The Top 25 Running Backs in Big Ten History
With the NCAA's all-time rushing leader, college football's only two-time Heisman Trophy winner, and countless other greats included in its ranks, it's safe to say that the Big Ten has produced its fair share of memorable running backs over its 114-year existence.
For many years, the Big Ten was the premiere conference when it came to running the ball and employing a smash-mouth offense. Not surprisingly, the running back was essential to that game plan and they became the faces of many teams and the conference as a whole.
Nine Heisman Trophy-winning Big Ten running backs says it all.
Until the advent of the spread offense and, more generally, the passing game, running backs were the key to virtually every Big Ten team. And, to more traditional offenses—like Wisconsin's—they still are.
But now for many teams in the Big Ten, the quarterback's passing ability, and in the case of spread offenses, running ability, has a bigger impact on the game than the performance of the running back.
Still, the impact the running back has had on the course of the Big Ten can't be ignored, even in these rapidly changing times for college football.
So, of all the great running backs who have dominated headlines in the Midwest over the years, who is the greatest of them all?
Note: To be included, running backs had to have played two full years in the Big Ten.
Decisions were based on career yards, yards per carry, touchdown totals, and individual awards won, though some of the older 'backs may not have the numbers that today would be considered a successful season. However, their impact on the team and the game as a whole warrants inclusion on this list.
Also, no Penn State players were included in this list because the Nittany Lions only joined the conference in 1993 and, consequently, the pool of players to choose from was considerably smaller than the rest of the schools.
No. 25: Laurence Maroney, Minnesota
Although he started only 14 of the 36 games he played in, when his time as a Gopher was up, Minnesota running back Laurence Maroney was the second-leading rusher in school history, running for 3,933 yards and 32 touchdowns.
Maybe because he always split time with another back or maybe because he was simply a great runner, opposing Big Ten defenses never seemed to be able to get a steady grip on Maroney, as evidenced by his six yards per carry over three years.
Although only a part-timer, Maroney took advantage of every second he was on the field. His patience and dedication paid off not only with his impressive numbers, but in his pocketbook as well, as he is now a member of the New England Patriots.
No. 24: Mike Alstott, Purdue
Certainly one of the most bruising runners in Big Ten history, Purdue's Mike Alstott is probably more famous for his NFL successes.
But, to get to the NFL, having a great college career is vital. And Alstott didn't skip that crucial step, that's for sure.
By the time Alstott was a Boilermaker graduate in 1995, he held school records in rushing yards (3,635), rushing yards in a season (1,436), and career rushing touchdowns (39).
And, like his career in the NFL, Alstott was successful at Purdue because he could bowl over opponents. In a conference known for hard hitters, the fact that Alstott was able to gain yards by overpowering defenders is an accomplishment on its own.
No. 23: Robert Holcombe, Illinois
No, Illinois football certainly wasn't at their best when Robert Holcombe sported the orange and blue. But Illini fans saw some of the best running this side of Red Grange despite the team's overall performance on the field.
Holcombe didn't lead Illinois to victory. In fact, while Holcombe was on the team, the Fighting Illini had only one winning season. But one man can't turn around an entire program.
Not to say he didn't try. By the time of his departure from Champaign in 1997, Holcombe was the school's leading rusher (4,105 yards) and had scored 25 touchdowns, the second-most in school history.
The list of failures for the mid-90s Illini teams is a mile long, but thanks to Holcombe, running the ball wasn't one of them.
No. 22: Javon Ringer, Michigan State
Only 5'9", 205 pounds, Javon Ringer is not the ideal specimen to play running back in the Big Ten. But don't let those figures fool you.
He can and did.
In his four years at Michigan State, Ringer gained the second-most yards in school history (4,398) and scored 34 touchdowns.
With his almost unstoppable motor, Ringer was very difficult to take down and his small frame made it even harder for defenders to get a grip on him.
As Ringer's career proves, being small has its advantages.
No. 21: Nile Kinnick, Iowa
Although not exclusively a running back, Iowa star Nile Kinnick won the Heisman Trophy in 1939 as a halfback and led Iowa to a 6-1-1 record and a No. 9 ranking.
