The Lost Legacy of Superstar Syracuse Running Backs

From 1954 to 1967, Syracuse University earned its reputation as a breeding ground for superstar football running backs.

It began with Jim Brown, considered by many to be the greatest player of all time, and then followed with fellow All-Americans Ernie Davis, Floyd Little and Larry Csonka. Sandwiched between Davis and Little was yet another bruising back, Jim Nance, who went on to star in the pre-merger American Football League for the Boston Patriots (became New England in ’71). Brown, Csonka and Little would all go on to become NFL Hall of Famers.

One more great back would come along 11 years later, Joe Morris, who earned a Super Bowl ring with the Giants in ’86. However, since Morris graduated in 1982, there hasn’t been a single running back to begin to live up to this legacy of excellence. Not even The Express, a 2008 movie telling the compelling Davis story as he led the school in 1959 to its first and only national championship, would end the Syracuse recruiting drought. So, what happened?

No one seems to know, although comments made to me when I interviewed Csonka back in the 70s indicated that the school had some fence-mending to do with the big fullback. Imagine the look on the face of a high school senior if he saw that big Super Bowl ring on the finger of a former Syracuse and Miami Dolphins legend.

Instead, Syracuse gridiron fans have had to become used to hearing that they can’t compete with the likes of such perennial recruiting factories as Alabama, Ohio State and even Penn State (despite the taint of the scandal). Really? You even have a movie about one of your backs to show recruits! A three-time All-American in Davis who became the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy and the overall No. 1 pick in the 1962 NFL Draft. Not at Alabama or Ohio State or Notre Dame or USC. At Syracuse!

Imagine, Davis would have paired with Jim Brown to form a dream Cleveland Browns backfield until tragically being diagnosed with leukemia and succumbing to the disease less than a year later. So, I say to Dino Babers and his Syracuse recruiting staff: Are you actually going to tell me that Alabama head coach Nick “Mr. Personality” Saban or representatives of any other current college football programs can match the legacy of Davis, Brown and the other legendary SU backs? No more excuses, especially when restoring a great “ground and pound” game would also enable the Orange to run time off the clock to help the defense avoid such implosions as allowing 76 points to Pittsburgh!

By the way, in the interest of full disclosure, I’m a Syracuse grad who’s rather passionate about the state of our football team. And I never got to see any of these great running backs play at SU.

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