Chew on this factoid: He’s the only coach to have tutored three Heisman-winning quarterbacks.
His first Heisman winner was BYU’s Ty Detmer in 1990. He eventually moved on to USC, where he helped Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart win Heismans in 2002 and 2004, respectively.
Clearly, if anyone knows how to find and develop a Heisman-winning quarterback, it’s Chow. But the list of his students who didn’t take home the trophy is equally impressive and includes such names as Jim McMahon (3rd in the Heisman vote in 1981), Steve Young (2nd in 1983), Robbie Bosco (3rd in 1985), Philip Rivers (7th in 2003) and Matt Cassel (current starter for the Kansas City Chiefs).
We went out to UCLA practice on Tuesday to talk with Chow about his Heisman legacy while hoping to shed some light on the secret ingredient he looks for when trying to find a quarterback.
When you were recruiting Ty Detmer, what about his game jumped out at you?
In my mind, the key is always to look for the mental part of the game. All the good players understand the game and are sharp and know the little nuances of the offense. All that kind of stuff. Ty was fabulous at it. He wasn’t a strong-armed guy, but he was the son of a coach and so gosh-dang bright. I told LaVell Edwards after Ty left “‘Hey, we have to start coaching again,” because Ty could do so much on his own.
Was there a time during his development where you thought he could win a Heisman?
(laughing) I don’t know if you ever actually think about about winning a Heisman, but once he started playing we knew he was going to be a special.
Did you recruit Carson Palmer at all when you were at BYU?
No. We knew who he was, sure, but we never had a real shot at him. But I remember the very first day that I met him at USC. He was just a tremendously gifted player. I think the common thread for all these guys is that they were great people besides being great players. So Carson walked in with Matt Cassel and introduced himself and we’ve had a great relationship since then. He had terrific skills and was so willing to do whatever was asked and it obviously worked out well.
The way he ended up his college career…is that exactly how you envisioned it when you got to USC?
No, there was a time in his junior year when we were just about ready to replace him. But he kept fighting and kept battling. He was just a victim of the circumstances. He started as a freshman and had no idea what he was doing. But it is what it is, and later on in our second year he understood the style and began to flourish.
Do you remember the point where you thought that he had finally turned the corner as a quarterback?
Oh yeah. There were a couple specific plays in Arizona that I remember and then when we came back home and he hit a post route and you could just see his chest come out and he never looked back.
What about Matt Leinart? Compare his process to the others.
His situation was interesting because when he won the job it was going to be either him or Matt Cassel. There were a lot of people who felt like Cassel should get the job. Obviously the choice was not a difficult one because either one would’ve been fine. But Leinart is another one of those smart guys. I remember in practice he kind of used to laugh at the defensive guys and say “You’re not fooling me”, because he understood the offense so well.
He had a great fall camp as a freshman and back then you said he was going to be an All-American one day…
…but then he hit the wall and almost wanted to go home.
So did you ever waver in your original belief that he’d be a great player?
Well, yeah. It wasn’t easy because in that spring after Carson left, there was Cassel and Brandon Hance, who was also a good player, and then Leinart. I remember trying to be fair and making the statement that in trying to be fair we weren’t being fair to anybody because we didn’t give anybody a chance to step up.
Did you feel in your gut, then, that Leinart was the guy? How did the choice come about?
No. It was just hours of talking and arguing with Pete (Carroll) and discussing the situation and that’s how we arrived at it.
What do you think would’ve happened if Cassel had gotten the nod?
I don’t know! (laughing). I saw him in the Las Vegas Airport sitting down about a couple months ago and who woulda thunk he’d be where he is? But it’s wonderful because he, too, is a terrific young guy and he never had the opportunity. When I was at Tennessee, I had already worked out a deal with him. He wasn’t going to get drafted–he didn’t have any film to show anybody, so we had already worked out a deal where he would come in as a free agent. We were sitting there and someone walked in during the seventh round and said “Hey, the Patriots just took your guy”. I said “What do you mean they took my guy?'” And he said the Patriots had seen something, obviously, and decided to go with him and the rest is history. What a nice story.
So now you are back in college. Do any of the guys you see now remind you of your past guys?
I think Kevin Prince has a terrific opportunity to be a good player. He’s going to play four years, or three years, whatever it is. But he’s only a freshman and will have to go through the growing pains as well.
Does he have the building blocks you require to be a great quarterback?
Yes. Yes. He’s bright. He’s a good guy. He’s willing to work.
How many times did you go to the Heisman ceremony?
All three times. Oh yeah. I told Kevin Prince that I’ll go once more (with him) and then I’ll retire.
What was that first time with Detmer like?
Oh, it was exciting. I didn’t even know how to put on the tuxedo they gave us. It was great to see everybody. The pomp that it’s all held with is fun. After all the ceremonies, they have a pretty good time. They block off the bar downstairs and everyone has a great time. I liked seeing all the old Heisman winners. I remember taking my program and walking around and getting them all to sign it.
Was there any guy you coached who you wished would’ve won the Heisman?
Probably Philip Rivers. Again, because he’s such a great young man.