Jerry Rice, Mississippi Valley lit up scoreboards 30 years ago
You could be forgiven if you passed through the tiny town of Itta Bena, Miss., without even knowing you were there. Known as the "Home in the Woods," Itta Bena, with a population of just over 2,000, prides itself as the birthplace of B.B. King but is mostly the type of one-stoplight burg that doesn’t beg to be noticed.
Thirty years ago this fall, however, the action in itty-bitty Itta Bena — in a situation not unlike this year in Starkville, 100 miles due east down Highway 82, and Oxford, the same 100 miles northeast, up Interstate 55 — put the state of Mississippi at the center of the college football universe.
Mississippi Valley State wasn’t in the hunt for a national title in 1984, as its neighbors at Ole Miss and Mississippi State are today. In fact, the Delta Devils didn’t — and still don’t — play in the same class. In what was known then as Division I-AA, the Valley’s Cinderella season didn’t end with a celebration, such as BYU’s at the I-A level.
But Itta Bena and Mississippi Valley State did have one thing that no one else had: a bricklayer’s son and future NFL Hall of Famer named Jerry Lee Rice at wide receiver. And it was during that wild ride of a 1984 season that Rice and an unheralded quarterback named Willie Totten perfected an innovative offensive scheme that came years before its time, rewriting the NCAA record books with the whole world watching.
"We didn’t worry about all the attention that was coming," Rice told FOX Sports of the ’84 MVSU team, which went 9-2 and averaged 640 yards and nearly 61 points per game in the regular season. "We just wanted to take care of our house, and we wanted to always go out there and put on the best performance we could possibly put on, and we wanted to win football games. Everything else was going to take care of itself, and I think it did."
We were just trying to do what this crazy coach came up with, execute it and make it work.
"We were just having fun, playing ball," added Totten, now the quarterbacks coach at Alabama A&M. "We weren’t trying to set records or get the national attention. We were just playing the game, and it just so happened that what we were doing brought a lot of notoriety and attention to us. But we weren’t trying to get that. We were just trying to do what this crazy coach came up with, execute it and make it work."
That crazy coach was Archie Cooley. Nicknamed "Gunslinger" in the early ’80s by legendary sportswriter Roscoe Nance because of the JCPenney cowboy hat that was permanently fixed atop his head, Cooley developed the early renderings of what would become his "Satellite Express" offense during his days as a defensive coach, using plays he assembled when he ran the scout team at Tennessee State.
"I would save the best five plays that the opponent ran against Tennessee State’s defense, when Coach (Joe) Gilliam was the coordinator at the time," said Cooley, who played center and linebacker at Jackson State in the 1950s. "I could hardly wait during practice to do that. It was my whole highlight of practice. So my offensive mind grew tremendously simply because I took a lot of pride in doing what I was doing."
The result was a raw scheme that relied overwhelmingly on passing — a good foundation, it would seem, for whenever Cooley got a promotion. But when Cooley got his first head coaching job in 1980, he took over an ineffective, run-heavy MVSU program that had attempted 133 total passes the entire 1979 season. The team had scored more than 22 points once, with four games in single digits, including a 3-0 shutout loss to D-II Kentucky State.
Success was predictably hard to come by early on, as Cooley’s players struggled to adjust to such a radical shift in the team’s offensive approach and the Delta Devils went 4-4-1 in Cooley’s first year. In 1981, MVSU again fell short of its first winning season since 1965, putting together a 4-5-1 campaign that was followed up by a 5-5 effort in 1982, the first year both Rice and Totten played together.
By then, though, the Delta Devils had started to show some promise, especially from Rice, a star in the making who followed up a 30-catch freshman year by hauling in 66 passes for 1,134 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore. By the middle of his junior season, in 1983, Rice was setting records at the I-AA record and had earned a profile in Sports Illustrated that declared the then-21-year-old the "catch of the year."
Rice would finish the ’83 season with a I-AA record 102 catches and 1,450 yards, with a record 24 catches and 279 yards coming in one game, a 31-28 loss to Southern. That defeat was one of two on the season, however, as the Delta Devils finished 7-2-1. Had the MVSU come out on the winning end of its 28-28 tie with eventual SWAC champ Grambling State, it would have finished in a tie with Grambling atop the conference.
"Improvement wasn’t something I worried about," Cooley said. "(Rice) loved the game, and he loved to practice, and he loved to do what he was doing. … He didn’t mind working, and Totten didn’t mind either. We’d practice two hours and throw the football all day, and Totten was the only quarterback that we had. So that meant he got all the work, and it paid off on both ends. I got what I knew I would receive if they kept working like they worked."
