ATHENS, Ga. -- On a recent road trip, the coach who won the last national championship at Georgia was stunned to stumble upon someone who had the goods to be the next great running back at the school. His stomach was supermodel flat, he had ripped arms and legs and moved gracefully. He reminded Vince Dooley of Herschel Walker.
Upon closer inspection, it was Herschel Walker.
"He had a get-together for his birthday and he's probably the best-conditioned 51-year-old man in the world," Dooley said. "I can't imagine anyone that age being in better condition than Herschel. I wanted to find a football and just give it to him. Like old times."
Here in a state where college football recruiters come in droves to harvest the crop, there are two religions: one practiced on Saturday afternoons, the other on Sunday mornings. They're equally sacred. The state school manages to keep a portion of the home-grown high school talent from crossing the border, and yet two things have eluded the Bulldogs: They haven't won a national title since 1980. And they haven't found another Herschel.
Perhaps the two are related. In the South, where college football is king, that seems unrealistic, unfair, unfathomable. Championships have gone to the states of Louisiana and Florida and especially Alabama but not to the biggest school in a state that helped those other schools win those other titles. Georgia has won once in the last 45 years, in part because the Bulldogs haven't had a talent as mesmerizing and fabled as a running back from Wrightsville who set a high standard that nobody in Athens has matched since.
"As special as Herschel was," said Dooley, "I'm a little surprised by that."
If the Bulldogs, who came within six yards of upsetting 'Bama in the SEC title game, are to make a run for the final championship in the BCS era, it could hinge on a pair of factors. One: Getting past their first two games, maybe the trickiest in school history, at Clemson and against South Carolina. Two: Sophomore Todd Gurley and if he can come close to Herschel.
Gurley rushed for 1,385 yards last season. The last tailback to crack 1,000 yards at Georgia as a true freshman? Yup, you guessed. Gurley also scored 18 touchdowns, three fewer than Garrison Hearst's single-season school record. That's why he's a strong All-America candidate and, if this season is an improvement and the Bulldogs return to the SEC title game, could get some Heisman burn. It's a lofty goal, for sure, and maybe a bit of a stretch if only because the SEC is the gorilla of college football. Still, a Herschel-like season from Gurley would give Georgia a chance, and isn't it about time for that to happen? Given that Walker left school after his junior year in 1982, isn't 31 years without finding a true replacement torture enough?
The Hunt for the Next Herschel at Georgia might be the most ambitious search in the country. Few schools have been haunted this much by a former Heisman winner. Consider that Auburn found quarterbacks better than Pat Sullivan (Cam Newton), and Ohio State found a Heisman winner (Eddie George) to follow Archie Griffin, and even Steve Spurrier coached better quarterbacks than himself at Florida, where he won the Heisman. Given the prep talent in the state and the fact the Bulldogs have deep tradition and some of the gaudiest facilities anywhere, this is a surprise. Georgia has had good runners, not great, none compelling enough to capture the country's imagination and a crystal trophy for the school.
The drought was perhaps supposed to end four years ago, but Caleb King wouldn't go to class and anyway was a bit strange; after he left Georgia he was jailed for punching a man who said King looked like Eddie Murphy. Then two years ago Georgia grabbed one of the best backs in the country, a five-star recruit plucked right from the back yard. Isaiah Crowell was all that, a punishing runner with a radar for daylight who took top SEC freshman honors when he rushed for 850 yards. The Bulldogs were all set to make Crowell the centerpiece of the offense and an All-America candidate, when he self-destructed off the field.
He failed a drug test and also ran with the wrong crowd. He was arrested at a checkpoint near campus in June of 2012 and charged with carrying a concealed weapon, a 9-millimeter found under his seat. The charges were dropped last April because prosecutors couldn't pin the pistol on Crowell, but Georgia acted swiftly after the arrest and booted him from school anyway, an action that hinted Crowell had other issues the school was unwilling to deal with.
"It was a blessing in disguise," said Dooley. "It was a good thing for him and it was a good thing for Georgia."
Crowell became the Bobby Petrino of college running backs, exiled because of scandal and landing at Alabama State, going from playing before 90,000-plus to a fraction of that. The national TV exposure, big-time boosters and pristine facilities, all gone, leaving Crowell with a take-it-or-leave-it second chance that, if nothing else, humbled him.
"It took some adjusting," said Alabama State coach Reggie Barlow. "But as far as doing what he's supposed to do, going to class, not getting into trouble, being a great teammate, it's worked out. Sometimes you get guys transferring in, four- or five-star guys and they're hard to coach them. He's a pleasure to coach. I felt this was a young man who made a huge, huge mistake and had lost a lot. He had an opportunity to play for a school that he admired growing up."
Crowell rushed for 842 yards and 15 touchdowns last year at ASU and ideally is looking for a breakout junior year so he can turn pro next spring. It's not the path he originally chose. He was too young to remember Walker, but Crowell did worship Georgia -- "that's my team," he says -- and instead became just another of a long line of players who only enhanced the memory of a college football all-timer.
Because of Georgia's inability to find someone to approach his marks, Walker's legacy only grows stronger by the year. He became a legend almost from the moment he stepped between the hedges in Athens. Big, strong and fast is quite a combination and Walker used that to put his numbers beyond the reach of most. Even now, three decades later, he's No. 10 on the all-time career list, and Dooley believes Walker (whose 5,259 yards trail Ron Dayne's record 6,397) could've been even better.
"If Herschel had stayed for his fourth year then I'm confident he would've set a rushing record that nobody would ever break," Dooley said, "both the season record and the career record. Everybody above him on the career list stayed all four years. He certainly would've gone well beyond 2,000 for his senior year and almost 8,000 for his career. Unlike some teams today that are a little more diverse, we featured Herschel. I gave him the ball a lot. That's probably why nobody (at Georgia) has really come close. There's more balance."
Walker carried an average of 330 times a season in his time at Georgia, heavy labor for sure. In fact, although Gurley carried the ball 222 times, he might be lucky to get that many touches this season. Georgia's No. 2 back was also a freshman, and Keith Marshall is coming off a 759-yard season sharing time wtih him. Besides, the Bulldogs also bring back quarterback Aaron Murray, who was voted by SEC coaches to the preseason all-conference team, ahead of Johnny Manziel. Georgia can accept Gurley falling short of Walker as long as he doesn't regress like Crowell, something nobody expects to happen.
"He doesn't ask for special privileges," said coach Mark Richt. "You measure [character] by how hard a guy works in practice and his demeanor around his teammates. He's just one of the boys. Sometimes you'll get a guy in his position who sees himself in a different light than his teammates. But Todd knows what's at stake for himself and also for his team."
And so the Hunt for Herschel, or a close facsimile, continues. Walker remains the only player in NCAA history to finish in the top three in the Heisman voting in his first three seasons. He set an NCAA record for most yards as a freshman (1,616) and put Georgia in the national title hunt all three years. Those kind of feats aren't quickly forgotten in Athens. College football immortals aren't easily erased. All Georgia wants is for Walker to meet his twin at some point. Is that asking too much? Evidently, yes.
"The best play in college football history," said Dooley, "was 'Give the ball to Herschel.'"