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Ranking college football’s Mount Rushmores based on NFL success: Pitt takes top spot, USC, Miami right behind

Pro Football is a funny business. While some of the game’s greatest players hail from big, history-laden college programs, many have also come from schools that you may have never heard of. It’s the classic example of how you should never judge a book by its cover. 

In that vein, I decided to compile, then rank, each of college football’s Mount Rushmores based on its most successful NFL players. As you would imagine, some of the schools that made the cut are household names, but there are more than a few surprise schools that made the cut. 

Below is the criteria used when putting the ranking together: 

  • Individual career records, achievements 
  • Inclusion in the Hall of Fame/NFL 100 All-Time Team 
  • Lasting impact on the game 

If a player attended multiple schools, they were considered only at the school where they made the most significant contribution. Troy Aikman, for example, was only considered for his accomplishments at UCLA and not Oklahoma, where his NCAA career started. (Note: The names listed under “honorable mentions” are Hall of Fame inductees who didn’t make the cut on the team’s Mount Rushmore.)

1. Pittsburgh

Mount Rushmore: QB Dan Marino, WR Larry Fitzgerald, DL Aaron Donald, RB Tony Dorsett 

Honorable mentions: CB Darrelle Revis, TE Mike Ditka, OL Jimbo Covert, OL Russ Grimm, LB Ricky Jackson, RB Curtis Martin, LB Joe Schmidt, DL Chris Doleman 

Marino and Donald were slam-dunk choices to make Pitt’s Mount Rushmore, with Fitzgerald being a fairly easy choice, too. It was a tough call, however, when it came to choosing the final spot that came down to Ditka, Dorsett and Doleman. 

All three players have compelling cases. Ditka was a record-setting tight end who led the Bears to the 1963 NFL title. Doleman enjoyed an incredible 15-year career that included eight Pro Bowl nods, 150.5 sacks and a jaw-dropping 44 forced fumbles. 

Dorsett’s sparkling career, however, was impossible to ignore. The first player to win a national title, Heisman Trophy and Super Bowl over a two-year span, Dorsett compiled a whopping 16,293 total yards and 90 touchdowns during his Hall of Fame career. He forever etched his name in the history books when he ran for a 99-yard touchdown run in 1983 (Derrick Henry tied his record in 2018). 

2. USC 

Mount Rushmore: S Ronnie Lott, LB Junior Seau, OL Anthony Munoz, RB O.J. Simpson

Honorable mentions: RB Marcus Allen, S Willie Wood, WR Lynn Swann, S Troy Polamalu, RB Frank Gifford, OL Bruce Matthews, OL Ron Mix, OL Tony Boselli, OL Ron Yary, E/DE Morris Badgro 

The Trojans have fielded a slew of future NFL stars, including three players — Lott, Seau and Munoz — who are arguably the best to ever play their respective divisions. 

In Munoz’s case, there’s virtually no debate when it comes to his status as the greatest offensive tackle in league history. From 1981-91, Munoz earned 11 Pro Bowl appearances and nine All-Pro nods while offering sterling pass protecting for two quarterbacks who won the NFL’s MVP. 

Seau was a tackling machine who spearheaded the Chargers’ surprising 1994 Super Bowl run. Lott, who started his career at cornerback before switching to safety, once had part of a finger amputated so he could avoid missing playing time. He was the 49ers’ best defensive player during the franchise’s heyday during the 1980s. 

3. Miami (FL) 

Mount Rushmore: LB Ray Lewis, DL Warren Sapp, S Ed Reed, WR Michael Irvin 

Honorable mentions: DL Ted Hendricks, RB Edgerrin James, QB Jim Kelly, WR Andre Johnson, DL Cortez Kennedy, OL Jim Otto, WR/KR Devin Hester, S Sean Taylor

Few college programs have churned out NFL talent like the Hurricanes have since the 1980s. At the top of that list are three players who are considered to be among the greatest at their position in Lewis, Sapp and Reed. As teammates, Lewis and Reed helped the Ravens win their second and most recent Super Bowl at the end of the 2012 season. 

