Bell laid a foundation at "Tailback U"
Bruiser left his footprint on USC's Heisman legacy ... and defenders who pursued him
USC has seen a number of all-world tailbacks, but perhaps no other provided such a full sensory experience as Ricky Bell.
"He was so violent as a runner," said John Robinson, who coached Bell during his senior season in 1976.
"He was a collision runner, kind of like Herschel Walker or Earl Campbell," Robinson said of his bruising 6-foot-2, 220-pound tailback.
"He could hit you and keep going right through you. Ricky intimidated. People didn't want to tackle him."
And then there was the sound. Not simply of pads and helmets colliding with Bell, but of Bell himself as he toted the ball.
"He would grunt," said Bell's position coach John Jackson. "Kind of a grunting sound when he ran really hard, and he ran really hard all the time."
(It's worth noting Bell had played linebacker at Los Angeles' Fremont High and during his freshman season at USC.)
After spending his sophomore year at fullback opening holes for Davis, Bell won the tailback job in 1975 and rushed for what was then a school- and conference-record 1,875 yards. He capped his college career the following year with 1,433 yards, despite injuries that limited him to about 100 fewer carries.
Even by Southern California's tremendous standards, Bell was a workhorse. As a junior, he was handed the ball 40 times against Notre Dame as the Trojans beat the Irish in South Bend. The following year, Bell logged school records with a staggering 51 carries for a video game-like 347 yards against Washington State in Seattle.
So heavy was his load that day against the Cougars, Robinson, perhaps only half-joking, suggested afterward, "People might want to put me in jail for cruelty."
Either way, when the following Tuesday's practice kicked off, Bell was on the field. That Bell might earn a day off and start practice later in the week never occurred to the coach. "The tailback always practiced. There was a responsibility," Robinson said.
But for all his grand accomplishments, Bell lacked the timing and good fortune of other dominant backs in USC's "Tailback U" days.
Bell finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting that year, behind winner Archie Griffin of Ohio State and runner-up Chuck Muncie from Cal.
A season later, USC garnered much respect by following a season-opening loss to Missouri with an 11-game win streak that culminated in an epic Rose Bowl win over Michigan. But the senior would miss parts of games down the stretch, including the Rose Bowl, due to injury.
So instead of punctuating a brilliant college career on the most prestigious stage, Bell spent his final day in cardinal and gold on the sideline, for the most part. Indeed, his USC swan song marked the arrival of White, then a freshman, who put 114 yards on a tough Wolverines defense.
Bell finished the 1976 season second to Pitt's Tony Dorsett in the Heisman race. No Trojans player has twice come so close without winning the bronze statuette.
He was selected with the first overall pick in the 1977 NFL draft by Tampa Bay and would go on to play six seasons for the Buccaneers and Chargers. But Bell's all-too-early death at age 29 from heart failure caused by the muscle disease dermatomyositis robbed fans of his presence.
There are no sideline interviews, no pregame autograph sessions and scant few highlights on YouTube.
Bell did leave a Heisman legacy at USC, according to his running backs coach Jackson, who believes the example set by Bell laid a foundation for White to win his Heisman in 1979 and Allen to capture his trophy in 1981.
"He never thought about [himself]. He always thought about the team first," Jackson said of Bell. "Ricky always practiced very, very hard. Always ran very hard. That, I think, is the legacy Ricky left for the guys that followed him."
White expressed similar sentiments.
"Ricky led by example. You'd watch him and think, 'This dude works his behind off,'" White told the Los Angeles Times in 2004. "If he saw something you needed to work on during practice, he would help you out -- and you would listen."