In recent years, the spread offense has revolutionized the game of college football.
There are many variations of the spread, and its origins are often debated. One coach who receives much notoriety for his version of the run-heavy spread is former West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez. Everybody remembers the success Rodriguez had at West Virginia with Pat White, and most recently at Michigan with Denard Robinson, but many are unaware that Rodriguez first unveiled the spread as a pass-first, air-raid style while coaching at NAIA Glenville State College.
The spread helped launch Rodriguez’s coaching career from the NAIA ranks into major college football. Along the way it also helped a 5-foot-11, 175-pound kid from small-town West Virginia surpass names like Jerry Rice and Fred Biletnikoff to become college football’s all-time leading receiver.
This year Chris George is on the ballot for the College Football Hall of Fame. Statistically, one might guess that the local legend would be a shoe-in, considering the fact that he is college football’s all-time leader in career passes caught (430), career receiving yards (6,177), career receiving yards-per-game (160.8), most passes caught in a season (144 in 1993), and most passes caught in a single game (23 vs. WV Wesleyan, 1994), but with names on the ballot like Randall Cunningham, Eric Dickerson, Eddie George, and Deion Sanders, there are no guarantees.
Chris George’s path to the top of the college football record books was a bit untraditional. After transferring from private to public school after his sophomore year of high school, George went unnoticed by most colleges.
“The timing was bad because I fell off a lot of school’s radars. I found out that the recruiting process starts way before your senior year,” says George. “On top of that I played at a small school. I had a good senior year and I got some interest but nothing major.”
Luckily for George, he had a connection with a young, volunteer assistant coach at West Virginia University who began to take notice of his athletic ability, on and off the football field.
“He (Rich Rodriguez) had previously coached Salem College and he owned a house in my hometown,” remembers George. “We actually played in softball leagues and basketball leagues together. My brother coached with him at Salem as a graduate assistant, and I became very familiar with him. Eventually he came down, watched my games, saw some film, and invited me to walk-on at WVU.”
Seemingly George had landed the opportunity of a lifetime. A West Virginia kid getting the opportunity to play football for the state’s flagship institution, under a coach who he has formed a friendship with is all a young player could ask for.
As George prepared for the spring game at WVU after redshirting the 1990 season, he created another friendship, this time with a quarterback who transferred to WVU from Samford, Jed Drenning. That spring game, George caught a 63-yard touchdown from Drenning as the two developed a strong connection, on and off the field.
“That is where our connection started,” say George. “I’ve always felt like from that touchdown on, for whatever reason, it linked us up for a long period of time. Jed was just a real smart QB. We played enough together and got along so well that we knew what each other was thinking. We are still friends to this day. I can’t say enough about what kind of job Jed did.”
Life was good for George coming out of the spring season, but shortly thereafter he would be forced to make a decision that would impact his life, and his football career.
“After my first year at WVU, Coach Rodriguez accepted the job at Glenville State and he asked me to come with him,” remembers George. “My goal was always to be a D-I football player, and if I didn’t stay with it I knew there was going to be a fail-type of mentality for me. But on the other hand I knew they (WVU) ran a run-heavy offense where I might have only caught about 30 balls my whole career and never have a chance to play at the next level.”
“Eventually I decided to go, and hands-down it was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
That summer, Rodriguez convinced George to go to Glenville with him. The two also persuaded Drenning to come along, and the trio packed up and headed 90-miles south to Glenville State College. Once in Glenville everything quickly began to fall into place.
By 1993, Glenville State had won the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title before advancing to the NAIA National Championship game. Although the Pioneers fell in the title game to East Central Oklahoma, George finished the season with an unprecedented 144 receptions for 2,221 yards.
“The run was awesome,” says George. “At the time I felt like we were doing something special and we were also having a ton of fun doing it. I think the biggest thing is Coach Rodriguez’s ability to build a family environment. We had a group of guys that were real close-knit. I’ve been on some other teams and I’ve been in some other locker-rooms, but I’ve never seen a group that was as close as the group we had. We truly, at the core, cared about each other.”
Despite having a first team All-American receiver and the NAIA’s fifth all-time leader in career yards, not all of Glenville’s success came through the air.
“The offense lends itself toward creativity,” says George. “I was lucky enough to be in a situation where coach Rod believed in me. We had a lot of talent. I think every year we had a 1,000 yard rusher. People look back and think all we did was throw the ball all over the place, but I think to have the passing number we did, plus have a 1,000 yard rusher speaks for the balance of the offense.”
Opponents quickly took notice of George’s ability to find the ball, and teams quickly began to retrofit their schemes to stop him. Despite their efforts, Rodriguez was able to stay one-step-ahead of opposing defenses, finding new ways to get the ball into George’s hands.
“Early on I just saw conventional defenses, but after I started catching balls and getting involved in the offense more teams started doing some creative thing defensively,” said George. “So Coach Rodriguez started to become more creative as to how he was getting me the ball. He would line me up in a bunch of different positions, motion me around, and it really threw teams off as to how they were going to guard me defensively. He was very creative as to how he got me the ball, and it speaks to how, at such a young age, he figured out exactly how to manipulate defenses.”
On the field, George credits Rodriguez for putting him into the position to make plays and break records, but off the field he credits another man who played a major role in his success.
“First of all I had a father that was unbelievable,” says George when speaking about his father, William, who passed away 10 years ago. “He instilled a belief in me that I could do anything. If I washed a car, my dad would say I washed that car better than anyone else could have washed it. When you have someone who believes in you so deep that you can feel it, you can’t help but to believe in yourself. He instilled in me that I can do anything.”
Critics might look at George’s numbers and quip about the NAIA level of competition. As for George, he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“I can’t say enough about my experience.” says George. “To be coached by Rich Rodriguez is something I can tell my grandkids about. I think we are still going to see what that guy is made of. Also I met many lifelong friends and my wife at Glenville State. I am extremely thankful and I love the people of Glenville. I know a lot of times people see it as, ‘Yeah, he was successful but he had to go to a small school to do it,’ but it’s the best thing that has ever happened to me.”
After college, George was invited to the Philadelphia Eagles as a free agent. Rather than risking the chance of getting cut before the start of the season, George signed a contract to play for the Edmonton Eskimos in the CFL. During his stint in Canada, George caught the attention of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and remained with the organization on-and-off for two seasons before eventually returning to Canada where we finished his playing career.
George acknowledges that an induction into the College Football Hall of Fame would be the ultimate capstone on a successful career.
“It is an honor,” said George. “You really don’t know what to say about it in the big picture. You look at guys like Eric Dickerson, who you watched since you were a kid, and it’s just unbelievable. When you hear your name mentioned in the same sentence as those guys it’s surreal. Looking back I’m proud of what I did and I’m proud of the guys I did it with. I think it speaks a lot for the coaches, it speaks a tremendous amount about Coach Rodriguez and what he was able to do.”
“Honestly we were just a bunch of misfits. For whatever reason we were guys that somebody didn’t want or somebody discarded and we all came together in a little place called Glenville. I just think it’s a great story.”
Today George resides in Bridgeport, WV with his wife Alicia, and their three kids. As time passes George explains how his priorities have shifted since hanging up the cleats and becoming a husband and father.
“Looking back I’m super proud of what I did and I am flattered by this nomination, but it’s funny how things change. Back than playing football was number one, now my family is my whole life.”
Chris George is one of 24 non-Division-I players considered for induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.