Legends of the Game: Joe Morrison, a Light and a Legacy

Joe Morrison 350x350Joe Morrison’s No. 40 is retired by the New York Giants, and yet he might just go down as one of the most underrated to ever play the game of football. He has no Super Bowl rings; his trophy cabinet is not filled with that many awards from either his playing or coaching days. In fact, he was on the Giants during one of their worst points in the team’s history.

Yet, he was one of their best and brightest players, and he took his on-field experiences and used them to become a standout and legacy-lasting college football coach.

Morrison attended the University of Cincinnati, where he showed early signs of the versatility on the field that would earn him the nickname “Old Dependable.” In addition to playing as quarterback and halfback, he was a member of the Bearcats’ defense.

Upon graduating in 1959, he was selected as the Giants’ third-round pick (with the 34th overall pick) in that year’s NFL Draft. There, he played mostly as a running back and wide receiver, but could shift into just about any position that was asked of him to do.


In his rookie season, Morrison rushed for 165 yards and totaled 183 receiving yards on 17 receptions, along with a touchdown. He had one of his best seasons in 1963, as he rushed for 568 yards that year along with obtaining 284 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. He proved himself to be especially great as a receiver, and three years later, Morrison would break out again during a season in which the Giants won just a single game. He rushed 275 yards on 67 attempts, and he had 724 receiving yards with six total touchdowns. His numbers would stay high for the three seasons following, and Morrison proved himself to be a light during what just might be the New York Giants’ most dark, cloudy days.

After the 1972 season, Morrison retired from the NFL after 13 years in New York. That year, he was presented with the NFL Football Club’s MVP award, and the Giants retired his jersey number. As of today, Morrison is third in the team’s record books for receptions with 395 catches, and he totaled for just less than 5,000 yards.

Morrison then turned over from a player to a coach, going on to earn over 100 victories. He started his new career at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, becoming the head coach for the school’s football team in 1973. After seven seasons at that helm, he spent the next three coaching the football team at the University of New Mexico, bringing a 10-1 record to the Lobos in his final year.

But it was in 1983 that he would start the coaching tenure that he is most noted for — as head coach at the University of South Carolina. He is noted in Gamecocks’ history not just for the success the team had under him, but for the traditions that were started as well.

The song South Carolina uses for their pregame entrance to this day,the famous theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey, started under Morrison’s tenure. The idea was originally developed by then-Gamecocks QB Tommy Suggs in 1981, but the practice did not come into play in 1983 — when Morrison arrived to the team. Morrison is identified with the song in part because of the Gamecocks’ success under him.

The 1984 Gamecocks season, the second under Morrison, is known as “Black Magic” year because of the all-black uniform incorporated by Morrison, as well as for being one of the greatest college football teams of all time. With a national ranking as high as No. 2, and a nine-game winning streak, Morrison led the team to a Gator Bowl appearance. The nine consecutive wins is the longest win streak in school history, and the 10-2 record accomplished by the team was the school’s best until 2011. Morrison was named the 1984 Walter Camp Coach of the Year for the accomplishments performed by this team.

Today, an outstanding offensive and defensive player from Gamecocks spring practice are both awarded the Joe Morrison Award.

Four players on that “Black Magic” team earned All-America status: Sterling Sharpe, a Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame inductee; Brad Edwards, a member of the Super Bowl XXVI Champion Washington Redskins; James Seawright, who played for the Buffalo Bills and Los Angeles Rams; and Del Wilkes, who did not play in the NFL but saw some success as a professional wrestler.

Other players coached by Morrison during his time with the Gamecocks include Robert Brooks, a member of the Super Bowl XXXI Champion Green Bay Packers; Harold Green, who played for the Bengals, Rams and Falcons over nine NFL seasons; and Todd Ellis, a radio broadcaster for South Carolina football and its all-time passing leader. Former New York Jets Head Coach Al Groh and former Notre Dame and Kansas Head Coach Charlie Weis were both assistants under Morrison.

Morrison’s life, ultimately, was cut short. On Feb. 5, 1989, Morrison was playing racquetball at Williams-Brice Stadium. He collapsed in the shower from a heart attack, and died shortly after being admitted to Providence Hospital. He was 51.

The late Giants owner Wellington Mara once called Morrison the ultimate team player, saying, “He would do anything you asked him. Run the ball, catch play on the special teams, anything.” He might not have a Super Bowl ring or a Rose Bowl title to his name, but Joe Morrison will be remembered for his football flexibility and for being one of the most successful coaches in college football history.

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