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Jim McMahon forever BYU's favorite rebel


Amid the perfectly draped golf slacks, the brightly aligned smiles, the boyish but graying BYU quarterback haircuts, it wasn't hard to pick out Mad Mac.

He was the one with the earring. And the floppy hat. And the multicolored shorts. And the trademark wraparound shades.

For just the first time since 1998 — and only the second time since declaring Provo in his rear view mirror the most beautiful sight of his life — Jim McMahon returned.

"It's nice to be back," said McMahon. "Been a long time. There's a lot of new buildings on campus, that's for sure."

McMahon's appearance this week, along with the other legendary BYU quarterbacks aiming to raise athletic endowment funds, was indeed news. Of all the greats — from Virgil Carter, to Gifford Nielsen, to Marc Wilson, to Steve Young, to Robbie Bosco, to Ty Detmer, to Steve Sarkisian — McMahon was always the best story. It was McMahon who scooped up a ball that had been snapped over his head and punted it 35 yards on the run with his left foot; McMahon who threw the most dramatic touchdown pass in BYU history in the 1980 Holiday Bowl.

It was also McMahon who flaunted the honor code, gestured at opposing crowds and bickered with the assistant coaches. Some even credit him with being the first player to taunt opposing fans by pointing at the scoreboard.

"Yeah, I had a great time on Saturdays," said McMahon of his days in Provo. "Rest of the week was a little rough, but Saturdays were always fun."

Said former coach LaVell Edwards: "He spent more time in my office than I did."

Along the way, McMahon set scores of NCAA passing records, which were often only surpassed by other BYU quarterbacks. Though others, too, weren't LDS when they came to BYU, only McMahon characterized the rebel at a religious school.

In the decades after leaving, his reputation only flourished. He grew a Mohawk, wrote messages on his headbands, mooned a news helicopter, blew his nose on a sports writer, agreed to coach in the Lingerie Bowl but dropped out, bought an indoor football team, endorsed male enhancement products and got stopped on a DUI.

At the same time, he visited troops in Iraq, contributed to charities and remained a devoted married man and father of four.

"People still don't realize what college I went to," he said. "People ask me what school did you go to, and I tell them and they go, 'Really? You went there?' Yeah, I did. For five years I went there."

Despite setting 70 NCAA offensive records and leading the Chicago Bears to a Super Bowl championship, McMahon isn't in the BYU Hall of Fame. That wasn't due to a skimpy resume. Rather, it was because he didn't graduate. BYU requires that its honorees have a degree, but McMahon remains 10 credit hours short.

That leaves BYU in the awkward position of having McMahon in the College Football Hall of Fame, but not its own.

"I'm trying," said McMahon of earning his degree. "I had three kids graduate before me, one is left in school, and hopefully I'll get it done before he graduates."

As for getting in the BYU Hall of Fame, McMahon was noncommittal.

"Well ... who knows?" he said. "Maybe."

Friday, though, wasn't a day for talk of neglected honors; it was a day for fond reminiscences. Asked about the 41-yard pass he completed to Clay Brown to win the 1980 Holiday Bowl, McMahon ranked it "right up there" with his best football memories. Trailing by 20 points with four minutes to go, he engineered a comeback to beat Southern Methodist on the game's final play.

"I didn't know if we could win, but I thought we could make it close and make a game out of it," he said. "I didn't want to go out like that."

As the morning moved on and tee times approached, McMahon took his leave, having been neither defensive nor outrageous, just a little edgier than the others. He rose to the occasion by declining to rate the BYU quarterbacks, but offering an unsolicited evaluation of former assistant coach Wally English.

"That guy was terrible," he said.

Thirty years later, it was obvious there was still a touch of madness in Jimmy Mac.