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Jim Murray

He Got His Wish, Not Wishbone

November 17, 1987|Jim Murray

When you consider what he did Saturday and has done all year, you would consider that quality quarterback Troy Aikman cost the UCLA Bruins a bundle in terms of man-hours needed to recruit him, plane trips to his home in Oklahoma, expensive dinners, a lot of heavy begging from Coach Terry Donahue, maybe a few sweet somethings whispered in his ear by devoted alumni, a protracted expensive courtship.

All Terry Donahue had to do was answer the phone. UCLA found Troy Aikman on its doorstep, so to speak, without even a note pinned to him. The Bruins didn't even have to pay his scholarship the first two years. The good people of Oklahoma did that.

He wasn't even a walk-on, a non-scholarship player who shows up on the practice field unannounced, uninvited and unheralded. Aikman was even better than that. It was like finding money. He came gift-wrapped, practically with balloons hanging off him. Compliments of Barry Switzer, football coach, University of Oklahoma. To Terry with love.

Coaches have been known to get into fist fights over talent even less considerable than Troy Aikman's. You would have thought Barry Switzer would be hiding him in a closet some place or registering him under an assumed name, not shopping him around the country like a hot diamond.

Something had to be wrong. It's human nature to suspect a scam when somebody offers you something for nothing. When a guy buttonholes you on the street and says, in effect, "Pssst! Hey, mister! How'd you like this nearly new, hardly used 14-karat quarterback?" your temptation is to hurry out of there before you end up with something that will turn green on your arm in a week.

Maybe he was a closet communist? Couldn't count, couldn't read, couldn't stay in the pocket, couldn't take a lick? Look at it this way: Would Barry Switzer, of all people, be hawking a perfectly good quarterback around the country like a country tinker? Or was he just trying to unload a scholarship?

Turns out there's nothing wrong with quarterback Troy Aikman. He's not going to turn green on anybody's wrist. The transmission's not going to fall out the day after the warranty expires.

Consider last Saturday: The game against Washington was still up for grabs in the third quarter. UCLA had the lead, 19-14, but had just--barely--stopped a Washington drive on the Bruin 39.

It was third down and five. Quarterback Aikman coolly passed to receiver Mel Farr for a first down. A moment later, it was third down again and Aikman passed to receiver Willie Anderson for another first down.

UCLA got penalized. The drive seemed to stall. So, Aikman passed to Mike Farr for another first down. He passed to Anderson for another.

A clumsy reverse lost yardage. Not to worry. Aikman passed to Anderson for a touchdown.

On the next possession, with second and seven on the 12-yard-line, Aikman dropped back to pass. Washington knew what that meant and went back in an all-points panic scramble. So, Aikman sauntered into the end zone for the touchdown.

That was the old ballgame. But Troy Aikman has been doing that all year. He leads the world in passing efficiency with a 174.3 rating. He has a completion average of .680 with 148 connections in 217 throws. Of his three interceptions, two have been deflections.

He is, in the opinion of many pro scouts, the best quarterback in the colleges today.

He is big, fast and strong. At 6 feet 3 1/2 inches, he runs the 40 in 4.6 seconds and can bench press 314 pounds.

So, why didn't Oklahoma want him? How do you get a piece of quality merchandise like this at what amounts to a fire sale? If Oklahoma didn't want him, should anybody?

It turns out that sending Troy Aikman there in the first place was like sending a polar bear to the Sahara, a camel to Greenland.

"When I went there, Coach Switzer said he was going to put in the I-formation, that he had need of a drop-back passer," Aikman says.

"When I got there, he had an option quarterback, a running quarterback (Jamelle Holieway). When he got that, he went to the wishbone."

The wishbone offense is caveman football, an atavistic attack in which the quarterback only threatens to throw the ball but actually hands it around like a carny guy moving the shells with the pea under one of them. It's a trench warfare game, a modern adaptation of the flying wedge.

It managed to make Troy Aikman expendable. The one thing the wishbone doesn't need is a pure passer.

"Coach Switzer knew I was unhappy," Aikman said. "The team knew I was unhappy. He promised to do something about it."

Troy Aikman gave the coach a list of places he could be happy. Under the circumstances, it was a surprisingly short list.

"I told him I'd like Miami, Arizona State or UCLA," Aikman recalls.

Switzer made the phone calls.

All things considered, Terry Donahue is happy his line wasn't busy that day. It has to rank with all-time good-news calls in history.

"Hello! Congratulations, you have just won the state lottery!"

"Hello. I am happy to tell you the tests came back negative. You don't need that operation."

"Hello. Your mother-in-law called to say she can't make it this year."

And, "Hello, Terry? How would you like a nice All-American, Heisman-type, Rose Bowl quarterback? We'll pay his way. Just have someone meet him at the plane."

The only thing better than that is to have Oklahoma train your quarterback for you for two years. If the Bruins beat USC Saturday, they should give the game ball to Barry Switzer.

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