It’s the most familiar hill in the entire United States. Its mere name conjures up thoughts of American history and patriotism.
For nearly 80 years, South Dakota’s Black Hills have served as home to the country’s most recognizable sculpture east of Lady Liberty. Carved into the granite face of Mount Rushmore are the faces of four of the nation’s most iconic presidents — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.
Besides being South Dakota’s most popular tourist destination (by far), Mount Rushmore has carved out its own reputation as a perfect representation of American paragons. There are probably Americans who have never heard of William Henry Harrison or Grover Cleveland, but the names Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln resonate with all.
So, why not use the Mount Rushmore paradigm elsewhere?
It makes sense, right? If someone told you to come up with the Mount Rushmore of Hollywood actors, you wouldn’t have to ask them what they meant by the assignment. These are the biggest of the big names.
So when we set out to come up with the Mount Rushmore for all of the Big 12’s current football programs, it was a task that proved simultaneously simple and challenging. Simple, because of the clarity of what we were seeking. The crème de la crème. Yet challenging, because when a college owns more than a century of football history, it means that some incredibly gifted, memorable figures will be omitted. Heck, Oklahoma has more Heisman Trophy winners (six) than spots on the mountain (four), and you can make a pretty strong argument that the best player in program history didn’t even win a Heisman.
But we took on the task anyway. Just for clarification, we sought to settle on the four most iconic football figures in the history of the school. That means both players and coaches were considered.
Again, we had to make some tough cuts. Only four spots were available for each school. In the case of a few schools – say, an Oklahoma or a Texas – that program’s backup mountain would likely trump anything Iowa State has to offer on its first. But four spots are four spots.
In the end, we relied heavily on the Merriam-Webster definition of iconic – “widely known and acknowledged, especially for distinctive excellence.” The chosen representatives had to be great, and they had to be well-known, certainly within the populace of that fan base.
Without further ado, let’s meet the Big 12’s best rock bands.
BAYLOR: Grant Teaff, Robert Griffin III, Mike Singletary, Lawrence Elkins
Often, the gut reaction is the way to go. Teaff, RG3 and Singletary immediately popped to mind, and with good reason. Teaff – that worm-gargling, miracle-conjuring legend who spent 20 years as the Bears’ head coach – remains the program’s all-time wins leader with 128. Griffin ushered in a new period of success and won the program’s only Heisman in 2011. Singletary broke facemasks and broke records on his way to both the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame.
The fourth spot required more thought and debate. Many Baylor fans who we tasked with this assignment on social media offered the name of Walter Abercrombie, who held Baylor’s all-time rushing record for 35 years before being supplanted by Shock Linwood two seasons ago.
Still others mentioned Art Briles. His inclusion would likely be polarizing, as he is still much-beloved by a segment of Baylor fans for the success he brought to Waco, including back-to-back Big 12 titles in 2013 and ‘14. “If Art never came to Waco, we’d still be playing at Floyd Casey (Stadium),” tweeted Kevin Joyce, a fair assessment.
But Briles’ tenure ended in disgrace, as he was fired in 2016 for his part in the school’s and football program’s mishandling of sexual assault cases. His BU legacy therefore remains complicated.
A better choice would be Elkins, the first two-time consensus All-American Baylor ever produced (1963-64) and a receiving pioneer in an age of plodding Wishbone offenses.
IOWA STATE: Troy Davis, Ed Bock, Dan McCarney, Dexter Green
Iowa State’s Rushmore construction may have been the most challenging of all, mostly because it was nearly impossible to locate any true “icons.” The Cyclones’ football history is more vanilla than the ice cream in the sundaes at Ames’ popular Hickory Park barbecue restaurant.
Troy Davis was a no-brainer. He twice surpassed 2,000 yards rushing in a single season, and finished fifth and second, respectively, in the Heisman voting those years. While not a household name outside of Iowa, Bock was the Cyclones’ first unanimous All-American as an offensive and defensive lineman, and captain of a 1938 team that went 7-1-1.
Here’s a telling stat: McCarney is Iowa State’s winningest all-time coach, with 56 victories, but had an overall winning percentage of .397 in his 12 seasons in Ames. He did guide the Cyclones to five bowl games, though, and is the only coach they’ve ever had who lasted at least a decade.
The fourth spot required some serious excavation. In the end, Green was picked, thanks in part to the running back’s role in helping Iowa State to rare back-to-back victories over Nebraska in 1976 and ‘77.
KANSAS: Gale Sayers, John Hadl, John Riggins, Mark Mangino
Wouldn’t the true Kansas Mount Rushmore have to be James Naismith, Wilt Chamberlain, Danny Manning and Bill Self?
Naturally, KU’s basketball history casts a much longer shadow than what the football program has ever produced. Nevertheless, Sayers – the Kansas Comet – is arguably the most gifted athlete ever to step on campus. Given his place in inspiring Brian’s Song, he’d also be a lock for the Teammate Hall of Fame.
