Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (parachutes sold separately at Syracuse, where the offense is free-falling from 40.2 points per game in 2018 to 28.3 last year to 8.0 thus far in 2020):
THIRD QUARTER: HOW GOOD A PLAYER WAS YOUR COACH?
On Monday, Deion Sanders (21) strutted into college football as only he could and would: a marching band, a police escort, and Deion himself in an Escalade rolling into Jackson State’s Lee E. Williams Athletic and Assembly Center. The introduction of the new coach of the Jackson State Tigers was commensurate with Sanders’s Prime Time/Neon Deion persona—he scored all the style points.
Combine Sanders with the Jackson State band, known as the Sonic Boom of the South, and there is some sizzle at the school. Now we’ll see whether Sanders can make some of the same recruiting inroads that have started to occur at HBCUs in basketball. There is a mother lode of Black talent in the state of Mississippi and around the South he can go after.
Will he be a good coach? Nobody knows. Sanders has been the offensive coordinator at his son’s high school for the past couple of seasons. Before that he was the cofounder of Prime Prep, a Dallas–Fort Worth school that turned into a swamp of problems and controversies that may not have been attributable to Sanders himself.
But here’s what we do know: Deion Sanders is the only Pro Football Hall of Famer currently serving as a Division I head coach. He is the sudden and undisputed answer to the question of who is the best former player now coaching college football.
After him, it gets murky. In fact, you could argue that the FCS level has a few more great players coaching than the FBS level. The Dash breakdown of the top guys not named Deion Sanders.
Jim Harbaugh (22), Michigan. College: He was the Big Ten Most Valuable player in 1986 and finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting—behind Vinny Testaverde and Paul Palmer, and ahead of Brian Bosworth. Pro: Harbaugh was a first-round draft pick who spent 14 seasons in the NFL. After several seasons as the starter for the Chicago Bears, Harbaugh wound up in Indianapolis and was the NFL Comeback Player of the Year and a Pro Bowl honoree in 1995. Harbaugh came within a just-missed Hail Mary of leading the Colts to the Super Bowl that season.
Herm Edwards (23), Arizona State. College: Edwards didn’t have a notable college career, bouncing from California to a junior college to San Diego State and going undrafted. Pro: Edwards played nine seasons without missing a game with the Philadelphia Eagles, and his 33 interceptions rank fourth in franchise history. Edwards also scored one of the most famous touchdowns in NFL history, running in a botched New York Giants handoff on the final play and changing the way teams finished games with the implementation of the victory formation.
Pat Fitzgerald (24), Northwestern. College: College Hall of Famer, two-time Big Ten defensive player of the year, two-time All-American. Fitzgerald was the soul of the 1995 Northwestern team that won a share of the Big Ten title and went to the Rose Bowl. Pro: Fitzgerald was undrafted and didn’t have an NFL career.
Josh Heupel (25), UCF. College: Heupel quarterbacked Oklahoma to the 2000 national title and was runner-up in the Heisman voting that season to Florida State’s Chris Weinke. (Of note: third place was Drew Brees and fourth was LaDainian Tomlinson.) At the time, Heupel’s 3,850 passing yards and 33 touchdowns were Oklahoma school records. Pro: Heupel was a sixth-round draft choice of the Miami Dolphins but never appeared in an NFL game.
Scott Frost (26), Nebraska. College: After two seasons at Stanford, Frost transferred back home and quarterbacked the Cornhuskers to the 1997 national championship. In that season he both ran and passed for 1,000 yards. Pro: Drafted in the third round, Frost converted to safety and played a few seasons in the NFL on defense and special teams.
Jeff Brohm (27), Purdue. College: Brohm was both a star quarterback at Louisville and a professional baseball player before deciding to concentrate on football as a college senior. He wound up throwing for 5,451 yards at Louisville. Pro: Brohm went undrafted but wound up spending seven seasons in the NFL as a backup. His final season was for the Orlando Rage in the XFL, where he wound up uttering the only memorable quote from the league’s brief existence. When asked why he came back to play a week after being knocked out, Brohm said, “Let me answer that question by asking you two questions. One, is this or is this not the XFL? Yes, it is. Two, do I or do I not currently have a pulse? Yes, I do. Let’s play football.”
Tim Lester (28), Western Michigan. College: When Lester’s playing career at WMU ended in 1999, his 11,299 passing yards made him fourth in NCAA FBS history. Pro: Lester didn’t play in the NFL.
P.J. Fleck (29), Minnesota. College: Fleck is fourth in Northern Illinois history in receptions (179), including 77 in a single season and 14 in a single game. He’s also the school record holder in career punt returns and second in career punt-return yardage. Pro: Fleck went undrafted and spent two seasons with the San Francisco 49ers. He appeared in one game, getting a tackle on the opening kickoff and returning a punt 10 yards.
At the FCS (30) level, these are your top non-Deion former players:
Ed McCaffrey, Northern Colorado. College: McCaffrey was a first-team All-American receiver at Stanford. Pro: He had three 1,000-yard receiving seasons for the Denver Broncos, including one in which he caught 101 passes—at the time the franchise record.
Chris Villarrial, St. Francis (Pa.). College: He was a Division II All-American at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Pro: A fifth-round draft pick by Chicago, Villarial played 11 seasons for the Bears and Bills and was twice named All-Pro.
Mike Minter, Campbell. College: Minter was the starting strong safety on the 1995 national championship Nebraska team, and the following season was an All-Big 12 selection. Pro: Drafted in the second round, Minter played 10 seasons for the Carolina Panthers and started 141 games out of 148 played. He finished his NFL career with more than 800 tackles.
Tyrone Wheatley, Morgan State. College: Wheatley finished eighth in the 1993 Heisman Trophy voting, and his 4,178 rushing yards remains fifth in Michigan school history. He’s also third in school history in rushing touchdowns (47). Pro: A first-round draft pick, Wheatley played 10 seasons for the Giants and Raiders, amassing nearly 5,000 career rushing yards. He had a 1,000-yard season in 2000 for Oakland.
Autry Denson, Charleston Southern. College: Who is Notre Dame’s all-time leading rusher? This guy. Denson compiled 4,318 yards on the ground in the late 1990s, recording 1,000-yard seasons in his sophomore, junior and senior seasons. Pro: A seventh-round draft pick, Denson spent time with four NFL franchises across five seasons, compiling 545 yards from scrimmage.
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