Thomas finally arrives in College HOF

Derrick Thomas, who struck fear in opposing offenses, still holds the Alabama record for sacks. Allen Steele/Getty Images

It only seemed as if it took Derrick Thomas forever to gain admission into the College Football Hall of Fame. The shadow of the late Alabama linebacker, a member of the school's All-Centennial Team (1892-1992) and the All-SEC team for the 1980s, loomed larger over the Hall with each passing year that he was excluded.

Thomas, the 1988 Butkus Award winner, died in 2000 at the age of 33, only weeks after retiring from an 11-year career with the Kansas City Chiefs. Thomas suffered a pulmonary embolism two weeks after an automobile accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down.

At a school known for linebackers -- in the past nine years, the Hall has selected Thomas, Woodrow Lowe (2009) and Cornelius Bennett (2005) -- Thomas stands out. A quarter-century after he played his last collegiate game, Thomas still holds the university record for sacks and for tackles for loss in a game, season and career. (The NCAA's record-keeping in those defensive categories didn't begin until 2000).

The Pro Football Hall of Fame elected Thomas as a member in 2009, yet college football had not honored him. The reason is simple: Alabama didn't nominate him for membership until 2011.

The Hall elected former Crimson Tide defensive tackle Marty Lyons (1975-78) that year. Because of the Hall's spread-the-wealth policy of not selecting a player from the same school in consecutive seasons, Thomas didn't receive consideration again until 2013. If you want to quibble that Thomas should have been elected a year ago, quibble away.

The Hall also selected Georgia Tech quarterback Joe Hamilton in his fourth year of eligibility, and there is little excuse for that. The 1999 O'Brien Award winner, who finished second to Ron Dayne for the Heisman Trophy, is exactly the type of player the Hall must recognize. Hamilton set nine school records for passing and total offense, and led the Yellow Jackets to a 10-2 record and a top-10 finish in 1999. That he proved too small (5-foot-10) to play quarterback in the NFL shouldn't diminish what he accomplished with Georgia Tech.

Several members of the 2014 class not only excelled on the field but made history doing so. North Carolina cornerback Dre Bly remains the only three-time All-American in six decades of ACC football. He might have received the honor a fourth time had he not turned professional after his junior season (1998).

TCU tailback LaDainian Tomlinson led the FBS in rushing twice. As a junior in 1999, he set the FBS single-game record by rushing for 406 yards against UTEP. In 2000, Tomlinson rushed for 2,158 yards, which ranks fifth all-time. Tomlinson, who played for Dennis Franchione, catapulted the Horned Frogs back into relevance after a generation of mediocrity.

Stanford tailback Darrin Nelson, as the first player in FBS history to rush for 1,000 yards and catch 50 passes in a season, heralded the coming of the West Coast offense developed by Bill Walsh, who coached Nelson in his first two seasons on the Farm.

Nelson hit the 1,000-50 mark three times in four seasons and ended his career as the NCAA leader in all-purpose yardage (6,885 yards). As an indication of the game's offensive changes, Nelson fell out of the top 10 three years ago.

Louisiana Tech offensive lineman Willie Roaf is the school's third Hall of Famer but the first who played after the Bulldogs joined Division I-A (now FBS) in 1989. Roaf, an 11-time Pro Bowl selection, went into the Pro Football Hall of Fame two years ago.

Mike Bellotti retired as Oregon's coach after the 2008 season with a winning percentage of .630, not far above the Hall minimum .600. Had eight games in his 19 seasons at Oregon and Chico State gone the other way, Bellotti would not qualify.

He won only one Pac-10 championship, in 2001, when the Ducks finished No. 2 to Miami. Given the Hurricanes' 37-14 rout of Nebraska in the BCS National Championship, it's fair to say Oregon and Bellotti should have had the chance to play for the crystal football. Instead, the Ducks routed Colorado 38-16 in the Fiesta Bowl.

But Bellotti built a perennial winner on the foundation set by his predecessor, Rich Brooks, whom Bellotti served as offensive coordinator. Bellotti retired just as Pete Carroll's juggernaut at USC began to falter, handing the program to his offensive coordinator, Chip Kelly, who elevated the Ducks into a national power.

The 2014 class will be the first to enter the Hall of Fame at its new home in Atlanta, which is expected to open in August. The class will be honored at the National Football Foundation's annual black-tie dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York on the first Tuesday in December.