You know those BYU triggermen. They all come with arms made by Winchester and shoot holes in Western Athletic Conference secondaries while leading the nation in passing. And at the end of the season they get just enough Heisman votes to make the top six, but never No. 1. That's where Jim McMahon, the latest in a long line of BYU royal-blue rifles, found himself last Saturday as the 9-2 Cougars played 8-1-1 Utah for the WAC championship and the conference's berth in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 18. McMahon already had 48 NCAA total offense or passing records in the bank, but Heisman watchers were squinting at people like Marcus Allen, Dan Marino and Herschel Walker. Shoot, what does a guy who has already thrown for more than five miles and 80 touchdowns have to do?
"Just play," said McMahon with a slight grin on Friday. "I don't think about the Heisman. I'd be happy to win it, but you can't worry about it. All I want to do is go out tomorrow and beat Utah and then win our bowl game. The Heisman, that's in the hands of somebody else."
McMahon is used to that. When he first went out for football as a 10-year-old in San Jose, Calif., he wanted to be a receiver. "But the coaches had everybody try out for quarterback," he says. "The other kids threw the ball 20 to 25 yards. When I threw it 50, they made me play quarterback."
McMahon was 16 and just starting his junior year of high school when his family moved to Roy, Utah. His father, Jim, is a Catholic. His mother, Roberta, is a Mormon. While slipping easily into the role of baseball, basketball and football hero at Roy High, McMahon dreamed of throwing passes for Notre Dame.
November 30, 1981
The Irish never called. But Nebraska and Oklahoma State did, and three home-state schools (Utah, Utah State and Brigham Young) also were interested in the 6', 185-pound McMahon. He visited the two out-of-state campuses but lost interest when he was told to forget about playing baseball. "If Notre Dame had called, I'd have gone," says McMahon. "But anyplace else I wanted to play baseball, too. It was my favorite sport at the time."
BYU Head Coach LaVell Edwards told McMahon that if he would just unleash that wonderful throwing arm for the Cougars each fall, well, then, he could do whatever he pleased the rest of the year. Even ski. Ski?
"Of course," says Edwards. "We have some of the finest skiing in the world right here. I ski myself. I can't tell a boy not to ski. That would be like bringing someone to Hawaii and telling him he's not allowed to go into the ocean. I just ask that they be careful. There are a whole lot more important things in life than football."
Once a center and linebacker at Utah State, Edwards began his coaching career in 1954 at a Salt Lake City high school, where his teams ran, without much success, from the single wing. "We never passed much," he says. "We didn't win much, either." From 1962 through 1971 Edwards was a BYU defensive coach. The Cougars were a stodgy lot then, seldom putting the ball in the air. They didn't win much, either.
"During those 10 years, we had only one good season," says Edwards. "That was when Virgil Carter was the quarterback and we passed a lot. The other years were mostly 6-4's and 2-8's. That made me think, 'Hey, this isn't the way to go. There has to be another way.' "
When Edwards became head coach in 1972, he focused recruiting efforts on quarterbacks and receivers. His first good signal-caller was Gary Sheide (1973-74). His first superior one was Gifford Nielsen (1975-77), now with Houston, an All-America who led the country in passing yardage in 1976 as a junior. Nielsen finished sixth in the Heisman voting that year.
Next came Marc Wilson (1977-79), now starting for Oakland. Another All-America, he twice led BYU to the passing title and finished third in the Heisman balloting in 1979.
McMahon arrived on campus in 1977. That season Nielsen went out with an injured knee in the fourth game, and Wilson became an instant star. As a sub, McMahon threw only 16 passes, completing 10 for 103 yards and one touchdown. Mostly he punted.
The following fall Wilson was injured in BYU's third game, against Colorado State. McMahon came in and completed seven of nine passes for 122 yards and a touchdown as the Cougars won 32-6. Three games later he came off the bench again to lead a BYU comeback against Oregon. He started six of the last seven games in a 13-, count 'em, game season.
