This will be the 18th straight year Georgia has had a former player in the Super Bowl. Five NFL Bulldogs are set to play in Super Bowl 53 in Atlanta on Feb. 3, including the leading running backs for both Los Angeles and New England, Todd Gurley and Sony Michel, who were teammates at UGA.
The Gurley vs. Michel storyline has revived talk of Georgia as Running Back U (which seems to be the term now for what we used to call Tailback U), so it feels like time to revisit the subject of Georgia’s greatest running backs.
No. 1 is obvious: Herschel Walker.
Beyond that, though, it’s a fun question to debate, as I found this week when I asked more than three dozen UGA fans, ranging from boomers to Gen-Xers to millennials, who they’d rank second behind Herschel, and who their Top 5 all-time UGA backs would be. “You could probably start a bar fight with that question,” Charlie Hayslett noted.
One of the discussion points was who was the greater back, Todd Gurley or Nick Chubb or Sony Michel? And, what about about Garrison Hearst, Knowshon Moreno, Rodney Hampton, Lars Tate, Robert Edwareds or Tim Worley?
Georgia has had a wealth of top running back talent over the decades, and picking the greatest is a very subjective exercise. Do you base your ranking on talent, individual achievements, or team results (championships won or not)?
Do you limit it to what they did at UGA, or take into consideration subsequent success in the NFL? Along those lines, a guy sitting next to my brothers and me at Champy’s in Athens on Saturday brought up Terrell Davis. Does he figure into the discussion, since he was little-used during his time at UGA and gained his fame mainly in the NFL? (We concluded he didn’t play enough to rank among UGA’s greatest backs.)
I also asked UGA fans whether they would include 1940s superstars Charley Trippi and Frank Sinkwich (who was, like Herschel, a Heisman winner) on the list, since most of us around these days never got to see them play, and today’s athletes and those from yesteryear compete on a very different level. When we look at the stars of earlier decades alongside the running backs of the modern era (which basically arrived with the demise two-platoon football in the mid-1960s), are we comparing apples and oranges (or, as one fan put it, referring to the size of players nowadays, “apples and watermelons”)?
It’s hard to know where to fit Trippi and Sinkwich in. They dominated the game in their day, but football players back then mostly were under 200 pounds. Because of their size (Trippi was 6-feet, 186 pounds, Sinkwich was 5 feet-10, 185), if they were around today, I’d see them in more of a Mecole Hardman role, rather than being used as tailbacks.
On the other hand, they played both ways, on offense and defense, and without the benefit of all the training facilities the players have now. And, they were as dominant in their day as the Gurleys and Chubbs have been lately. Should lists of “greatest” athletes evaluate players against one another by current standards, or should you allow their careers to speak for themselves as historical “snapshots”?
As Betz Lowery put it, “If you consider the size of all the players at the time, it evens out. And, they were still incredible stars. With every generation, players are always going to be bigger, better, stronger and faster.”
Said Tyler Brantley: “I’d say you have to take folks in the context of the game when they played it. So, I’d say Trippi and Sinkwich deserve to be in consideration.”
And, in ranking which UGA running back is the greatest after Walker, Helen Castronis, whose dad Mike was a longtime Georgia football coach, said she’d go with Trippi, because “Daddy said he was the greatest athlete to play at UGA, and that was after seeing Herschel.”
Helen added: “Can you imagine what Trippi and Sinkwich would play like now, with the technology for uniforms, equipment, nutrition, training … and giant linemen.”
Taking all of that into consideration, I think going with an “all-time” ranking, rather than just modern-era, is fair.
As for the results of my nonscientific survey, Gurley easily was the winner of the spot behind Herschel in UGA’s RBU pantheon, garnering about 35 percent of the mentions for that spot.
Although last year I equivocated when I assessed Chubb and Michel’s place in UGA history, raking them and Gurley about equal behind Walker, I concede the point made by a couple of fans in my survey that Gurley is the better back. Chubb and Michel had longer careers by a year, which ended with an SEC championship. And they’re sentimental favorites, since they returned for their senior year and helped lead Georgia to the national championship game. Chubb and Michel also both rank ahead of Gurley in career yardage at UGA.
However, Gurley lost quite a bit of playing time to injuries and suspension during his UGA days. He likely would have been the winner of the Heisman Trophy in 2014 if the four-game suspension for selling autographs hadn’t hit. And, other than Herschel, I never saw a back more capable of completely taking over a game than Gurley.
The rest of the fan picks, in descending order behind Walker and Gurley, went like this: Hearst was in third place, followed by Chubb, Trippi, and a four-way tie between Sinkwich, Hampton, Moreno and Michel.
Others getting mention included Tate, Worley, Edwards, Willie McClendon, Hines Ward (who briefly was a tailback and was the “best all purpose player of all UGA history,” according to Beau Gilmore), Horace King, Jimmy Poulos, Glynn Harrison, Kevin McLee, and even Bob McWhorter, UGA’s first All-American when he played from 1910 to 1913. (That came from my old classmate Tom Hodgson, who’s a bit of a history buff.)
As Blake Giles noted about the players drawing only honorary mention, “Man, who wouldn’t love to have any of those backs in their prime on their team?”
And, even the top names on the list are fluid for some fans. As Ben Anderson said, “Along with Herschel, I have to go with Sinkwich, Chubb, Trippi and Hearst. But aside from Walker, you probably could talk me out of any other specific Top 5 ranking.”
As for my own list, after Walker I think I’d put Gurley, followed by Chubb, Michel and Hearst, all pretty much on the same level. (Yeah, I’m still equivocating!) And then I’d round out my Top 5 with Moreno, who only played two years for Georgia (thanks to a boneheaded coaching decision to redshirt him), but who was pretty spectacular in those two years.
Of course, we’ll have to revisit this list in a year or so to deal with D’Andre Swift. And, who knows, maybe some others.
That’s the way it goes at RBU!