After getting that long awaited taste of success in 1983, Cooley made it his mission to transform a feared offense into one that was totally unstoppable, and by the start of training camp in 1984, the Gunslinger had a playbook of more than 200 whimsical, schoolyard-inspired plays that utilized any and every imaginable formation Cooley thought might give him a chance to fool an opponent.
A majority of the plays were designed to have Rice lined up on one side of the field, with four receivers set up on the opposite side, often in a straight line, like dominoes. Sometimes, though, Rice would line up as the last guy in one of those stack formations, where he would catch a screen pass with the option to either run it or throw it to one of the many streaking receivers sprinting in different directions across the field.
Improvement wasn’t something I worried about. (Rice) loved the game and he loved to practice and he loved to do what he was doing.
Other times, Cooley would call for a triple-stack, with one guy in the slot, occasionally putting someone in the backfield with Totten. A few formations would call for receivers in both slot positions. And sometimes, they’d just line up in a traditional set — using a conventional formation as an element of surprise. The key to Cooley’s Frankenstein offense, see, was that defenses would never know what was coming, even when the right call seemed obvious.
"It was a lot of fun because it was to the point where I wondered what they were going to play against the offense," Cooley said. "They didn’t know what to do, and we would just eat it up."
Then one day, during a jog around the football field with an assistant coach, the mad scientist Cooley came up with another wrinkle: The no-huddle offense. And not for spurts or as an occasional change of pace or during the two-minute drill but for the entire game — in other words, 60 minutes of chaos.
"No one was doing the no-huddle — I think the only ones doing that was Portland State with Mouse Davis and Neil Lomax," Totten said. "They did a little bit of that back then, but they didn’t take it to the extreme like we did."
"I knew people had two-minute offenses, but I’d never known them to do it the whole football game," Cooley added. "So we put it in and it did well, and we found that if you do that, it only takes away from the defense. They have to be in condition because they don’t have time to stand around and talk and work out situations and things of that nature."
Of course, in order to outwork the other team, that meant Mississippi Valley State had to be in better shape. That meant one training camp from hell in the Delta, as Cooley implemented his new offensive scheme and the breakneck pace all at once, for multiple hours at a time, multiple times per day.
A standard workout that fall started with five trainers, each ready to go with a ball. The MVSU offense would start at its own goal line and run a play, at which point another trainer would introduce a new ball and immediately run the next one. This would continue until either the MVSU offense reached the goal line — at which point it would turn around and start over again — or until it made a mistake, which required everyone to start over from the beginning.
"That was the first time I ever in my life had complete, total body cramps," Totten said of training camp before the ’84 season. "When we first started that offense — and at the time we were going three times a day; they didn’t have the rules like they’ve got the rules now — the practices were so long and so intense that it was the first time I ever had total body cramps, because of just being exhausted running that offense.
"And you’re talking about doing this for an hour and a half, two hours straight without even stopping. We did it every day, and all day. We thought Coach Cooley was crazy because we were running, running, running up and down the field, up and down the field, and guys had to get adjusted to it. But once we got adjusted to it, it became fun for us."
Added Rice: "That was going to be the speed of play during the actual football game, so you had to condition yourself a certain way, and we did that during training camp. You’d have guys who’d throw up or guys who’d collapse, but it was part of the process, getting your body ready to be able to endure four quarters of going at a very high tempo where you basically wear out your opponent.
"Once you can do that, you can do whatever you want to do on the football field, and you can also put a lot of points on the board."
And score a lot of points, they did.
In Mississippi Valley State’s first game, against the same D-II Kentucky State team that had shut the Delta Devils out in the season before Cooley got to town, MVSU gained 699 yards — with 17 on the ground, on 11 carries — and won 86-0. In that game, Rice caught 17 passes for 294 yards, breaking the single-game receiving record he’d set the season before against Southern. Totten finished with nine touchdown passes, five to Rice.
In MVSU’s second game, a 77-15 win over Washburn, Rice hauled in 15 passes for 139 yards and a touchdown — a low-key output by his standards — with Totten completing 36 of 55 passes for 402 yards and six touchdowns. The beatdown likely would have been worse, if not for four Totten’s interceptions.
"It was kind of like, ‘Wow, OK, this is what this offense is going to be about,’ " Rice said of those first two games. "But we still just felt like we needed to keep tuning that offense, that system and that speed of play, and we felt we’d be able to do great things on the football field."
Beating D-II cupcakes was impressive, sure, but the true test of just how effective this offense could be came in Week 3, when the Delta Devils brought the Satellite Express to Jackson State for an annual rivalry game that was really only one in name, as Mississippi Valley hadn’t beaten the Tigers in 27 years.
