MADISON, Wis. — The general consensus from fans and media members seemed to be that former University of Wisconsin running back Ron Dayne was a shoo-in as a first-ballot College Football Hall of Famer this year.
All the previous accolades indicated Dayne would be a worthy recipient — Heisman Trophy winner, all-time FBS rushing leader, three-time All-American. The fact Dayne’s former coach, Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, served as a Hall of Fame selection committee member made his case even stronger.
Yet Dayne himself hadn’t put much thought into it. When people called or texted their congratulations to him in the days leading up to Tuesday’s announcement, he asked: “For what?” When a package with a specially designed Hall of Fame football featuring Dayne’s named arrived in the mail Monday, he didn’t even know of its existence. His girlfriend had left the package downstairs somewhere.
By Tuesday morning, however, when Dayne finally discovered the box and learned of his induction into the National Football Foundation’s 2013 College Football Hall of Fame class, he couldn’t contain his elation.
“I just can’t stop smiling,” Dayne said Tuesday afternoon during a news conference. “I’m just excited and am happy, especially for me and my teammates. We worked on it as a team. All the stuff that I’m getting and the stuff that I got, it was from teamwork. It’s just great to be able to come back and still get awards.
“My cousin called me this morning. He was like, ‘Man, you’re still getting awards and you aren’t even playing football.’ It’s just great.”
During his Wisconsin career, Dayne carried the ball 1,220 times for 7,125 yards and 71 touchdowns. He became the only player in college football history to rush for more than 7,000 yards, including bowl games. And he remains college football’s all-time career rushing leader with 6,397 yards, which excludes bowl games. The mark bettered the previous record of 6,279 yards set by Texas’ Ricky Williams one year earlier.
Dayne put together an especially noteworthy senior year in 1999. That year, he rushed for 2,034 yards and won the Heisman Trophy, the Maxwell Award, the Doak Walker Award, the Chicago Tribune Silver Football and was a unanimous, consensus first-team All-American.
For an idea as to how dominant Dayne was at Wisconsin, consider that he single-handedly outrushed the opposing team 29 times in 43 career starts. He went on to become the first three-time Big Ten rushing champion.
“No one’s more deserving than Ron,” Alvarez said during Tuesday’s news conference. “I said in that meeting to rush for more yards than anyone in the history of college football — and really he’s minus 800 yards that they didn’t count for bowl games — he’s very deserving. It’s an honor for me to have coached him. I’m thrilled for him.”
During the selection meetings, Alvarez said, each of the 75 players up for consideration were discussed one at a time. Those players or coaches with ties to the nominee then shared his thoughts, and notes were made on every candidate.
When it was Dayne’s turn for consideration, Alvarez said he shared a story about Dayne from his freshman season in 1996 to illustrate his durability. He mentioned Dayne carried the ball 49 times, 51 times and 47 times over the course of three straight games. In one game against Minnesota, he carried the ball on the first 17 plays.
“Roy Kramer, the old commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, said, ‘What did he carry, 1.9 a carry?'” Alvarez said. “But he was durable. It’s not just about yardage, it’s about consistency over a four-year period, staying healthy.”
Dayne made his name known in college football circles immediately by rushing for a then-FBS freshman record 1,863 yards during the 1996 regular season. Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson broke the freshman record with 1,925 yards in 2004. Dayne added 246 yards and Copper Bowl MVP honors to finish the season with 2,109 yards despite not starting the first four games of the season.
As a sophomore, Dayne was a finalist for the Doak Walker Award and a first-team All-American from College Football News. He missed two full games and parts of two others and still ranked fifth nationally with an average of 142.0 rushing yards per game.
During his junior season, Dayne again was a Doak Walker Award finalist, leading the Big Ten in rushing and earning Walter Camp first-team All-America honors. He led the Badgers’ upset of No. 6 UCLA in the 1999 Rose Bowl, rushing for 246 yards and earning game MVP honors. That game also set the stage for his Heisman Trophy campaign the following season.
Dayne helped lead UW to back-to-back Big Ten titles and Rose Bowl championships in 1998 and 1999. A member of the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame, he is one of just four players to ever be named the Rose Bowl most valuable player twice. He would go on to play seven seasons in the NFL before retiring in 2007.
Dayne said he missed the camaraderie of being around teammates and working toward achieving a goal. But his life is fulfilled, he said, because he spends time with his four kids. He also owns a gym in Madison called Champion Style Athletics and makes promotional appearances for UW and Miller Brewing Company.
“I like running around, seeing my kids,” Dayne said. “It’s crazy. They’re in all kinds of sports. My daughter is a freshman. She’s on the varsity team. My oldest son is in seventh grade. He’s playing baseball, football, basketball, everything. Then my youngest boy, he does everything, too. He’s running around and playing soccer, basketball, baseball, flag football. It’s kind of fun when I get to see them, kind of compete with them.
“I told them I’m going to beat them till they’re 18. I have to stay in some kind of shape, running around, shooting. I got to fake (daughter) Jada out now because I think she’s almost right there as fast as me. I told her when she can beat me in the 40, she’ll get a car. She’s almost there. She’s working on it.”
Dayne’s No. 33 was officially retired by Wisconsin in 2007. He was elected to the UW Athletics Hall of Fame in 2009.
He becomes the 13th former Badgers player or coach to be elected to the College Football Hall of Fame. The most recent inductee was Alvarez, who is a member of the Class of 2010. Dayne is the fourth former UW running back in the Hall of Fame, joining Wisconsin’s only other Heisman Trophy winner, Alan Ameche, along with Pat Harder and Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch.
Dayne said he didn’t know if a player would come along and challenge his rushing record, which has now stood for 13 years.
“Maybe if they get a coach like Coach Alvy that’s going to let you run the ball and carry it as much as you want, as much as you can handle,” Dayne said. “A lot of teams are still running the ball. Hopefully a guy has an opportunity now that they count the bowl games for the guys to get close to it and be able to, I can go and pass the ball off or something.”
Dayne, 35, was one of 12 players and two coaches to be elected in the Class of 2013 and will officially be inducted at the National Football Foundation Annual Awards Dinner on Dec. 10 in New York City.
The other members of the Class of 2013 are: North Carolina State running back Ted Brown, Arizona defensive end Teddy Bruschi, Nebraska quarterback Tommie Frazier, Texas defensive back Jerry Gray, Kentucky end Steve Meilinger, Ohio State offensive lineman Orlando Pace, Oklahoma linebacker Rod Shoate, Michigan State linebacker Percy Snow, Baylor quarterback Don Trull, Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel, Miami quarterback Vinny Testaverde, Navy coach Wayne Hardin and Colorado coach Bill McCartney.
To qualify for the Hall of Fame, a player must have been a first-team All-American, have played within the last 50 years and be retired from professional football. Of the roughly 4.92 million players to have played college football since its inception in 1869, just 930 players and 202 coaches have been elected to the Hall of Fame — roughly two ten-thousandths of a percent.
Alvarez, who said Dayne was a unanimous Hall of Fame choice, noted Dayne’s impact on Wisconsin football was felt even today.
“I think anyone today that follows college football, when you mention Wisconsin, I think they picture Ron carrying the ball and us running the ball,” Alvarez said. “I think that describes the brand of football that we established here, and that’s how everybody pictures it.”
Now, everybody can picture Dayne as a College Football Hall of Famer.