SAN DIEGO — This tale of two quarterbacks began in the fall of 1983 when the Wyoming Cowboys latched on to a three-time all-state quarterback from Artesia, N.M., named Scott Runyan.
This Wednesday, after Craig Burnett starts at quarterback for Wyoming against Iowa in the Holiday Bowl, their paths will come to an end.
And unless some unforeseen event occurs, Runyan, who is Wyoming's all-time passing leader, will be standing on the sidelines for most of his final game.
Scott Runyan is only 5-feet 9-inches tall and 188 pounds soaking wet, but he's earned a reputation in Laramie, Wyo., as a fighter.
When Runyan came to town, he was just what the Cowboys wanted: a quarterback who could run the ball, pitch it or hand it off.
He red-shirted in 1983, but in 1984 and 1985, he directed a wishbone attack that called for the pass about as often as the Chargers call for Dan Fouts to roll out of the pocket.
When Runyan passed, however, he was effective. He averaged 19.9 yards per completion in 1984. He threw for seven touchdowns in his sophomore season. In two years, he accumulated 2,272 yards passing.
"People didn't realize how well we could throw those two years," Runyan said. "We had some good receivers and we could move the ball. That second season, however, we didn't pass enough and it hurt us."
That second season, Runyan had only 919 yards passing and Wyoming finished 3-8, its worst record in 10 years.
Dennis Erickson was hired as the new coach, replacing Al Kincaid, and proclaimed that Wyoming would soon de-emphasize the run and become a passing team.
Along with Erickson came Burnett, who was recruited from Santa Rosa Junior College in Northern California. Burnett, 6-1 and 190 pounds, beat out Runyan in practice and was to become the new starter.
However, before Erickson could ever use him in a regular-season game, Burnett broke a finger in his throwing hand during a scrimmage.
Runyan was back in as the starter. In the first eight games of 1986, Runyan threw for 1,651 yards and 12 touchdowns as Wyoming went 4-4.
But Burnett was ready by the season's ninth game against New Mexico and Runyan was sent to the bench. He stayed there for the last four games of the season.
Burnett passed for 350 yards and 4 touchdowns in his first game and two weeks later against San Diego State, the eventual Western Athletic Conference champion, he set a school record with 396 yards passing in a 31-24 loss.
Wyoming finished 6-6 and Burnett finished the season with 1,242 yards passing. Going into this season, the last for both playes, Burnett had apparently won the starting job.
But then Erickson left Wyoming to take the head coaching job at Washington State and was replaced by Paul Roach.
"It seemed like I'd have to earn the starting job all over again," Burnett said.
"At the end of spring practice, Craig had earned the starting job," Roach said. "But it was close between the two of them."
Runyan, however, didn't see it that way. He wasn't so sure he'd been given a fair shot.
Runyan rarely agrees to interviews and at times this season, he has stopped talking to reporters altogether.
"Some people might think it's sour grapes, but it's upsetting to me," Runyan said. "I think I'm capable and I think I should be starting."
To which Roach replies: "Scott's a great competitor and I wouldn't want to him to think any other way."
Nevertheless, when the season opened, Burnett was the starter. And the results were outstanding.
Wyoming won six of its first eight games and took control of the WAC race with victories over Air Force, San Diego State and BYU.
Burnett was the catalyst in five of the six victories although Runyan played enough--during times when the outcome was already decided--to break the school career passing yardage record of 4,123 yards set by Phil Davis from 1978 to 1981.
Runyan started one game against Iowa State and came off the bench against Houston to throw a 70-yard pass that set up a game-winning field goal.
Still, there have been no quarterback controversies in Laramie this season.
"I've been the starter ever since I've been here," Burnett said. "I know it's tough on Scott and we've become good friends helping each other out. The team has confidence in both of us and that's been good for our team."
In the meantime, all of the playing time had been good for Burnett. After eight games, he was closing in Runyan's passing yardage record.
But, against Colorado State, Burnett suffered bruised ribs and Runyan started the next week at New Mexico.
Runyan threw for 385 yards to pad his school record, and threw six touchdown passes to lead the Cowboys to a 59-16 victory.
The next week, however, Burnett returned as the starter.
"A guy doesn't lose his starting spot just because he's injured," Roach said.
Burnett led the Cowboys to victories over Utah and Texas El Paso, and Wyoming clinched the WAC title.
In the regular-season finale, however, at Hawaii, Burnett was ineffective and Wyoming trailed, 17-0, in the second quarter.