As great as Sayers was, Hadl was actually selected as Kansas’ player of the century. He played both ways and was an All-American at both halfback and quarterback before embarking on a 15-year pro career. Before he ever took his spot behind “The Hogs” for the Washington Redskins, Riggins broke Sayers’ all-time KU rushing record and helped the Jayhawks reach the 1969 Orange Bowl.
And speaking of big bowl games, KU’s Mount Rushmore wouldn’t be complete without Mount Mangino, who led the program to four straight winning seasons from 2005-08, including a 12-1 Orange Bowl year in 2007.
KANSAS STATE: Bill Snyder, Mark Simoneau, Michael Bishop, Collin Klein
Any K-State monument has to start with Snyder. The school had virtually no football history to speak of before his arrival in 1989, as it was saddled with the worst all-time record of any Division I program. He remade the Wildcats into a tough team that didn’t beat itself, and has led K-State to 20 bowl appearances and two conference championships since. (Plus, you know, his name is on the stadium.)
Simoneau, Bishop and Klein are three of the best players that Snyder ever coached. Simoneau registered 400 tackles as a field-covering linebacker, and became K-State’s second-ever College Football Hall of Famer in 2012. Bishop went 22-3 as K-State’s starting quarterback, lifting the Wildcats as high as No. 2 in the nation in his senior year of 1998. And if the “Wildcat Offense” had a face, it would be Collin Klein, who finished 16th all-time in NCAA history in rushing touchdowns (56) despite playing quarterback.
OKLAHOMA: Bud Wilkinson, Lee Roy Selmon, Barry Switzer, Billy Sims
More than 150 All-Americans. Six Heisman winners. Seven national championship teams.
Yeah, Oklahoma’s football history is better than your favorite school’s.
As such, settling on a fearsome foursome for the Sooners is a daunting task. Or is it? Bud Wilkinson has to be on the hill, no question. He coached OU to three national championships (1950, ’55 and ’56) and an NCAA-record 47-game winning streak.
“(Wilkinson) created the monster. Barry (Switzer) and Bob (Stoops) fed the monster in different eras, and I honestly don’t know how you pick one over the other,” said Norman resident Dave Grogan, a Sooner season ticket holder since the 1980s.
“OU could have a separate Rushmore for just coaches,” said Tulsa radio personality John Hoover.
Here’s how you separate Switzer and Stoops: By a simple mathematic formula. Switzer won three national titles, Stoops only one. Thus, the Bootlegger’s Boy belongs on the monument.
That leaves a couple of player spots, and Lord knows that Lee Roy Selmon has to take one of them. Selmon is generally regarded as OU’s best-ever player, as a defensive wrecking ball who helped the Sooners win national titles in 1974 and ’75.
OK, now we’re down to one spot, and a host of luminaries. Do you like Heisman-winning QBs? How about Steve Owens, Jason White, Sam Bradford or, most recently, Baker Mayfield? Or maybe you prefer transcendent defensive forces like the “Boz,” Brian Bosworth. How about QBs who won national titles, like Josh Heupel or Jamelle Holieway or Jimmy Harris, the Wilkinson-era signal caller who never lost a game as a starter?
Ultimately, we’re bypassing all of those greats and settling on Billy Sims, the greatest of a host of great OU backs who won the Heisman in 1978 and finished second in the voting in ’79.
OKLAHOMA STATE: Barry Sanders, Mike Gundy, Bob Fenimore, Thurman Thomas
The finest player to ever come through Stillwater is unquestionably Barry Sanders. His 1988 season may be the greatest ever recorded in college football history.
After Barry, longtime Oklahoma State fans would hog-tie anyone who didn’t include Bob Fenimore in a short list of all-time Cowboy legends. Fenimore led then-Oklahoma A&M to a national title in 1945, and the “Blond Bomber” was the first two-time All-American in school history.
Gundy was an underrated quarterback at OSU, as he held the NCAA record for most interception-free passes to start a career until Baylor’s Robert Griffin III broke it. More notably, Gundy stands out as the Cowboys’ most accomplished coach, with a 114-53 record and 12 bowl appearances. (John Hoover correctly noted that Gundy’s mug on the mountain would have to include his now-infamous mullet.)
It wasn’t easy leaving off Justin Blackmon, one of only two men (along with Texas Tech’s Michael Crabtree) to win the Biletnikoff Award twice. However, the final nod goes to Thurman Thomas, a Hall of Fame running back who for a time relegated none other than Barry Sanders to second string.
TCU: Sammy Baugh, Davey O’Brien, LaDainian Tomlinson, Gary Patterson
For the smallest school in the Big 12, TCU has produced some of college football’s most lasting names. The Frog-whittling assignment may have been the hardest of the entire lot, as TCU has five to six legitimate, no-introduction-required icons.
