Between 1979 and 1982, Eric Dickerson and Craig James formed the Pony Express, one of the most dynamic backfield tandems in college football history.
After rushing for four touchdowns and 296 yards to lead Sealy to the 1978 Texas 2A state high school championship, Dickerson was named the nation’s top prep running back by Parade magazine. Recruited by every major college football power in the nation, he had his heart set on attending Oklahoma. His mother, however, talked him into Southern Methodist University. As a senior, James led Houston Stratford to the 1978 Texas 4A title while setting the single-season state rushing record with 2,411 yards in 15 games. The highly-coveted James picked SMU because his girlfriend, Marilyn Arps, had enrolled there the previous year.
In an era of blatant recruiting violations throughout college football – and particularly within the state of Texas – Dickerson had originally signed with Texas A&M. Upon committing, he famously received a Pontiac Trans-Am that SMU supporters dubbed a “Trans A&M.” Aggressively sought-after by head coach Ron Meyer, a slick talker who had taken over at SMU in 1976, Dickerson changed his mind on signing day. In the fall of 1979, the talented tandem arrived together at SMU. “I never thought they’d go to the same school,” said then-Arkansas head coach Lou Holtz, “then I didn’t think it would last.”
Southern Methodist is a private university located in the leafy Highland Park enclave outside Dallas. For 80 years, it was a charter member of the now-defunct Southwest Conference, which included eight schools from Texas in its nine-team league. When Dickerson and James arrived, the Mustangs had not won a conference championship in more than three decades and had not been to a bowl game since 1968.
During the era of the Pony Express, tiny SMU stood toe-to-toe with SWC powers Texas, Texas A&M, and Arkansas. The Mustangs cracked the top 20 in 1979, earned a trip to the Holiday Bowl the following season, then won the SWC title and finished No. 2 in the nation in 1982.
Named by SMU sports information director Bob Condron, the Pony Express platoon involved Dickerson and James alternating at tailback. The two friends hated the system at first, believing it limited their individual effectiveness. Dickerson wanted to transfer to Oklahoma, but his mother convinced him to stay. “Both knew they were good,” said Lance McIlhenny, SMU’s starting quarterback for most of the Pony Express era. “But together, they knew we were good.”
The pair alternated at tailback for most of their four years, combining for 8,705 rushing yards and 78 total touchdowns. In 44 games in which they both played, they each carried for over 100 yards in the same game 13 times.
“Eric was the best football player I’ve ever seen. They were both strong, fast and neither missed a hole. They both were wearing down defenses in the fourth quarter.” – Bobby Leach, former Pony Express teammate.
As freshman, Meyer often played James and Dickerson together in a primarily passing offense. The speedy Dickerson raced for 123 yards and three touchdowns in the opener against Rice but spent most of the season hampered by injuries. James proved more reliable, outgaining Dickerson 761 yards to 477 en route to being named SWC Offensive Newcomer of the Year.
The following season, Meyer began alternating Dickerson and James at tailback. In the debut of the Pony Express tag team, James romped for 146 yards on 19 carries and Dickerson 85 on 21 as the unranked Mustangs stunned No. 2 Texas 20-6 in Austin. In the 1980 Holiday Bowl – one of the greatest bowl games ever played – Craig James rushed for a record 225 yards and Eric Dickerson added 110.
In 1981, Dickerson began to emerge as one of the nation’s top backs. At 6’3”, 220 pounds, he was shifty, elusive and powerful. As a junior, Dickerson rushed for 1,428 yards to finish sixth in the nation. James was right behind, amassing 1,147 yards as the backfield mates became the fifth duo ever to each average more than 100 yards per game.
Following the 1981 season, Meyer left to take over the hapless New England Patriots. He was replaced by Bobby Collins, hired from Southern Mississippi. After going undefeated through the first nine games of the 1982 season, a 17-17 tie with Arkansas in the final week dropped the Mustangs from second to fourth in the polls. With its shot at the national title gone, SMU beat Dan Marino and Pitt in the Cotton Bowl to finish the season No. 2 behind Penn State, who had beaten top-ranked Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.
As seniors, Dickerson carried 232 times and James 197. The silky-smooth Dickerson had touchdown runs of 80, 80, 79, 70, 63 and 62 yards. He finished with 1,617 yards and 17 touchdowns while averaging an eye-popping seven yards per carry. James ran for 938 yards in 1982. More of a receiving threat than his backfield mate, the talented James was sixth in the nation in punting, having taken over kicking duties midway through his junior season.
The Pony Express arrangement likely cost Eric Dickerson the 1982 Heisman Trophy. Despite rushing for 45 career touchdowns and 4,450 yards to break the great Earl Campbell’s SWC record, Dickerson finished third in Heisman voting, behind Hershel Walker and John Elway. His Heisman quest was hampered by the fact that SMU played no marquee non-conference games that attracted national attention and never appeared on television. “To beat Hershel,” said Condron, “Eric would have had to have 2,000 yards and SMU would have had to win the national championship.”
“Looking back, if I had a lot more carries, I could have gotten hurt or worn down.” – Eric Dickerson, who played eleven NFL seasons before landing in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1999.
SMU went 21-1-1 with two SWC championships in the final two years of the Pony Express. They finished fifth in the polls in 1981 and second the season after. SMU beat all their rival schools during that time, including TCU, Texas and Rice. Six Mustangs were taken in the 1983 NFL draft, including both members of the Pony Express. Dickerson was taken by the Rams with the second overall selection, while James went to the Patriots in the seventh round.
It was said that Eric Dickerson took a pay cut when he left SMU for the NFL. Wealthy SMU boosters – dubbed the Naughty Nine — were paying players. The coaches knew about it, as did Bill Clements, a two-time Texas governor and chairman of the university’s board. SMU ran afoul of the NCAA, which in 1987 issued sanctions commonly known as the death penalty. The 1987 season was canceled, as were all home games for the following year. SMU was not allowed to recruit and lost 55 scholarships over four years. The Mustangs were banned from bowl games for two years and the coaching staff was reduced from nine assistants to five.
The penalties levied against SMU are still the harshest ever levied against a major college football program. The death penalty worked and SMU never recovered. The school dropped football for two years, then managed just one winning season from 1989 to 2008. In 1996, the Southwest Conference disbanded and the once-proud Mustangs have drifted in and out of three conferences since. Winner of three national championships and 13 conference titles, SMU football is now an afterthought. The school that birthed Doak Walker, Kyle Rote, “Dandy” Don Meredith and the Pony Express went 5-7 last season. The last Mustang to be named All-American was placekicker John Stewart, in 1993.
Craig James married Marilyn Arps in 1983 and the couple has four children. After playing two seasons in the USFL, James joined Ron Meyer in New England, where he rushed for 1,227 yards and made the Pro Bowl in 1986. Eric Dickerson led the NFL in rushing four times, including 1984, when he carried for 2,105 yards – still an NFL record. A three-time NFC Offensive Player of the Year, Dickerson was named to the NFL 1980s All-Decade Team. Dickerson says that when he sees Hershel Walker today, he says, “You know you’ve got my Heisman?”