Every year at draft time, experts and wannabes pour over the rosters of the dozens of college programs looking for that football hero someone else might have missed.
Sometimes a player slips because of stats, off-the-field issues, or injuries. Sometimes a player slips because of WHERE he played. Small school, weak conference, etc.
This column takes the best of the best of a college football conference to pull together an all-time team to remind everyone where some of the NFL's best players came from.
This edition details the Western Athletic Conference, an often forgotten and under-appreciated conference. The teams as they stand now are Boise State, Fresno State, Hawaii, Idaho, La Tech, Nevada, New Mexico State, San Jose State, and Utah State.
Anger issues aside, Tom gets the nod here because he turned a poor head coaching stint at Idaho into a NFL head coaching stint with the Raiders. He also has been wise (and lucky) enough to go against Al Davis and win by benching future all-time bust JaMarcus Russell (although Russell will get a chance to win back the starting job this offseason.)
As the only WAC head coach as an NFL head coach at the time, his fiery, blue-collar demeanor makes him a good fit for the team.
Honorable Mention: June Jones, as Hawaii's head coach he was 76-41 with four bowl wins in six tries. In the NFL, he wasn't as successful—22-36 with one playoff appearance: a loss. He is now the head coach at SMU, where he is engineering a miraculous turnaround—taking a team from 1-11 to 8-5 and a 45-10 bowl win over Nevada.
Terry Bradshaw as QB was a no brainer. Four Super Bowl rings, NFL and College Hall of Fame, first overall pick in '70, NFL MVP...Terry Bradshaw did it all.
As one of the NFL's all-time best, no one would have predicted a school like La. Tech could have produced such an influential player. Terry never had the stats of some of his colleagues, but in the gun-slinging era of the 70s, he was right there with the best of the AFC—Fouts, Stabler, etc—only better.
Steve DeBerg (San Jose State) a 21 year player in the NFL, even acting as a player/coach at the end of his career with the Falcons.
Trent Dilfer (Fresno State) Won a Super Bowl ring by leading the Ravens over the Giants.
One of the most brutal, punishing runners ever to take the field, Marion Motley finished his collegiate career at Nevada before dominating the NFL for nine years. He entered the Hall of Fame in '68. And though he was listed as a fullback, pairing him with the inevitable hall of fame fullback to follow would have made one of the greatest backfields imaginable.
A powerful, yet versatile player, Michael Pittman makes an excellent backup to Motley. A bruising style, coupled with surprising speed and good hands, Michael Pittman played 11 years in the NFL and one in the UFL. I think it sums his career up best when Jon Gruden came to the Bucs, he told the media he wanted Pittman to be his feature back. Pittman had 124 yards in the Super Bowl win over the Raiders, and proved to be every bit as good as Gruden hoped.
Considered just about the best blocking fullback ever to play the game, Lorenzo Neal's claim to the Hall can be best summed up by this fact—he had blocked for 11 straight 1,000 yard rushers in his career, a career that spanned 16 years before a preseason injury appears to have ended his career prior to the start of last season.
Berrian was a starter with the Bears when drafted in the third round, and became a hot item on the market when he decided to sign with the rival Vikings. Playing as their only real weapon until the recent ascension of Sidney Rice among the elite, Berrian remains a reliable receiver and deep threat.
A sure-fire starter on this team, Ellard's 13,777 receiving yards were third place at the time of his retirement. Ellard caught 814 passes at a 16.9 average and scored 65 touchdowns. He is mentioned among other wideouts as a possible Hall of Famer, although the strength of other players eligible makes it a longshot for the time being.
Honorable Mentions/Backups: Kevin Curtis (seven seasons, currently active, Utah State), Stephon Paige (Fresno State, nine seasons), Pat Tilley (11 seasons, La Tech)
Notable is Stephon Paige's 309 yards receiving was a record until Flipper Anderson broke it in '89.
Utah State didn't produce many NFL stars, but TE Chris Cooley is one of them. A dangerous receiver for the Redskins, Cooley's last season ended on IR, and the emergence of Fred Davis has cast a shadow on his future with the Redskins. However, when he was healthy, he was considered one of the best receiving/red zone tight ends in the league at the time, earning two Pro Bowls. Able to fill in at H-Back/fullback, Cooley is a versatile player.
Another probable Hall of Famer, Willie Roaf was about as dominant a tackle the NFL had seen in the last two decades. The NFL's eigth overall pick in 93 started all 189 games he played in, although injuries reduced the number of starts he had towards the end of his career.
Mark Tuinei, the gentle giant of the Dallas Cowboys, was one anchor on the Cowboys dominant line of the 90s. Mark played 15 years, all with Dallas, and won three rings with the Cowboys before retiring at the end of the '97 season. Sadly, Mark was found dead in 1999 from a heroin overdose. The four men responsible for supplying him were convicted and sent to jail. The sad end of a storied life can't tarnish how good Mark Tuinei was on the field.
Logan Mankins career is still young, but he's already become one of the best young guards in the NFL. Logan has started all 80 games in his five years, and has been to two Pro Bowls so far. He also scored his first touchdown in '06, falling on a Lawrence Maroney fumble in the end zone in the championship game that year.
Jerry Kramer is one of Idaho's lone superstars. Playing guard for the Packers, Kramer was a key player in the famous Green Bay sweep. Although undersized by guard standards of today, Kramer was integral in the Packers glory years. He also served as placekicker in '62, '63, and part of '68.
He is listed as the No. 1 player not in the Hall of Fame who deserves to be. He played all 11 years with the Packers and was All-Pro five times and the only guard elected to the NFL's 50th anniversary team.
Jesse Sapolu was a versatile lineman for the 49ers from '83 to '97, and could play all the positions on the line. An 11th round pick, Jesse owns four Super Bowl rings that he won with the 49ers, and was a two time Pro Bowl starter. He was also drafted in '83 by the USFL's Oakland Invaders, but opted to play with the 49ers. Sometimes history smiles on the lucky ones...