Pony Express’ Craig James energizes SMU campus
Published: Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Updated: Tuesday, November 20, 2012 17:11
SMU legend and alum Craig James returned to the Hilltop Monday night and delivered an intriguing speech about politics, business and sports to a lucky audience of SMU students.
James wasn't just here to talk football, but rather to encourage students to get involved in the future of America, especially by voting.
"The number one thing facing [America] right now that we have to do is speak up," James said. "We can't let a small percentage of Americans run what happens."
The best way to avoid this happening, he explained, is by having knowledge on the issues and voting.
"So if we get involved and we vote, I think we have a chance to make a difference," he said.
The former Mustang is a successful businessman, entrepreneur and family man. James is on the board of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative-based organization in Austin that advocates limited government and running universities more like businesses.
He entertained the idea of running for a U.S. Senate seat earlier this year and has not ruled out making a run in Republican politics.
"I believe that this country has the opportunity to be great again but the only way we can do that is if we get the young Americans to be engaged and to understand how important they are to this whole process," James said. "If we do that we're making progress."
James' love of politics and business began at an early age, and his interest only grew during his time as a student athlete here at SMU.
"I always had this inner drive to want to excel and I'm a big free markets guy. Capitalism—I love it," he said. "When I was young I started a little car business, and then I learned real estate in the off-season of my football years. Being in Texas is a great place to have an entrepreneurial spirit, you can get things done."
At SMU, James is best known for his skills on the gridiron during the Mustangs' glory days.
After setting the Texas high school football 4A rushing record with 2,411 yards in 15 games and leading Stratford High School to victory in the 1978 Texas class 4A state championship, James chose to play football at SMU.
"I stumbled into something great," James said. "I had great teammates, I had great classmates, I was in Dallas, I was here at this education and at this degree and it was just phenomenal."
Once a Mustang, James teamed up with NFL Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson. The two combined to rush for 1,239 yards as freshmen in 1979, and the "Pony Express" was born.
James made a name for himself in a heartbreaking 46-45 loss to BYU in the 1980 Holiday Bowl. He rushed for 225 rushing yards and averaged 9.9 yards per carry, which were both Holiday Bowl records that stood for 13 and 15 years respectively.
As a senior in 1982, the star running back led the Mustangs to an undefeated season and a Cotton Bowl victory over Pittsburgh. James shined for the Ponies that year and set a new record for the longest scoring play in Southwest Conference history after a 96-yard touchdown reception against North Texas. He also led the SWC in punting with a 44.9 average which allowed him to become the first player since Rice's Billy Howton in 1951 to be named All-SWC at two positions.
James was taken in the seventh round of the 1983 NFL Draft by the New England Patriots but opted to sign a contract with the USFL's Washington Federals who drafted him with the fourth overall pick in the spring league's inaugural draft.
As a rookie, he rushed for 823 yards and 4 TDs in 14 games and also caught 40 passes. The following year, James suffered a knee injury and was released by the Federals which allowed him to join the Patriots for their training camp in August.
With the Patriots, he was named Offensive Player of the Year in 1985 and started in both the 1985 Pro Bowl and Super Bowl XX. James rushed for 1,227 yards that year and became the last white player in the NFL to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season, which earned him the nickname "The Great White Hope."
James is proud of the nickname and doesn't believe any other white running back is currently a threat to eclipse 1,000 yards and break the 25 year streak.
"I did something special and I hear it all the time," he said. "Records are meant to be broken. Somebody will come along sometime, and a white running back will gain 1,000 yards but I don't see it on the horizon."
After his retirement from football in 1989, James entered the broadcasting business and went on to become a radio analyst for SMU college football games before moving on to ESPN. He still follows the Mustangs closely and is pleased with the job June Jones has done to get the football program back on its feet.
"June [Jones] has done a nice job of building excitement and hope and a belief in his system," he said.
"They are a better team. They are a good team and I strongly believe we'll contend for the conference title and be a bowl team."
James is now an analyst on ESPN's Thursday night and Saturday afternoon games. He also appears on College Football Live and helped reveal the much anticipated BCS rankings on Sunday night.
"With all of the uncertainty in college football right now, there will be changes every Sunday night," James said. "I'm fired up to be a part of the show, and as we get into November it's going to mean something."
Through all of his success, James is proud to be a graduate of SMU and attributes a lot of his triumph to the University.
"SMU allowed me to get around a lot of people that are successful and had an interest in doing something with their lives," he said. "The foundation of learning and teaching is just remarkable."
James will be featured on ESPN's Thursday night broadcast of Oregon vs. UCLA this week and will be speaking in Austin at the University of Texas on Nov. 8 as the Craig James Tour makes its final stop.