You could argue that Andre Johnson deserves Irvin’s spot, but “The Playmaker” got the nod for a couple of reasons despite having weaker career numbers. Irvin was a vital part of the ’90s Cowboys dynasty, and his physicality helped revolutionize the receiver position. He was also a highly productive player in his own right. In 1995, nearly half of Troy Aikman’s passing yardage was completed to Irvin, who put up big numbers despite playing inside a run-first offense. 

4. Alabama

Mount Rushmore:  OL John Hannah, WR Don Hutson, QB Bart Starr, LB Derrick Thomas 

Honorable mentions: QB Joe Namath, QB Ken Stabler, OL Dwight Stephenson, TE Ozzie Newsome 

It was a tough decision trying to decide which of Alabama’s quarterbacks made its Mount Rushmore. The nod ultimately went to Starr mostly because of his historic significance on pro football. The quarterback of Vince Lombardi’s Packers, Starr guided Green Bay to five championships and remains the last quarterback to win three straight league titles. He was named the MVP of the first two Super Bowls. 

Speaking of tough calls, Thomas got the nod over two deserving players in Stephenson and Newsome. Thomas’ Defensive Player of the Year honor in 1989 and his single-game record of seven sacks (set in 1990) helped his cause. 

5. Syracuse

Mount Rushmore: RB Jim Brown, WR Marvin Harrison, TE John Mackey, OL Jim Ringo 

Honorable mentions: RB Larry Csonka, RB Floyd Little, WR Art Monk, DE Dwight Freeney 

It’s hard to top this Mount Rushmore. It’s headlined by Brown, who is on the short list of the greatest players in league history. In his nine seasons, Brown led the NFL in rushing eight times. He retired with a whopping 5.2 yards-per-carry average and a per-game rushing average of 104.3 yards. 

Ringo managed to make the cut over Monk on the strength of his 10 Pro Bowls and six All-Pro selections as a valued member of the 1960s Packers. Along with being an incredible player, Ringo possessed unreal durability as he missed just one start (while playing in each of Green Bay’s 182 games) from 1954-67. 

6. Florida State

Mount Rushmore: DB Deion Sanders, WR Fred Biletnkoff, OL Walter Jones, LB Derrick Brooks

Honorable mention: S LeRoy Butler 

While he’s often not mentioned when the greatest linebackers of all time are discussed, Brooks isn’t overlooked on this list. An 11-time Pro Bowler and five-time All-Pro, Brooks played an integral role on the Buccaneers‘ dominant defense in the late ’90s and early ’00s. 

Brooks was especially good when it came to his ability to neutralize then-division rival Michael Vick, one of the most electric quarterbacks the NFL has ever seen. In 2002 (Vick’s breakout year as well as the Buccaneers’ first championship season), Vick ran for a scant 10 yards on seven carries in two games against Tampa Bay (which were both losses) with Brooks following his every move. 

7. SMU

Mount Rushmore: WR Raymond Berry, RB Eric Dickerson, OL Forrest Gregg, RB Doak Walker 

We can’t talk about SMU football without talking about Dickerson, the star of the “Pony Express” and one of the greatest backs in college and NFL history. Dickerson followed in the footsteps of Walker, who followed up his decorated career at SMU by leading the Lions to back-to-back NFL titles in the early 1950s. 

Dickerson quickly emerged as the NFL’s best running back during the 1980s. He set the rookie rushing record in 1983, and a year later set the still-standing single-season rushing record with 2,105 yards. 

8. Penn State

Mount Rushmore: RB Franco Harris, LB Jack Ham, RB Lenny Moore DL Chuck Bednarik 

Honorable mentions: OL Mike Michalske, RB Lenny Moore, OL Mike Munchak, DL Dave Robinson 

Penn State produced two anchors of the 1970s Steelers dynasty in Harris and Ham. Ham was a cerebral outside linebacker who was a perfect complement to fellow Steelers linebacker Jack Lambert. Harris jump-started the Steelers’ dynasty with his “Immaculate Reception” in the ’72 playoffs. He won MVP honors in Pittsburgh’s first Super Bowl win two years later. 

