was MY only Pac player in the top 10.
The final Athlon rendering had Lott at No. 18. I also probably undervalued Stanford’s John Elway a bit at No. 21, but that was still 12 spots higher than Elway’s No. 33 overall finish.
For what it's worth, Elway and Lott were named, in 2015, the Pac 12’s offensive and defensive players of THE 20th CENTURY!
I took some shine off John only because he played for mediocre teams (not his fault) and failed to lead Stanford to a bowl game.
Now let’s compare, contrast and quibble with some of these bits:
Hugh Green? Ok, I may have whiffed on the former Pitt great, listing him way down on at No. 35 on my list. But get this: one panelist failed to include Archie Griffin in his top 50. Say what? He only won TWO Heisman trophies and started in four Rose Bowls.
Herb Gould was incredulous: "Phew," he reported with a plop of mustard and two drips of sarcasm. "I had Archie up right up there at No. 2, between Herschel and Barry."
Others players who failed to appear on at least one ballot: Bo Jackson (spit take), Tim Tebow (panelist obviously lost at sea from 2006-2008), Hugh Green (Hugh got to be kidding), Deion Sanders (he ran backward faster than a Volkswagen runs forward), Charles Woodson (Peyton payback from Athlon headquarters in Tennessee?) and Tommie Frazier (like leaving Rocky Road off an ice cream menu).
(Note to readers: this is where we start screaming like Stephen A. Smith about this list in an effort to get hired to save a cable network that overpaid for the NBA). I had Frazier at No. 3, offering him as THE greatest option quarterback in the history of college football. I was in Tempe the night he sliced Florida's defense into 11 alligator handbags in the national title game.
The final Athlon tally has Frazier at No. 12 (too low, but fine) and, for what it’s worth, Frazier even earned one first-place vote! A guy at Athlon told me Frazier was the most polarizing consideration.
I also think the panel has Deion too high at No. 8 (I have him at 33), but won’t lose sleep over it.
Herschel Walker was an easy No.1. He was Bo Jackson before we knew there would be a Bo. Walker summed up in two words: bullet train. What he lacked in shifty moves he made up for by shifting into a gear you couldn't catch. The former Georgia Bulldog earned nine No. 1 votes. Others first-place votes went to Tebow (3), Barry Sanders (2), Frazier (1) and Cam Newton (1).
Ok, stop. Cam Newton is the best player of the Athlon era? Give me a break. Newton finished No. 30 on the list and I didn’t have him in the top 50. Even though I’d probably put him at 51. Newton WAS great, no doubt, but only started one season at Auburn.
The thorniest consideration, as always in these matters, is where to keep O.J. Simpson (other than jail). There is no doubt, in my mind, he would have finished higher than No. 20 if not for his horrific acts. I had him at 28, rationalizing his indisputable top-10 talent by considering he played only two seasons at USC after transferring from City College of San Francisco.
Now, if you want to put out an all-time prison team in the Athlon era…think of that lineup: Lawrence Phillips, Ryan Leaf, Rae Carruth, Maurice Clarett. Hey, we’re a little light on the other side of the ball: anyone know of a despicable nickel-package defensive back?
We’ve got one spot filled: Darryl Henley (UCLA, Rams, Federal Correctional Facility, Yazoo, Miss.) as our cover corner.
These top-50 things are fun to discuss. My list did not include such notables as Marcus Mariota (shame on me), Brian Bosworth (shame on him) or Cam Newton (shame on NCAA Infractions). All would have made my top-60 list.
Why did I leave Peyton Manning off this list? He's another top 60 to 70, for sure, yet lost three times to Florida while the team he led, Tennessee, won the national title the year AFTER he left.
Another guy who might have made my top 50 had UCLA’s defense made ONE frigging tackle against Miami in 1998?
And UCLA had gone on to win the national title that year?
Cade McNown—a four-year starter in Westwood and one of the most underrated quarterbacks of his era. People forget how good he was.
So, there you have it: Did they\we\me get it right or wrong?
We at TMG very much value your comments and opinions, but just so you know: we're not paying for your lists.