It was Sam Houston who once observed of Texas that "no country upon the globe can compare with it in natural advantages"—and he didn't even see the 2009 college football season, which has been shaped to an extraordinary extent by quarterbacks from the Lone Star State. From the redwood forests (Stanford's Andrew Luck) to the Ozark Mountains (Ryan Mallett of Arkansas) and at many points in between (Nick Foles at Arizona, Andy Dalton at TCU, Todd Reesing at Kansas, to name a few), this land is overrun by signal-callers who honed their games to a razor's edge in Texas.
Twenty-two of the 120 teams that play Division I-A ball are quarterbacked by Texans. The quality of those QBs was on vivid display at Kyle Field last Thursday, as Texas A&M almost spoiled the Thanksgiving—and perfect season—of third-ranked Texas, a 21-point favorite. In what amounted to his national coming-out party, Aggies quarterback Jerrod Johnson gigged the Longhorns for 342 passing yards and four touchdowns, racking up another 97 yards on the ground in a 49--39 loss. Keeping his composure and reasserting himself as the Heisman front-runner, the Longhorns' Colt McCoy responded with a statistically ridiculous night: He passed for 304 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for a career-high 175 yards and another score. "Because so many [high school] teams are throwing so much," McCoy, the senior from Tuscola, had explained several days earlier, "there are more and more guys coming up who are really good. Right now in Texas we've just got quarterbacks all over the place."
That a state with 8% of the nation's population accounts for, on most Saturdays, nearly one fifth of all starting Division I-A quarterbacks is even more remarkable when one considers how recently proponents of the wing T and the veer roamed the land of bluebonnets. This is the state that gave us Darrell Royal, the legendary Longhorns coach who made the Paleolithic proclamation that "three things can happen when you throw the ball, and two of them are bad." It was Royal's offensive assistant, one Emory Bellard, who invented the wishbone, in 1968. Royal's influence on the state's high school coaches turned wide expanses of the state, for decades, into passing wastelands.
How'd we get from there to here? "To understand the transformation," says Chad Morris, coach at Lake Travis High in Austin, "you start with the importance communities place on winning. In Texas high school football there's an insane amount of pressure to produce."
That pressure finds its most outsized expression in the hundreds of seven-on-seven tournaments that spring up around the state every summer like revival meetings, in this case the object of worship being the forward pass. "I'm telling you, it's a huge deal," says Morris, whose Cavaliers are the two-time defending Class 4A state champions. "From the end of May to the middle of July there are tournaments every weekend. When you get 800, 900 teams throughout the state playing seven-on-seven at some level, well, gol-lee, you can't help but to get better at throwing the football around."
Look no further than the Cavaliers' own District 25-4A, in which seven-on-seven teams are fielded from the third grade up. Last season at least one first-grader—Chad's son, Chandler—played up with the third-graders. What it boils down to is that some of these kids are learning to read defenses not long after they've learned to read. See Dick get the signal from the sideline. See Dick get a presnap read. See Dick hit his fourth option on a skinny post.
It was a smashmouth conference when I got here," recalls Texas coach Mack Brown, who arrived from North Carolina in 1998. "And a lot of people said it needed to stay that way, because when the wind's blowing and the weather turns cold in West Texas and Kansas or up in Lincoln, you can't throw in those places."
Those long-held flat-earth views were being debunked by such pioneers as Hal Mumme. Before his fevered football intellect led to head coaching jobs at Kentucky and New Mexico State, Mumme was airing it out in the mid-1980s as the coach at Copperas Cove High. When skeptics carped that he couldn't throw the ball in bad weather, "I'd tell 'em, 'Well, I learned a lot of this stuff from the Canadian Football League, and last time I checked, it snows up there,'" says Mumme, now the coach at Division III McMurry in Abilene.
Two hours south on I-35, Sonny Detmer presided over an aerial attack that achieved greatness once he put his eldest son under center. Before winning the Heisman at BYU in 1990, Ty Detmer set a raft of state records at San Antonio's Southwest High, then looked on as his brother, Koy, eclipsed them.
This was an era, mind you, dominated by marquee running backs: Earl Campbell, Billy Sims, David Overstreet and Eric Dickerson. Slinging the ball around for one's bread and butter was a lonely position for Sonny Detmer and his pioneering ilk to stake out. To supplement his salary, Detmer played receiver for the San Antonio Toros of the old Continental League for $150 a game. "Made more money playing during the season than I did from teaching and coaching," he says.