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Football: Who is Cal’s greatest running back?

In honor of Chuck Muncie, who died Monday at the age of 60, we pose this simple question:

Who is the great Cal running back of all-time?

Actually, not that simple because the question covers a lot of years and a lot of talented players, although let’s limit the discussion to the post-World War II era.

The candidates (presented chronologically):

– JACKIE JENSEN: Cal’s first 1,000-yard back  — 1,080 yards, a 7.3 ypc average in 1948 — Jensen played on Pappy Waldorf’s Rose Bowl teams and on a College World Series championship team. Was the American League MVP one season, playing alongside Ted Williams.

– JOHNNY OLSZEWSKI: Led the Bears in rushing in 1950-51-52, including a 1,000-yard campaign as a sophomore, when he was a first-team All-America pick. Played 10 seasons in the NFL.

– CHUCK MUNCIE: Ran for 1,460 yards as a senior in 1975, when the Bears led the nation in total offense and posted an 8-3 record. Was a consensus first-team All-America pick, the Pac-8 Player of the Year and runnerup in the Heisman Trophy voting. Still No. 5 on Cal’s career rushing list. A three-time Pro Bowl pick in the NFL.

– PAUL JONES: A straight-ahead runner, Jones led the Bears in rushing three straight years (1977-78-79) and ranks No. 6 on the all-time list with 2,960 yards.

– RUSSELL WHITE: Cal’s only three-time 1,000-yard rusher, he returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown against defending national champion Miami the first time he touched the ball at Memorial Stadium. Remains the Bears’ career rushing leader with 3,367 yards.

– JOE IGBER: Led the Bears in rushing as a freshman and sophomore in 1999 and 2000 and sits No. 4 all-time at Cal with 3,124 yards. The downside: He played on teams that were a combined 4-29 his first three seasons.

– J.J. ARRINGTON: Had the most prolific season of any Cal running back in 2004, rushing for 2,018 yards with 15 touchdowns as the Aaron Rodgers-led Bears went 10-2.

– MARSHAWN LYNCH: Had back-to-back seasons of 1,246 and 1,356 rushing yards in 2005 and ’06, and sits second on Cal’s career list with 3,230 yards … despite leaving for the NFL after his junior season. Averaged 6.6 yards per carry for his Cal career. Has topped 1,000 yards four of his six seasons in the NFL.

– JUSTIN FORSETT: Played behind Lynch for three years, then ran for 1,546 yards — third-best in school history — as a senior in 2007. Despite three seasons as an understudy, totaled 3,220 yards, third-most by any Cal player.

– JAHVID BEST: Probably Cal’s fastest running back — although Brendan Bigelow might make an argument — Best ran for 1,580 yards and 15 TDs as a sophomore in 2008. He averaged a ridiculous 8.1 yards per carry that season. In parts of three seasons, Best totaled 2,668 yards on 7.3 per attempt.

You may have others in mind, but these are 10 of the most accomplished.

Here is my Top 5: 1. Muncie; 2. Lynch; 3. White; 4. Jensen; 5. Best.

Cast your votes now.

Posted by on May 14, 2013.

Categories: Alumni, Football

  • Aubear

    Easy vote – it’s Chuck. I was honored to call Chuck Muncie friend. I watched him from the stands in 1974 and then spent several hours on an American Airlines flight as I headed to Houston that December to see my family for the holidays and he was headed home to Pittsburgh. We shared at beer on a layover in San Antonio and didn’t see one another until the fall of 1975. Each time he walked down North Tunnel to take the field at Memorial we would exchange a soulful handshake (I was in the CAl Band). His performance v Stanfurd (4 rushing touchdowns and a passing touchdown) was epic. When I worked on getting the biography of OUR QB Joe Roth republished, he helped me convince Sandy Barbour and the Cal athletic development office to get it done. Go well dear friend and give Joe a high five from us all!

  • Eric

    Though before my time, have to go with Muncie, the Lynch. Jensen may take the show.

  • ScottyBear

    Muncie was the most gifted running back I have ever seen in college and he made it look easy. Smooth long strides, great moves and incredible strength. He always had that smile on before and after practice. Just a regular nice guy. I played baseball at Cal and we all shared the same locker room, and he made eye contact and smiled at everybody. Lynch 2nd just because of his strength, and Best 3rd although in the open space I enjoyed watching Jahvid more than any other back. Bigelow should be on this list for that Ohio State run alone!

  • BadBill

    Muncie was far and away the best since I started watching the Bears in the early 70s. Can’t comment on Jensen or Olszewski as I didn’t see them play. Lynch would be second, Best third (again due to his speed) and then Russell W.

  • David Swartz

    You should list Vic Bottari as one of the candidates. He is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.

    Muncie is my choice as the best RB.

  • Mr. B

    @Aubear:
    Great story, you are fortunate to have known the man. Sounds like you might also be connected at some level to the athletic department and if so, I urge you to get something going to honor this great Bear and man during the upcoming season… I’m thinking something more meaningful than helmet stickers.

  • Calfan1

    No mention of Shane Vereen?

    Gave great 3 years – very productive. And a legendary performance against stanford in 09 – 193 yards on 42 carries.

    Great speed – good power and durable.

  • GoldenBear 77

    Muncie, Lynch, Jensen, white and Arrington. Muncie was an amazing leaper, in addition to his other skills. Can still see the pile forming at the goal line in front of him, and taking off over the top. Seem to remember he was a 6’6″ or 6’8″ high jumper in high school. Never saw him get tackled for a loss, and always gained at least 2-3 yards after the first hit. It was a Big 10 — centric football world in those days (like the SEC today), but Muncie was a much better back, with a much better season than Archie Griffin. Have seen this on one or two lists about the worst Heisman selections, pointing out that Muncie was the better choice.

