When it comes to playing quarterback at BYU, history is on Jim McMahon’s side. Not only did the gunslinger from Roy High set 70 NCAA records, he also went 22-2 over his junior and senior seasons.

His first touchdown pass came against UTEP on Nov. 26, 1977, and his 84th and final touchdown strike as a Cougar was against Washington State in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 18, 1981.

So, when McMahon, a two-time Super Bowl champion, sizes up Jaren Hall’s possibilities, as Hall kicks off his junior season Saturday at South Florida, he goes straight to the formula that worked so well for him, both in college and the NFL.

“If you have five guys up front who you can trust, I don’t care who the receivers or running backs are, you give me five guys who want to fight, we’ll win games,” McMahon said. “If they have a good offensive line, he’ll be fine.”

BYU boasts an offensive line as deep as it has been in the six seasons under head coach Kalani Sitake. They will be tested at South Florida, where Hall was sacked five times and left the game with a concussion during a painful loss in his 2019 starting debut.

Remembering Doug Scovil

Quarterbacks at BYU are judged by wins and losses and McMahon didn’t lose very much. The signal callers before and after him didn’t lose a lot either, which he gives a lot of the credit to offensive coordinator Doug Scovil.

“I think the best one (LaVell Edwards) ever hired,” McMahon said in an interview with BYUtv for “Countdown to Kickoff.” “I think Gifford (Nielsen) will attest to that, along with Marc Wilson and myself. I learned more from him in the two years I got to play for him than the 15 I played in the pros.”

Scovil stuck out in practice with his big safari hat and a strut that earned him the nickname, “The Pink Panther.”

“On Friday nights before games he would say, ‘We are going to light that scoreboard up like Las Vegas. I want those numbers changing all the time,’” McMahon said. “He just loved to throw the football and score touchdowns. That’s all he wanted to do.”

Scovil had two stints coaching the offense at BYU in 1976-77 and 1979-1981. His relationship with McMahon didn’t get off to a great start.

“I don’t think Doug liked me a whole lot my freshman year,” McMahon said. “If you are second team here, you don’t get many reps in practice, and I was at least the third string my freshman year.”

After heaving the 60-yard pass that won the Holiday Bowl, Jim McMahon enjoyed a celebratory on-the-field reunion with is dad and namesake, Jim McMahon Sr. | Associated Press

McMahon remembers standing off to the side and watching Nielsen and Wilson run the offense while he tried to figure it out.

“Out of the blue, Doug would say, ‘You are in!’” McMahon recalled. “I said, ‘Coach, I haven’t thrown the ball for about an hour?’ He said, ‘Oh, you’re not ready? Next guy in!’”

This left McMahon determined.

“The next day, I’d be playing catch just in case I get a chance and he’d look at me and say, ‘You’re never going to learn anything playing catch!’ I could never do anything right. Finally, I said, ‘What do you want from me old man? C’mon?’”

What Scovil wanted was to develop a quarterback so dominating that it changed the game — and he found that guy in McMahon.

“I learned a lot from that guy. A lot of it was tough love,” McMahon said. “But I cherished those two years I got to play with him.”

Related
Jim McMahon: 37 years later, former BYU star finishes up requirements for graduation
The fighter: Former BYU, NFL quarterback Jim McMahon aims to win the toughest challenge of his life

Scovil left BYU to become head coach at San Diego State in 1982. He died of a heart attack in 1989 while on staff with the Philadelphia Eagles as the Eagles quarterback’s coach.

A rough year

McMahon and Wilson split time during the 1978 season, and Edwards opted to redshirt McMahon in 1979.

“Marc was a hell of a player, and I think LaVell was smart for doing that,” McMahon said. “But at the time I was 19 or 20 and I wanted to play. I knew we were going to be good, and Doug (Scovil) had just come back. I wanted to play. That was a really rough year for me.”

McMahon watched Wilson go 11-1 and become a first-round draft pick in the NFL. Two years later, McMahon also went in the first round.

Stat wars

In the numbers game, McMahon thought his should have been much higher than the 9,536 passing yards and 84 touchdowns — and he blames Edwards.

“Who knows what could have happened if LaVell would have let me play a little bit longer,” he said. “That irritated me, too, sometimes. We were ahead before when Marc was playing, and he kept playing. I’d say, ‘How come I don’t get to play more? I’d be out at halftime a lot.”

