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.
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.