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.