Moore, the first of a long line of talented Penn State running backs, was way ahead of his time from a versatility standpoint. He actually finished his career with more rushing and receiving yards while playing a key role in Johnny Unitas’ brilliant career. Moore finished his career with 111 total touchdowns (63 rushing, 48 receiving). 

9. Notre Dame 

Mount Rushmore: QB Joe Montana, DL Alan Page, WR Tim Brown, LB Nick Buoniconti 

Honorable mentions: RB Jerome Bettis, TE Dave Casper, LB George Connor, RB Paul Hornung, E Wayne Millner, OL George Trafton, DL Bryant Young 

It’s no surprise that the Fighting Irish have produced a litany of NFL talent, led by Montana and Page. Montana, considered the greatest quarterback in league history prior to Brady’s arrival, was basically flawless in four Super Bowl starts. In those games, Montana did not throw a single pick in 92 pass attempts. It’s not a coincidence that the 49ers won each time. 

Page didn’t have the same luck in Super Bowls. In fact, it was the opposite as Page and the Vikings went 0-4 in the big game. But that doesn’t take away from Page’s iconic career that included being the first defensive player to win league MVP. 

10. Ohio State

Mount Rushmore: OL Orlando Pace, WR Cris Carter, WR Paul Warfield, OL Jim Parker 

Honorable mentions: OT/K Lou Groza, WR Dante Lavelli, DB Dick LeBeau, DL Bill Willis, LB Randy Gradishar 

It’s fitting that Ohio State, a school that has become synonymous with the receiver position in recent years, cracks this list with two Hall of Fame wideouts in Carter and Warfield. Carter has arguably the best hands of any wideout in league history. Warfield starred in Cleveland before helping the Dolphins become the only team in NFL history to go undefeated for an entire season. 

The Buckeyes’ NFL Mount Rushmore also includes two of the best offensive linemen in history in Pace and Parker. Pace and Parker each played key roles on prolific, championship-winning offenses in St. Louis and Baltimore, respectively. 

11. Georgia 

Mount Rushmore: QB Fran Tarkenton, CB Champ Bailey, DL Richard Seymour, RB Terrell Davis 

Honorable mention: HB Charley Trippi 

The Bulldogs’ NFL Mount Rushmore is a perfect blend of offensive and defensive star power. It starts with Tarkenton, the first SEC quarterback to throw for over 1,000 yards in a season (he did so in the 1960s). In the NFL, Tarkenton started in three Super Bowls with the Vikings and retired after the 1978 season as the league’s career passing leader. 

Davis, a backup for the majority of his time at Georgia, packed a lot into his four healthy seasons with the Broncos before a knee injury prematurely ended his career at the age of 29. From 1995-98 Davis, was named to the Pro Bowl three times, was league MVP in a season that saw him rush for over 2,000 yards, won two Super Bowls and was named the MVP of Super Bowl XXXII after rushing for 157 yards and three scores in Denver’s upset win over the Packers. 

12. Grambling State

Mount Rushmore: DB Willie Brown, DE Buck Buchanan, DL Willie Davis, WR Charlie Joyner 

Grambling State’s Mount Rushmore has a heavy defensive presence. Brown, Buchanan and Davis played in a combined six Super Bowls from 1966-76, winning four. Brown submitted one of the most iconic plays in Super Bowl history with his 75-yard pick six in Super Bowl XI that sealed the Raiders’ first championship. 

The Tigers’ list also includes Joyner, a vastly underrated receiver who played a key role in Don Coryell’s innovative passing attack in San Diego in the late ’70s and into the ’80s. 

13. South Carolina State

Mount Rushmore: DL Deacon Jones, LB Harry Carson, RB Marion Motley, S Donnie Shell 

If you like defense, you’ve come to the right place. South Carolina State’s premier NFL player, Jones, was a feared pass rusher who coined the term “sack.” Carson and Shell were key members of championship defenses with the Giants and Steelers, respectively. Shell, a hard-hitting player who was appropriately nicknamed “The Torpedo” for his role as a special teams gunner, became the first strong safety to record 50 career interceptions in 1986. 

While he didn’t play defense, Motley was often the aggressor when it came to contact during his Hall of Fame career as a Browns running back. 

