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Purdue ICONS #8: Mike Alstott

Mike Alstott is one of my favorite all-time Boilermakers. He might be the best player at Purdue that never played on a winning team. That's because he had the unfortunate handicap of Jim "A tie is as good as a win in the Big Ten" Colletto as his coach. During Alstott's career Purdue had three ties, lost the highest scoring game in Division 1-A history at that point, somehow lost a game 5-0, and managed to miss a bowl game after starting a season 4-1.

Despite that, Mike Alstott remains a fan favorite. He is the only Boilermaker to score a touchdown in a Super Bowl, Purdue's all-time leading rusher, and was a beast of a running back that was a Heisman candidate despite playing for some pretty awful teams. I honestly think that he, along with Antwan Randle El, are two of the best Big Ten players of the last 20 years in the Big Ten that never played in a bowl game.

With 437 votes Mike Alstott is the #8 Purdue ICON

Purdue career as "The A-Train"

During the 2000 season, as we were battling for the Big Ten crown with Michigan, people kept calling running back Anthony Thomas "The A-Train". This always bothered me because we know that Alstott is the real A-Train. In the fall of 1992 Alstott came to Purdue as part of Colletto's second team in West Lafayette. Diamond Jim had finished a mediocre 4-7 during his first season, and was still getting the benefit of the doubt as a second year coach.

In 1992 he brought in a freshman from nearby Joliet, Illinois who was known as a powerful runner. Alstott played as a true freshman in the Big Ten and had modest success. On the ground he rushed for 195 yards and two scores, while he also caught 15 passes for 208 yards and another score. His training methods were also legendary. Instead of spending extra time in the weight room Alstott hooked himself up to his Jeep at the bottom of the hill on University Drive and regularly pulled the Jeep uphill in order to gain leg strength.

Let's put this into perspective. Your average Jeep Wrangler weighs about 3,700 pounds (give or take). That's not bad to push or pull on level terrain, but uphill? Are you kidding me? This would obviously be the reason that, in 1994, when my brother-in-law and I walked past Alstott after the Minnesota game we saw that his thighs were as thick as my 14-year old waist back then.

During that 1992 season we started to see one of my favorite things of the Alstott era. When he would hit the line of scrimmage the entire line would move. He was a tough, old-school fullback that was pure power and strength. I often dream of putting him in the backfield as a running back with Brees' teams and unleashing both on the Big Ten.

The results never materialized on the field despite Mike's best efforts. Purdue went 4-7 in 1992, Upsetting 11th-ranked California 41-14 in the season opener before falling 33-29 to Toledo. It didn't get much better after that. Notre Dame beat us 48-0. Northwestern beat us 28-14 before we answered with a 24-20 win over Minnesota. A 19-16 loss at Wisconsin was followed by a 27-16 win at Iowa (our last win in Iowa City against our Most Hated Rival). The lone saving grace was a 13-10 win over Indiana that denied the Hoosiers a bowl game.

The 1993 season saw Alstott take a much larger role in the offense. He earned his first of three straight team MVP awards (the only player in Purdue history to win three) with 816 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns. He added another 407 yards on 30 receptions and two more touchdowns as he was the focus of the Purdue offense. Unfortunately, that was the highlight of the year. After losing the season opener 20-7 at North Carolina State the Boilers came home to beat eventual MAC champ Western Michigan 28-13.

It would be Purdue's only win of the season as we finished a school worst 1-10. The record has to be laid at the confused feet of Colletto. Among the lowlights:

  • A 17-0 home loss to a Notre Dame team that went 11-1 and was their last great team. That meant we played two straight games with our best running back ever against the Irish and couldn't even score a point.
  • A 59-56 loss at Minnesota that remains the highest scoring regulation game (no overtimes) in Division I-A history. Really? We couldn't get one defensive stop? For crying out loud, Alstott topped the Bundy by scoring five touchdowns and we still lost!
  • Consecutive losses to Big Ten co-champs Wisconsin and Ohio State while giving up 40+ points.
  • A 24-17 loss to Indiana's last bowl team before 2007.

This season may have been the lowest point in Purdue's football history. It was so bad that my dad, a long-time season ticket holder, used it as an excuse (along with spending money on my sister's June 1994 wedding) to not get season tickets. It made the 1994 season the only one since 1987 that I have not had a season ticket, but at least we made it to one game.

