Sanders' 1988 season stands alone

Barry Sanders darted and dashed his way to 2,850 yards and 44 touchdowns in 1988. AP Photo/David Longstreath

STILLWATER, Okla. -- Perhaps the only one who saw Barry Sanders' unrivaled 1988 season coming was the coach at Oklahoma State's rival school.

The year before, Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer was watching film to prepare for the Sooners' upcoming game with the Cowboys.

The Oklahoma coaching staff was consumed with how they'd contain Oklahoma State All-American tailback Thurman Thomas.

Switzer, however, had another concern.

"I saw this back run a kickoff back 100 yards. Then a little while later, he did it again," Switzer once recalled. "I walked over to our coaches in another room and I told them, 'You'd better hope Thurman Thomas doesn't get hurt.'"

The staff wondered aloud if their head coach had lost his mind. But soon enough, Switzer's prescience would be affirmed.

Thomas would go on to a Pro Football Hall of Fame career.

But a year later, Sanders would produce the greatest individual season college football had ever witnessed. And a season that stands unmatched to this day.

"Won't be another like it," said Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, who was also Sanders' quarterback.

Sanders didn't just rewrite the NCAA record book in 1988, he took a flamethrower to it. Sanders set 34 NCAA records that season on his way to capturing the Heisman Trophy. He also rushed for 2,628 yards and 37 touchdowns, while adding two special-teams scores. The NCAA didn't begin including bowl game statistics until 2002, but with 222 yards and five touchdowns in the Holiday Bowl against Wyoming, he totaled 2,850 yards and 44 touchdowns. No player since has come close to touching either mark.

"It's obviously the greatest season any individual has had," said Sanders' college coach, Pat Jones. "Hell, maybe in any sport."

The Cowboys actually went into the 1988 season with outsiders wondering how they'd replace Thomas.

A four-year starter, Thomas had rushed for 4,847 yards and totaled 45 touchdowns over his career, which included a pair of top-10 finishes in the Heisman voting.

Sanders was the clear heir apparent in the Oklahoma State backfield. But to that point, Sanders had been a specialist, returning kicks and punts while occasionally spelling Thomas in the backfield.

"They had tried to play them in the backfield together, but it never worked for whatever reason," said Hart Lee Dykes, who was an All-American wideout on Oklahoma State's 1988 team. "When Thurman left, if you took a poll, nobody would have predicted Barry would have that kind of year. He had been a playmaker on punt returns and kickoffs. But nobody had really seen him run the ball because he played behind Thurman. He was such an unassuming guy. He just blended in with the rest of the guys.

"So nobody saw that kind of year coming. I know I didn't."

Sanders remains unassuming, especially when it comes to discussing his 1988 season; he declined several requests to be interviewed for this story.

But Sanders was built to be the perfect running back. Standing only 5-foot-8, he was difficult for defenses to find at the line of scrimmage. He also possessed superhuman strength for someone his size. In an era in which weightlifting was not yet en vogue, Sanders could bench 360 pounds and squat 560. He could also flip his hips back and forth so swiftly that even the fleetest of defenders looked as if they were wearing 15-pound ankle weights trying to corral him.

"He wasn't big and he wasn't tall, but he had such an unbelievable change of direction. He could change direction in a heartbeat and be right back in full speed again," said former Oklahoma defensive tackle Scott Evans, who faced off against Sanders in the 1988 Bedlam game. "He had this unique way of taking a play that should've been a 2-yard loss and turning it into a 20-yard gain.

"He was just phenomenal."

Soon, everyone would find out just how phenomenal Sanders was.

On the opening kickoff of the 1988 season, Sanders took the return back for a touchdown against Miami (Ohio). He had actually done the same on the opening kickoff of the 1987 season, too.

Sanders went on to rush for 178 yards and two touchdowns against Miami. But it wasn't until the following game against two-time defending Southwestern Conference champion Texas A&M that the word began to get out on Oklahoma State's new starting running back.

"Before that game, I don't think anyone knew about Barry Sanders, other than the players and coaches at Oklahoma State," said the coach of those Aggies, Jackie Sherrill. "We felt confident. We had a very good team. Almost every player we had out there on defense would play in the NFL."

