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From The Pits To The Heights

Probably the first man to run a play designed to send him leaping over the line of scrimmage was Leonard Coffman, a fullback in General Bob Neyland's single wing at Tennessee. At Neyland's behest, one day in practice in 1938, Coffman piled up some tackling dummies and started diving over them. The following Saturday, Coffman, now 68 and a tobacco farmer and cattleman in Greene County, Tenn., twice soared into the end zone at Alabama. For the rest of Neyland's nine years as coach of the Volunteers he had his fullbacks practice going over the top in the school's high-jump pit during the off-season. "The proper technique is a corkscrew action," says former Arkansas Coach Frank Broyles, who learned it from a pupil of Neyland's, erstwhile Georgia Tech Coach Bobby Dodd. "The shoulders turn perpendicular to the ground so the linebacker can't make a solid hit."

That advice helped a Broyles player named Bobby Burnett leap three yards with 4.41 seconds remaining in the 1965 Cotton Bowl to beat Nebraska and win a share of the national title for the Razorbacks. Mike Guman of Penn State probably should have turned his shoulders in the Sugar Bowl in 1979, when Alabama Linebacker Barry Krauss stopped him a foot short of the national championship. Southern Cal's Sam Cunningham made 22 Jump the high point of the 1973 Rose Bowl by leaping for four touchdowns in the Trojans' 42-17 defeat of Ohio State. But it was Herschel Walker's three-feet-above-the-crowd-land-on-one-foot-spin-and-score-standing catapult for Georgia against Ole Miss in 1981 that made leaping all the rage. Pacific Coach Bob Cope admits he put a jump into his playbook at the insistence of his wife, Jimmie Ruth, after she saw Walker's leap on TV.

Many coaches don't have an over-the-top play in their offense, because they don't have a gifted leaper in the back-field. Wishboners like Emory Bellard of Mississippi State dislike any play that takes away in advance the ballcarrier's options of going through or around—or over—the defense. Many coaches point out that a back can land on his neck if he doesn't keep his head up. Kansas State encountered a different problem against Oklahoma State in 1981. When the Wildcats' Ivan Pearl took to the air in an attempt to score late in the game, he was met by two linebackers. The ball popped loose, and Cowboy Cornerback Greg Hill grabbed it in midair and ran 96 yards for a TD.


Despite appearances, Texas' John Walker, a seven-foot high-jumper, didn't leap too soon to get a first down against SMU.