STILLWATER — The Oklahoma State tailback wasn’t considered a Heisman Trophy contender before the season began.
After a couple of good performances, the folks around him in Stillwater realized he might be something special, but becoming a Heisman contender? That still seemed like a way-out-there possibility.
But a big performance against OU put the nation on notice.
A month later, Barry Sanders was awarded the Heisman.
“He certainly came from the back of the pack,” former OSU PR man Steve Buzzard said.
Might history repeat itself?
As OSU prepares for Bedlam, it once again has a tailback that makes Cowboy hearts go pitter patter. Ollie Gordon has become a phenomenon, rushing for 282 yards at West Virginia, then following up that performance with 271 yards against Cincinnati last weekend.
He now leads the nation in total rushing yards (1,087) and rushing yards per game (135.9), and he’s ascended to the top despite carrying the ball only 19 times for 109 yards total in OSU’s three non-conference games.
Just for fun, I wanted to see what his totals would be if those three games had been closer to what we’re seeing now. In conference play, he is averaging 195.6 yards per game. Had he gone for that in each of the Cowboys’ non-conference games, he’d have 1,566 total rushing yards.
The player with the second-most rushing yards this season has 1,060.
Despite his paltry non-conference numbers, Gordon is mounting a Heisman charge. FanDuel says he has the ninth-best odds behind OU quarterback Dillon Gabriel but ahead of reigning Heisman Trophy winner and Southern Cal quarterback Caleb Williams.
Gordon is also jumping into Heisman straw polls. On3’s latest has Gordon tied for seventh with Missouri wide receiver Luther Burden.
Just ahead of Gordon: Williams.
Just behind Gordon: Florida State quarterback Jordan Travis.
If the season ended today, Gordon wouldn’t be a Heisman finalist much less the winner, but here’s the thing: the season isn’t close to over. Gordon has a chance to make a big impression Saturday — the Sooners are ranked 10th in the nation and the game will be broadcast on ABC — and then with games remaining against UCF, Houston and BYU, teams with a combined three wins in the Big 12, Gordon could roll up some big numbers.
It could be similar to the closing argument that propelled Sanders to the 1988 Heisman.
Buzzard, who oversaw OSU’s sports information office during Sanders’ career, remembers him entering the season being thought of as a kick returner. Sanders had been an All-American kick returner the year before, but around OSU, people had seen his potential at tailback, even as he backed up Thurman Thomas.
In OSU’s second game of the season, the Cowboys blew out Texas A&M. Sanders didn’t play much of the second half but still managed 152 yards and two touchdowns against the Jackie Sherill-led Aggies.
Buzzard talked to Pat Jones, then the Cowboys’ coach, after the Texas A&M game, and they agreed it was time to start hyping Sanders.
“This guy’s for real,” they said. “We’ve got to start getting the word out on what he’s doing and try to make the nation aware of it.”
College football then, you see, wasn’t like it is today. Only a select number of games were broadcast on TV, and in the Big Eight, many of the games that were broadcast were only done regionally.
“So there weren’t a lot of people east of the Mississippi or west of the Rocky Mountains that quite frankly got to watch Oklahoma State play,” Buzzard said. “That was a challenge.”
But Sanders’ numbers did lots of heavy lifting.
Nebraska: 189 yards and four touchdowns.
Kansas State: 320 and three.
OU: 215 and two.
Kansas: 312 and five.
Iowa State: 293 and four.
After Bedlam, Barry Switzer gave Sanders the highest praise.
“He’s the best running back in the country,” the Sooner coach said.
Such praise made Buzzard feel better about Sanders’ Heisman chances, and by the time the final weeks of the season rolled around, folks around Stillwater felt like Sanders would dominate the Heisman vote in the Midwest and likely carry the East. But the West?
“That really worried me and worried us,” Buzzard said.
Troy Aikman at UCLA and Rodney Peete at Southern Cal were getting a ton of attention, and rightfully so. Both threw for more than 2,500 yards, which in the pre-Air Raid, no-huddle days was a lot.
When their teams squared off in November, the attention was high. ABC broadcast the game, and play-by-play man Keith Jackson opened the broadcast saying the game was not just for national prominence but for the Heisman Trophy.
That made Buzzard fume, and he actually called Jackson to remind him about Sanders.
“Don’t forget about this guy,” Buzzard said.
Over the last month of the season, Buzzard said OSU focused most of its attention on West Coast Heisman voters. They received weekly fliers with stats and stories about Sanders. OSU also did a short highlight video that it sent to TV stations on the West Coast.
The campaign all told cost around $50,000.
“And that was a lot of money back then,” Buzzard said. “I still say that we probably could have done absolutely nothing and he was still going to win the Heisman Trophy because that’s how phenomenal his season was. But we couldn’t leave that just to chance.”
Six days a week, Buzzard and his crew did everything they could to promote Sanders.
On the seventh day, Sanders did what he could do.
“Man, did he deliver,” Buzzard said.
Earlier this week, a Cowboy fan who knows Buzzard’s background in promoting OSU athletes asked if he thought Gordon could win the Heisman. If this splendid Cowboy tailback could do what the orange-and-black-clad patron saint of college football tailbacks did once upon a time.
“Of course he can,” Buzzard remembers saying. “If he keeps playing the way he is now, he will absolutely play himself into contention.
“But it is an uphill battle.”
No doubt about that, but Gordon has a few things going for him beyond the Cowboys’ remaining schedule. He has big totals as well as about half a dozen highlight-worthy runs every game. Those sorts of things will get voters’ attention.
(As for his low numbers to start the season, they weren’t his fault. His coaches were the ones who held him in check, not his opponents.)
Gordon is also drawing high praise from opposing coaches.
“They’ve played against people that are putting all of their bodies there to stop him,” Sooner coach Brent Venables said this week of what defenses are doing against Gordon.
“Everybody’s had the whole team down there and haven’t had a whole lot of luck.”
So, will Ollie Gordon come from the back of the pack to win the Heisman like Barry Sanders did 35 years ago?
Then again, only a couple weeks ago, it seemed unlikely he’d even be in the conversation.