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November 19, 2010

Eagle5 on AU: Some kid named Vincent Jackson

"There are many methods for predicting the future. For example, you can read horoscopes, tea leaves, tarot cards, or crystal balls. Collectively, these methods are known as "nutty methods". Or you can put well-researched facts into sophisticated computer models, more commonly referred to as "a complete waste of time". - Scott Adams (Dilbert cartoonist)

Predicting the development of a high school athlete in collegiate level competition, particularly football, is an unenviable task.

When the evaluations fail, it is ultimately, a coach killer. There are too many variables and potential "derailers" including work ethic, off the field problems, and classroom problems before you even factor in how the athlete fares in on the field competition against the best of the best.

But predict we must - and what once were "nutty" cottage industries during the annual magazine and dial-up internet days are now big money darlings of Yahoo, ESPN, and others in the Internet sports space. With apologies to Scott Adams, the computer models and methods for predicting a high school prospect's upside may in some respects be a "complete waste of time", but it is an extraordinarily lucrative one with insatiable consumers glued to their keyboards and mobile devices.

Florida head coach Urban Meyer certainly got it right in the talent evaluation department in first signing the player who is dominating both the playing field and the airwaves this season - Cameron Newton.

Auburn's knight in shining Under Armour enters Iron Bowl week with a likely insurmountable lead for the 2010 stiff-arm trophy, unless he is halted by a new defensive formation known as the 'tabloid smear".

More compellingly, Newton's triple threat exploits are being discussed in apples and oranges comparisons with Auburn legend Vincent "Bo" Jackson, and without complaint of sacrilege from Tiger faithful. That, my friends, is a stout drink of Toomer's lemonade indeed.

Meyer did, however, fail abysmally in the succession management department as Gator Heisman winner and national championship quarterback Tim Tebow opted to return for his senior season. Newton's remarkably "adult" and strategic decision to leave the SEC and develop on the field - an idea incubated by his father, Cecil Newton - was a development that Meyer underestimated in terms of opportunity cost. (Note to today's sham sports journalists, who go to print without even cursory media research . . . Cameron Newton did not leave the Florida program because of a laptop computer episode. He departed voluntarily for playing time and development in lieu of holding the clipboard for Meyer another year.)

And just as Auburn Coach Gene Chizik was unable to see the full range of Cam Newton's game-changing talent in 2010 spring drills, Meyer made perhaps the miscalculation of the decade in valuing Gator quarterback John Brantley as the logical Tebow successor over the most dangerous, complete quarterback in perhaps the last 20 years. So confident was Meyer about his quarterback stockpile that he did not bother to sign one in the 2008 signing class, and the 2010 season found him shuffling Brantley and true freshman Trey Burton like the Ole Ball Coach in a desperate attempt to pull his sputtering Model T of an offense out of the ditch.

In the early 1980's, any number of SEC coaches and talent evaluators inexplicably overlooked and misjudged a game-changing talent whose combination of speed, size, strength and competitive fire have yet to be replicated - though Cam Newton is closing fast.

By now, it's a legendary recruiting "big miss" that in some respects is the mother lode of all blown prospect evaluations, at least as measured by the number of colleges offering or the intensity of the recruiting battle. No, not Ryan Perriloux (LSU), Tray Blackmon (AU), Xavier Lee (FSU), or Mitch Mustain (Arkansas), all abysmal 5-star failures that left egg on evaluators' faces. This big miss unfolded almost 30 years ago, yet its lessons on the recruiting landscape live on like Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

Vincent "Bo" Jackson, arguably the poster child for the inexactness of evaluating high school football talent, as most Auburn followers know, was not even considered by pundits the top running back prospect in the state of Alabama. The in-state media considered Alan Evans the top running back prospect.

One Auburn fan quipped recently, "I'm not entirely certain Bo wasn't actually some emerging evolutionary link in human development". If you were fortunate to see Bo in a live game setting, you would not consider the statement tongue-in-cheek. How is it that vital data on such a rare athletic specimen was so woefully miscalculated or undiscovered beyond the borders of Bo's home state? The answer is in part the lack of 24/7/365 exposure that existed in the early 1980's. Al Gore had not as yet invented the Internet as we know it, there was no Army All-American game, and it was actually possible for an SEC coaching staff to "hide" a superstar recruit until signing day.

Bo Jackson's recruitment is such a potent Exhibit A in the people's case against blue chip prospect star ratings, that his recruiting tale should be dusted off and retold as if required ninth grade reading at least every few years in the futile hope that star-gazing recruitniks will learn from history (which of course, we will not). I'm here to help, and besides, does any Auburn fan really ever get tired of Bo Jackson stories? Not this one.

In 1980, a Berry High School athlete some will recall by the name of Tom Powers won the state of Alabama decathlon in impressive fashion. His teammate, Andy Measel, finished 3rd. One year later, Powers was the favorite to repeat in the state decathlon his senior year. A less familiar McAdory athlete by the name of Vincent Jackson finally gave in to pressure that he should attempt the decathlon. As Bo had never pole vaulted or thrown the discus, he taught himself to do so in one day.

Measel recently recounted the day's competition from the 1981 event. Vincent Jackson was observed in the long jump soaring past the pit, and slightly injuring an ankle. "Who was that?" a bystander inquired of an official. "Some kid named Vincent Jackson," came the infamous reply.

Jackson won the Alabama state high school decathlon with a record point total, and also set a record in winning the 100 meters. Remarkably, Vincent "Bo" Jackson would go on to score the maximum 1,000 points in every decathlon event, with the exception of the 400 meters.

Despite sitting out one of the decathlon events (the 1500 meters) due to his ankle injury, Bo had built up such a point lead that he would win the 1981 decathlon. In-staters were becoming aware of his athletic prowess, and while recruited hard by Auburn and Alabama, Bo Jackson would fly largely under the recruiting radar.

