Tom's Time
Photo Credit: Randy Hampton

Tom’s Time: Hipp Highlights Nebraska as a Walk-On Haven

December 27, 2017

Isaiah Hipp went through a couple of No. 32 red jerseys during Nebraska’s 31-13 victory against Indiana (coached by Lee Corso) at Memorial Stadium in 1977.

The Huskers were still using tearaway jerseys then and Hipp’s were being shredded by frustrated Hoosier defenders. The sophomore I-back carried 28 times that afternoon, for a school record 254 yards. His performance was such that his picture made the front page of Omaha’s Oct. 2 Sunday World-Herald, top left, above a headline that said: “Hippity-Doo-Dah.”

An inside headline said: “Holy Moses! Isaiah or I.M. Spells Record N.U. Runner.”

Hipp’s middle name was Moses, and he was also referred to by his initials, “I.M.,” as in “I’m hip,” evidence of the creativity and imagination of Nebraska sports information director Don Bryant.

Tom Osborne told Bryant, “His name is Isaiah. We should call him Isaiah.”

But Isaiah had assured Bryant he was fine with either. So he became “I.M. Hipp.”

With junior Rick Berns sidelined by injury, Hipp had gotten his first collegiate start the week before against Baylor, also at Memorial Stadium, and had rushed for 122 yards and a touchdown in the 31-10 victory, the sort of performance that was becoming the norm for Husker I-backs.

What he did against Indiana, however, was another matter. Only two Nebraska ball carriers had rushed for 200 or more yards in a game, the first fullback Frank Solich, 204 yards at Air Force in 1965, the second Berns, 211 at Hawaii in 1976. Solich had scored three touchdowns, Berns four.

Hipp’s only points came on a two-point conversion following the Huskers’ first touchdown.

A week later, Hipp would rush for 207 yards, including touchdown runs of 66 and 82 yards, in a 26-9 victory at Kansas State, and he would later rush for 200 yards in a 52-7 victory against Kansas.

By the end of the regular season, he had rushed for 1,301 yards and 10 touchdowns. The yardage was the second-most in Husker history, behind only Bobby Reynolds’ 1,342 in 1950. Hipp was the UPI “Big Eight Newcomer of the Year” and a unanimous first-team all-conference selection.

The first line of Hipp’s bio in the 1978 Husker media guide began: “Collegiate football’s most famous walkon . . .” He wasn’t recruited by Nebraska. He grew up about 1,200 miles from Lincoln in Chapin, South Carolina, where he and a sister were raised by their great-grandmother.

Hipp became interested in the Huskers after watching the 1971 “Game of the Century.” After sending a letter to Nebraska to find out what he had to do and applying for Pell Grant money to pay the way, he borrowed money for a plane ticket and flew to Lincoln, determined to succeed.

He shared time with Berns, a scholarship recruit from Wichita Falls, Texas, on the freshman team, and sat out the 1976 season as a redshirt. Berns played without redshirting.

Though he finished as Nebraska’s all-time rushing leader – and still ranks 10th on the list – Hipp was plagued by injuries the remainder of his career. He was limited by a nagging turf toe as a senior and was overshadowed by newcomer Jarvis Redwine, a transfer from Oregon State.

The Huskers’ walk-on tradition began long before Hipp, preceding Osborne even. But his earning national back-of-the-week recognition for the performance against Indiana focused a spotlight on Nebraska, which would be regarded as a haven for walk-ons under Osborne.

Osborne’s fifth season as head coach included frustration similar to the first four. The Huskers, preseason No. 15, dropped from the rankings after Warren Powers, who had coached Nebraska’s defensive backs, brought his first Washington State team to Memorial Stadium and pulled off a 19-10 upset in the opener. Beginning with a 31-24 upset of No. 4 Alabama the next week, they worked their way back to No. 9, only to lose for a second year in a row to Iowa State, at Ames, 24-21.

By the final regular-season game at Oklahoma, Nebraska had climbed from No. 18 to No. 11. But the Blackshirts couldn’t deal with the Sooners’ speed and quickness. Oklahoma scored 28 points in the second quarter on the way to a 38-7 victory, its sixth in a row against the Huskers.

Nebraska rallied from a 17-7 third-quarter deficit to defeat North Carolina in the Liberty Bowl. Hipp was the Huskers’ leading rusher with 52 yards on 18 carries.

Nebraska finished at No. 12 in the Associated Press poll, its lowest final AP ranking since 1968, the last time it failed to make the rankings.

Tom's Time is a regular feature that will take a closer look at the life of Tom Osborne. Nebraska has a storied history in football that dates back to the earliest years of the game, but the tradition to which Husker fans hold Nebraska is mostly a reference to Osborne's 25 years as head coach. And that will always be worth exploring in greater detail. Click here for all of the entries in the series.

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