Archie Cooley, the flamboyant football coach at tiny Mississippi Valley State University here in the heart of the delta, loves to talk about his senior wide receiver, Jerry Rice.
"Rice stands 6 foot 2, weighs 205 pounds, can run just as fast as he has to and can catch a BB on the dead run at night," Cooley says, before adding, "Hey, I'm not lying."
Jerry Rice certainly can catch a football. He caught 102 passes in 10 games as a junior, but is far ahead of that pace this season. Through five games, all high-scoring Mississippi Valley victories, Rice has caught 72 passes for 1,081 yards and 14 touchdowns.
"He's the best football player in the country," Cooley says, matter of factly. "NFL front-office people tell me he'll be one of the first three picks in the draft and maybe the first pick of all depending on the needs of the team drafting first."
But Rice is only part of the Valley story. The team has averaged 57 points a game. Willie Totten, the quarterback, has completed 184 of 280 passes for 2,562 yards and 30 touchdowns. That's 512 yards and six touchdowns per game, if you're keeping score.
Grambling State, the perennial powerhouse of predominantly black college football, succeeded last Saturday night in "holding" Valley to 48 points, a season low. Valley won, 48-36, for its first victory over Grambling.
What is more amazing than the Delta Devils' point totals is the way they have gone about winning. Besides being the head coach, Cooley serves as offensive coordinator. At first glance, the Valley offense looks like something out of backyard, draw-up-the-plays-as-you-go touch football. For one thing, "The Valley" never huddles. Never. Every play is an audible at the line of scrimmage.
For another, the Devils line up in just about every formation imaginable. In one of Cooley's favorites, four wide receivers line up in single file wide to the left. Another wide receiver, usually Rice, lines up wide to the right.
More often than not, the opponents' defensive backfield scurries over to cover the four receivers, leaving single coverage on Rice. As often as not, this results in a Valley touchdown.
"We call it the run-and-gun offense," said Cooley, who is nicknamed, "The Gunslinger." "It comes from my days at Tennessee State when I was coaching the scout team trying to figure out ways to score on the starters. Over seven years, I took the best plays of every team we played and put them in a book. That's my system and it will work on any level with the right personnel."
Washington Redskins scout Billy Devaney sees reels of film and countless offensive schemes each year, but he says he has never seen anything quite like Cooley's approach.
"They do so many things and a lot of it you never see anywhere else," Devaney said. "It's a credit to Cooley because everything they do has a reason behind it. More often than not, they're coming up with ways to get single coverage on Rice. And when they do that it isn't fair, because nobody can cover him one on one.
"You get down there and you find yourself looking for something Rice can't do," Devaney continued. "But there's not anything. He's big, fast, and he's got incredible hands. A lot of college players are great pass catchers, but Rice is what I call a great pass receiver. He has natural instincts, runs good pass routes, works the sidelines well and catches everything."
Oh, yes. Rice contributes something else to Cooley's offense -- the wide receiver pass. Totten flips the ball to Rice behind the line and Rice throws downfield to another receiver. So far, Rice is five for five for 95 yards and four touchdowns.
But mostly, Totten does the passing. Although only a junior, he is attracting NFL attention. Playing for a team that passes on nearly every down, Totten has completed 66 percent of his throws.
He's not just a passer, he's a quarterback," Devaney said. "You'd like to see him a little bigger, but there's plenty of guys his size (6-2 1/2, 190 pounds) playing who don't have his arm."
Cooley has brought players like Rice and Totten into the Valley program on a recruiting budget of approximately $3,800 a year.
"We got nothing, money-wise," Cooley said. "We scramble for everything we get."
Valley still goes by bus to all road games, including those in Kentucky, Kansas and Texas. Stops are made at Burger Kings and McDonald's along the way. "Anything to save a buck," Cooley said.
The money shortage is especially discouraging to Chuck Prophet, the school's one-man sports information department.
"A guy on the Heisman voting committee from Michigan called me to ask how come we're not pushing Totten or Rice for the Heisman," Prophet said. "Man, I'd love to, but I don't have the money to do what the other schools do.
"Man, I know Totten can throw better than Flutie (Boston College's Doug) and I know Rice is the best receiver, but I don't have the money to let everybody else know. There are more than a 1,000 voters and I can't mail to 'em all. Much less can I send out four-color posters like everybody else does."
Things are looking up, however. "Three years ago, I couldn't get anything in the newspapers right around here no matter how much I called them," Prophet said. "Now, they're calling me. Not only that; we've had two networks in town this week doing features. That doesn't happen much in Itta Bena."