No, Kinnick didn't just get the handoffs—he gave them. Playing as both a quarterback and running back, Kinnick was involved with 107 of the 130 points the Hawkeyes scored that year and played 402 of the possible 420 minutes.
In fact, six of the school records he set in 1939 still stand today.
Although by no means did Kinnick have the gaudy numbers running backs put up today, he was arguably the greatest Hawkeye ever and was an integral part of the inauguration into the era of great Big Ten running backs.
It's not just a coincidence that Iowa plays its home games at Kinnick Stadium.
(photo courtesy of the University of Iowa)
No. 20: Bronko Nagurski, Minnesota
Playing as both a defensive tackle and running back at Minnesota, Bronko Nagurski will go down as one of the greatest football players in history.
And, although he is probably better known for his defensive prowess, Nagurski was also one of the great fullbacks of his day, making All-American teams at both positions and leading the Gophers to the Big Ten title in 1927.
Simply put, no list of all-time Big Ten greats is complete without the inclusion of Nagurski and in fact, ESPN ranked him at the No. 17-greatest player in college football history.
(Image courtesy of wikipedia.com)
No. 19: Sedrick Shaw, Iowa
With 4,156 career rushing yards and 33 touchdowns, Sedrick Shaw is the most-accomplished running back in Iowa history. By far.
Ladell Betts, the running back closest to matching Shaw's records is still almost 500 yards and eight touchdowns short.
Under the guidance of coach Hayden Fry, Shaw led Iowa to two bowl victories during his four years in Iowa City.
Many fans may point to the recent performances of Shonn Greene, but even his accomplishments don't hold up to Shaw's.
No. 18: Tyrone Wheatley, Michigan
With the running backs that the University of Michigan has produced over the years, early '90s star Tyrone Wheatley tends to get overlooked in many circles.
But that certainly shouldn't be the case.
With his 4,178 rushing yards, Wheatley ranks fourth on Michigan's all-time list, and his 47 touchdowns rank second.
In fact, many considered him a Heisman favorite going into his senior season at Michigan, but a shoulder injury that sidelined him to begin the year ended those dreams.
Nonetheless, despite falling short of the individual awards he was certainly capable of winning, Wheatley will go down as one of the great Wolverines even though his name may not immediately come to mind when thinking of the ole maize and blue.
No. 17: Vic Janowicz, Ohio State
One of the great all-around players in Big Ten history, Ohio State's Vic Janowicz won the Heisman Trophy as a junior in 1950 despite the Buckeyes going only 6-3 on the year.
He accounted for 875 yards of total offense and 16 touchdowns and played almost every position—rushing, passing, and kicking the Buckeyes to victory.
Janowicz even played safety and punter, leading coach Woody Hayes to call him a true 'triple-threat player.'
Not surprisingly, his number 31 is no longer available for players in Columbus, a true sign of respect in such a tradition-rich program.
No. 16: Damien Anderson, Northwestern
Undoubtedly the greatest running back in Northwestern's history, Damien Anderson had unparalleled success during his time in Evanston.
He finished his career with 4,485 rushing yards and 38 touchdowns, easily the best career numbers in school history. In 2000, he finished with 2,063 yards, second in the nation behind only LaDainian Tomlinson, and finished fifth in the Heisman voting.
Despite the Wildcats' history of failure, Anderson even led them to the Alamo Bowl in 2000. That feat alone is worth recognition among the Big Ten's greats.
No.15: Darrell Thompson, Minnesota
As Minnesota's all-time leading rusher, Darrell Thompson was one of the few bright spots for a Gophers football program that was struggling to find its way in the 1980s.
All three of Minnesota's head coaches during the 1980s had sub-.500 records and the Gophers made only two bowl games during the decade.
But that didn't affect Thompson. He rushed for 4,654 yards on 936 carries and scored a remarkable 40 touchdowns.
Although he couldn't save the Gophers from their inevitable ineptitude, he kept them from sinking even further than they already did.
No. 14: Anthony Davis, Wisconsin
It's tough following the individual performances that Wisconsin running backs Ron Dayne and Michael Bennett put on in their time at Madison, but Anthony Davis definitely rose to the challenge.
