He has yet to even finish his career at Oregon. There is still a Rose Bowl game remaining and, though unlikely given his NFL prospects, the potential of a senior season.
Yet as LaMichael James wraps up his third year of play for the Ducks—which happens to also be the greatest three-year stretch in team history—it may be time to consider this running back from Texarkana, Texas for the ultimate distinction: the greatest player in the entire 118-year history of Oregon football.
First, of course, there is the question of how James stacks up against some superlative past Oregon running backs.
After all, Mel Renfro—who also is among the candidates for greatest overall Duck—was an All-American not only carrying the ball for the Ducks but an equally if not better defensive player. (He played cornerback and kick returner in a Hall of Fame pro career for the Dallas Cowboys.) With much less talent around him, Renfro frequently ran for over a hundred yards in games with single-digit amounts of carries. He’s one of only two Ducks (along with Joey Harrington) to run, catch and throw for a touchdown in the same game.
Ahmad Rashad (known as Bobby Moore in college) was another great college running back that happened to play a different position in the pros—he was Pro Bowl receiver. Yet there was no mistaking his greatness as a tailback while matriculating in Eugene. Though he occupied the same backfield in 1970 and ’71 as future Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts, Rashad also did not have a roster of blue-chip players around him. Yet with the ball in his hands, the combination of grace and power once inspired an opposing team’s coach to give him the ultimate compliment for the times: saying he was better than USC great and Heisman winner OJ Simpson.
As long as we’re talking about running backs, two other superlative players also have to be accounted for: Reuben Droughns and Jonathan Stewart.
Droughns had an up and down pro career, earning back-to-back 1,200-plus-yard seasons in 2004 and 2005 for the Denver Broncos and Cleveland Browns but spending the majority of his career as a reserve with few carries. And come to think of it, his career in Eugene was up and down as well, only because injury derailed Droughns just as he reached his peak. Yet when he was on the field and healthy in 1998 and 1999, particularly in the first half of ’98 while partnered with Akili Smith, #22 was perhaps the most dominating back ever to don a Duck uniform—making the rare occasion of a 200-yard game an almost weekly occurrence.
Jonathan Stewart’s astonishing play ought to be familiar to even recently converted Duck fans. He was the first case of a top-rated high school running back in the nation coming to Eugene. And from the beginning of his freshman year, Stewart did not disappoint. Though his backfield mate Jeremiah Johnson was often considered the lightning to Stewart’s thunder, one with speed and agility and the other power and brawn, the current Carolina Panthers tailback proved on countless occasions that he possessed both of the yin and yang of a great rusher. During Stewart’s junior season, his final one in Eugene, the Ducks—led by quarterback Dennis Dixon and guided by new offensive coordinator Chip Kelly’s play calling—for the first time in their history could arguably be called the best team in the nation. When Dixon’s injury ended that year’s within-reach dream of a national championship, Stewart finished his college career by dominating the Sun Bowl with a record-setting 253-yard day as Oregon blew out South Florida. Stewart finished 2007 with the single-season Ducks rushing record with 1,722.
Even so, it would be difficult to argue for any of these players over James as greatest Duck running back, especially given how James upped his game even more this season. He is now the team’s all-time leading rusher by a wide margin, gaining over 4,800 yards in three years while the former leader, Derrick Loville, took four years to gain just under 4,000. (And due respect to Loville as well; as Oregon first rose to become a bowl-caliber team in the late 1980s, he racked up yards in combination with Bill Musgrave’s passing. If the Ducks’ program is a rags-to-riches story, he helped usher in the transformation.) What’s more, James is the only Oregon back to win the Doak Walker Award given to the nation’s top ball carrier. He is only one of two Oregon players to be a Heisman Trophy finalist and the only Ducks running back to do so. (Speaking of which, what four players were better than Mel Renfro in 1960? How could he not have been a finalist?)
So now let’s look at the broader question of whether James could be called the greatest of all Ducks. Who is he up against for this title of titles? One could start with either of the Duck quarterbacks to reach the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Norm Van Brocklin or Dan Fouts. But Van Brocklin’s greatest achievement in college was leading Oregon to a 1949 Cotton Bowl loss. For all of the fame Fouts earned as a record-setting San Diego Charger and possibly the greatest pro quarterback of his generation (Johnny Unitas called Fouts the greatest NFL QB of all time), he not only never reached a bowl game in Eugene, but only saw one winning season.
