In 1988, Barry Sanders set an enduring standard for what’s possible in football.
Sanders pushed the limits of what a player could do, something we know because nobody else has done it or might ever do it again.
Thirty years after the fact, Sanders’ Heisman season stands alone. It’s the greatest individual feat anyone’s ever reached in 150 years of this sprawling sport.
1 Sanders set dozens of records, even though the NCAA screws him by not counting his bowl game stats toward his totals.
The most notable Sanders entry in the record book: 2,628 rushing yards. But that doesn’t explain the scale of the destruction.
In a Holiday Bowl romp against Wyoming, Sanders carried 29 times for 222 yards and the most rushing TDs (5) in Holiday history. The NCAA doesn’t count bowl stats before 2002 in its record books, but we’re going to talk about Sanders’ season for what it was: even more bonkers than you’d think, if you just looked at the official numbers.
2 So, let’s talk about Sanders’ actual stats — the ones the sport’s government doesn’t want you to know about.
- 2,850 yards on 373 carries (a record, which the NCAA counts as 2,628)
- A 7.64-yard average (a record for anyone who had nearly that many carries)
- 44 all-purpose touchdowns (a record, which the NCAA counts as 39), hence the number of items in this article
3 “Now the only thing I will ask you, on this article, please use the number 2,850,” Sanders’ head coach at OSU, Pat Jones, tells SB Nation. “OK?”
“It’s crazy. It’s bizarre. I usually tell guys when I do this article, ‘I will only do it if you use the number 2,850.’ Thank you for that.”
4 Sanders’ most significant records aren’t just for FBS/Division I-A. They cover the whole NCAA, right down to Division III.
Let’s count for real here, not using the NCAA’s bowl exclusion:
- 2,850 rushing yards is more than anyone’s ever gained at any level of college or pro football. Division III Mount Union’s Nate Kmic had 2,790 in 15 games in 2008, compared to Sanders’ 12.
- 44 touchdowns are tied with Kmic for the most ever and ahead of anyone else in NCAA history. Again, that’s with Kmic playing in 3 more games.
Therefore, Sanders did in a power conference what nobody else could do even in non-scholarship football.
5 “Sanders is probably the poster child for looking under rocks,” his coach says.
The Wichita native had visited Iowa State and Tulsa by the time Oklahoma State convinced him to sign in the class of 1986. Jones’ staff was confident it would land him. A big reason? Kansas and Kansas State had gone through coaching changes and sort of missed Sanders.
“Not trying to make excuses for ‘em, but they kinda got lost in the shuffle,” Jones says. “They would’ve been in the picture, I think, if they stayed on top of it.
George Walstad, the Oklahoma State defensive line coach whose recruiting territory included Kansas, had been on Sanders for a while. After he saw him in a high-school all-star game somewhere — probably Topeka — the line coach was smitten.
“This kid might be a little bit better than even I realized he was,” Walstad told Jones.
6 The rushing numbers are only one part. Sanders scored on his first touch in 1988: a kick return.
7 That made Sanders the only guy ever to return a season-opening kickoff for a touchdown 2 seasons in a row.
Returning kicks and punts was a big part of Sanders’ job in 1987, when OSU had Thurman Thomas ahead of him at RB.
8 One of the simplest testaments to how good Sanders was in college had come at the end of 1987.
Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer says he specifically warned his 1987 staff about Sanders, who was backing up a fellow future Pro Football Hall of Famer.
“I walked in and said to our staff, ‘I want to tell you guys something. You better hope Thurman Thomas doesn’t get hurt. ‘ They looked at me like I was crazy,” Switzer said. “I said, ‘Come look at this cat, a [sophomore] from Wichita named Barry Sanders. Thurman is good, but he isn’t as good as this dude. ‘
“We would let Thurman go and play the first three series, and Sanders would go and play the next three series, and then we would let ‘em alternate themselves,” Jones says. “And they handled it great. Sanders has no real ego to speak of, and Thomas does, but Thomas understood — Thurman knew how talented Sanders was.”
9 Of course, Sanders had a knack for first impressions.
Jones tells the story of Sanders’ running 3-cone drills after arriving on campus before the ‘86 season:
Once we got him in, our strength coach at the time was a guy named John Stuckey. John’s gone now, but John had put these incoming guys through a battery of some little agility tests and some of this kind of stuff just to see where they were. I remember Barry did some things, movement-wise, that were better than we had ever had recorded.
10 Sanders didn’t like to go out. He just liked to lift weights.
The New York Times reported on his regimen that November:
Those closest to Sanders say he has virtually no social life. He is an average student who spends most of his time practicing football, lifting weights, studying, and resting. A non-athlete classmate said she had seen Sanders at a bible study class but never at a movie, dance, or campus tavern.
