Jared Benko has written letters. the Georgia Southern athletic director has talked about the issue with Archie Manning. Benko has tried to break the veil of secrecy around the voters for the College Football Hall of Fame. The answer doesn’t change: The rules say a head coach must have served 10 years. Erk Russell, for all he did as Georgia Southern’s head coach and as an assistant coach at Georgia, only served eight seasons with the Eagles.
“It’s been talked about for decades about him needing to be in the Hall of Fame,” Benko said.
And now Benko has company in the debate.
Stetson Bennett is a two-time national champion, was the offensive MVP of four college football playoff games and was a Heisman Trophy finalist. And yet he is not deemed eligible for the Hall because he was never a first-team All-American.
Mike Leach, who died in December, helped revolutionize college football with the Air Raid offense and won a lot of games at texas tech, Washington State other Mississippi State. But his career winning percentage — .592 — barely falls below the .600 winning percentage required by the Hall.
And it doesn’t sound like the rules will change any time soon. Steve Hatchell, who runs the National Football Foundation, which oversees the Hall of Fame voting process, was rather adamant when reached this week.
“We have rules, and we stick by them,” he said. “Everything that we do is reviewed every year. But we’ve got a process, and we think the process is a good one.”
This is that process: Every year, nine screening committees spread around the country whittle the list to about 75 names, which are then considered by the NFF’s Honors Court. The NFF does not publicize the members of the Honors Court, only saying there are 22 Members included media members, athletic directors and Hall of Famers. The membership is secret enough that Benko, in his efforts to get the Honors Court to consider Russell, hasn’t found out their names. But he does know the rules:
• Players must have been a first-team All-America by an entity (Associated Press, coaches, etc.) that is recognized by the NCAA, and the player’s college career must be 10 years in the past.
• Coaches must have been an active head coach for a minimum of 10 years and have at least a .600 winning percentage. They must wait three years after they’re done coaching or be at least 70 years old if they’re inactive, 75 years old if they’re active.
The rules have been in place for decades, but they often were thrown aside if proper lobbying was done or someone had a good friend on the selection committee. Ray Graves, who was Florida’s head coach from 1960-69, was one of the coaches who got in with an exception. Graves didn’t meet the 100-win mark (he was 70-31-4), but he got in. There were a few other cases of that among coaches, so when Hatchell, the former Big 12 commissioner, was hired as the NFF executive director in 2004, he did so with the understanding that a more firm line would be drawn.
“The rules have been in place for a long time. The question is have they always been enforced?” Hatchell said. “Since we got here, we were told to be very steadfast about the enforcement of the rules.”
That’s why Johnny Majors isn’t in, for instance. When he finished coaching at Tennessee in 1992 he had a career winning percentage of .622, enough to qualify. But then he went to Pittsburgh and had four losing seasons and knocked his win percentage down to .574.
Howard Schnellenberger isn’t eligible because his career winning percentage is .511, even though he was legendary for launching Miami into a national power by winning a championship in 1983.
Among the players who don’t meet the first-team All-America threshold are Dwight Stephenson (a second-team All-American at Alabama in 1979), Fred Taylor (a third-team All-American at Florida in 1997) and Jason Witten (second-team All-American at Tennessee in 2002). Another one is Hines Ward, never a first-team All-American at Georgia, and Bennett is now set for the same fate.
That’s why Manning — whose son Eli is also not eligible — was asked this week whether the Hall of Fame criteria should change. Manning is the NFF Chairman.
“It possibly could. There have been other situations with people who have had outstanding college careers, or for one reason or another, but the main reason is they’re not a first-team All-American because that’s what it says,” Manning said. “Of course, you could really get long in this conversation.”
One issue, Manning pointed out, is those All-America teams have multiple spots for some positions — guards, tackles, wide receivers, defensive ends, etc. — but only one for quarterback, center and tight end.
“So centers and tight ends and quarterbacks get the short end of that a little bit,” Manning said. “It could be kicked around. There are certainly people out there, Stetson would be a great example, who have had an unbelievable, memorable, hard to compare college career and yet not eligible. So we’ll see.”
It’s also possible the first-team All-America requirement is outdated in the College Football Playoff era, as the All-America teams are compiled before the Playoff and bowls. Bennett’s performance in this year’s two playoff games is a big reason why he got the Manning Award for the best quarterback, which specifically waits until the entire season is done.
But the Hall does get a defense from UGA historian Loran Smith, who has never been an Honors Court voter and who knew Russell well. Smith also remembered the pre-2004 days, when lobbying and the buddy system among coaches led to a sense it had become too subjective and a line had to be drawn somewhere.
“There’s got to be some criteria that’s elite and special,” Smith said.
But Smith also thinks an exception eventually needs to be made in Bennett’s case, recommending something akin to an extraordinary circumstance exemption.
“So many people in the hall never won a national championship. But if you quarterback two teams to a national championship, I do think that’s an extraordinary circumstance,” Smith said.
The rules are not arbitrary, Smith added, they were put in after plenty of research. And they came out of an attempt at fairness in evaluating a sport with different conferences across a wide country and where playing careers are short.
“We don’t have 10 years to evaluate like the NFL does. We have a three- or four-year span at the most to evaluate somebody,” Hatchell said. “There’s a lot of things that come up because people are fans, and they love their people. Each school has their guys. We get that. They’re passionate about their program and passionate about their players. But at the same time, you want to make sure it’s fair across the board. When you’re looking at all levels of programs, and all coaches and all players, you just want to make sure that it’s fair for everybody.”
There is, however, some possible wiggle room.
Schools are free to nominate whomever they like, even if they’re not technically eligible. It’s just up to the NFF’s screening committee and Honors Court to waive the rules, which they did before 2004 but not since then.
“I understand guidelines can serve as guardrails. But there’s always exceptions to the rules,” Benko said. “You look at someone like Erk Russell, who won three national championships in eight years. And had a long history and won a national championship at Georgia. He’s a great case in point of someone who has earned, in my opinion, a reconsideration. I totally understand both for a former student-athlete and coach there being guardrails. But I also think there’s gotta be opportunities for people who warrant an extra review for achievements above and beyond, or additional achievements, in and outside of those rules.”
But for now, the rules are the rules. Hatchell understands the sentiment. He attended Georgia’s national championship celebration and saw how Bennett was cheered. Hatchell was friends with Leach, who was generous to the NFF. And Hatchell doesn’t come out and say the rules are forever and thus Bennett, Leach and Russell never could get in.
“We understand the emotion of the minute; we understand what the person did, but we’ve got the rules, and we like the rules,” Hatchell said. “That doesn’t mean that maybe they could, but in our opinion, there hasn’t been any movement to really change that yet.”
(Top photo of Stetson Bennett: Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)