🎙 The Jayhawker Podcast | Nolan Cromwell
Episode 32: Nolan Cromwell | August 20, 2020
For a guy who was born and raised in a small town with fewer than 300 people, Nolan Cromwell sure has lived large.
The Ransom, KS native has enjoyed a football life that’s taken him all the way to NFL stardom in Los Angeles as a player and eventually, to a Super Bowl title with Green Bay as a coach. But how did his time as Jayhawk influence it all? And how did one of the most coveted Sunflower State recruits of his time wind up wearing the Crimson and Blue?
A standout on the track and the football field, most schools saw Cromwell as a 2-sport recruit, and despite interest from all over, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma and Nebraska emerged as his final four. In the end, it was the personality of Don Fambrough that won the Jayhawks their two-sport star.
“When it all came down to it, Coach (Don) Fambrough was the guy that won me over,” explained Cromwell. “Fam was just a down-home, good country boy and that’s kind of what I needed and wanted.”
Cromwell initially started his Kansas career as a defensive back, and as freshman helped KU earn a trip to the Liberty Bowl. After two successful seasons at safety though, a head coaching change to Bud Moore led to a position switch for Cromwell.
In the spring prior to Cromwell’s junior season, Moore moved Cromwell to quarterback to use his elite athleticism to key KU’s new wishbone offense. The change put Cromwell on a path to becoming the Big Eight Offensive Player of the Year and earned him the moniker, “The Ransom Rambler.”
Cromwell’s first breakthrough came versus Oregon State in his first start. Cromwell would torch the Beavers defense for 294 rushing yards – setting a new NCAA rushing record for quarterbacks. Ironically, Oregon State’s defensive coordinator that day was Ken Blue – Cromwell’s position coach his freshman season at Kansas – and though he knew Cromwell’s talents well, OSU had no answer for The Rambler.
“I think they were really keyed in on Billy Canfield and Laverne Smith, so it opened up a TON of lanes for me,” recalled Cromwell. “It didn’t take a lot of athleticism to run in the holes that I was running in that day.”
With a the national QB rushing record in tow, the buzz was building about the new quarterback guiding KU’s offense. A 41-7 win a week later at Wisconsin fueled the hype even more and earned Cromwell some serious praise from NFL Hall of Famer Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch, who was the Badgers AD at the time. Hirsch told KU announcer Tom Hedrick that Cromwell was unlike any talent he’d ever seen.
“After that Badger football game, one of the greatest players ever to play in the NFL, Elroy Hirsch told me: ‘That kid is the best option quarterback I’ve seen. I’ve seen all the kids at Oklahoma and others that I like, but that kid is the best I’ve ever seen run the option.’ Now that’s a great compliment,” relayed Hedrick.
Word continued to spread of Cromwell’s rising star status in the Big 8 as KU got set to visit an Oklahoma football team that had not lost in 28 games. The stage was set for a historic upset and Cromwell and his Jayhawk teammates delivered.
“That was an incredible day down in Oklahoma,” described Cromwell. “I think our team felt that we could play with anybody. We had that feeling with us at that point. We weren’t intimidated by them. Our defense had a tremendous game that day.”
The Jayhawk defense was awesome, indeed, forcing eight consecutive Sooner turnovers, including all seven 2nd-half possessions. That coupled with another strong performance by Cromwell, led the Jayhawks to a landmark upset.
The Jayhawks would go on to finish 7-5 that season including a loss to Pittsburgh in the Sun Bowl. Along the way, Cromwell racked up 1,124 rushing yards and was named the league’s top offensive player. KU’s transition to the wishbone with Cromwell at QB was a smashing success.
Though his senior season would be cut short due to injury, Cromwell left his mark on the Kansas program and was just getting started with his football life. Cromwell would go on to become a Pro Bowl safety with the Los Angeles Rams, and eventually be named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 1980s.
From there, he’d find success as a coach, winning Super Bowl XXXI while serving as the special teams coordinator for the Green Bay Packers.
We chronicle all aspects of Cromwell’s illustrious football career and his rise from small town Kansas kid to Super Bowl Champion on this week’s installment of The Jayhawker.