"We knew we had to have something special to do it against Jackson, so we did a smaller amount of (our offense) against Washburn and Kentucky State," Cooley said. "We knew we had to send Jackson … films of the previous ballgames and we didn’t want them to see what we were doing to the extent where they could practice on it. So we gave them just enough, but not enough to prepare for it."
The bit of deception worked, as Totten threw for 526 yards and six more touchdowns against Jackson, with four of them going to Rice, who grabbed 15 passes for 284 yards in a 49-32 win. All of the sudden, after a win over one of the conference’s traditional powers in his pocket, Cooley and his offense weren’t seen as so gimmicky anymore.
"We were scoring so easily, and we hadn’t beaten Jackson in so long, that it didn’t seem real to me," Cooley said. "I knew then, if we could play against Jackson State, with one of the greatest coaches I’ve ever coached against (W.C. Gorden), who won eight SWAC championships in the ’80s — if we could score that easily on Jackson, then everyone else was going to be soup. That’s the way we felt, and that’s the way it worked."
The wins would keep piling up for Mississippi Valley. Against another traditional power, Southern, Totten threw for 526 yards and six touchdowns, as Rice had 17 catches for 189 yards and two scores, as MVSU won 63-45. After that, teams began to double- and triple-team Rice, sometimes leaving the Delta Devils’ other receivers uncovered and allowing them to run roughshod.
In a 48-36 win over Grambling, Rice caught just eight passes but still managed 174 yards and two scores, while Totten threw for 545 yards overall. Texas Southern limited Rice to four catches (for 104 yards and two touchdowns, of course), but the MVSU offense still managed 55 points behind another strong, if interception-riddled performance from Totten.
"I had coaches walk up to me at halftime and say, ‘Cooley what are you trying to do, get me fired? You’ve got 50 points, why don’t you lay off me?’" Cooley recalled. "And I’d say, ‘I’ve played everybody on the team, Coach, what do you want me to do? You want me to use your people?’ It was a lot of fun and a lot of people said we were running scores up, but it wasn’t that. They just couldn’t handle what we did."
Against Prairie View A&M, the floodgates opened for everyone, with Totten throwing for 599 yards and eight touchdowns, as Rice caught 10 passes for 198 yards and another five scores. By that point, Mississippi Valley was 7-0 and looked virtually unbeatable. Totten had already thrown for 3,500 yards and a division-record 43 touchdowns, and Rice had nearly 1,400 yards and 21 scores of his own.
I had coaches walk up to me at halftime and say, ‘Cooley what are you trying to do, get me fired? You’ve got 50 points, why don’t you lay off me?
"I think it was just me getting comfortable with everything and getting used to my teammates," Rice said of his output early in the ’84 season. "We were hungry, we wanted to win and we had great players that came to work every day. I’m one of those guys who believes that if you practice a certain way and give 100 percent intensity, it’s going to pay off on the field, and it was just a result of those Delta Devils coming together and wanting to make a statement."
It would certainly be easy to attribute those gaudy stats to the style of offense Cooley was running, and you wouldn’t be out of line in doing so. But there was also something to be said for the connection between Rice — who’d picked up the nickname "World" for his ability to catch anything near him — and Totten, a bond that was formed on the football field but stretched far beyond it.
"I believe everything starts with hard work, the time that you put in, the chemistry is going to develop if you’re around that person and you work hard," Rice said. "Even after practice, repetition-wise, we would run routes, I would catch extra footballs, just to get a feel for what Willie was thinking on the football field."
The two forged such a bond that they mostly communicated via hand and head signals on the field — think Peyton Manning — as if opposing defenses needed anything else to worry about.
"We could look at the defensive back and know exactly what route to give Jerry, or he knew what signal to give me to let me know what route he was going to run," Totten said. "We got very good at it and all the receivers that I had were good. But Jerry and I, we just kind of clicked, and when we clicked, we made a lot of defensive backs miserable during the course of that year."
Added Rice: "I think it really showed, our hard work and dedication, and I have always done that with all my quarterbacks, even with Joe Montana, Steve Young. You have to develop that chemistry, and I think with Willie Totten, I knew exactly what he was thinking at all times, when he was going to release the football, when I had one-on-one coverage, I knew he was coming my direction."
Rice’s work ethic would go on to become the stuff of legend during his 20 seasons in the NFL, but the first real glimpse into the type of student of the game and gym rat he was came at MVSU.
