On the whole, it was a different sort of Heisman Trophy weekend. The fellow from Notre Dame didn't get the prize, which went to a quarterback from a conference, the WAC, that had never before produced a Heisman winner. Then, after accepting the award last Saturday, Ty Detmer of Brigham Young went out and celebrated by having one of the worst games of his lustrous career, a 59-28 shellacking by Hawaii. In his first post-Heisman showing, Detmer, a 23-year-old junior, did little to vindicate the voters who had chosen him by a surprisingly wide margin, 1,482 points to 1,177, over the Fighting Irish's Raghib Ismail and Colorado running back Eric Bieniemy (798). He did throw for 319 yards against the Rainbows, thereby breaking the NCAA season record for passing yardage, with 5,188. But he also had four interceptions and was as instrumental in BYU's defeat as he normally is in a Cougar victory. "This is going to be a long flight home," said Detmer after his team's humiliating loss.
The journey from Honolulu to Brigham Young's campus in Provo, Utah, would be about the only yardage Detmer and BYU wouldn't enjoy this season. The critics who insisted that he didn't deserve the Heisman Trophy, that his gaudy numbers were accumulated in a second-rate conference, may have been smirking after the Hawaii game. But one game does not a season make, and this has been a fine one for Detmer, whose Heisman victory came in spite of some imposing obstacles.
Detmer benefited from a concerted campaign by Brigham Young publicists that included the distribution of 10,000 cloth neckties—dubbed Heisman "Tys"—but he did not have the network TV exposure that a candidate for the award is generally believed to need if he's going to win. The Cougars appeared only twice on network TV (and twice on national cable), but that would seem hardly enough exposure to overcome the secrecy that normally attends events in the WAC.
It's true that Detmer could be viewed nearly every weekend on the Church Satellite System, a network created to link Mormon church houses all around the country to the religion's semiannual general conferences in Salt Lake City. (Mormon joke: How can you recognize a Latter-day Saints church? By its satellite dish.) The system not-so-coincidentally also carries BYU games. But this exposure, permitted by the NCAA on the grounds that it is "narrowcasting," is largely preaching to the converted. "I don't know that we swung any votes in the church houses," says Brigham Young sports publicist Ralph Zobell.
December 10, 1990
Up to the moment Detmer won the prize (he received the news from New York's Downtown Athletic Club, which awards the Heisman, via a CBS hookup to a poolside camera at Honolulu's Princess Kaiulani Hotel before Saturday night's game) many thought it would be all but impossible to swing enough votes over to BYU's side of the Wasatch Mountains.
Cougar quarterbacks have attracted attention over the years, but not much support in college football's annual beauty contest. Robbie Bosco twice finished third (in 1984 and '85) in the Heisman voting. Jim McMahon ('81) and Marc Wilson ('79) each finished third once. And in '83, in the highest finish by a Brigham Young athlete, Steve Young came in second, behind Nebraska tailback Mike Rozier. The fact that only McMahon among those BYU quarterbacks advanced to NFL stardom seemed to confirm the wisdom of the voting.
Detmer was widely considered to be another Cougar automaton—a long-shot junior trailing another junior, Ismail, for sure. Ismail is a so-called all-purpose runner who produced more electricity than anything else. For all the fun Ismail has been to watch, he was only ninth in the nation in his most telling category, all-purpose yards. On the other hand, you could hardly work your way around the remote control on Saturday afternoons without coming upon some Irish Rocketry.
But in the end Detmer's numbers were simply too prodigious to ignore. If you had been a voter, you could have quibbled with BYU's schedule or taken issue with the Cougar offensive formula, which gives its quarterback a million throws a game. But those numbers just kept rising, finally breaking over the wall of skepticism. Going into the final game of this season—and with a full year of eligibility left—Detmer had set a total of 29 NCAA records, including consecutive games with a touchdown pass (23) and touchdown passes in a career (86). No sooner did Houston's David Klingler pass for 716 yards during a 62-45 defeat of Arizona State in Tokyo last weekend, thereby breaking the NCAA record for passing yardage in a season that Detmer had set in a 45-10 win over Utah State on Nov. 24, than Detmer went out and passed for 319 against Hawaii to reclaim the mark. The most compelling Detmer number may be that his performance against the Rainbows marked the 24th straight game in which he passed for more than 300 yards. That, too, is a record.
Detmer's Heisman candidacy was aided immeasurably by one of those 300-plus-yard games—he threw for 406, actually—which came on Sept. 8 against then-top-ranked Miami. That afternoon he completed 38 of 54 passes for three touchdowns in a 28-21 upset of the Hurricanes, and it was no longer possible to dismiss him as a mere regional phenomenon. Of course, it hurt that three weeks later, despite throwing for 442 yards with a sprained finger on his throwing hand, he had five interceptions against Oregon in the 10-2 Cougars' only loss before the Heisman ballots were mailed in. Without that defeat Detmer might have turned the race into a runaway. Nonetheless, enough voters remained faithful as BYU resumed winning and Detmer resumed throwing touchdown passes.
