Forty years ago, the NCAA freed freshmen from an obscure form of Monday night football. The decision unleashed the likes of Joe Washington and Archie Griffin for four-year reigns of terror on the sport.
Little Joe started at halfback that season at Oklahoma. At Ohio State, Archie Griffin was off and running toward two Heisman Trophy seasons. A year later, a Pitt freshman named Tony Dorsett was Heisman bound.
The 1972 NCAA decision to make freshmen eligible was — like most everything else — largely about money. Freshmen in every other sport except basketball had been playing varsity for four years. Meanwhile, colleges were straining under the costs of running separate freshman football teams and giving scholarships to players who couldn't play on Saturdays.
Freshman football players — from Herschel Walker to Adrian Peterson, Jamelle Holieway to Mike Gundy — have been earning their keep ever since.
As the 2012 season dawns, the local teams are counting on a continued payoff.
Oklahoma State has put its Big 12 title defense in the hands of an 18-year-old quarterback. Among Wes Lunt's targets could be as many as five receivers who played on Friday nights last fall.
Oklahoma is only slightly less dependent on true freshmen. The Sooners' current “it” player, receiver Trey Metoyer, is two falls removed from high school. Metoyer spent the last season at a Virginia military prep school. Freshman Sterling Shepard, who was a standout at Heritage Hall last year, could soon be catching passes and returning punts, and it looks like the Sooners eventually may need some freshmen on the offensive and defensive lines.
Forty years ago, college football programs everywhere were adjusting to not just the eligibility of freshmen, who hadn't been allowed to participate in about two decades, but the death of freshmen teams considered integral in the development of young talent. The next year brought more change, with scholarship restrictions that vastly changed the way teams recruited.
Still, it's hard to imagine college football without the remarkable rookie success stories that have played out since.
It was in the mid-1980s when Oklahoma and Oklahoma State each successfully thrust true freshmen into the most important position on the football field.
Holieway replaced an injured Troy Aikman in 1985 and made OU the only national champion ever quarterbacked by a true freshman.
Early in the next season, Gundy took the reins of Oklahoma State's offense and went on to become the Big Eight Conference's all-time leading passer.
Today, in his role as the Cowboys' head coach, Gundy has placed that same faith in Lunt.
Before the rule change 40 years ago, Lunt, Metoyer, Holieway and Gundy would have started their collegiate careers the way Jack Mildren did in 1968 — on freshman teams, which were put in place so young players could gradually adapt to college sports and tougher academics.
“You had a freshman junior-college type program which was really a good training ground,” said Chuck Neinas, who was Big Eight commissioner from 1971 to 1980 and, more recently, interim Big 12 commissioner for the past year.
“That was a very positive way to allow players to get their feet underneath them academically, as well as playing.”
Before Mildren became one of the greatest Sooner quarterbacks, he was a Monday night football star for the Boomers, OU's freshman squad. His college recruitment was the subject of a Sports Illustrated article before he even arrived in Norman, so Mildren entered with arguably more hype than any other OU newcomer to that point.
His legend grew as he lit up opposing freshman defenses before fans in numbers that sometimes reached 20,000.
“It was sad that he couldn't play on a varsity team,” said WWLS radio host Al Eschbach, who was a reporter for the Oklahoma Journal at the time.
“Mildren is the beginning of interest in recruiting here.”
Eschbach, though, never did buy the argument that freshmen needed a year to adjust to university academics, calling the argument a “fallacy.”
“The truth was, the freshmen were practicing every day just like the varsity,” Eschbach said. “It was really a stupid rule to have. They said they were doing it for the sake of academics; it made no sense at all.”
Washington and receiver Tinker Owens, key freshmen contributors in 1972, said in interviews they were fine adjusting to college football and academics, even as varsity players.
“The same issues you have adjusting as a freshman are the same ones as a sophomore, a junior or even a senior,” Washington said. “Each year brings different things.
“I started making some of those preseason All-American teams, and I was traveling all over the place. I would say that's a little more difficult than being a freshman.”
Neinas, though, remains concerned, 40 years later, about the transition from high school to college for many freshmen. He points to new rules, which will be implemented in 2016, that will create an “academic redshirt,” where an incoming freshman who doesn't meet stricter academic standards will be ineligible to play sports as a first-year student-athlete.
They'll still receive financial aid and won't lose eligibility, but, according to an ESPN.com report in May, an NCAA survey indicated that, “of all freshman football players to enroll at Division I schools last fall, approximately 40 percent would have failed to meet the 2016 requirements.”
“It's a problem,” Neinas said of freshmen student-athletes adapting to college sports. “These new rules that are going into effect are going to make it even more difficult.”
Still, the decision to reverse approximately two decades of freshmen ineligibility, implemented in the early 1950s after freshmen could play while wars were ongoing, came following a tragedy. After the Marshall plane crash that killed 37 players and coaches, the NCAA granted the school special permission to play freshmen in 1971. Another key factor was the increasing financial strain freshman teams put on athletic departments.
But despite the NCAA's vote to allow freshmen eligibility, individual conferences could still keep rookies from competing. The conferences initially intended to do just that, Neinas said.
“We made an agreement that, even though the NCAA was allowing it, we would mutually agree not to provide freshman eligibility,” Neinas said. “That collapsed after two months, when all the coaches came back and said how that was being used against them. We more or less relented and went along with it.”
In 1973, just a year later, the NCAA imposed its first scholarship restrictions. Those restrictions limited football programs to 30 per year — fifteen less than the Big Eight Conference had allowed — and by 1974, to 105 total scholarships.
Those limits, which are capped at 85 today, were among the biggest reasons why powerful efforts through the 1980s to bring back freshmen ineligibility failed.
“It's hard to imagine that it's been 40 years now,” Eschbach said. “Could you imagine now if they'd have said, ‘Adrian Peterson, you have to play freshman ball.'
“It was a win-win for everybody.”