THE UNOFFICIAL THEME of the 1994 Copper Bowl was John Walsh and his future: Was he coming or going? Would BYU's quarterback run off to NFL riches, or would he return for his senior season to continue his love affair with BYU fans and WAC defenses?
No one was certain, although there was no shortage of guessing. All of which left quarterback coach Norm Chow with a peculiar problem while calling BYU's plays from the press box during Thursday night's Copper Bowl. How could he beat Oklahoma AND keep Walsh for another year? Everytime Chow called a pass play, Walsh produced another big gain, making him all the more appealing to NFL scouts. He was turning the game into his own NFL audition, with his coach's help. After watching Walsh throw his second touchdown pass of the first half, Chow called him on the sideline phone."We're going to quit throwing so we can keep you around another year," said Chow.
Of course he didn't, although Oklahoma wishes he had. By the time Walsh was finished with the helpless Sooners, he had completed a bowl-record 31 of 45 passes (including three drops) to nine different receivers for 454 yards, 4 touchdowns, no interceptions and a 31-6 victory.
Walsh was never better. Maybe no plays demonstrated NFL quality than two passes he threw in the first half. The first was thrown from the far hash mark to the opposite sideline on a deep fade route. It is the ultimate test of a quarterback's arm strength, and Walsh threw a rope into the hands of Tom Nowatzke for 22 yards. The second was a 25-yard completion to Mike Johnston that was nothing if not a test of pure accuracy. Seeing Oklahoma in bump coverage, Walsh looked at Johnston and simply nodded. He knew where he would throw. Johnston was well covered, with the sideline on one shoulder and the defender on the other; there was no margin for error. And Walsh threw a strike in the corner of the end zone.
Walsh was also in good form off the field. After throwing his third TD pass in the third quarter, he picked up the sideline headset and dialed Chow again.
"That was a crappy call, but it was a great pass," he teased.
Walsh's performance - which earned him the game's Most Valuable Player Award (surprise) - was nearly flawless. BYU coach LaVell Edwards called it the best bowl performance by any BYU quarterback. No one had ever thrown for so many yards against an Oklahoma team. But in a way Walsh's performance might have been the worst thing for BYU in the long run; it did nothing but enhance his appeal to NFL scouts.
"I think he realized what this would mean to him if he played a good game," said Chow. "Now he's going to go home to his family and make a decision."
After the game, the speculation began anew. Was Walsh coming or going? His teammates - including Johnston, his roommate - say yes. Chow - who earlier in the week had said, "No question about it" - said he didn't know. Jim McMahon, the former BYU quarterback great who is now with the Arizona Cardinals, pronounced Walsh ready after watching the game from the sideline. The NFL scouts in the press box said they couldn't comment on junior players, "but even Ray Charles could see he's very accurate," said one.
According to Chow, Walsh has officially petitioned the NFL for advice about his prospects. He is waiting for their response. What Walsh must determine is just where he'll go in the NFL draft; if he's not a first-round pick, he would be foolish to leave. Some think he would be foolish to leave regardless. Several BYU officials say a number of pro scouts have told them Walsh should stay another year. But they are ignoring the monetary considerations.
"What would YOU do if they offered all that money?" says Chow.
Walsh, of course, isn't saying, and he was miffed earlier this week when some media reported that he was definitely leaving BYU (why else would his friend and summer training partner, Steve Sarkisian, transfer to BYU next year with just two remaining years of eligibility if Walsh weren't leaving, the reasoning runs). He was still testy about the subject after Thursday's game.
"I don't even think about that stuff until you guys ask me about it," he said.
Walsh might be more willing to stay if he had stronger ties to Provo. Ironically, he will rank among the great quarterbacks to play at BYU over the years, but he will stand alone in one way. He is the only one never to be embraced by BYU fans. He was too immobile, they said. He was too erratic. He didn't grow into the role fast enough. He didn't always win. He was too aloof. He was not, well, Ty Detmer.
For his part, Walsh has privately begrudged BYU fans for booing him (who wouldn't?), partly because his mom has witnessed it. Similarly, he has been wary of the media and thus the public, at least partly because of his high school experiences, when he was criticized for transferring to another school to play football.
"People just don't know John Walsh," said Johnston. "He's a great guy. Success never changed him. This game meant a lot to him. I think he wanted to show the fans in Provo."
Maybe he finally won their acceptance Thursday. But it might be too late.