Oh, yes. About those touchdown passes, 41 in all: Why does Detmer, who is barely six feet tall and is said to weigh 175 pounds, immediately rush downfield after each one and deliver celebratory head butts to teammates? "Well, sir," explains Detmer in his Texas drawl, "you can knock 'em down if you hit 'em just right."
Detmer has been an unlikely Heisman candidate ever since he and his family first motored north from San Antonio to Provo, the first stop on a tour of campuses that was supposed to help him choose a college. That was in 1986, the summer after Ty's junior year in high school. He had just been named Texas Player of the Year while playing for his father, Sonny, at Southwest High. He was not entirely a secret to the big colleges, but then again it was early in the recruiting process and nobody had put the full rush on him. The idea of the tour, as Sonny remembers it, was to preempt a senior season of recruiting pitches with a quick strike of their own.
Ty's visit to BYU has grown into comic myth. Some BYU coaches have turned the occasion into a monologue. "Recruit him?" says Norm Chow, the quarterback coach. "You don't know the story? He recruited us!" Head coach La Veil Edwards says, "I'd heard of his numbers [8,005 yards in his high school career], of course, but we hadn't really recruited him, didn't have film on him. So I'm thinking John Elway, and in walks Pee-wee Herman." By now, Edwards has used this line so often that he ought to take up residence in Pee-wee's Playhouse.
Ty had seen Bosco go pass-crazy in a televised game, and put BYU on his list of 10 prospective schools. But the clincher was Provo itself. Ty took one look at the rugged wilderness behind the campus and realized how many opportunities it offered for an outdoors enthusiast. Though a Methodist, he felt he could forgo one of his favorite refreshments, iced tea, in accordance with Mormon proscriptions against not only alcohol but also caffeinated beverages. So he committed himself on the spot to BYU.
The way Edwards and Chow tell the tale, there was a lot of head-scratching over Ty's decision. "That seemed kind of easy," Edwards says he told Chow at the time. "Is there something we don't know?" According to the legend, the coaches weren't quite sure about offering Ty a scholarship but decided to, kind of on a whim. The Detmers, meanwhile, cut short their campus tour and spent the rest of their time fishing the Provo River.
As in many tall tales, there is a kernel of truth here. The Detmers did indeed fish the Provo. But assistant coach Claude Bassett, who was actively recruiting Ty, is so weary of this retelling that he actually begins sputtering: "That is so much..."—say it, Claude—"...folklore."
The recruitment story is only one element of the legend that has grown up around Detmer in Provo. Everything but his accomplishments invites caricature. Perhaps overly sensitive to the fact that Detmer will never be mistaken for Troy Aikman in terms of physical stature, university publicists have gone a tad overboard the other way. He's kind of pitiful-looking, they tell you. "You haven't seen him yet?" asks Chow, delighted at the prospect of another opportunity for mistaken identity. Zobell once arranged an interview for an out-of-town reporter and walked into the office to see the reporter totally ignoring Detmer across the room. The reporter thought the slight young man was one of Zobell's student interns. Zobell now offers a helpful identification tip. "He has my Adam's apple," he says.
"Ty Detmer," says Edwards, pretending to think it over, "looks more like Pee-wee...."
The other thing BYU wants you to know is that Detmer can hardly throw that ball. "His passes kind of flutter," says Chow. "Take forever to get there." Wide receiver Andy Boyce admits, "they're not bullets." La Veil, who would you say he throws like? Never mind.
So this is what the Heisman Trophy has come to? The winner is a virtual walk-on, undersized and athletically bankrupt? Well, this is all—say it, Claude—folklore. In truth, Detmer has remarkable skills and abilities. Sonny remembers Ty as a natural athlete who excelled in golf, baseball and basketball, as well as in football. "And he's always been extremely competitive," Sonny says.
As far as coaching young Ty, Sonny says he did nothing extraordinary. "About the only thing I told him was, 'Keep your elbow up.' I remember we'd throw this itty-bitty white plastic ball. He was about one year old, and I'd say, 'Keep your elbow up or I'm going inside.' " Folklore alert! Folklore alert!
Whether it was throwing that itty-bitty ball or simply listening in on the coaching sessions that convened in the Detmer house, young Ty learned something about quarterbacking. When asked how Detmer distinguishes himself from the rest of the BYU breed, Edwards turns serious and taps his head. An admittedly indifferent student—"a bad day hunting is better than a good day of school" is one of Detmer's proverbs—Detmer is a genius at reading defenses and making a very complicated scheme work.
"The BYU system is a good system," says senior running back Matt Bellini. "But I've been here when we didn't have the guy and the system didn't work. It's a tough system to pick up, and Ty picked it up right away. The system depends so much on quarterback decisions, and the other guys couldn't make them quick enough. With Ty, you have to expect the ball every play. It's not a predictable offense with Ty."
