'82 Heisman race no Walker in the park
In winning trophy, Georgia back fortunate SMU tandem Dickerson, James split carries
Georgia's Herschel Walker didn't mention Cindy Arps in his 1982 Heisman Trophy acceptance speech. Maybe he should have.
In February 1979, star running back Craig James of Stratford High in Houston signed with Southern Methodist despite being coveted by college football programs with more impressive pedigrees. The Mustangs had not won a conference championship since 1948, hadn't even reached a bowl since 1968.
But what really stunned the recruiting world in Texas then was when Parade's national high school running back of the year, Eric Dickerson of Sealy, Texas, also signed with SMU.
"I never thought they'd go to the same school," said ESPN analyst Lou Holtz, who recruited Dickerson and James while at Arkansas. "Then I didn't think it would last."
It did. Dickerson and James formed the "Pony Express," so named by SMU sports information director Bob Condron. They alternated at tailback for most of their four years, combining for 8,705 rushing yards and 78 total touchdowns, leading the Mustangs back to national prominence. In the 44 games during which they both played, they each broke the 100-yard mark in the same game 13 times.
In 1982, Dickerson finished third in the Heisman balloting behind Walker and Stanford quarterback John Elway. Dickerson averaged 7.0 yards per carry, running for 1,617 yards and 17 touchdowns on 232 attempts. Walker carried 103 more times for 135 more yards and one less touchdown, averaging 5.2 yards a carry.
Dickerson said when he sees Walker, he says, "You know you've got my Heisman."
"I think I had a better year," said Dickerson, who lives in Los Angeles. "But I'm glad Craig and I went to school together. If I had it to do over, I wouldn't do it any other way. Looking back, if I had a lot more carries, I could have gotten hurt or worn down."
James ran for 938 yards on 197 carries in 1982. He was more of a receiving threat than Dickerson and was sixth in the nation in punting, after having become the Mustangs' punter midway through their junior season. He said Dickerson "absolutely" would have won the Heisman without sharing carries and he himself could have had a shot at the bronze if Dickerson wasn't in the same backfield.
That neither won the coveted statuette might have been the only drawback to the Pony Express platoon.
James said he signed with SMU with full knowledge that Dickerson would join him.
"I was happy he was going there," said James, now an ESPN analyst.
"Both knew they were good," said Lance McIlhenny, SMU's starting quarterback for most of the Pony Express era. "But together, they knew we were good."
James waited until the second day of the signing period to make it official, after being assured by Mustangs coach Ron Meyer that rumors of SMU buying Dickerson the new Pontiac Trans Am that he was driving -- leading the program to probation -- were false. Dickerson produced paperwork that his grandmother bought him the car.
But SMU did go on probation in June 1981, resulting in a television and bowl ban the following season. The 10 violations listed in the NCAA report didn't include purchase of a car.
In 1979, Meyer often played James and Dickerson together in a primarily passing offense. Dickerson raced for 123 yards and three touchdowns in the opener against Rice but was erratic as the season progressed and also hampered by multiple injuries. James proved more reliable, outgaining Dickerson 761 yards to 477 and was named the SWC's Offensive Newcomer of the Year.
Meyer shifted to an option formation midway through the 1980 season, when strong-armed senior quarterback Mike Ford struggled coming back from a knee injury. Meyer promoted the run-oriented McIlhenny and began alternating Dickerson and James at tailback. In the debut of the Pony Express tag team, James romped for 146 yards on 19 carries and Dickerson 85 on 21 as the unranked Mustangs stunned No. 2 Texas 20-6 in Austin.
In 1981, Dickerson began to establish himself as one of the nation's top backs. He led the conference in rushing and was sixth nationally with 1,428 yards. But James was no slouch, accumulating 1,147 yards as the backfield mates became the fifth tandem ever to both average more than 100 yards per game.
Condron said he went into 1982 -- with SMU back on TV and bowl eligible -- having no orders to institute a Heisman Trophy campaign, to which he is forever grateful.
"You couldn't concentrate on one," said Condron, a publicist for the United States Olympic Committee since 1984. "Yes, there were some conversations with the coaches. They didn't want to say, 'Let's take Craig out of the equation.' I'm personally proud of the coaches."
The coaches that year, by the way, were new. Meyer left for the New England Patriots after the 1981 season and was replaced by Bobby Collins, hired from Southern Mississippi.
Walker was the 1982 preseason Heisman favorite as a junior after finishing third in Heisman voting as a freshman and second as a sophomore. (Dickerson, meanwhile, maintains that Walker deserved the 1980 trophy. "There wasn't a better player," he said.) But Walker got off to a slow start in part because he broke a thumb during two-a-day practices.
In early October, Collins, writing weekly in The Dallas Morning News, expressed displeasure with national opinion that the 1982 Heisman already was headed to Athens, Ga.
"Dickerson is having as good a year as any college player in the United States, and that's the criteria of the Heisman Trophy," Collins wrote. "Regardless of what Herschel Walker has done the past two years, Dickerson is having a better season."
A few weeks later, as SMU stood at 6-0 and ranked fourth in the country, James met the Dallas Times Herald's SMU beat writer Mark Hyman at a restaurant to express frustration that Dickerson was getting more carries than him -- 29 more through six games.
"It started out as one of those 50-50 deals," James said. "It's like I'm a game back."
Hyman, now an adjunct professor at George Washington University and a member of the Maryland bar, said James was very businesslike during their meeting.
"I distinctly remember it was not a rant," Hyman said.
James said he and Dickerson were frustrated at various times during their SMU days. There were stories early that one of them would transfer.
Condron said James was not only one of his favorite SMU athletes in his 14 years at the school but one of his favorite athletes, period, even after working 15 Olympic Games since.
"Craig got it," Condron said. "He was a good person. He was a good athlete. He understood the work ethic. Eric was a little more halting. It would be tough to win his total confidence, but he was no problem with me. It wasn't a 'me' deal with him."
As seniors, Dickerson carried 232 times and James 197. Dickerson gained 1,617 yards, James 938. As the 1982 regular season ended, No. 4 SMU was headed to the Cotton Bowl at 10-0-1. Georgia was 11-0 and ranked first, with a Sugar Bowl date against No. 2 Penn State. Walker ran for 1,752 yards, second to the 1,877 logged by Oklahoma State's Ernest Anderson and down 139 yards from Walker's 1981 total.
"To beat Herschel, Eric would have had to have 2,000 yards and SMU would have had to won the national championship," Condron said. He added that Dickerson was hampered by not being on television as a junior and SMU played no marquee non-conference games that attracted national attention during the four years of the Pony Express.
Penn State beat Georgia to deny Walker his second national title in three seasons. The Nittany Lions claimed the championship and SMU finished second in the final polls.
Just this year, James and Dickerson created the Pony Express Award, to be presented to the best tandem playing for one college football team.
"Doesn't have to be two running backs," Dickerson said. "It can be two linebackers, two DBs, quarterback and a receiver. It'll be an award around long after we're gone."
And James' greatest SMU commitment? He and Marilyn Arps were married during their spring break in 1983. They have four children, and their oldest daughter, Jessica, graduated from SMU in 2006.