  • rotfogel

    for cal career, muncie.
    better pro – lynch

  • Gobears49

    Few backs could match Muncie’s combination of speed, power, and agility. Plus he did very well in the pro’s, which Russell White did not do. So it’s Muncie for me, followed closely by Lynch. Would love to look at film of Cal’s Jensen and Olszewski, way before my time. Jensen would easily win a vote as Cal’s all-round best athlete of all time.

  • Kevin Thomas

    I saw them all play. For my money Johnny O was the best. Ran like a deer. His leg was badly injured on a dirty play by the USC team, and he was never the same after that. I was at that USC game, and had gone down to the field to get a close look. The play happened right in front of me. Olszewski had taken off on a nice run for about twenty yards. As Olszewski was being tackled, it seemed like the whole USC defense ran over to the play and landed on him, holding him down, so he couldn’t move. A USC linebacker then grabbed one of his cleats and twisted Olszewski’s leg as far as it would go. Olszewski left the game and was finished for the season. He played ten years in the NFL, primarily used as a blocking back, because he could not run like a deer anymore.

    Jensen was perhaps the greatest athlete Cal ever produced. All-American in both football and baseball, led Cal to the Rose Bowl, won the final game as a pitcher in the first College World Series, played in a World series, and was league MVP for the Red Sox. He not only was a great runner for Cal, he did the punting as well.

    Muncie was a terrific running back, but he played on a team that had a lot of great athletes, with great weapons. Muncie, Joe Roth, Steve Rivera, Howard Strickland, Wesley Walker. They could score from anywhere on the field and did. Muncie went on to have the best NFL career so far of any Cal running back.

    Those were my three best. I loved the rest, and all were good backs. Why isn’t Shane Vereen on your list? A true warrior, and great Golden Bear. Also, you need to include Vic Bottari and Sam Chapman, both All-American running backs from the great 1937 Cal Thunder team, the last team to win a Rose Bowl.

  • covinared

    I think your top five is right on.Igber does not belong on the candidate list over Vereen. Paul Jones was the man in my day. He was more than straight ahead, but still an inside type back. I never saw Municie in college, live or on tv, but sure enjoyed seeing him play for the Chargers. Big and fast.

  • BlakeStreetBear

    Here are good sortable but POST 1977 stats (no Muncie, etc.):
    http://www.sports-reference.com/cfb/schools/california/rushing.html

    I am willing to accept that Muncie was the best despite being born in 1976 and never getting to see him play. But my late father raved about him and I’ll take his word and that of the others that saw him wear the Blue and Gold.

    After him though, it is really debatable about the next 4-5 guys, as a quick glance at the above stats will testament.

    White – most TDs, 2nd most touches from scrimmage
    Lynch – strongest, most able to carry team on back, most entertaining too (imho)
    Vereen – Mr. Frickin’ Dependable
    Best – most explosive – 7.5 yds per touch!!
    Forsett – funnest guy too root for, and actually 3rd most touches, yards and avg from scrimmage of this group
    Igber – most yards and most touches from scrimmage
    Arrington – one monster season – I think that I could have run behind that line tho…

  • Boaltblue

    I have personally seen all of the running backs beginning with Chuck Muncie to the present day. Here are my votes.

    For a one season production, the best was J.J. Arrington, who ran for over one hundred yards in all of the games during the 2004 season.

    For a Cal career, the best was Russell White. White’s loyalty to the Cal program also gets him bonus points.

    For most exciting runner, Jahvid Best.

    For most powerful runner, Chuck Muncie and Marshawn Lynch tied.

    For biggest heart, three way tie, Justin Forsett, Shane Vereen, and Isi Sofele.

  • Juancho

    Because of how rough a neighborhood marshawn came from he gets my vote for biggest heart.

  • wehofx

    Hard to argue w JF’s top 5 and ranking.

    I loved watching Arrington, Forsett and Vereen run. But tough to make a case for them cracking the top 5.

    Have a good feeling Bigs, Lasco and/or K Muhammad(sp?) will make their mark and add to the impressive history of Cal rb’s.

  • wehofx

    Chuck Muncie may you rest in peace.

  • Uh Huh!

    Amazing that Bigelow gets mentioned among the all-time greats. He’s had 1 good run that I can think of. What’s all the hub-bub on him? I hope to see it this next season.

    I was just a few years too young to remember Muncie playing, but my dad also spoke of him a lot. Unfortunately, it was negative because of whatever drug usage issue that came up. How about a duo of either Muncie/Lynch and Best as the burner. Hard to keep Best out of your game day lineup when you know that he can bust 90 yards and change the game immediately. Let Muncie or Lynch do the hard running, while also being versatile (not just a John Riggins type), and then Best comes in and just blows you away.
    That would be one hell of a back field.

  • Steve W

    I never saw Muncie play, but hands down I give my vote to White as the greatest running back I have seen at Cal. He made the defenders at USC look like school children in that epic 91 game where Cal handed SC its worst drubbing ever. And he personally won the 91 game at the Rose Bowl against UCLA when he had to take IV fluids to stay in the game. The Cal student body routinely used to bow in unison to him after a great play. I never saw the students do that with another Cal player. He was smooth and gifted with insanely talented moves on the field, but he lost his drive and will to compete after his playing career at Cal. There is no other way to explain his failure to be a star in the NFL.

  • Paul D Hermann

    I saw them all since Muncie—but from everything I read and talking to my Dad and other Old Blues for his impact on the game and value to the team and program The Golden Boy Jackie Jensen get the nod.I can still see Best against UDUB in my mind’s eye though.

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