After a drink of cold water, McMahon smiled and said, “Well, I kinda liked sitting out the second half.”

Mondays with LaVell

“I had to meet with him every Monday morning for all five years that I was here,” McMahon said of his individual sessions with his head coach. This is when Edwards would question reports of McMahon’s weekend antics and where the quarterback could defend himself.

“He’d say, just keep, just keep on the straight path,” McMahon said. “I’d say, I am on the path coach. I’m on the path that will take me straight to the NFL, hopefully!”

Former BYU quarterback Jim McMahon, left, poses with former BYU football coach LaVell Edwards. McMahon was one of five former All-Americans enshrined into the BYU Athletic Hall of Fame Thursday. | Mark A. Philbrick, BYU Photo

Edwards understood McMahon, but that didn’t mean there weren’t moments of sharp correction, especially with his swearing. Just moments after stopping practice and demanding that the team “clean it up” McMahon muttered a word under his breath. He had no idea Edwards was right behind him.

“He grabbed my face mask and jerked my head around,” McMahon said. “I knocked his arms away and ended up leaving practice. That night I had to go up to his house and talk to him about it. He knew I just wanted to win. That’s all I wanted to do.”        

Greatest memory

“The night my name went up in the stadium here, it was awesome!” McMahon said. “I didn’t think it would ever happen because I didn’t think I’d graduate. I didn’t like school when I was here. I was happy with my 2.0 GPA so I could keep playing. It took me 37 years to get that diploma.”

Related
Honoring a legend: BYU star quarterback Jim McMahon provided Cougars with plenty of memories

McMahon was honored prior to the Utah State game on Oct. 3, 2014.

“I saw LaVell and he said to get it done,” McMahon said. “He said, ‘I don’t know how much longer I’ve got left and I want to see your name up there (on the press box). I’m glad I was able to do that before he passed.”

McMahon was treated to a thunderous roar from the crowd as his No. 9 jersey was retired and he was inducted into the BYU Hall of Fame. Many cheering that night had never seen him play, but they knew who he was and what he had done for the program.

“I’m hoping some of the stories they hear are positive, other than the ‘crazy Catholic kid’ that was here,” he said. “I still do things the way I want to do them. This is my life and I’m gonna live it the way I want to live it.”

Former BYU player Jim McMahon is honored at BYU in Provo, Friday, Oct. 3, 2014. | Ravell Call, Deseret News

McMahon contends he hasn’t softened over the years, but the smile on his face screams otherwise.

“I think I’m a pretty good guy when you get to know me. There are a lot of things that have been written and edited on TV and people have their preconceived notions of who you are,” he said. “I’ve met a lot of people over the years and they say, ‘You’re nothing like the guy I’ve seen on TV.’ I’d say, ‘Well, they edit the way they want you to look.”

More than just QBs

“I’m not big on what division you are in. We were in the WAC. I think Tommy (Holmoe) has done a great job here. He’s been building it bigger and better,” McMahon said. “More of the country has realized that this isn’t just a quarterback school.”

The locker room

Sitting in the BYU locker room, even 42 years after his last game in Provo, McMahon couldn’t help but reminisce.

“I have a lot of memories in here. I don’t remember a lot of losses. I don’t remember coming in here after a loss,” he said. “This is what you miss. This setting. Whatever happens on the field, happens on the field. This is what you miss. This is where you get to know the guys. That’s what you miss when you retire. You miss hanging out with your buddies.”

On the mend

McMahon still suffers from the aftermath of a physical NFL career. He has had 22 surgeries and travels from his home in Scottsdale, Arizona, to New York every three to four months to have his head and neck adjusted.

In addition, he has had stem cells put in both of his knees, elbows, shoulders, and his neck and spine.

View Comments

“Life’s been good,” he says. “When I’m adjusted and functioning properly, I’m fairly normal.”

At 62, normal is good for McMahon after a very abnormal life in football.

You can see Dave McCann’s interview with Jim McMahon Saturday at noon on ‘BYU Sports Nation GameDay’ on BYUtv.

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “BYU Sports Nation Game Day,” “The Post Game Show,” “After Further Review,” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv. He is also co-host of “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com.

BYU quarterback Jim McMahon raises his arms in celebration as BYU defeated Washington State 38-36 in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, Dec. 19, 1981.
BYU quarterback Jim McMahon raises his arms in celebration as BYU defeated Washington State 38-36 in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, Dec. 19, 1981. | Associated Press
Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.