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.”