But 72 seconds into the game, Sherrill realized his star-studded defense was in trouble.

"It was third-and-long on their 42-yard line, and they run a draw, and Barry hits the seam and takes off," Sherrill recalled. "We looked like a bunch of junior high kids out there trying to catch him. I remember in my mind when I saw him burst through the line. ... I knew we were in for a long day."

Sanders would score a touchdown on that draw and finish with 157 yards rushing. At the end of the third quarter, he returned a punt return for his third touchdown of the night before Jones pulled him for the rest of the game. The Cowboys smoked Texas A&M 52-15. And the buzz surrounding Sanders had begun.

"We were in mud," Sherrill said. "He was on concrete."

Two games, 478 yards and nine touchdowns later, Sanders traveled to Nebraska to face a program Oklahoma State had not defeated since 1961.

Coach Tom Osborne's Cornhuskers jumped to a 42-0 lead. By the second quarter. Most teams would have thrown in the towel at that point. But most teams didn't have Sanders in their backfield.

Sanders took over the rest of the game, and his four touchdowns nearly rallied the Cowboys to what would have been among the most miraculous comebacks in college football history. Nebraska held on 63-42, but not before the red-clad fans had endured some nervous moments, and the Blackshirts had surrendered the most points they ever had in Memorial Stadium.

"We really were good enough to beat anyone in the country," Gundy said. "We could have gone up against anyone."

The Cowboys would lose only once more. But in that defeat, Oklahoma State's first nationally televised game of the season, Sanders would clinch the Heisman.

The Cowboys fell behind again to Switzer's Sooners 14-0.

Sanders had entered the game with 1,141 rushing yards over his previous five games, which was an NCAA record. But he was never better than he was in Bedlam.

"We knew going into it we had no chance to stop him," Evans said. "We were just hoping we could contain him."

Against one of the nation's best defenses, Sanders couldn't be stopped. Just before the half, he took an option pitch from Gundy, juked past Oklahoma safety Kevin Thompson, then dashed 67 yards to set up a touchdown to put the Cowboys back in the game. In the fourth quarter, Oklahoma State trailed 24-21 on third-and-goal. But Sanders slithered his way into the end zone again.

The Sooners came back to win 31-28, only after Oklahoma State dropped a potential game-winning touchdown in the end zone on fourth down in the final seconds.

Still, Sanders' legacy had been cemented.

And for an encore, he rushed for 312, 293, 332 and 222 yards in Oklahoma State's final four games, all blowout victories.

"Go back and look at how many games he came out early," Evans said. "He averaged only three quarters a game. That's what's scary. If he had played every game, he might have rushed for 4,000 yards."

Dykes agreed but said Sanders seemed to have no regrets.

"A couple times, Coach Jones would try to get him back in there," Dykes said, "but Barry would be like, 'Nah, let the other guys play.'"

Sanders might not have cared about individual numbers or even the Heisman, but he won it anyway, easily besting USC quarterback Rodney Peete and UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman by capturing 78 percent of all first-place votes.

Sanders was actually in Tokyo, Japan, where he was preparing for Oklahoma State's regular-season finale against Texas Tech, when he found he won the Heisman. Jones basically had to drag Sanders to a studio in downtown Tokyo at 5 in the morning for the Heisman announcement.

"It never really dawned on him that he had won the Heisman until later when we were at the dinner in New York that was just for the former winners," Jones said. "Earl Campbell came up to him with four or five programs and asked Barry to sign them."

After Campbell had left, Sanders turned to Jones in disbelief and said, "Earl Campbell just asked for my autograph."

"I think that's when it hit him," Jones said. "The magnitude of winning the thing and the season he had just had."

No one had produced a season like it. Not Marcus Allen. Not Tony Dorsett. Not Herschel Walker. Not Bo Jackson.

"There's never been anybody like him," Gundy said. "There have been some great backs. But not like him."

From Ron Dayne to Adrian Peterson, there have been other impressive seasons. But Sanders' 1988 rushing and touchdown records remain safely intact.

"It's kinda like a Babe Ruth record in baseball," Sherrill said. "They don't come around very often like that."

College football still hasn't seen a season like Sanders'.

And it might never again.