These days BYU quarterback Steve Sarkisian can look back fondly on the Cougars' season opener against Texas A&M. That wasn't always the case. In the second quarter of that game, those weren't the voices of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir raining down on Sarkisian from the Cougar Stadium stands. No, it was a decidedly harsher chorus, its patience exhausted by another three-and-out series by the Cougars' offense. First there were scattered boos; then one voice rose above the others: "Get Sarkisian out of there!" pleaded the fan. "Puh-leeze get him out of there!"
"I'm telling you," says BYU offensive coordinator Norm Chow, "the best job to have at BYU? Backup quarterback. Everybody thinks you belong in the game."
Only at Brigham Young can a quarterback be the object of such derision and emerge as a Heisman candidate less than two hours later. By the end of the Cougars' 41-37 victory over the Aggies, Sarkisian had completed 33 of 44 passes for 536 yards and hung six touchdowns on the A&M defense. In BYU's four games since A&M, including a 31-3 victory over SMU last Saturday, Sarkisian has run his season passing total to 1,708 yards—second best in the country, behind Wyoming's Josh Wallwork—and he has the 4-1 Cougars ranked No. 21.
Expectations were unusually high for Sarkisian when he arrived in Provo last year from El Camino Junior College in his hometown of Torrance, Calif. The previous fall he had thrown for 4,297 yards and 41 touchdowns and completed a national junior-college-record 72.4% of his passes (228 of 315, with eight interceptions). Sarkisian was given the Cougars starting job right away, which was a radical step for coach LaVell Edwards. Almost without exception, Brigham Young quarterbacks have redshirted their first season, spent one or two more seasons carrying a clipboard, and then thrown for 7,000-plus yards in their final two seasons. " Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Robbie Bosco and Ty Detmer, they all did it," says Chow.
Even without the benefit of an apprenticeship, Sarkisian put up impressive passing numbers last fall: a 64.9% completion rate, 20 touchdowns and 3,437 yards (third best in Division I-A). However, BYU could do no better than a 7-4 record, and for the first time in 18 years, the Cougars were not invited to a bowl. The team's losses included a 38-12 defeat by Air Force, Brigham Young's first setback in its last 13 games against the Falcons. And for the third straight season BYU fell to hated rival Utah, which pounded Sarkisian so thoroughly that in the final minutes, his head foggy, he lined up behind the right guard.
"There were certainly times that Steve struggled last year," says Chow. "But when you consider that we've never asked any of our [other] quarterbacks to start right away, what he's done is fairly remarkable. If he had come in four years ago, who knows?"
Four years ago Sarkisian was enrolled at USC as a nonscholarship baseball player. Although he had been an all-conference quarterback in his senior season at West Torrance High, his six-foot, 165-pound frame had scared away most football recruiters.
The closest Sarkisian came to a football field during the single semester he spent at USC was during his daily trek to baseball practice. The football practice facility was located between his dormitory and the diamond, and he would occasionally stop to look at the players. "Those guys looked huge to me," says Sarkisian. "I would watch the offensive line doing its contact drills and think to myself, No way do I belong on that field."
His semester at USC was not a happy one. He was uncomfortable with the dangerous neighborhood that surrounds the campus, and he was discouraged by his backup status as a middle infielder on the baseball team. Sarkisian finished the fall term and switched to El Camino for the spring. There, it so happened, his first class was a health course taught by John Featherstone, the Warriors' football coach. Featherstone had tried to recruit Sarkisian a year earlier, and he redoubled his efforts. "He kept telling me that I had to give it a chance," Sarkisian says. "He was relentless." Eventually Sarkisian relented.
The results were astonishing, and soon recruiters from schools that had ignored Sarkisian before—including Brigham Young, Kansas State and Washington State—were arriving at his doorstep. It didn't hurt that he had added two inches and 30 pounds to his wiry frame. When the Cougars' incumbent quarterback, John Walsh, a Torrance native and childhood friend of Sarkisian's, revealed during the 1994 season that he was leaning toward turning pro, the BYU coaching staff told Sarkisian that if he transferred to Provo, he could step in and play right away. In late December, two weeks before Walsh announced he was giving up his final year of eligibility, Sarkisian signed with the Cougars.