On a January night in 1993, Arizona State football coach Bruce Snyder sat slumped at the edge o( his bed in a budget motel room in Boise, Idaho, every minute of his 52 years weighing on him like a slab of granite. He had flown in from Phoenix that afternoon and ridden through a snowstorm to visit the rural home of an 18-year-old high school quarterback named Jake Plummer. Following the meeting Snyder had trudged into the wet snow—in a business suit, without boots, gloves or topcoat—and pushed a rented Cadillac driven by assistant coach Bobby Petrino down a dirt driveway and across a narrow wooden bridge to the pavement on Hill Road.
For all that effort Snyder had not even gotten an oral commitment from Plummer, a shaggy, skinny, 6'2", 170-pound kid who had already told a local television station and a national recruiting magazine that he was probably going to sign with Washington State. It was almost 11 p.m. Snyder's ruined shoes were stuffed against a heater, and the frustrations of his life's work had been encapsulated in one cold evening.
"I'd just finished a hard year of coaching [his first at Arizona State, in which the Sun Devils had gone 6-5], and now I'm away from my family, I've ruined a new, $300 pair of shoes, and for what? This mousy little kid with long hair who might not turn out to be any good? Who knows with recruits? Maybe somebody knew with Bo Jackson, but usually you don't know. And I didn't think Jake was going to call mc back. I don't know if it was depression, but I was definitely taking an inventory of my life and my career."
As if on cue, the phone rang. In the 30 minutes since Snyder had slogged away from the Plummer home, Jake had talked with his mother, Marilyn, his father, Steve, his 24-year-old brother, Brett, and his coach at Boise's Capital High, Steve Vogel. Jake had thought about the silly little board game, a recruiting gimmick, that Snyder had set up on the Plummers' living room floor. Snyder had asked Jake to compare Arizona State with Washington State in all 12 categories on the game board, among them WEATHER, EARN DEGREE and, most important to Plummer, NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP. The Sun Devils had come out ahead. Now Plummer was calling Snyder to invite him back through the snow to accept his scholarship offer. Signing day was weeks away, so when Snyder reached the house, he and Plummer sealed their agreement with an embrace. "Welcome to the family," Snyder said.
"I'm a Sun Devil," Plummer told his friends the next day at school.
He was one player among many that Snyder would land that winter, just another wisp of potential, albeit at a vital position. A little shy of midnight in Boise, Snyder collapsed on his stiff motel bed, victorious, exhausted, most of all uncertain. "Even at the moment you do something, in recruiting and probably in a lot of jobs," says Snyder, "you seldom appreciate how important it might be, how much it might mean down the road."
Nearly four years later Snyder knows. It has led to the development of a frail recruit into a Heisman Trophy candidate and an NFL prospect, to the rebirth of a program, to the elevation of a coaching career and to the sweetest, most improbable story of this college football season, this autumn's Northwestern. It has meant everything.
In last Saturday's 41-9 waxing of Stanford, Plummer, now familiar to Sun Devils fans as Snake, completed 21 of 34 passes for 316 yards and two touchdowns, and ran for another score, a routine performance in a season that has defied convention. The Sun Devils, ranked No. 4, are 8-0, their most impressive win having been an epochal 19-0 upset of then No. 1-ranked Nebraska on Sept. 21, and they are on pace to make their first Rose Bowl appearance since 1987. Three times Plummer has virtually dragged Arizona State to victory by force of his will, first in a season-opening, last-play 45-42 win over Washington and then in successive, desperate comeback victories over UCLA and USC. "He's this thoroughbred, running fast, and we've just jumped on his back," says Sun Devils quarterbacks coach John Pettas.
After Saturday's victory Plummer walked briskly up a steep hillside leading from the visitors' locker room at Stanford Stadium to a wide, full parking lot. He pulled the sleeves of his white turtleneck over his hands to fight the steady, cool breeze and wore a baseball cap turned backward. At the gate to the lot Plummer was besieged for autographs. He signed hats, programs and posters, affixing to each a scribbly Jake "the Snake" Plummer.
At last he pulled free and crunched across dry leaves to meet his family and friends, two dozen strong. Theirs was a brief celebration, percolating with fresh energy, the by-product of sudden success. Steve Plummer hugged his son and then stepped back from the scrum. "What a year," he said. "What a wild year."