Sanders’s favorite hangout is the weight room. His muscular, 197-pound body is a telltale indication of his passion for weight training and explains his capacity to break tackles.
Jerry Schmidt, the Cowboys’ strength coach, said Sanders bench presses 360 pounds and his squat is 557 pounds.
’’That rates with the linemen,’’ Schmidt added. ‘’I was at Notre Dame and Nebraska before I came here and I never saw a kid in either of those programs who worked as hard as Sanders. I have to watch him carefully or he will lift too much.’’
11 Sanders ran for 238.9 yards per game, another all-NCAA record.
This ticks down to 237.5 if you count the bowl game, when he ran for 222 yards.
This is one of the very few areas where NCAA accounting is sort of charitable to Sanders. The other is that he’s credited with 12 consecutive games running for 2 TDs or more, a record. Sanders didn’t have a TD in the 1987 Sun Bowl, and because that doesn’t count, but the last game of the ‘87 regular season does, Sanders gets a 12-game streak. But Sanders would’ve gotten to 12 games anyway if the ‘88 Holiday Bowl counted.
12 Sanders’ stop-and-start ability, which defined so much of his NFL career, first became a national thing in 1988 in Stillwater.
“College kids couldn’t tackle him,” Jones says.
13 Sanders’ NCAA-approved 39 total touchdowns are in the book as “tied” for most all-time with Wisconsin’s Montee Ball in 2011.
Of course, Ball had one more regular-season game, a Big Ten title game, and a bowl game to juice those numbers. Sanders had as many TDs in 11 games as the guy he’s “tied” with had in 14, and outdid him by 5 if you count Sanders’ five-TD bowl game.
14 Sanders scored 264 points in 1988, 28 more than #2 Ball.
The NCAA again counts it differently, but whatever.
Put another way, Sanders scored 22 points per game — more than 47 of the 105 Division I-A teams in action that year and a touchdown more per game than Rutgers managed in 2017.
15 Sanders’ breakdown of 44 TDs: 42 rushing, one kick return, one punt return.
People sometimes forget the special teams scores. Really, people forget how good Sanders was on special teams throughout his college career. He had 6 return touchdowns in 3 college seasons, making him a one-percenter there, too.
16 It’s not just record-keeping that fails to do Sanders’ year justice. It was also Oklahoma State itself, which yanked him early in a lot of games.
“People don’t mention that,” Jones says when asked. “Thanks for bringing it up. He should’ve literally, I mean, you had to see it to understand it. He could’ve had a thousand more yards ... He could’ve had 4,000 yards probably, that season, if we’d have just did it.”
Holiday Bowl victory in hand, Sanders sat out his final quarter as a college athlete.
17 The only things that challenged Sanders’ numbers were early hooks and Oklahoma State’s occasional decisions to let other people have the ball.
“I remember one time, we were in this discussion about how to get him in the ball game a little bit more,” Jones says. “One of the coaches made the remark, ‘Hey, Coach, if he’s in there and [QB Mike] Gundy checks to this protection and they blitz the weak-side linebacker, he might not remember who to block.’ It was one of those things, and I said, ‘Well I can solve that right now.’ I just erased the protection. We were gonna get him out there.”
To coaches, blocking for Gundy was just not a productive use of Sanders’ time.
18 Sanders rushed for at least 2 TDs in every 1988 game.
Just counting the 11 non-bowl games, that’s still more than anyone else ever.
19 Sanders rushed for at least 3 TDs in 9 of 12 games.
The NCAA counts this as 8 out of 11, which allowed Colorado State’s Kapri Bibbs to tie him in 2013. This is another one where, in reality, Sanders isn’t tied with anyone.
20 Sanders had 4 300-yard rushing games in one season.
That’s a solo record. A solo career record.
22 Rolling in Sanders’ return game, he averaged a record 295.5 all-purpose yards per game.
And on this one, we’re just going with the NCAA’s accounting, because in keeping with this sport’s statistical sloppiness over the years, Sanders’ receiving and returning stats for that Holiday Bowl aren’t readily available
23 Sanders was hard for a voracious media to wrangle all year.
Here’s a funny story from the Billings Gazette, a Montana newspaper:
Writers from around the country flocked to Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklah., for a major interview last week with running back Bary Sanders — tantamount to his anointment as sudden heir to the Heisman Trophy. So where was Barry Sanders?
The media were grumbling (as in, how dare he bite the hand that would feed him college football’s top prize?), when, finally, OSU’s sports information office sent a search party, fished Sanders from the school library and delivered him to the publicity makers.
“I was cramming for an exam,” he explained, embarrassed.
