The Satellite Express
By George Somerville
In the second of his series, George looks back into the history books at events which changed the course of College Football.
My last article remembered the Iron Men of Sewanee who had such an impact on College Football at the very outset of the game. In this article I fast forward nearly 100 years to the small town of Itta Bena, Mississippi. This is home to one of the greatest college football partnerships of all time and an innovative football scheme which changed the face of College Football forever. The Satellite Express.
Perhaps I lost you at Itta Bena and what I hear you ask is the Satellite Express?
Let’s take a step back.
Itta Bena is a small town located in the Mississippi Delta and is home to the Mississippi Valley State University Delta Devils. The town has a population of c. 2,000 people. Its football team play in the Southwestern Athletic Conference of the FCS at the Rice-Totten Stadium.
The Delta Devils
In 1980 Archie “Gunslinger” Cooley, a native Mississippian took up the head coaching position at the Mississippi Valley State University. Cooley – who hails from the same town as Brett Favre – was considered both ahead of his time and an eccentric.
Cooley played ball at Jackson State before coaching at Alcorn State and Tennessee State before MVSU. Once in situ, Cooley devised a pass orientated offensive system which many considered at the time to be unconventional. Most however thought he was plain crazy.
The scheme essentially traded running backs and tight ends for five wide receivers and a no huddle offense. Instead of running the ball, the Delta Devils threw it over and over confusing their opponents with the lack of a run game.
This was the birth of the spread offense.
Today the spread is mainstream but back then it was about as alien a concept that you could have drummed up in 1980.
The Satellite Express
Central to the scheme were quarterback Willie Totten and a young wide receiver who no-one had heard of outside of Crawford, Mississippi.
His name? Jerry Rice.
The scheme worked with a five-wide attack with four guys to one side of the field, and to the other Jerry Rice. Other times they would stack all five receivers in a straight line confusing teams who had never seen this before.
Totten would signal a route to Rice backside with the four receivers to the other side running a number of combinations. Usually one receiver would hold back and take a hand off if the defense retreated.
In 1981 no one in D I-AA could cover Jerry Rice. In his College career he set NCAA records with 4,693 yards and 50 touchdowns. But more importantly if defenses double or triple teamed Rice then they gave up numbers and leverage to the other four receivers.
However, the scheme was not an overnight success, with the players collectively of the opinion that Cooley had lost his mind.
Despite these initial reservations, improvement was evident year on year with the scheme and team eventually clicking to become an offensive scoring machine.
Perhaps Mississippi Valley State’s finest hour came in a win against Grambling State which would cement Archie Cooley and his Delta Devils in Mississippi folklore. It would eventually lead to its star players being honoured with the stadium being named after them.
Arguably, the greatest win in the team’s history came on October 13th 1984 when the Delta Devils defeated Grambling State 48-36. This is the point when the Devils started to get attention from outside the State. For those not familiar, Grambling was a powerhouse in Louisiana and who play in NCAA Division I.
1984 - A record breaking year
By 1984 everything clicked into place. The Delta Devils became nationally recognised and in the most successful season in school history the team would go on to average more than 61 points per game.
In the first game of that season, MVSU beat Kentucky State 86-0, following up with a 77-15 win over Washburn the next week.
But it wasn’t all about Jerry Rice.
Willie Totten, who started his career as a punter, was pivotal to the pass heavy offence that Cooley has devised.
From 1981 to 1985 Totten would set more than 50 Division 1 AA passing records with the Delta Devils. And in 1984 Totten would throw for 58 touchdowns taking his team to the Division 1 AA playoffs along the way. A record which still stands today and saw Totten inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2005.
During the ’84 season Rice proved to be pivotal to their success breaking Division I-AA records for receptions and receiving yards (112 and 1,845 respectively). Rice also scored 27 touchdowns in that year earning him 9th place in the Heisman poll.
Remember this is a player who is not playing in top division college athletics.
In 1984 Sports Illustrated ran a feature on Jerry Rice titled “He’s Catch of the Year”, which propelled Rice onto the national stage.
During his final college year, Jerry Rice would score 5 touchdowns in a game twice and was named to every Division I-AA All America team.
In the 1985 NFL Draft, the San Francisco 49ers traded up with the New England Patriot’s to select Rice with the 16th overall pick.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Today the Delta Devils still play football in the FCS.
In the 2019 season they finished with a 2-9 record losing all 5 of their road games. And the most striking statistic of them all? The 2019 version scored an average of 16.18 points per game. A long way from the 61 points of the 1984 team.
How times change.
College football writer
A GLASWEGIAN LIVING IN LONDON, GEORGE IS A COLLEGE FOOTBALL FAN WHO FOLLOWS THE ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE. HE PROVIDES CFB CONTENT FOR THE TOUCHDOWN AND IS ONE THIRD OF THE COLLEGE CHAPS PODCAST.