It’s the 30th anniversary of Marcus Allen’s 1981 Heisman Trophy-winning campaign, when the senior from USC became the first player in NCAA history to top 2,000 rushing yards in a season.
Heismanpundit’s David Caple ran into Allen at Pac-12 media day and got him to talk about that season as well as offer his opinion on some current running backs:
DC: Do you recall going to the Pac-10 Media Day when you were in school?
Allen: No. We didn’t have that and, if we did, I don’t remember because it was so long ago.
DC: You started out at USC as a defensive back, then moved to fullback before becoming a tailback. Talk about your development as a runner.
Allen: I think a lot of people didn’t realize it at the time, but as you mentioned my switch from fullback to running back, it did take some time for me to develop. I hadn’t played running back since I was an 11-year-old kid. So I first transitioned into fullback and that was a challenging year and a tough position to play. I was undersized but I learned a lot, which helped me later in my development as a tailback.
DC: What were you thinking heading into that 1981 season?
Allen: I really anticipated having a great year. I felt that I had one full season underneath me, the year prior, my junior year, and that really helped me out. I sort of got a chance to really understand the game, understand what was required, understand what the defense was trying to do and understand my offensive blocking scheme. So I felt really confident coming into my senior year that I knew those things.
DC: When did you start to feel natural at tailback?
Allen: I always say there are two types of players: Those who know and those who don’t know and, early on, I didn’t know what I was doing. But after a lot of hard work and gathering as much information as possible, I really knew what to expect and I knew what I was going to be faced with. I knew every position on the offensive line and what they were going to do on every single blocking play, so it became very comfortable to me.
DC: You were on the 1979 USC team with fellow Heisman winner Charles White. How did his winning the Heisman motivate you? Did you go into your senior season saying “my goal is the Heisman, he’s done it before me and I know I’m capable of that” or did you just start to feel it as you were half way through the season racking up 200 yard games on your way to over 2,000 yards?
Allen: My ambition when I was a kid was to win the Heisman. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but as fate would have it, I ended up being put in that position. Of course, blocking for Charlie and sharing in the excitement of helping him win the award certainly made it feel more tangible. When I got the opportunity to play tailback, it was obviously something I had experienced the year before, but it was something I had thought about as a kid, too. I knew I was at the right school for it, I knew I was going to get the opportunity to do it and it was just a matter of us as a group doing what was necessary for that opportunity to come to fruition.
DC: Have you seen LaMichael James play at all? What do you think about him?
Allen: He’s an awfully good back. He’s explosive, he’s fast, he’s quick and he’s ideal for the spread and the hurry up offense they have at Oregon. I expect great things from him this year. Being a fan of running backs and watching their unique styles is always fun and I love to see these guys do their thing. I know all tailbacks have one common denominator and that is that we all believe that we are the best athletes on the field. I think you have to have that attitude. It’s not approaching arrogance or anything like that, it’s just a belief you have to have to in order to be really good because we always have been told that the fortunes of the team rely on the running backs. You can throw the ball all over the place but eventually you have to settle down and really play football. That means running the ball and moving the chains, especially in the latter part of the games when it is necessary to kill the clock or when the weather become inclement and you really have to run the ball well.
DC: USC’s Marc Tyler got in a little bit of heat for talking about to TMZ. More then just that issue what do you think the running back corps at USC is going to look like this year and how do you think USC is going to do in general?
Allen: I’m expecting good things. First of all, I’m saddened by what happened and I think the lesson learned there is that drinking is not good, period. Marc is a good kid and obviously the alcohol made him make a very bad choice and that’s the lesson for all athletes in general, people in general and especially young people, that’s just something they should stay away from. I know he’s facing a one game suspension. Hopefully he will come back and redeem himself and make everyone proud and make himself proud and make his family proud because I know that was a dark moment for him and his family. I expect him to rebound and I expect SC to be good despite the fact that we don’t have as many scholarship players and we are ineligible for bowl games this year. We are going to have ten fewer scholarships so it’s going to be a challenge, but we expect great things despite that.
We bid Allen adieu and then also ran into Duane Lindberg, who currently works in PR for the Pac-12, but who was the assistant sports information director who handled Allen’s media relations in 1981:
DC: What do you think about now when you look back on that 1981 season?
Lindberg: At the time it was the yards per game that Marcus produced. I think he had something like five consecutive games where he rushed for 200 or more yards. I think back on it and, when you’re younger you look at it differently, but when you get older you think about it and he was carrying the football 35-40 times a game and was extremely durable and productive. I kind of marvel in retrospect thinking about what he did, carrying the load of a team his senior year and then to go on and play professionally for the duration of time he did. He is just a marvel of genetics and a very special individual.
DC: Talk about the buildup of his campaign as the season progressed.
Lindberg: It’s very interesting because there are so many awards now and back then there were really only two, the Heisman and the Walter Camp. Marcus ended up winning both. We didn’t have the internet, so we only had the traditional print media which we had to service the most and we had a little bit of local TV. You didn’t have every single game televised like you do today. When ABC would come to town you had a big buildup during the week and there were a lot of requests for interviews. There was never an individual that was more solid in terms of upholding his responsibilities than Marcus. Whenever we would schedule interviews and media opportunities for him he would be there and he was gracious and he never got into trouble. He was a model citizen.
DC: What stuck in your memory about the Heisman ceremony and going to New York?
Lindberg: I didn’t actually go to the Heisman ceremony. I went to the Walter Camp ceremony with Marcus in Philly. When we arrived in Philadelphia they asked Marcus if he wanted to go to Atlantic City, so next thing you we drove down there in a limo and Marcus and I walked around Atlantic City.
When we got to the casino a considerable amount of people surrounded Marcus and the casino was using that to their advantage. I remember having to get back to the ceremony that night, so we had to get going but — and this I’ll never forget — the guys from the casino said not to worry about driving, they would just take us back to Philly in the helicopter. But both Marcus and I said ‘No, no, we’ll take the car.’ They were ready to grab a helicopter on the spur of the moment and take us from Atlantic City to Philadelphia!
Allen ran for 2,342 yards and 23 touchdowns in 1981. He beat out Herschel Walker, Jim McMahon, Dan Marino and Art Schlicter for the Heisman and then went on to a storied NFL career.
His 1981 season will always be remembered as one of the best in Heisman history.