Dum roll, please
“I’m not smart enough to be a doctor or lawyer,” Sanders says.”I’ve always been pretty good with numbers, though.”
24 Sanders missed his own Heisman ceremony, because he was playing that weekend ... in Tokyo.
He went over 300 yards against Texas Tech in the Coca-Cola Classic, which I think makes him the only player on an American team to ever eclipse 300 yards in a game outside North America. The NCAA studied the tape and credited him with 75 of those yards after the game was over.
25 Sanders, a legendary napper, cared more about sleep than the trophy.
Jones tells this Heisman tale:
“They were gonna bring the truck over there to the hotel to put him on TV. Then we were informed that they didn’t have the capacity to do that. We’ve gotta try to get him to downtown Tokyo … They tell us, ‘You’ve gotta get him down here. We’ll send limos.’ Well, Sanders was a notorious sleeper, OK? He liked sleep. Plus the fact that we gotta get up and eat the pregame meal and go play a real ballgame.
We’re still in the top 10 in the country, and we need to win this ballgame. I was trying to talk them into saying, ‘Hey, do something else and let us kinda go about our business here,’ and then it was such a big deal to the networks, they were putting a ton of pressure on us to get him down there. So I went and got the offensive linemen, who were all his buddies, and the fullback was his buddy. I told him, ‘I’ll make y’all a deal here. OK. You guys get up and you get him up and get him down here, and I’ll take ya down there to the studio with us.’
They thought it was a big deal. Sanders wanted to sleep. All of those linemen and the fullback, that obviously was a big deal. We told whatever network it was, ‘You get a couple more limos, and have ‘em out here, and we’ll bring the whole group down there,’ and they said OK.”
So, Sanders and his linemen took limos to his acceptance video hit.
26 Sanders’ offensive line was good! As Sanders often points out, it deserves credit for helping him have an all-time season.
Let’s just have a laugh at this hole they opened up on a TD against Colorado:
27 Sanders got OSU receiver Hart Lee Dykes into the record books with him.
That’s for “touchdowns scored by two teammates,” with 60. The “Triplets” — Gundy, Sanders, and Dykes — made the 1988 Pokes one of 4 FBS teams in history to have a 2,000-yard passer, a 2,000-yard rusher, and a 1,000-yard receiver at the same time.
28 Sanders even got his brother into the NCAA records.
Did you know this is in the FBS record book?
Most Yards Gained by Two Brothers
You do now.
Byron played at Northwestern. Together, they combined for 3,912 rushing yards in 1988.
29 Imagine being a 1,000-yard rusher in the Big Ten and having fewer rush yards than your little brother by a factor of nearly 3.
Byron was fifth in the Big Ten in rushing in ‘88. The year before that, he had 295 rushing yards in a game, second-most in NU history. And the most memorable thing about his career is the record he got with his brother.
“If you had ever seen my brother run, you would never mistake anyone else for him,” Byron once told a fan.
30 Barry Sanders owns records for rushing yards over spans of 3, 4, or 5 games, whichever one you might want to pick.
- 3 games: 937
- 4 games: 1,152
- 5 games: 1,427
Only Ricky Williams’ absurd 668 in 2 games keeps Sanders from sweeping all of these.
32 Over the years, fans in other conferences have tried to denigrate Sanders’ season by bashing OSU’s strength of schedule. That’s ridiculous.
You’re muttering to yourself, Big Ten/SEC fan, about the Big 12 not playing defense. It’s true that even in the 1980s, the Big 8 was a rootin’ tootin’ conference, though its raw defensive rankings were dragged down by — who else? — Kansas, along with a pre-Bill Snyder Kansas State. But! Sanders faced #16 scoring defense Nebraska (189 rushing yards, 5.4 per carry, 4 rushing TDs), #20 Colorado (174, 7.3, 4), #30 Oklahoma (215, 5.5, 2), and three other above-average defenses.
That’s as many top-30 scoring defenses as Herschel Walker faced in his 1,752-yard Heisman season. And the same number of top-60 defenses. Just for one example.
33 Sanders demolished mediocre teams like the GOAT should’ve, while also getting numbers against good teams.
- Texas A&M allowed 118 rushing yards per non-Barry game. Sanders got 157.
- Tulsa averaged 147 rushing yards allowed to entire teams that didn’t have Barry. Sanders doubled that up, plus tax: 304.
- Nebraska: 122 against non-Sanders teams. Sanders: 189.
34 Quick interjection: Look what Sanders did to Nebraska:
“That Nebraska thing was crazy, and that was a good Nebraska defense,” Jones says. “They had us down. We’re down like 40 points or something, and I’m thinking, ‘They’re gonna score a hundred on us.’ And they couldn’t tackle him, and it ends up 63-42. It’s the most points ever scored against an Osborne team for a long time, and he was just running all over them.”