With Wilson healthy again in 1979, McMahon was redshirted. "I hated it then," he says. "But now I'm glad I stuck it out." The decision to hold McMahon out a year proved to be a sound one. Wilson led the nation in passing yardage, and BYU went 11-0 before losing 38-37 to Indiana in the Holiday Bowl. And McMahon had two seasons to play.
McMahon finally took over as top gun last year, setting 32 NCAA passing or total-offense records as Brigham Young—the nation's leader in passing yardage per game for the fourth time in five years—went 11-1 and beat SMU 46-45 in the Holiday Bowl, after trailing by 21 with four minutes to play.
"During the season I never thought about the records," McMahon says. "They just kept coming without my thinking about what was going on. It wasn't until I had a chance to look back that I realized it was an amazing year. I just hope I get to keep some of them." Finishing fifth in the '80 Heisman chase, McMahon was a first-team Coaches' All-America and a UPI and AP second-team selection.
This season McMahon took up where he had left off. Then, in the fourth game, against Colorado, he beat a safety blitz with a jump pass but was hit as he came down. The result: a hyperextended left knee. He returned two games later wearing a Lenox Hill derotational brace, the kind that gave Joe Namath a few additional seasons with the Jets and Rams, and resumed the aerial barrage.
Agility had long been one of McMahon's strengths. "He reminds you a lot of Fran Tarkenton, except that he is more accurate," says Gil Brandt, vice-president of personnel development for the Dallas Cowboys. "He's more accurate than Bob Griese was in college."
For a while, the knee injury restricted McMahon's movement, but it didn't affect his arm or his ability to call just the right audible in the face of any defense a team concocted for him. "And he's seen them all," says Edwards. "Everything from nine men in the secondary to a student-body blitz. Nothing seems to shake him. He's amazing. He'll go to the line, read the defense, and if he doesn't feel the play I sent in will work, he'll check off to a better one. Some games he does it as often as 60 percent."
Going into the Utah game, McMahon needed two touchdown passes to break Joe Adams' NCAA career record (set in 1977-80 at Tennessee State) of 81, and 218 yards to exceed Mark Herrmann's 9,188 yards over four years at Purdue (1977-80). Operating behind an outstanding line that spends 80% of its practice time fending off the pass rush, McMahon went right to work. Within 18 minutes he had thrown for 234 yards, thus surpassing Herrmann. With 2:02 to go in the first half he erased Adams' record, too, with a six-yard scoring pitch to Tight End David Mills. For his first TD pass, McMahon had thrown eight yards to Tight End Gordon Hudson, who would catch two more scoring tosses in BYU's 56-28 romp. In all, McMahon completed 35 of 54 passes for 565 yards and four TDs. It was an exceptional day: 12 more NCAA records were his. Actually, he set 13, but he had held one himself. His career total: 60 passing or total offense records and a tie for another.
Some believe BYU quarterbacks operate by just throwing the ball into the air and hoping someone will catch it. Check this: Not only did McMahon set career passing records for yardage (9,536) and for touchdowns (84), but he also broke Danny White's career passing-efficiency record of 148.9 with a final grade of 156.9 (1,060 attempts, 653 completions, 84 TDs and only 34 interceptions).
After the game McMahon sat in front of his locker and called for the tape cutters. His left leg had been wrapped from the top of his thigh to his ankle. More tape around his middle held a large pad securely against his lower back, where he had been speared by a Utah helmet in the second quarter.
"Damn, my kidney hurts," he said, grabbing his back and trying to grimace and grin at the same time. "Now one more bowl game and then...." He smiled and started to peel away the tape.
"Then the pros?" someone asked.
"Why not? I like this game, and I don't like working. I'm not an 8-to-5 guy sitting behind a desk."
"But they're so big."
"I know. But I figure it doesn't matter what another guy weighs if he can't catch me. I'm only small and fragile if they get hold of me. And I never worry about getting hurt. I run a lot. That's because I can't stand pain."