Named Wisconsin's starting running back right out of the gates as a freshman, Davis was second only to Dayne in rushing yards by the time he graduated in 2004, rushing for 4,676 yards and 42 touchdowns in his illustrious career.
And where Dayne ran over opponents, Davis did anything but.
Standing at only 5'7", Davis is the posterboy for not judging a book by its cover. His quickness and elusiveness more than made up for his small size and led to him having one of the most successful careers in Big Ten history.
No. 13: Howard Cassady, Ohio State
If Ohio State is known for one thing, it's their unmatched production of great, Heisman Trophy-winning running backs. 1955's winner, Howard Cassady, is just one example of that quality.
Having to follow in fellow Heisman winner Vic Janowicz's footsteps, Cassady handled the pressure and expectations with ease, rushing for 2,466 yards in his career (then a school record) and also set school records for all-purpose yards and points.
Also carrying on the tradition of Janowicz's all-around play, Cassady played defensive back as well for the Buckeyes.
Not a single pass was completed to his man in four years.
No. 12: Anthony Thomas, Michigan
His career began with him helping Michigan to a 12-0 national championship season. Not surprisingly, it ended with him as Michigan's all-time leading rusher (since surpassed by Mike Hart) and one of the greatest running backs in Big Ten history.
Yes, the story of Anthony Thomas as a Wolverine is one of great success.
He finished his career with 4,472 yards and 55 touchdowns, topping Michigan's charts and leading many to call him one of the greatest Wolverines ever, certainly an accomplishment considering the tradition at Ann Arbor.
The "A-Train" didn't just stop there. He went on to the NFL, where he starred for the Chicago Bears and won Rookie of the Year honors.
No. 11: Lorenzo White, Michigan State
A small back, standing at only 5'11", Michigan State's Lorenzo White was the predecessor to the Spartans' other great, undersized running back, Javon Ringer.
But, like Ringer, White made fans forget about that undesirable quality with his remarkable play on the field.
By the time White left East Lansing in 1987, he was Michigan State's all-time leading rusher (4,887 yards) and was the first Big Ten player to rush for over 2,000 yards in a season, going for 2,066 yards in 1985.
No. 10: Bruce Smith, Minnesota
Not only did Minnesota captain and star running back Bruce Smith win the school's only Heisman Trophy in 1941, but he also led the Gophers to back-to-back undefeated seasons and national championships in 1940 and 1941.
Smith will go down as arguably the greatest Gopher ever and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1972, while his number 54 was retired by the university in 1977.
Smith was certainly the catalyst for Minnesota's "golden era," a period of success the Gophers have yet to repeat.
(photo courtesy of blog.pennlive.com)
No. 9: Eddie George, Ohio State
If not hindered by limited playing time his first two seasons, Ohio State running back Eddie George may have challenged for Archie Griffin's status as the greatest Buckeye running back ever.
His career numbers of 3,768 rushing yards and 44 touchdowns came mostly in his junior and senior seasons and those numbers would undoubtedly be higher if he'd been given more carries as a freshman and sophomore.
Despite that, his senior campaign will probably go down as the greatest single season ever by a Buckeye. He rushed for 1,927 yards, 24 touchdowns, and recorded three 200-yard games (including one 300-yarder).
Oh yeah, he also won the Heisman Trophy.
No. 8: Tom Harmon, Michigan
Considered by many to be the greatest player in Michigan's long and storied football history, Tom Harmon could do it all.
Not only was he an excellent running back, rushing for 2,134 yards in his career, but he also played quarterback (throwing for over 1,000 yards and 16 touchdowns) and kicker.
He led the nation in scoring in 1939 and 1940 (still an accomplishment unmatched in NCAA history), was named an All-American in both years and won the Heisman Trophy his senior season.
Harmon is simply one of the greatest all-around players in NCAA history.
(photo courtesy of the University of Michigan)
No. 7: Bob Ferguson, Ohio State
Considered by many to be the greatest fullback in Ohio State history and one of the best ever, Bob Ferguson finished his career as a Buckeye with 2,162 yards and was a unanimous All-American in 1960 and 1961.