"Jerry was kind of like the big boy," Totten said. "He was the only one out of our group that played (as a true freshman), so he was the big kid on the block and we all kind of did what Jerry did. So if Jerry wanted to stay after practice and catch balls, then we stayed after practice and we’d throw and catch balls. And when he got to the point when he felt he could beat all the receivers, he took it to another level.
"Sometimes we’d even (run routes) it in front of the cafeteria, just hanging around the dormitory. Coach made a statement that we needed to get off the bus throwing, and that was actually true. When we used to travel on the bus, we’d stop at the roadside park and when we’d get off the bus, we’d be throwing the ball to each other. The way he approached the game, he wanted to be the best guy on the field."
Through seven games of the ’84 season, Rice wasn’t just the best player on the field, but perhaps the best receiver in football, his name suddenly being thrown into conversations about more prominent wideouts like Al Toon, Eddie Brown and Jessie Hester. Rice knew he’d be in for a challenge when then-No. 5 MVSU played against No. 4 Alcorn State, a fellow undefeated that boasted one of the best defenses in I-AA.
Coach made a statement that we needed to get off the bus throwing, and that was actually true. When we used to travel on the bus, we’d stop at the roadside park and when we’d get off the bus, we’d be throwing the ball to each other.
Similarly, legendary Alcorn State coach Marino "The Godfather" Casem knew better than to underestimate what his former pupil — Cooley was Casem’s defensive coordinator in the early ’70s — was doing at Mississippi Valley.
Before the game, which locals touted as the "Game of the Century," Alcorn State linebackers coach Theo Danzy was asked by Sports Illustrated — one of many national publications that made the trip — how you stopped Cooley’s offense, to which he replied: "You don’t stop it. You plug up the holes. (And if you can’t), then you take a three-point stance and say, ‘Our Father, who art in heaven ….’"
The game was in such high demand that it was relocated from Itta Bena to Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson and rescheduled from Saturday, Nov. 3, to Sunday, Nov. 4, to accommodate for the crowd, which would end up topping 63,000 people — to this day one of the largest crowds to fill that stadium.
"When we got to the stadium, I guarantee that there were already 30,000 or 35,000 people already in there, and to see that happen, that was something that will always be a great feeling for Mississippi and for Valley nation, that we filled that stadium up," Totten said. "To this day I get people talking about the game, and it was just remarkable."
Said Rice: "It was standing-room-only and that place was just electrifying. To see all of those fans come out, they knew it was going to be a great battle, and I think we went into that ballgame feeling pretty comfortable that we could win. I remember, I got up that morning with a sore back, but there was no way I was missing that game. I was going to get on the football field no matter what."
Unfortunately, there wasn’t a whole lot Rice or anyone on the Delta Devils offense could do early, as Alcorn State was able to pressure Totten — a rarity with Mississippi Valley’s gigantic "Tons of Fun" offensive line usually giving him plenty of room and time to work. Defense never was MSVU’s strong suit, for all the points it scored, so the Braves jumped out to a 28-7 halftime lead.
… I got up that morning with a sore back, but there was no way I was missing that game. I was going to get on the football field no matter what.
In the third quarter, Valley was able to close the gap, and tied the score at 28-28 on the first play of the fourth, but in the end, it was Totten’s propensity for interceptions that did the Devils in.
Midway through the fourth quarter, with the game still tied, Valley was driving deep into Alcorn territory, looking to take the lead, but Totten threw an interception at the Alcorn 20. Alcorn responded with a long drive, and Perry Qualls scored one of five touchdowns on the day to take the lead, 35-28, with less than two minutes left. The Braves then added another score with a pick-six of Totten on the next Mississippi Valley possession, sending the Devils to their first defeat, despite eight catches for 134 yards from Rice.
The letdown wouldn’t last long, as Mississippi Valley State beat Alabama State 49-7 the following week, then closed the regular season with an 83-11 win over Langston that saw MVSU lead 41-3 at the end of the first quarter, but the dream of a perfect season was long gone, along with the throng of media that had descended on Itta Bena and the little school that could.
The only chance for true redemption would come in the playoffs, where Mississippi Valley met Louisiana Tech in the first round, but a dream of a I-AA national championship died hard and fast, with the Bulldogs cruising to a 66-19 home win, ending the Devils’ season.
The game wasn’t without its share of controversy, as Cooley, to this day, accuses Tech of sending a scout posing as a newspaper reporter to watch Mississippi Valley’s preparations, and there’s a thought by Valley fans that the referees allowed Tech to play too physically on defense, making it tough for Totten’s receivers to get open. But ultimately neither complaint could change the outcome on the field.
