Dickerson, James greet SMU success

DALLAS -- Together again, Eric Dickerson and Craig James faced an eerily pleasant situation Friday night when it came to talking SMU football.

The backfield duo famously known as the "Pony Express" during the program's heyday three decades ago smiled and laughed while talking about the good times to come for their alma mater under coach June Jones.

And not once, for a change, did those two dirty little words that start with a "D" and a "P" come up.

They'll probably cringe at the mere mention of the death penalty here on such a festive evening. But that's the point. Dickerson and James have finally outrun the ghosts from a rampantly fast-and-loose era in the now-defunct Southwest Conference. The NCAA could have dropped the hammer anywhere. In 1986, it chose the small private school on the Hilltop.

Friday night's gathering at the Hilton Anatole was all about an amazing four-year period, the rise and conquer of SMU football from 1979-82, when Dickerson and James combined to rush for 8,192 yards and 70 touchdowns, a mark that remains an NCAA career record for a duo.

The former teammates, who led the Ponies to consecutive conference championships in 1981 and '82, reunited to accept the PricewaterhouseCoopers Doak Walker Legends Award.

Dickerson and James are the 12th winners of the award, created by the SMU Athletic Forum in 1998 to honor former running backs who excelled at the collegiate level and also distinguished themselves as leaders in their communities. Past winners include former Dallas Cowboys Calvin Hill (2008) and Tony Dorsett (2001), former University of Texas and Houston Oilers great Earl Campbell (2002) and legendary Texas A&M rusher John David Crow (2004).

Hard-nosed Stanford running back Toby Gerhart, a Heisman Trophy finalist, accepted his Doak Walker Award at the banquet.

After 28 years -- well after Dickerson joined the NFL Hall of Fame and James wrapped up a productive NFL career and became an ESPN college football analyst -- the discussion of SMU has come full circle to the new rise of Mustang football.

"I mean, it's a great thing, and I'm very happy to see that my university has taken a step toward turning the program around with June Jones," said Dickerson, a two-time All-American and SMU's single-season and career rushing leader. "I can say I'm a Mustang at heart, no matter what. It was painful to watch, but to see them in a bowl game and win it, I'm very proud of them."

The new Mustangs won nine games this season, including the Hawaii Bowl, their first postseason appearance since 1984. Jones just wrapped up the school's most promising recruiting class in decades, and a noticeable energy permeates the campus.

"When you win games, it gets people on board," James said. "When Eric and I were at SMU, everybody in town, it seemed like they had a 'Mustang Mania' bumper sticker. SMU's got a long-standing tradition in this community, and if you win, people want to jump on board and support it."

Dickerson said he and other former players felt ostracized for years by athletic directors who chose to keep the program and its players from that era at arm's length.

Several years ago, Dickerson skeptically accepted an invitation to have lunch with SMU basketball coach Matt Doherty and recently hired athletic director Steve Orsini, who were attending an event in Southern California.

Dickerson, who lives in Calabasas, Calif., said Orsini told him he wanted the former players back and that he was serious about turning the program around.

"I told him I had heard that before," Dickerson said. But he was still genuinely impressed after the meeting and facilitated a conversation between Orsini and Jones.

The rest, Dickerson hopes, becomes history.

Dickerson and James, both 49, certainly created some history of their own. The two were an unlikely pair, growing up only about 50 miles apart but in separate worlds. James was a big-city star running back for the 1978 Class 4A champions of Houston Stratford High School. Dickerson was a small-town speedburner for the 1978 Class 2A champions of Sealy High School.

With no Internet, cell phones or scouting services, Dickerson and James knew of one another and their Friday night exploits only from newspapers.

"Most definitely you had the Houston Chronicle and Houston Post, so you pick up the paper and you hear about Stratford and they had this guy Craig James," Dickerson said. "And it's funny, when I read, I'm like 'That's a white guy!' So I wanted to know more about him.

"Every week they're 12-0, we're 12-0, we're 13-0, we're in the state championship; we're 2A, they're 4A; they won state, we won state. I never thought I'd get the chance to play with him or meet him, but lo and behold we wound up teammates."

Both were recruited by Texas and tell the same story about why neither landed there. The Longhorns recruiter told both of them that if they didn't sign they'd never get a job in the state of Texas after football.

They both chose SMU. One day during their senior years, James drove west down Interstate 10 to Sealy to meet his future teammate.

"I followed Eric closely. He ran for 300 yards a week. I was thinking, 'Man, what the heck is this guy doing?'" James said. "When I finally first met him, I went to the house and said, 'Hey, is Eric here?' 'He's at the car wash.' I went over there, saw this tall, skinny guy, big glasses with a 'fro and said, 'Are you Eric?'

"He said, 'Yeah. Are you Craig James?'"

The rest is history.

Jeff Caplan covers colleges for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.