Former Burns High standout Steve Gardner was the Oklahoma State coach who signed future Hall of Famer to a scholarship

GASTONIA - Before he became a top assistant football coach, head football coach and eventually athletic director at Hunter Huss High School, Steve Gardner was an assistant coach during one of the most memorable seasons in college football history.

This year, on the 30th anniversary of that season, Gardner has nothing but fond memories of what he saw Barry Sanders do in winning the 1988 Heisman Trophy at Oklahoma State.

"I'm not a guy that seeks autographs or takes pictures with celebrities," said Gardner, who coached at Oklahoma State from 1983 to 1989 before coming to Huss in 1990. "I've got my memories. And there's not one bad thing about that young man that I can remember."

But Gardner has one autograph he'll always cherish: Sanders' on the back of the program for the 13th annual Coca-Cola Bowl in Tokyo on the day Sanders won the Heisman Trophy.

"He gave it to me at the time and I've saved it ever since," Gardner said.

Gardner joined the Oklahoma State coaching staff in 1983 and was recruiting Sanders at Wichita, Kansas, North High School during his senior year of 1985.

According to Gardner, a midseason position switch helped make Sanders more and more attractive to colleges all over the region and the country.

"Barry was a slot (receiver) for the first half of his senior year and didn't do as much," Gardner said. "Now he was still exciting and all but then they moved him to tailback and everything changed. By that time, a lot of kids had already committed and you're in the situation of 'Who are you going to drop to get this kid?'"

Oklahoma State offer with Sanders remained and Gardner was there at the home of William and Shirley Sanders when Barry Sanders signed to play for the Cowboys in February 1986.

Certainly, Gardner was excited about Sanders' future prospects but the shifty 5-foot-8, 195-pound future Pro Football Hall of Famer started his college career as a backup for a team whose star at the time was another future Pro Football Hall of Famer in Thurman Thomas.

"When Barry came in as a freshman, we were about two weeks before the first game in a staff meeting at 6 in the morning with the defensive staff," Gardner said. Oklahoma State assistant head coach and then-scout team coach George Walsted "said to the offensive coaches, 'Ya'll got to keep Barry on the offense.' Head coach Pat Jones asked him why and he said, 'We can't tackle him.' And at that time, we had the No. 1 or 2 defense in the country.

"So, even then, there was an idea he could be really special."

Sanders rushed for 325 yards as a freshman in 1986 and 622 as a sophomore in 1987 before having arguably the best season for a running back in NCAA history in 1988. Sanders set many records that still stand, among them his 2,628 yards rushing, his 238.9 yards rushing per game and 37 rushing touchdowns.

And those numbers don't include his 222-yard, five-touchdown performance in Oklahoma State's 62-14 win over Wyoming in the Holiday Bowl that capped a 10-2 season for a team that finished No. 11 in the final poll with losses to perennial powers Nebraska and Oklahoma.

The NCAA in 2002 began counting bowl statistics for its official records but despite repeated requests the governing body has yet to retroactively count bowl statistics for games prior to 2002.

"That year started in typical Barry fashion," Gardner said. "He opened the season with a kickoff return for a touchdown and every game he was just spectacular all season long."

Sanders rushed for 174 or more yards in all 12 games in which he played as a senior, including four games of 300 or more yards rushing. He also scored two or more touchdowns in each game, including three games with five touchdowns apiece.

"In college, we had a good offensive line but not a great one," said Gardner, who was Oklahoma State's defensive line coach from 1983 to 1985 and a tight ends coach from 1986 to 1989. "You just couldn't tackle Barry. He was just phenomenal as far as making reads on blocks and cuts. And, as hard a turns as he made, he never had a problem with a knee or anything like that."

Two years after Sanders' final season, Gardner returned "home" to coach at Hunter Huss in 1990.

A 1976 Burns High graduate where he was a record-setting quarterback and a 1980 Lenoir-Rhyne graduate where he played tight end, Gardner was a Huss assistant coach from 1990 to 1996 before becoming the school's longest-tenured head coach from 1997 to 2013. Since 2014, Gardner has been the Huskies' athletic director.

The No. 3 overall pick of the 1989 draft by the Detroit Lions, Sanders was a Pro Bowl selection and first- or second-team All-Pro for all 10 years of his NFL career that lasted from 1989 to 1998. Sanders, whose 15,269 career rushing total is third all-time in NFL history and trails only Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton, was a first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Fame selection in 2004.

"Barry was just a unique kid with a unique family," Gardner said. "His dad was a character. And he had a very nice mother. When I left (Oklahoma State) and he was in the NFL, we might've talked once or twice a year. But, like I said, I'll alway cherish the memories of the times I had with him.

"He was certainly as special a player as we've ever seen."

 

Richard Walker: 704-869-1843; twitter.com/jrwalk22