35 OK. Look what Sanders did to everyone else:
- Oklahoma: 128 against non-Sanders teams. Sanders: 215.
- Iowa State: 235 to whole teams that didn’t have Sanders, and 293 to just Sanders.
- Texas Tech: 228 per game vs. 10 entire teams, 332 to Barry.
- Wyoming: 118 against non-Sanders teams. Sanders: 222.
- And against everyone else on the schedule, his total basically equaled entire average opposing ground games.
36 Do those big totals mean mean Sanders was hogging carries? Not really.
He averaged 7.6 per tote, so feeding him was a good idea (bold take), but he didn’t lead the country in rushes. Sanders’ 344 would’ve been the national high in only one year of that decade, 1984. Normal workhorse total, with paranormal results.
If racking up all-time numbers against ‘80s Big 8 defenses was so easy, why didn’t everybody do it? Pro/College Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas started for OSU in the years prior, and his two best years each fell 1,000 short of Sanders’ ‘88.
“When you had Nebraska, Colorado, Missouri, and the old Big 8, it was a more than credible league defensively,” Jones says.
Using quality of competition as an argument against Barry Sanders, of all people, is weak. Did you not see him haul the sad-ass Lions to half of their all-time post-merger playoff bids?
38 Wow, coaching Sanders seems like it must have been so easy. Pat Jones, did you ever just wanna crack a beer, sit back, and watch him run?
“No, because it was so enthralling,” the head coach says. “Even in practice, he was a good practice player, and we went at it hard. I mean, he would make great 4-yard runs. It didn’t have to be a 59-yard run. Sometimes somebody would get turned loose on him, and he’d make him miss or spin off of him or something like that.”
Jones added: “Virtually every run he made, every time he did anything, even a kick return or catching a pass or whatever, was just like ‘wow, bang.’”
39 Going up against Sanders was a nightmare.
In late September, Jackie Sherrill brought his Texas A&M Aggies to Stillwater. Oklahoma State had only played one game, 2 weeks earlier against Miami (Ohio).
“You knew who he was, but you didn’t know who he was,” Sherrill says now.
Sanders had started the year strong, but through his whole career, he’d mostly been a kick returner behind Thomas. Sherrill and his staff had no idea what they were in for until Sanders ran a draw in the first quarter.
“We really did not know anything about Barry,” Sherrill says. “But it was a shock playing him. Matter of fact, I think it was like third-and-10 the first time he ran a draw play, and you can’t put in the paper what I said.”
Sanders weaved through tacklers for a first down. Sherrill had visions of Tony Dorsett, the Heisman-winning back he’d coached a decade earlier at Pitt.
“His ability to shift and burst, and he never got touched very much, because he had the ability to set the tacklers up, and same thing with Tony,” Sherrill remembers. “Tony was not tackled in the open very much, because he had too many gears in his speed that he could burst, plus Barry had so much east-west movements.”
40 But this is where going up against Sanders was almost like a dream.
“As a coach, you’re trying to figure out how to defend him,” Sherrill says. “But as a coach, you’re also in awe of him.”
He had two rushing touchdowns, including one from 58 yards out, and a 61-yard punt-return score.
42 Take a look at #16 there for Texas A&M, on an island alone with Sanders for a second, before Sanders blows past him and scores.
That’s the Aggies’ punter, sophomore Sean Wilson.
In 1987, his freshman year, Wilson hit one punt that got returned for a touchdown — a 74-yard runback by Texas Tech’s Tyrone Thurman.
Another Wilson punt didn’t get turned into a touchdown until Sanders, in the third game of ‘88, left him sprawled out on his stomach.
No other A&M punts were returned for touchdowns for the rest of 1988. Nor in 1989. Nor in 1990. After this season, Wilson graduated. He never played in the NFL.
On Nov. 4, 2000, Oklahoma State’s Gabe Lindsay was the next player to return an A&M punt for a touchdown. The next guy was Wes Welker. (This was a random internet rabbit hole thing. Let’s get back on course.)
43 Sanders became the rare player to inspire a throwback jersey specifically in his name 30 years later.
44 Calling Sanders’ 1988 the best season in college football history might short the impossibility of what he did.
“It might be in any sport,” Jones says. “This would be like hitting 100 home runs or something in the major leagues, or some kinda thing. Even as time has gone on, again, to think what he did with the touchdown record and the whole thing.
“All records are made to be broken, and they’re playing more games now and all this kinda stuff, but the 2,850 and 42 rushing touchdowns, that’s one that’s gonna hang on for awhile.”