And, of course, he can deliver the ball, and without as much wobble as some folks at Brigham Young would have you believe. "He's just so accurate," says Boyce. "He throws the ball in such a great spot every time."
Then there is his relentlessness on the field. "He's taken some crazy hits," says Bellini. "Still, he always releases the ball at the last possible second. Once, in the Miami game, he ran out of the pocket, and there were these two guys heading for him from opposite directions. At the last second he took one step forward, they crashed into each other, and he threw a touchdown pass. I've seen some impressive improvisations."
Detmer admits, "It's hard for me to trash a play. I always have a feeling something good might happen. Of course, that's where the interceptions come." Like 28 of them, including two games with five apiece. This would be a shameful statistic anywhere but at BYU, where it's shrugged off. Edwards concedes that logic dictates that a good team should be on the plus side in takeaways. "I don't know why, but we're always on the minus side," he says. "I guess if you throw 50 times a game, that could happen."
Against Utah State, Detmer threw five interceptions, and his pass-efficiency rating actually increased. He was last year's national leader in that category and finished second this season behind Shawn Moore of Virginia.
More impressive than Detmer's creativity and bravery is his leadership. He was providing so much of it so soon that his teammates selected him team co-captain after his sophomore season. He is not afraid to slap a lineman upside the helmet after a busted play or chew somebody out in a huddle. Bellini says, "I missed a blitz once and he got sacked, and he was in my face, barking at me. He's the kind of quarterback that knows everybody else's position too. I'd hoped he wouldn't realize it was my fault."
Detmer, though, is the last one to discuss his on-field talents. He makes no great claims for himself and, on those occasions when he is actually recognized by a reporter, steers conversation toward his hunting exploits. Sound bite from a conference call less than a week before he was given the Heisman: "It's been a pretty good season. I got a mule deer, an elk, some pheasant...." The only thing besides hunting that seems to animate him is talk of BYU pranksterism, which has been refined since Detmer found his way to Provo. "Quality pranks," he says.
Well, you decide if this is quality stuff. "He once put a pig's head under my sheets," says Bellini. Evidently, the house Detmer shares with teammates Scott Charlton, Eric Mortensen and David Henderson and wrestler Rick Evans is the Mormon equivalent of Animal House, a place where the boys will drink a few cups of Postum and head out to egg some teammates' apartment. A lot of poultry has been sacrificed for this kind of fun.
The pig's head, which Detmer stole from a campus luau, was a considerable upgrade in his high jinks. When he first arrived in Provo, Detmer couldn't be counted on to do anything more inventive than douse an unsuspecting teammate with a helmetful of cold water. And there was the time in 1987 when running back Peter Tuipulotu broke his ankle in study hall; Detmer had beaned him with a racquetball, and Tuipulotu had given chase. "There were a lot of people unhappy about that one," Detmer says.
Last season fullback Fred Whittingham's girlfriend left him for a swimmer, and Detmer came to a practice with a picture of the swimmer glued to his helmet. Then again, he's as often the victim of a prank. Recently, at the urging of Detmer's roommates, a blind date conned him into joining her in a photo machine at a K Mart, and the pictures were distributed across the campus in the form of a wedding announcement.
Yet the responsibilities of Heisman candidacy slowed this foolishness some. Says Mortensen, "Now he's famous, and it's hard for him to go egg somebody. Everybody knows Ty's car."
Until last Saturday, Mortensen was referring strictly to Detmer's fame in Provo. After a home game, it can take an hour or more before he can leave the stadium. Outside the locker room will be a crowd of fans, and Detmer will not duck an autograph request. Also, because the school naively published his phone number in the student directory, there is a constant ringing in the house. "I pick it up," says Mortensen, "and nobody says anything. They just want to hear Ty's voice."
Detmer's only escape has been his hunting, for which he is justifiably renowned. At the age of 18 he won the Texas Muy Grande contest, for bagging a 10-point deer with an antler spread of 25¾ inches. This season he was delighted to find that the football team's two off weeks happened to fall during deer-and elk-hunting seasons. It sounds like more folklore, but the story is that he shot his elk, about 600 pounds' worth, with a 30.06 slug right through the heart from a distance of four football fields. Another 400-yard game. The meat rests in a coffin freezer in the living room of Detmer's house, and parts of it will no doubt find their way into Bellini's bed.
After all, who knows how sophisticated these pranks will be by next season? And there will be a next season. Detmer has allowed himself no out on that; he's coming back, and not just to break the NCAA career passing-yardage record (he needs 426 yards to break the mark of 11,425 set by Todd Santos at San Diego State from 1984 to '87). "I committed to the school." Detmer explains. "They've made plans." He said this even before the team's unofficial Heisman ceremony, which was capped—inevitably, you might think—by four teammates hoisting him up and throwing him into the hotel pool. Detmer owes somebody, for sure.