"I remember their coach saying that they knew they couldn’t stop our offense in the middle of the field, but they prepared for us from the red zone in," Totten said. "They just dropped eight, and that was something that we weren’t accustomed to. We were used to teams trying to play us man, and we had receivers running right past defenders, but they defended the red zone and defended the end zone. They were a great team and had a great offense, too. It was just a complete reversal of what we had been doing all year."
The defeat was even tougher on Rice, who finished the 1984 season with 112 catches for 1,845 yards and 27 touchdowns. Despite those record-breaking stats — the receptions and yards marks broke Rice’s own I-AA record from the season before and the 27 TDs were, at the time, an all-division record — he left the field that night in Ruston, La., without any certainty about what the future would hold."
"I was so devastated by that loss," Rice said. "Whenever you get an opportunity to play on a big stage like that, you want to showcase your ability, you want to win that football game, and I remember walking off that field crying like a baby because we lost and it was over.
Fortunately for Rice, that playoff loss was really the beginning, and that game, more than anything, put him on the San Francisco 49ers’ radar.
Rice had nine catches for 155 yards, including a memorable 64-yard touchdown catch-and-run on the last play of the second half, and by chance, Niners coach Bill Walsh happened to be watching from a hotel across the state in New Orleans the night before San Francisco was set to play the Saints.
"Then the next morning, when we were having our pregame meal, he came down and was all excited, and he said, ‘I just saw probably the best receiver in the country,’ " recalled John McVay, then the GM of the 49ers, in an interview with FOX Sports. "He said he was at a double-A school, and Bill was extolling his virtues, that’s for sure."
Based on that one game, San Francisco went through the process of scouting Rice, McVay said. Then, after Rice won MVP honors in the Blue-Gray game, the 49ers eventually took him with the 16th overall pick in the 1985 draft.
"In terms of evaluating players, if Bill Walsh liked him, then we would pull the trigger," McVay said. "He was spooky the way he could pick out players, I’ll tell you, and he spotted him that Saturday night sitting in the hotel room."
The selection was a dream come true for Rice, long before he turned out to be a dream come true for the Niners.
"Ever since I was a little kid, I dreamed about maybe playing in the NFL, but I knew that it was going to be a long, difficult road," he said. "I sort of felt hopeful (coming into Mississippi Valley), but I knew not to be disappointed if I didn’t ever get drafted because the most important thing is to go to college and also get a degree. … I never thought that just because I was putting those outstanding numbers up that it was going to justify drafting me or propel me to the NFL. I always had that doubt that, ‘Maybe I won’t get picked.’ "
Said Totten, who went on to a CFL career and played briefly in the NFL as a replacement player for the 1987 Bills: "We’d sit around the dorm laughing, talking about it — getting to the NFL, playing in the NFL — but I don’t think he ever dreamed he’d be the best receiver to ever play the game. I remember us watching a game — I was a Steelers fan, and I think he was a Steelers fan at the time — and watching Lynn Swann, watching John Stallworth, and I don’t think he ever dreamed that he would be with those guys, and talked about in the same breath as those guys."
These days, however, it’s young kids hoping to be mentioned in the same breath as Rice — whose name, in addition to being enshrined in Canton, sits along with Totten’s on the football stadium at Mississippi Valley State. And one can’t help but wonder whether any of it would have happened had they not believed in a crazy Gunslinger coach with a gimmicky system to lead them to one of the most exciting seasons football has ever seen.
"Every year that I spent at Mississippi Valley State was special to me, but I think that ’84 showed that we had come together as a team and we felt really comfortable with Archie and what he was trying to do as a football team on the field," Rice said.
"Now you look at it, and everybody is running the spread, everybody is running the no-huddle, even in the NFL," added Totten. "They weren’t even doing that back then in the NFL. So Coach Cooley really got people looking … but never got the credit for being inventive or courageous enough to run that kind of offense."
Every year that I spent at Mississippi Valley State was special to me, but I think that ’84 showed that we had come together as a team and we felt really comfortable with Archie and what he was trying to do as a football team on the field.
For Cooley, though, the lack of recognition isn’t an issue. Now 75, he’s just happy to have had the opportunity to be along for the ride as the Delta Devils brought a little excitement and a lot of attention to Itta Bena.
"It doesn’t bother me at all," Cooley says, "simply because I’m a person who did what I did, I appreciate the Lord giving me the intelligence to do it, and we did great things with it. And I know if someone else wants to claim it and rename it and get the credit, there’s somebody who’s going to be sitting in that room who’s going to say, ‘No, no, no, you didn’t do that. Cooley and them started that at Mississippi Valley State.’ I’m sure of that."
You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.