by Jack Kerwin | email@example.com
The recognition is good.
That’s the thing, if ever the words Fighting Illini football were spoken or written in historical, reverential fashion and not eventually linked with the name Red Grange it would be, well, wrong. Silly even, if not comical. You really can’t get into the former without referencing the latter.
Indeed, when it comes to gridiron affairs at the University of Illinois, all relate back to Grange. He is the be-all and end-all, the standard to which every individual who dons the Orange and Blue is measured against. It’s a futile exercise, of course, because no one could possibly stack up to such a legend of mythological proportions. Even – gasp – Dick Butkus, linebacker extraordinaire, falls a bit short there.
So, there certainly isn’t anything wrong with the list put out by ESPN this morning that shared its take on the greatest running back in the history of the Big Ten Conference, an honor that it bestowed on – who else – Grange. Just as there isn’t anything wrong with the same outlet previously anointing him the greatest college football player of all time or the reminders the school has in place – statue outside Memorial Stadium, Grange Grove and the well-intentioned, but ill-named “Gray Ghost” uniforms for Homecoming – as a shout out to its proverbial “one and only,” the Galloping Ghost.
It’s just they all serve to show what once was … and what hasn’t really ever been since. Oh, sure, some great players have passed through Champaign between then and now. Butkus created a defensive legacy that has lived on through the likes of Kevin Hardy, Simeon Rice and Jeremy Lehman, and guys such as Rashard Mendenhall, Mikel Leshoure, Howard Griffith, Jim Grabowski, Buddy Young and J.C. Caroline were great backs.
None were Grange, though … in fact or fiction – and that’s, well, a bit bothersome.
Not for nothing, but even while wearing my 2014-issued United in Grange t-shirt with alumni pride pumping through the blood stream during each keystroke here, there is a part of me that would like to, ya know, kinda move on with the Illini creating a new chapter to their tradition.
Or at least with attaching an addendum.
It’s been almost a full century that has passed since ol’ Red ran roughshod in his 77 jersey for Illinois, earning All-American accolades in 1923, ’24 and ’25 and unbridled praise from literary giants of the day, Damon Runyon and Grantland Rice.
That’s 90-plus years ago, people.
How about some fresh blood to make the hearts of the younger portion of the Illini faithful skip a few beats faster?
Frankly, as much of an old, never-forget-the-past, fuddy-duddy that exists within me, my preference these days would be to see new legends born, the type of talents who take the Illinois program to a level it hasn’t even sniffed in 65 years.
No offense to Grange or his worshippers, which, truth be told, includes yours truly anyway, but kinda would prefer celebrating a national title during my lifetime rather than genuflect at the memories of ones before it awarded in 1914, ’19, ’23, ’27 and ’51. Yeah, pretty old here. But not that old.
Besides, Red has to be a little tired carrying the recognition torch all by himself for so many decades.
Can you find him some help, Lovie Smith?
KEEPING IT REAL
You can’t argue about a legend.
But you can argue about his stats.
It’s an interesting task trying to nail down some of the things that Red Grange really accomplished while an undergrad at the University of Illinois.
Yeah, he was a three-time All-American performer for the Fighting Illini football team, spearheading its third national title in a decade in 1923. He was a national icon, credited with being one of the country’s first sports superstars.
Thing is,, his most famous effort, which came against Michigan on October 18, 1924 as Orange and Blue christened their new home, Memorial Stadium, is not exactly nailed down with pinpoint numbers. Depending on where you go, or what you read, he scored either five or six touchdowns in the game, rushed for 409 or 402 yards or ran (rushing and returning kicks) for either of those aforementioned totals.
One thing is for certain, though – since all accounts concur: He decimated Michigan with a four-TD first quarter that included him returning the opening kickoff for a TD before racing to three more long TDs on runs from scrimmage.
His coach, Bob Zuppke, who authored four of the Illini’s five national titles, said at the time: “I’ll never have another Grange – but neither will anyone else.”
So, far, the Illini certainly haven’t.
Still, Grange, with 2,071 yards (in 20 games), ranks no better than 15th on the Illini’s all-time rushing leaderboard, and his 5.3 yards per carry during his career would trail the likes of Pierre Thomas (5.6), Mikel Leshoure (6.0) and Rashard Mendenhall (6.5), all guys ahead of him on that list.
For the record, Robert Holcombe (4,105 yards) is the school’s career rushing leader with Leshoure holding single-game (330) and season (1,697) marks. Howard Griffith has the single-game and career marks in rushing TDs, 8 and 33, respectively, with Leshoure’s 20 being the Illini best for a season.