With Alstott as a junior in 1994 the stage was set for a dramatic comeback. For awhile, it looked like we would be a great story. We topped Toledo and Ball State to open the season 2-0 for the first time since 1978. The predictable loss at Notre Dame followed, but a 22-16 win at Illinois and a 49-37 win at home against Minnesota had us in first place in the conference. It was after the Minnesota game, the only one I was able to attend that season, that my brother-in-law and I met the excited players afterward and I saw up close Alstott's size. The man was a freaking beast, and he had Purdue at an unheard of 4-1 with a series of winnable games left.

That's when the bottom fell out. A later loss to Michigan State is now counted as a win due to a forfeit, thus allowing Purdue to champion it as a winning season, but one ineligible player was not a difference in that 42-30 loss. After beating Minensota, Purdue tied the Badgers in Madison 27-27, mostly because Colletto got more conservative than a Utah politician when the game was on the line. Ohio State then trounced us 48-14 before Colletto's lack of a spine in late game situations allowed a 21-21 tie at home with Iowa. I specifically remember him settling for a long field goal with a few minutes to go rather than get closer, much like Tiller's strategy at home against Oregon in 2008.

We would close the season with losses to Michigan, Michigan State, and against Indiana at home. Alstott rushed for 1,188 yards and 14 touchdowns and had another 298 yards receiving but it didn't result in a winning record. He would return for his senior season though, and it was one of the best season for a running back in Big Ten history.

Alstott led Purdue to a surprising 26-24 win at a ranked West Virginia to start the 1995 season, but that was another game that Colletto tried to piss away by being way too conservative. Notre Dame beat us at home 35-28 (even though Alstott was wide open on the five yard line on our final possession), then tied Michigan State 35-35. A win over Ball State had us a strong 2-1-1, but it could have been 4-0 easily. We went on to lose five of the next six, with the only win coming 38-27 over Wisconsin. Somehow, we lost 5-0 at Michigan in a game that had deplorable weather (though wouldn't that be the type of game a back like Alstott would thrive in? Again, Colletto was an idiot.)"

There would be no bowl game, but we still needed the Bucket back. On the day after Thanksgiving we traveled to Bloomington for the Bucket game. We were bringing Alstott, and he was going to vent. In what was simply a virtuoso performance Alstott ran over, around, and straight through the Hoosiers for 264 yards, just 12 short of the school record. Alstott would have had it too if Colletto had not called off the dogs in a rare pro-Purdue blowout. Here are some clips from this thing of beauty.

The A-train left Purdue with a school record 3,635 yards, approached only recently by Kory Sheets who played in more games but still fell 300 yards short. His 1995 season of 1,436 yards is still the best in school history, and his 1994 season ranks third. His 42 career touchdowns are second only to Sheets, who had 54. His 4,710 all-purpose yards trails only Sheets and Dorien Bryant. It is a damn shame that he only won 13 games with him in four seasons because he was a rampaging beast of a man that could only be gang-tackled.

Pro Career

It's amazing what good coaching can do. Alstott was selected 35th overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 1996 NFL Draft. At the time, the Bucs were the laughingstock of the NFL, but with Alstott they enjoyed their only real period of sustained success. He had six Pro bowl seasons and was named as an All-Pro four times during a career that may put him in Canton as one of the last great ball-carrying fullbacks. He would rush for over 5,000 yards in his career and he is the all time Bucs leader in touchdowns with 71.

As a team, the Bucs would make the playoffs six times with Alstott, culminating during the 2002 season when they made the Super Bowl. Once there, Alstott scored the game's first touchdown on a 2-yard run in the second quarter, allowing Tampa to open up a 13-3 lead. Mike would rush for 15 yards and catch five passes for 43 yards as the Bucs took advantage of five Rich Gannon interceptions to win 48-21.

Alstott was beloved by Bucs fans both on and off the field during his career. He and his wife, Nicole, formed the Mike Alstott Family Foundation to benefit families in the Tampa era. He was also regular visitor at the St. Petersburg Children's hospital. After his retirement in 2008 the Bucs retired his #40 jersey for all-time, for fear that someone else wearing it would cause opponents to unfairly cower in fear.

I can't say enough positive things about Mike Alstott. It is my hope that his son, Griffin, is twice the player he was and agrees to come to Purdue in the future. Alstott is a legend that resides in Purdue's Athletic Hall of Fame and one whose numbers have stood the test of time so far. He exhibited the true attitude of Boilermaker football by being a tough, hard-nosed player that would rather run over the opposition than around it. He is one of the great football players Purdue has ever produced hands down.