He was named the UPI College Football Player of the Year and won the Maxwell Award in 1961 and was a close runner-up to Ernie Davis in the Heisman race.
Ferguson was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1996 and—in what seems like a fitting statistic for a powerful, full-steam-ahead fullback— was never thrown for a loss in his college career.
No. 6: Mike Hart, Michigan
It seems weird to say that in Michigan's rich football tradition, there is a running back that is indisputably the best in school history. But if you could make that case for any Wolverine, it would be for Mike Hart.
In his four years as a starter from 2004 to 2007, Hart rushed for 5,040 yards, 41 touchdowns, and simply won—a quality that Michigan fans appreciate more than any other.
During his career, the Wolverines went to the Rose Bowl twice and in his last collegiate game Michigan upset the defending national champion Florida Gators in the Capital One Bowl.
There's no way Hart was going out a loser.
No. 5: Anthony Thompson, Indiana
Certainly one of the greatest running backs in Big Ten history, Indiana's Anthony Thompson is also probably one of the most underrated.
In his career, Thompson rushed for 5,299 yards, won the Maxwell and Walter Camp Awards in 1989, and won the Chicago Tribune Silver Football twice, only the third player to do so.
In 1989, he finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting, and in the same year he broke the NCAA record for career rushing touchdowns with 65.
Fittingly, Thompson was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2007.
No. 4: Alan Ameche, Wisconsin
Playing as both a linebacker and fullback while lining up for Wisconsin in the mid-1950's, Alan Ameche will go down as one of the more legendary football players of all-time, both as an amateur and professional.
As a Badger, Ameche rushed for 3,212 yards, an NCAA record at the time, and scored 25 touchdowns. In 1954, he won the Heisman Trophy and is one of only six Badgers whose number is retired.
Although his career in the NFL was relatively short, Ameche will forever be remembered as the player who scored the winning touchdown for the Baltimore Colts in the "Greatest Game Ever Played," the 1958 NFL Championship Game.
(photo courtesy of UW-Madison)
No. 3: Red Grange, Illinois
Named the greatest college football player of all-time by ESPN in 2008, Illinois' Red Grange certainly deserves it. And, as was typical in football's early days up until the 1960s and '70s, Grange didn't garner those honors by playing just one position.
In his Illini career, the "Galloping Ghost" not only rushed for 2,071 yards, but also caught 14 passes, threw for 575 yards, and scored 31 touchdowns. In fact, of the 20 collegiate contests he played in, Grange scored a touchdown in all but one of them.
He was named an All-America performer three times and amassed 402 yards in one of the greatest individual performances in football history in Illinois' win over Michigan in 1924.
Of course, his number 77 in no longer used in Champaign and, of course, he has a spot permanently reserved on any all-time collegiate running backs list, Big Ten-specific or otherwise.
(photo courtesy of si.com)
No. 2: Ron Dayne, Wisconsin
As the NCAA's career rushing leader (6,397 yards in regular season games), Wisconsin's Ron Dayne is arguably the greatest Big Ten running back of all-time and is often mentioned as one of the best in NCAA history.
"The Great Dayne" is still the only Big Ten player to repeat as the Rose Bowl MVP—doing so in Wisconsin's 1999 and 2000 victories—was named an All-American three of his four years in Madison, and was the second Badger to win the Heisman Trophy.
With his name and number (33) displayed on the Camp Randall Stadium facade, Dayne will always be remembered by Sconnie fans as the greatest Badger to ever take the field.
No. 1: Archie Griffin, Ohio State
Because he is the NCAA's only two-time Heisman Trophy winner, there's really no question here: Ohio State's Archie Griffin is the greatest Big Ten running back ever.
In his four years at Ohio State (1972-1975), Griffin's Buckeyes won four Big Ten titles, he started four consecutive Rose Bowls (the first player to accomplish that feat), and rushed for 5,589 yards (then an NCAA record).
Griffin rushed for at least 100 yards in a game 34 times, including 31 consecutive games, and is the face of one of the most storied programs in college football history.
Undoubtedly the greatest running back in Big Ten history, you could make an argument for Griffin as the greatest college football running back ever.
(photo courtesy of autographwarehouse.com)