He was a catalyst for both the 1995 and 1996 Northwestern Wildcats teams. He was a Heisman finalist in 1995, and a Doak Walker Award finalist in 1996, as well as a First Team All-American.
While at Northwestern he ran for a then school record 3793 yards. He was also the school leader in points with 222, and his yard total of 1785 in '95, and 1452 in '96 rank No. 2 and No. 3 all time in the school's record books. He was named the team MVP in 1995 when he helped lead the 'Cats to their first Rose Bowl since the late 40's.
So why isn't he in the College Football Hall of Fame?
I recently saw where the class of 2010 was announced. The only name on the list that was familiar to me was that of Marshall wide-out Troy Brown, who I remember best from his days as a Patriot. Many of the other players inducted were from an era that was before my time, so I cannot place an argument for guys that I never saw play.
When I checked down the list of players who were inducted as just running backs, some of the players selected kind of made me scratch my head.
The late, great Ricky Bell was a standout at USC back in the mid 70's. He led the nation in rushing back in '75 with more than 1800 yards and was a Heisman runner up. He had another solid season the following year where he finished runner up for the Heisman and was the Pac 10 Player of the Year. He was a first round pick by Tampa in '77, but played only for a few years in the pros until his untimely death at the age of just 29.
I am sure that Bell was talented and deserves to be considered one of college football's elite. He had two very good seasons and was a Heisman finalist twice. (At this point I nod my head and insert a golf clap.) But, his stats are very similar to those of Autry, and I would bet my life that he wasn't as important to either of those Trojans teams as Autry was to the Wildcats.
Another one in the Hall that has similar numbers to Autry is Roosevelt Leaks, a Texas Longhorns legend. During his days in Austin he totaled just under 3000 yards and 26 scores. He was Texas' first African American player to earn All-American honors. Again, numbers very comparable to Autry...
I could go up and down that list of backs that are in over Autry, but why waste your time and mine? It is true that the times have changed over the years, and it is highly unlikely that a back from the 70's and maybe even 80's will come up with some of the numbers that get put up today. I would simply say that numbers are not the only thing you can look at.
Anyone who is a college football fan can, and should, remember those Northwestern teams. They had been such doormats for the better part of a half century. The 1995 group was the team that turned the "Mild" back into "Wild" and a big part was the play of Darnell Autry.
He could have stayed home back when he was being recruited by Gary Barnett. Bruce Snyder, the then Arizona State coach, had been courting Autry to stay home in Tempe and go to school there. Snyder wanted him to play a position other than running back, while Barnett offered him a chance to earn a spot at running back, and also be one of the guys to help change the culture of football in Evanston.
When he, and a number of other guys, chose to come to the Chicago suburb they were all in it to do one thing, win. In my opinion it shows a lot of heart, which is something stats cannot measure.
On a final note, I was actually at Autry's career best day of 240 yards and three touchdowns. That cold fall day in Iowa City he was a man running like he was possessed, trying to get the Cats back on track after losing their first Big Ten game in over two years the week before. I will never forget the last score.
With the stadium emptying out, mainly due to the single digit temps, Autry took a handoff between the tackles and headed for my end zone. Many 'Cats fans were sitting in the very same end zone and as he crossed the plain, he ran towards the stands, held out the football and let out a “yeah!”
I know many who read this will disagree with me greatly, especially if you are not a Northwestern alum/fan. But, even if you remove me as a fan, I am still gonna back him heading to the Hall at some point. He was just that important in the college football landscape for those two years. His statistics during that two year run will rank right up there with a lot of great backs to play in the last 15-20 years, but like I said before, it is not always about stats.
My final thought is to simply look at what he meant to his team, what he meant to the program, and what he meant to college football as a whole in 1995. I am not saying he should go in over guys like Ron Dayne, Ricky Williams, or Eddie George, but he does deserve to get in.
As always, that's just my opinion, I could be wrong, so tell me what you think.