Randall Cunningham would have a lot better shot at becoming a household name if he had a nickname like his older brother Sam's—Bam—and if his call letters were USC instead of UNLV. Even though the 6'4", 198-pound University of Nevada-Las Vegas quarterback began this season ranked No. 2 to Boston College's Doug Flutie in career total offense among returning major college quarterbacks and averaged 43.5 yards a punt last year (for which he was named to the American Football Coaches Association All-America team), Cunningham and the words "Heisman Trophy candidate" aren't linked in any way.
One reason Cunningham has gone unnoticed is that he plays for a school known almost solely for its exploits in basketball. Consider what happened last week when Ralph Kohl, the head scout for the Minnesota Vikings, stopped by the Rebels' football offices to watch films of Cunningham in action. As images of him whipping darts to his wide receivers, laying up delicate screens to his backs or scrambling out of trouble flickered across the screen, Kohl was clearly impressed—and surprised. But when he was asked how Cunningham compared to Doug Williams, who in 1978 was the first black quarterback to be an NFL first-round draft choice, Kohl replied sincerely, "To tell you the truth, I didn't even know he was black."
Such is the price paid for playing quarterback at a basketball school. But Gil Brandt, the Dallas Cowboys' vice-president for personnel development, obviously had already made the comparison in his own mind when he was asked the same question. "He's a Doug Williams with a touch," said Brandt. "He can throw any kind of pass you can name. The key thing is that he doesn't throw interceptions. If the draft were held tomorrow, he'd be the first quarterback taken."
Black, white, live or on film, Cunningham is exciting. And this season he could lead UNLV to its first PCAA title and out of college football obscurity. Last week Cunningham took the first step, leading the Rebels past San Jose State 30-15 in their PCAA home opener in the Las Vegas Silver Bowl. He completed 15 of 26 passes for 182 yards and two touchdowns, bringing his career total offensive yardage to 5,785 and 43 TDs.
What the pros also like about Cunningham is his speed (4.7 for the 40), his durability (he has never missed a game because of injury) and his all-around athleticism (he high-jumped 6'10" in high school). His arm is strong and accurate; he has thrown just 20 interceptions in two years. His release, while not the quickest, is plenty quick enough, and he comes straight over the top, high and hard. "Some people have to strain to learn this game," says UNLV coach Harvey Hyde. "Randall does everything with ease. Just watch him play the game. Football is a very easy game for him to play."
Which is something that runs in the Cunningham family. Sam, 34, who retired from pro ball in 1982, played eight years for the New England Patriots and is best remembered for his four hurtling touchdowns against Ohio State in USC's 42-17 Rose Bowl win in 1973. A.C., 29 and a diesel truck mechanic in the Cunninghams' hometown of Santa Barbara, Calif., was a 6'3", 230-pound linebacker at Boise State in 1976-77. Bruce, 23, now a landscaper, was a swift defensive back who played at Santa Barbara City College for two years (1979 and '80) and at UNLV in 1981, Randall's freshman year.
The Cunningham brothers were taught the virtues of hard work and academic achievement by their parents. "We all played football," says Randall, "but we all studied, too. If you didn't study, you didn't play." Randall was a solid B and led Santa Barbara High to the finals of the California Interscholastic Federation championships in 1980. Nebraska, Notre Dame and USC all offered him scholarships. Cunningham spurned the Trojans, partly because he didn't want to follow in his brother's footsteps, but also because he didn't think they would play him at quarterback. "They said I would get the opportunity to play quarterback, but that if I didn't prove myself, they'd switch me to another position," says Cunningham. "I think they planned to switch me [to defensive back] all along."
When UNLV promised Cunningham a full ride as a QB, he joined Bruce on campus. This way, their mother, 56, who had cancer, could see both of them play at the same time. It was a trying year for Randall. His mother died shortly after the 1981 season. Then Tony Knap, the coach who recruited him, retired and was replaced by Hyde, whose Pasadena City College teams relied on a crunching, ball-control offense, hardly an attractive prospect for a passing quarterback.
It didn't help that Cunningham had an erratic spring practice in 1982. "He had trouble reading coverages, trouble with his footwork," says UNLV assistant Barry Lamb. "He was either scoring touchdowns or giving up the ball." Faced with an impending redshirt season, Cunningham was considering a transfer. "I wanted to leave because I didn't consider myself a fourth-string quarterback," he says. "I was going to transfer to USC, but I wasn't going to let anyone know about it until after the first game against BYU."
Good thing Cunningham kept his mouth shut. BYU pummeled the Rebels 27-0 on national cable TV, leaving Hyde "disgusted and embarrassed." The next day he announced that the quarterback job was wide open, "even for Randall Cunningham." Two weeks later Randall was the Rebels' starter.
Cunningham rolled up the statistics—2,847 yards of passing offense, 16 touchdowns passing, only 12 interceptions—but was plagued by a tendency to go it alone. "He felt the pressure to do everything himself," says Hyde. "Randall tried to lead, but the guys wouldn't cooperate with him," says Michael McDade, an all-PCAA wide receiver and Cunningham's roommate and closest friend.
Then Randall's father, Samuel, died after suffering a heart attack in November of 1982, and Randall was shattered. "When I lost my mother, I figured that since I didn't have her to say 'Hi, Mom' to on TV, I could say it to my dad. But then I couldn't even say it to him."
In '83 Cunningham passed for 2,545 yards and 18 touchdowns while leading UNLV to a 7-4 record and a second-place finish in the PCAA. "Last season I was confident, but I didn't understand the game as much as I do now," he says. "I had to learn that in college everybody has an assignment. Now I'm doing my assignment and only my assignment."
Cunningham made "team leader" part of his assignment. During spring practice he and McDade organized the Bomb Squad. Only backs—both offensive and defensive—and wide receivers can join. Members of the club are identified by their "wings"—elastic forearm wraps that look suspiciously like knee wraps. To earn his wings, a Bomb Squadder must display the twin virtues of "dedication and hard work," says Cunningham. "The team knows that when you earn your wings, you've done something spectacular." With that requirement, it's little wonder that Cunningham is president of the Bomb Squad.