14. UCLA

Mount Rushmore: QB Troy Aikman, DB Kenny Easley, E Tom Fears, OL Jonathan Ogden 

Honorable mentions: DB Jimmy Johnson, QB Bob Waterfield 

Fears just got the nod over Johnson because of the mind-boggling numbers he was able to put up despite playing in the run-heavy eras of the ’40s and ’50s. He led the NFL in receptions three straight years and was the third player to record 1,000 yards in a season. Fears’ record of 18 receptions in a game stood as the single-game record for 50 years until it was broken in 2000 by Terrell Owens. 

15. Jackson State 

Mount Rushmore: RB Walter Payton, DL Robert Brazile, OL Jackie Slater, DB Lem Barney 

Believe it or not, Payton, Brazile and Slater all played for Jackson State at the same time. What’s crazier is that the Tigers didn’t go undefeated with their Hall of Fame trio. Payton, who would go onto become the NFL’s all-time leading rusher (a feat that was later eclipsed by Emmitt Smith) left Jackson State as the NCAA’s career scoring leader with 464 points. 

After blocking for Payton in college, Slater helped open holes in the NFL for several standout running backs that included Eric Dickerson and Jerome Bettis. 

16. Michigan 

Mount Rushmore: QB Tom Brady, DB Charles Woodson, CB Ty Law, OL Dan Dierdorf 

Honorable mentions: DL Len Ford, QB Benny Friedman, E Bill Hewitt, WR/HB Elroy Hirsch, OL Steve Hutchinson, OL Tom Mack 

When you have the GOAT, you’re basically guaranteed a spot on this list. But along with having the seven-time Super Bowl championship QB in Brady, Michigan also boasts a pair of Hall of Fame defensive backs and one of the toughest, nastiest offensive lineman in history in Dierdorf. 

You can’t mention Brady and Woodson without talking about their shared moment in history: Woodson’s hit on Brady in the 2001 playoffs that birthed the controversial Tuck Rule. 

17. Purdue

Mount Rushmore: QB Drew Brees, QB Bob Griese, QB Len Dawson, DB Rod Woodson 

Purdue’s Mount Rushmore consists of two Hall of Fame quarterbacks, another one in waiting and one of the best pure athletes the league has ever seen in Woodson. Griese and Dawson share a place in history as the opposing quarterbacks in the NFL’s longest game

18. LSU 

Mount Rushmore: DB Johnny Robinson, RB Jim Taylor, QB T.A. Tittle, HB Steve Van Buren 

Honorable mentions: OL Alan Faneca, OL Kevin Mawae

Joe Burrow may one day join fellow quarterback Tittle on the Tigers’ NFL Mount Rushmore. For now, though, Tittle is the only former Tigers quarterback to make the cut, and his spot is well deserved. In 1956, he led the Giants to their first league title and was named league MVP seven years later at the age of 37. 

19. Stanford 

Mount Rushmore: QB John Elway, WR James Lofton, S John Lynch, Ernie Nevers 

The Cardinals’ greatest player, Elway guided the Broncos to five Super Bowls during his Hall of Fame career. He ended his career with an MVP performance in Super Bowl XXXIII. 

Lynch, who currently serves as the 49ers general manager, was a Pro Bowler in nine of his final 11 seasons while playing for the Buccaneers and Broncos. He was a key member of a Buccaneers defense that picked off then-league MVP Rich Gannon five times in Super Bowl XXXVII. 

20. Oregon

Mount Rushmore: QB Dan Fouts, DB Mel Renfro, QB Norm Van Brocklin, LB Dave Wilcox

Honorable mention: OL Gary Zimmerman 

The Ducks boast two of the most prolific passers in league history in Fouts and Van Brocklin. Both quarterbacks — decades ahead of their time — were instrumental in the evolution of the position. 

Fouts and Van Brocklin are flanked by two legendary defenders. Renfro pillaged 52 opposing quarterback passes during his 14-year career with the Cowboys. Wilcox earned seven Pro Bowl nods with the 49ers while becoming one of the NFL’s premier linebackers during the 1960s. 

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Author: Bryan DeArdo
July 11, 2024 | 11:20 am

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