The recruitment of Vincent "Bo" Jackson was largely an in-state, rather quiet battle between the Iron Bowl rivals. As is often the case with such a big, physical athlete, there was not even consensus as to what position Bo was being recruited to play. There was Alabama, confused over whether Bo would fit best at fullback or on defense at the safety spot, and Auburn, recruiting Bo as a back in the Wishbone. And as is a cliché by now, the best 1981 running back prospect in America was not even considered the best running back recruit in the state of Alabama. That media bestowed honor went to Alan Evans of Enterprise, who garnered Parade All American honors while "some kid named Vincent Jackson" labored in a degree of anonymity by comparison.

Two years later, as the Auburn Tigers would line up for the point after attempt following yet another Bo Jackson Iron Bowl touchdown, ABC TV color analyst Frank Broyles would proclaim, "Keith, Bo Jackson is the best player in America that America has never heard of!"

Bo would pile up an astonishing 258 rushing yards in that 1983 Iron Bowl which landed Auburn the SEC crown and a Sugar Bowl trip.

And, begging the pardon of the boss hog, Frank Broyles, maybe America didn't "know Bo", but in the state of Alabama, the Bo Over the Top buzz was still vibrating the girders of "neutral" Legion Field from 1982. One Alabama assistant in particular, Ken Donahue, knew painfully well about # 34. Donahue's epitaph should read, "Here lies the Bama assistant coach who absolutely blew the recruitment of the best running back in the history of college football."

Donahue's tragic flaw in recruiting Bo was not a new one for the Tide program - arrogance. He explained to Bo that he would redshirt and probably get playing time on defense or possibly at fullback by his junior season at Alabama. When Bo revealed that he was considering Auburn, Donahue became red-faced, and assured him that if he attended Auburn, he ". . . would never beat the Tide in his four years". As it turned out, it only took Bo Jackson "60 minutes" to beat the Tide, as foreshadowed by Coach Dye in his first presser in the Loveliest Village.

In recent years, Donahue's son, Pat, offered a curious defense of his father's failed recruitment of Jackson. "I am sorry that Bo played for the wrong team," wrote the younger Donahue, "but his talent was a joy to watch. He was the most talented college running back I ever saw, and I think would have been considered one of the best ever in the pros if he hadn't gotten hurt so early. Taking into account the whole package, running, blocking, catching, no fumbling, and doing what you are supposed to do off the field, I wouldn't trade Johnny Musso or Major Olgivie for anybody, not even Bo."

Clearly the apple did not fall far from the tree when it comes to talent evaluation.

As the magical run of the 2010 Tigers unfolds, the talent evaluation question looms large as the Iron Bowl will be graced in seven days by the most electric player in at least 25 years in America's most fierce rival war. Has talent discovery, and the science of evaluation improved?

Yes, you insist, the conflagration of recruiting services, YouTube and other inexpensive media which allow even prospects of parents to market their son to colleges, and more sophisticated camp evaluations, have dramatically increased ratings reliability. And you would be absolutely correct - but only by degrees. Missed evaluations, and even completely missed players who are in smaller towns or lack the marketing machine of a visible, connected high school head coach or college camp evaluations, are almost as common today as in 1981.

As big a head scratcher as Bo's relatively local and quiet recruitment was the fact of the 51st Heisman Memorial Trophy's closest ever vote, which Bo Jackson narrowly won over runner-up Iowa quarterback Chuck Long. Jackson polled 1,509 points in the balloting of 1,050 electors from the media and former Heisman winners, defeating Long by 45 points, and tallying 31 more first place votes than Long.

Bo's 1985 Heisman resume included rushing for 1,786 yards and scoring 17 touchdowns for the 8-3 1985 Auburn Tigers. Bo had to deal with absurd criticism about his toughness after coming out of the Tennessee and Florida games, both of which Auburn lost, due to injury. "He's been the strength and the heart and the soul that's put Auburn back into the national picture," a proud Coach Pat Dye would say of Jackson.

Birmingham News writer Kevin Scarbinsky recounted Jackson's Heisman Trophy ceremony on that December, 1985 night in New York City. "Five minutes remained before they were to announce the winner of the 51st Heisman Memorial Trophy," wrote Scarbinsky, "symbolic of the best player in college football. Four of the contenders, Auburn's Bo Jackson, Iowa's Chuck Long, Miami's Vinny Testaverde and Michigan's Lorenzo White, sat in the front row of the Downtown Athletic Club's Heisman Room."

"Jackson turned around in his seat toward Mike Hubbard, Auburn associate sports information director. Hubbard asked, "How are you doing?" Jackson answered, "Fine. Where are you going tonight?" Both laughed.

Wasn't Jackson nervous? "I think the people in the second row, they heard my heart beat I was so nervous," Bo would say later.

Last Saturday, as sun set over Jordan-Hare stadium, Bo Jackson stood proudly on the Auburn sideline in the waning moments to watch his own freshman rushing record get passed by freshman running back Mike Dyer. In yet another in his endless Kodak moments, Bo pulled Dyer close, and anointed the head of next great member of Running Back U with a Heisman kiss as the packed house went nuts. Glory was in the air, and the SEC West title clinched without so much as a snap required in the Iron Bowl.

Save a fraternal Heisman embrace for Cameron Newton, Bo. Cam is just a few weeks away from forming a trio of Tiger greats who haul the Heisman hardware to its rightful home where the trophy's namesake once stalked the sideline. Next stop? Mr. Newton has a little business trip to make with his undefeated and BCS second ranked Auburn Tigers to the site of only one Alabama Iron Bowl victory in over a century - Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Do not bet against another legendary performance from the best college football player in the land, and perhaps the last twenty years.


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