Honestly, the conversation of who’s the greatest Duck of all time starts with Joey Harrington.
Although the Ducks may have won a Rose Bowl in 1917, Harrington led the team to what (at least for a few more weeks) remains its only modern-day January bowl win: the Fiesta Bowl victory over Colorado to end the 2001 season. Until last year’s team made it to the BCS national championship game, there was no question whatsoever that the 2001 season was the Ducks’ greatest. Harrington wasn’t just the quarterback of that team, but the unquestioned leader, the most valuable player, and the heart and soul.
And it isn’t as if that magical ’01 season was the entirety of Harrington’s heroics. There were all the come-from-behind victories he led in 1999 and 2000. There were the nail-biting victories he engineered in the Sun Bowl and Holiday Bowl to cap those seasons. That Harrington’s three seasons as starter from 1999-2001 (Feeley’s early hold on the job in ’99 notwithstanding) produced three straight bowl victories is just as rare as the January bowl win the Ducks engineered in the Fiesta. Much as we love our Ducks, it’s a sad reality that Oregon has lost on the bowl game stage substantially more than the team has won. Yet Joey sits there with a 3-0 record and the only modern-day major January bowl win. To even consider anyone else as Oregon’s all-time MVP a mere decade later seems a little shocking.
Yet if Oregon wins the Rose Bowl in a few weeks, LaMichael James might be the one player who could claim a tiny bit more glory than even the heroic Harrington. Although it’s generally true that quarterbacks are leaders more than running backs, and that leadership was Harrington’s greatest quality, the achievement of this Oregon team upon winning in Pasadena to conclude the 2011 season would have to edge this era past Harrington’s in terms of achievement. No one likes for a loss to be the team’s greatest moment, but just getting to the national championship, as the Ducks did last year, arguably trumps winning any other bowl. And if James & company were to find a way to defeat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, it would give this era thing it still lacks compared to Joey’s: a win.
Speaking of wins, Joey also has one personal advantage over LaMichael. With due respect to LMJ, Harrington was much more at his best in big games than #21. Unfortunately, James has struggled – either with injury or outright performance – when he was needed the most. Whether the ’10 Rose or the ’11 BCS or even this year’s marquee season opener against LSU, the represent the rare moments of the LMJ machine being shut down. Had James been in the lineup when Oregon had fist and goal inside the Auburn 5-yard line, the team might not have come away without any points and transformed the championship game. Had James been playing in the second half of the Rose Bowl, LaGarrett Blount might not have fumbled into the end zone to give Ohio State the ball – and the game. Had LMJ (or Cliff Harris) been returning kicks against LSU instead of De’Anthony Thomas, the Ducks would not have been mortally wounded by Tiger points off turnovers. It’s not to say that Joey never erred in the Big Game: we can talk about the Civil War loss in 2000 that cost Oregon a Rose Bowl, mostly due to Harrington’s three picks. We can talk about the 2001 Civil War that put Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl – but which Harrington nearly fumbled away in the closing minutes (thank Rashad Bauman’s interception for saving the day). Even so, those were really the preludes to big bowl games. When the likes of Brent Musberger and millions of post New Years revelers tuned in, #3 was superhuman.
Then there are the intangibles of the James-Harrington debate. Who was a bigger figure in the popular culture? Harrington had the “Joey Heisman” billboard and a growing legend even beyond Eugene for engineering comeback victories. Yet James has been part of an offense—its greatest asset, in fact—that has captured the imagination of the sporting world. As a Nike advertisement read after the Ducks fell just short of the national championship, “Everybody loses games. Few change them.” It was Kelly more than James who deservedly has received credit for the team’s ultra innovative high-speed spread. Yet like a movie, James is/was the flashy actor to Kelly’s director: the star of the show. Fans in conservative, tradition bound college football environments such as the South or the Midwest may try and deride Oregon’s offense as gimmicky, yet seemingly no team earns TV ratings outside its own regional fan base like the Ducks. If you regularly watch college football in the early 2010s, you know that Oregon is the most entertaining team in the game. And, with apologies to quarterback Darron Thomas, who himself is without question an all-time Ducks great, James is truly the high-octane fuel for Kelly’s Ferrari.
So in effect, although there’s already more than enough pressure on Chip Kelly’s team to finally come away with a W on the big stage, the Rose Bowl may decide whom—James or Harrington—has the greatest claim to the throne as greatest among the hundreds of players over more than a century to strap on the gladiatorial gear of Mighty Oregon.