After sitting out the year required of transfers, George was ready. And White resigned. In came former Chiefs coach John Mackovic. "In two years," says George, "I'd had four coaches."
In 1988, his first season with the Illini, George was competent, but hardly first-round material. Directing a 6-4-1 team, George completed 58% of his passes for 2,257 yards and nine touchdowns, with eight interceptions. Last year the Illini finished 10-2-1, including a 31-21 win over Virginia in the Florida Citrus Bowl, and George put up more impressive numbers: a 63 completion percentage, 2,738 yards passing and 22 TD throws with 12 interceptions. Indeed, 1990 was shaping up as a Big 10 championship season in Champaign, and George was being touted as a Heisman Trophy prospect. At last he would have a chance to strut his stuff.
So his defection from college caught the pros napping. "Nobody was expecting him to be in the draft," says Dallas Cowboy offensive coordinator David Shula. Usually, the NFL spends a year studying a player. For George, scouts had a month. It was a shrewd move by George. As agent Jack Mills says, "If [scouts] have too long to think about a player, they find everything wrong with him."
It is a game in which familiarity can breed contempt. Moreover, the NFL is always desperate for premier quarterbacks. As one scout said to Illinois defensive backs coach Steve Bernstein recently, "Name 10 great quarterbacks in the NFL." Case dismissed.
Meanwhile, Steinberg got the buzz going by constantly referring to George as a "franchise quarterback." The pros were quick—time will tell if too quick—to take Steinberg's characterization to heart.
Then, even more shrewdly, and at Mackovic's suggestion, George didn't go out and throw every time a scout arrived in Champaign. George scheduled only three workouts, thus reducing his potential for messing up. On March 29, under a bubble installed over Memorial Stadium, he threw 150 balls to a variety of Illini receivers. On April 5 he threw another 150 passes at the same place, and on April 12 he threw 30 balls outdoors in Indianapolis to Colt receiver Bill Brooks. Period. There you go, NFL: 330 passes. How did you like them?
George was suddenly the Workout King. Nobody in memory has done it better. "I got mesmerized," says Cumbee. Adds Davis, "He worked out the best a quarterback can work out. He made every throw." Funny, but the scouts seem to believe more in what they see in a workout—including two inside a heated bubble with no wind, no defense, no distractions—than in what they see on film. The NFL likes to delude itself.
The March 29 audition is the one that rocketed George from being perhaps the 40th player taken in the draft—a mid-second-rounder, by most accounts—to head of the class. Around noon that day, George and cornerback Chris Green got in George's silver Nissan 300ZX and drove to WonderDog, where George dined on two chili dogs and a Coke. "Man, I don't know what to expect," said George. Shortly before 1 p.m., he pulled up at the stadium and went inside to put on shorts and a blue Illinois sweatshirt. "Man, I don't know what to expect," he said again.
He need not have worried. All he had to do was throw, and he did—brilliantly. "He made all the throws," says Colt receivers coach Milt Jackson. "I mean all. He even threw accurately from a lot of awkward positions."
He threw ins and outs, deep, intermediate and short, posts and corners over the proper shoulder, reaction passes, timing patterns and scrambles—everything. Then came the most significant pass, about halfway through the two-hour drill. Asked by Atlanta scout Ken Herock to throw deep, George directed wide receiver Mike Bellamy to line up 25 yards beyond the line of scrimmage on the right. George dropped back seven yards to his 10 and effortlessly lofted an 81-yard strike. And lo, scouts from 15 teams got religion. Says Indianapolis offensive coordinator Larry Kennan, who was there, "He'll never have to throw the ball that far, but it's nice to know he can."