Big Ten Icons: Archie Griffin

It stands to reason that running backs would be distinguished citizens at Ohio State University, where “three yards and a cloud of dust” was the unquestioned football mantra through the storied Woody Hayes Era and for at least a few years on either side of it. Archie Griffin is the most distinguished of those citizens.

The Buckeyes have certainly had bigger backs than Griffin. Some were faster, and quite a few went on to more accomplished professional careers. But in terms of sheer consistency and productivity, no one ever did it better than the 5-foot-8, 182-pound dynamo from Columbus. The proof: Griffin is the only two-time winner in the 75-year history of the Heisman Trophy, a feat that remains unmatched 34 years after he was twice honored as the nation’s outstanding player, winning the Heisman in 1974 and repeating in 1975.

Hayes, as sparse with compliments as he was with the forward pass, always had a special place in his heart for Griffin because he was so committed to being an unselfish, well-rounded football player.

“He’s a better young man than he is he is a football player, and he’s the best football player I’ve ever seen,” Hayes said. “He can do everything—he’s a great blocker, a great faker and a great open-field runner. He one of those rare backs who can run over you or run around you.”

Although he was born at Ohio State University Hospital and grew up in Columbus, Griffin had misgivings about signing with Buckeyes—he thought he might be too small for their power-centric ground game. But Hayes would not take no for an answer; he knew Griffin’s shiftiness and acceleration were ideally suited to OSU’s road-grader approach to run blocking.

Though he fumbled on his first career carry and was benched against Iowa, Griffin darted and dashed through the North Carolina defense for a school-record 239 yards in his second OSU game. A star was born.

A superstar, in fact. Griffin finished his freshman year with 867 yards and helped the Buckeyes to the first of four straight Big Ten titles. His sophomore year was his breakout campaign: 1,577 yards and a 6.4 per-carry average, capped by a 149-yard effort in a 42-21 thumping of Southern California in the Rose Bowl. He also broke his single-game school record with 246 yards in a win over Iowa. Griffin finished fifth in the Heisman voting; teammate John Hicks, one of his road-grader blockers, was the runner-up to Penn State’s John Cappelletti.

Despite being a marked man—and an undersized one—in the Buckeyes’ offense, Griffin was even better as a junior, winning his first Heisman after rushing for 1,695 yards and averaging 6.6 per carry. The Buckeyes capped an undefeated regular season with a bruise-inducing 12-10 win over Michigan, with Griffin piling up 112 yards after the Wolverines vowed to hold him under 100. An 18-17 loss to USC in the Rose Bowl denied OSU the national championship.

What to do for an encore? How about 1,450 yards and another undefeated regular season, culminating in a second straight Heisman? Michigan ended Griffin’s streak of 100-yard games at 31, but the Buckeyes won the game 21-14 to earn a fourth consecutive Rose Bowl berth, only to lose 23-10 to UCLA, a game Griffin called the most disappointing of his career.

The disappointments, though, were few and far between in Columbus, where the Griffin Era is recalled as one of the high points in OSU’s rich history. The Buckeyes had a 40-5-1 record in Griffin’s four varsity seasons, winning four Big Ten titles. He was the starting tailback in four consecutive Rose Bowls, something not even the proud graduates of USC, “Tailback U,” can claim.

He won two Chicago Tribune Silver Football Awards as Big Ten Most Valuable Player to go with his two Heismans and was a three-time All-American. He is still the Buckeyes’ career rushing leader with 5,589 yards, a 6.1 average. Ohio State retired Griffin’s No. 45 in 1999.

He’s a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, elected in 1986, and the OSU Hall of Fame. The NCAA honored him with a “Top Five” award for academic, athletic and leadership achievements in 1975. Eastmoor High School in Columbus named its football field “Archie Griffin Field” in honor of its most acclaimed graduate.

Griffin will always be a Buckeye at heart and has worked at OSU in various capacities since retiring from pro football after the 1983 season. Brothers Ray and Keith Griffin followed him to OSU and the NFL. In his current role as president of the OSU Alumni Association he displays the same grace and class that distinguished him as an athlete and made him a Woody Hayes favorite.

“College, in general, was the greatest time in my life,” Griffin said. “The people, the education—those things will be with me forever. The Heisman was part of it.”

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