Start with Sammy Baugh, considered by some historians to be football’s all-time greatest player. (He also played basketball and baseball for the Frogs, too.) It seems essential to include Davey O’Brien as well, given that he earned such acclaim as a TCU quarterback that the award for the top quarterback in the land now carries his name.
Dutch Meyer was a tough scratch. He won 109 games in 18 years as TCU coach and led the Frogs to national championships in 1935 and ’38. But is he as widely known – part of that iconic definition -- as Baugh or O’Brien? Probably not.
A convincing case could also be made for Bob Lilly, who went on to become one of the top players in Dallas Cowboys history following his days in Fort Worth.
And yet LaDainian Tomlinson and Gary Patterson are the ideal modern-day choices. LT twice led the NCAA in rushing and set the single-game rushing record with 406 yards against UTEP. (The mark has since been surpassed twice.) And while Baylor fans might derisively dub Patterson as Coach Stompy Foot, nobody can deny that he has built a previously moribund program into one of the more consistent winners in America.
TEXAS: Darrell Royal, Earl Campbell, Ricky Williams, Tommy Nobis
When you’re talking Longhorn royalty, you always start with Darrell Royal. He’s not just one of the more influential figures that the University of Texas has ever produced, but the entire state. Like Bill Snyder at Kansas State, Texas thinks enough of Royal that it named its stadium after him.
As with Oklahoma, the list of potential Rushmore candidates is as long as Bevo’s horns. From Bobby Layne to Britt Hager to Eric Metcalf to Colt McCoy to Waco’s own Derrick Johnson, the Longhorns are not short on guys who made a significant impact.
It feels right, though, that UT’s two Heisman winners should be on the rock. The Tyler Rose, Earl Campbell, shredded defenses on his way to 4,443 career rushing yards. Some 20 years later, Ricky Williams basically mimicked Campbell’s game-breaking ability in casting forth a new era of success for the program.
Surely you could include James Street or Vince Young – a couple of QBs who led Texas to national titles – and you’d feel just fine about your choice. Mack Brown is no slouch, either, as the only UT coach not named Royal to win a national championship.
But our vote goes to Tommy Nobis, a nod to the best defender ever to suit up for the Longhorns. In 1965, Nobis (who also started at offensive guard in addition to linebacker) won the Knute Rockne Trophy, the Outland Award and the Maxwell Award, while finishing seventh in voting for the Heisman.
TEXAS TECH: Donny Anderson, Michael Crabtree, Zach Thomas, Gabriel Rivera
Texas Tech’s motto is “guns up,” and it’s fitting for the league’s westernmost program that owns kind of wild, gunslinging history.
There’s always a lock, and Anderson is it for Tech. The Golden Palomino galloped past defenses during his days in Lubbock, earning All-America honors in 1964 and ’65. He later won a pair of NFL championships with Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers.
Crabtree has a resume unmatched by most receivers. He set eight NCAA records and was the first player ever to win the Biletnikoff Award twice, in 2007 and ’08. He’s one of only five Tech players to ever be named a unanimous All-American, and one of the other four is Zach Thomas, a two-time Southwest Conference Defensive Player of the Year as a wrecking ball linebacker.
For the final spot, linebacker/center E.J. Holub and receiver Dave Parks, who are enshrined in Tech’s Ring of Honor, deserve consideration. And it’s hard to overlook Tech’s modern-day reputation of a quarterback factory, with the likes of Kliff Kingsbury, Graham Harrell, B.J. Symons and Patrick Mahomes racking up passing records galore. Certainly, if there was a Mount Rushmore of quotable coaches, Spike Dykes would fit the bill.
In the end, though, how can you pass up Rivera, nicknamed Senor Sack? Don Williams, longtime Texas Tech beat writer for the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, labeled Rivera “probably the best defensive player Tech has ever had.”
WEST VIRGINIA: Don Nehlen, Sam Huff, Rich Rodriguez, Major Harris
Finally, our country roads take us to West Virginia, where the smoke from those burning couches signals that they play pretty good football there, too.
Nehlen is the program’s preeminent coaching icon. He won 149 while coaching the Mountaineers from 1980-2000, and twice led WVU to top 10 national finishes. Yet that’s actually one less top 10 finish than Rodriguez mustered in his seven marvelous years in Morgantown.
Huff embodies the state of West Virginia – he grew up in tiny Edna, W.Va., in a house with no running water. But he developed into the program’s best-ever player, and Sports Illustrated once picked him as the No. 6 best overall athlete to come out of the state, after Jerry West, Mary Lou Retton, Hack Wilson, Randy Barnes and Hal Greer.
And then there’s Major Harris. The native of nearby Pittsburgh quarterbacked the Mountaineers to the program’s first unbeaten, untied regular season in 1988 and a berth in the Fiesta Bowl against No. 1 Notre Dame. The next year he finished third in the Heisman voting.
After one broken play against Penn State where Harris eluded seven tacklers on his way to a touchdown, Nehlen remarked, “If there was a contest for most exciting player, Major would win it hands-down.”