He was not destined for stardom. The storybook ending in the Alamo Bowl this past week was not in the cards for Gardner Minshew when he graduated from high school without any consideration from big name football programs. His story is one of perseverance and unwavering self-confidence. It is one we should all take to heart, especially as we set resolutions and goals for the new year.
Gardner Minshew was a two-year starting quarterback at East Carolina, but he started his college career as a walk-on and spent a year in junior college. Even when he attracted interest from East Carolina and won the starting job, he lost it briefly during his final year. He earned another opportunity late in the season and took full advantage, finishing the year with a 129.1 passer rating, 2,140 passing yards, 16 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions. It was a solid showing over 10 games, and was enough to attract the attention he had long fought to obtain, ever since making the All-State team each year as a starting high school quarterback in Mississippi.
When Nick Saban calls, others take notice. Similar to the career dating game, when one prominent suitor expresses interest, the herd-like mentality of the competition kicks into overdrive. Minshew finally received long awaited calls from college coaches who wanted to to poach an experienced quarterback coveted by Nick Saban and Alabama. One of those coaches was Mike Leach at Washington State.
Leach’s proposal was simple: “Do you want to be a backup at Alabama or lead the nation in passing? We’re going to lead the nation in passing one way or another.” The moment of truth had arrived. With one year of eligibility remaining, Minshew had to decide:
(1) Learn under the notoriously demanding Saban and potentially play a back-up quarterback role on a national championship team (along with the promise of a two-year graduate assistant position on Saban’s staff after the 2018 season, which would set Minshew up for a future coaching career); or
(2) Become the gunslinger he’d always dreamed of, and lead a team and program desperate for a hero (WSU was still reeling at the time from the death of Tyler Hilinski, who was by all accounts the starting quarterback before his tragic suicide in January 2018).
Gardner Minshew chose option 2 and the rest is history. In Washington State’s Alamo Bowl win over Iowa State, Minshew set the all time Pac-12 passing record (surpassing current Los Angeles Ram’s QB, Jared Goff), finishing the year with 4,776 passing yards. He also proved Leach’s marketing pitch true by leading college football in passing yards. And he performed all of it with style and charisma, a swashbuckling confidence that spread across the entire team and fanbase.
“Gardner had a presence and maturity about him that seemed to elevate the whole unit,” Leach said. “He’s a guy who is extremely passionate and committed, and [it] can’t be ignored that it was his last go-round, and he was determined to make it work.”ESPN
A large part of this swagger was captured in the mustache magic he brought to every game. Shortly after growing the ‘stache early in the season, fake mustaches became a staple at each WSU game, with legions of women, in particular, donning the Magnum P.I. look. As Leach described it, “I’ve never been in a town where more women had more mustaches than Pullman, Washington.” The craze gave Minshew’s budding fame a larger-than-life quality. He could barely walk through campus on College Hill without posing for at least a dozen selfies.
Even after a tough loss in the Apple Cup to the in-state rival Huskies, which ruined any chance for a Rose Bowl or College Football Playoff invitation, it was clear that Minshew would not be deterred. He arrived in San Antonio for the Alamo Bowl in a ’70s-style costume, complete with aviators, flared red pants and a red jacket adorned with silver Cougars logos. The metallic shirt underneath was unbuttoned nearly to his navel, exposing chest hair that would have made Austin Powers smile.
The same guy who only a few years ago was unwanted by pretty much everyone across the college football landscape, entered the Alamo Bowl fresh off a a fifth-place finish in Heisman Trophy voting. Neither Leach nor Saban could have even predicted that.
In the game, he threw two touchdown passes and ran for another score, leading No. 13 Washington State (No. 12 AP) to a 28-26 win over No. 24 Iowa State (No. 25 AP). The win set a Washington State school record for wins in a season with 11 (their final record was 11-2).
Although the Alamo Bowl did not exactly live up to the “Texas-Style Shootout” hype that many anticipated, it was replete with entertaining plays, especially from the Washington State side, which illustrated how far this team had grown since the beginning of the season. Much of that growth was undoubtedly due to Minshew’s leadership and confident attitude.
The first evidence of this growth occurred when Washington State cornerback Marcus Strong jumped an Iowa State receiver’s slant route on a perfect read, and took it to the house for a “Pick-6.” His run into the end zone almost appeared to be an ode to Deion Sanders, as he held the ball out and looked back at the Iowa State quarterback who flailed to the ground in an effort to tackle him. The taunting led to a flag and words of encouragement from Sanders himself.
After the penalty, the Cougars got the ball on the Iowa State 20 yard-line. Minshew, unfazed by the drama, had the Cougars in the end zone again two plays later, with a perfectly thrown pass to Renard Bell.
Later in the second quarter with Washington State up 7-0, Minshew made some magic happen, spinning away from pressure and performing a mini Heisman-style stiff arm before diving across the goal line. He ended it on one knee, pointing at the cameras and the crowd, as if telling everyone, “We’re here to take this.”
Although Minshew was held in check for most of the third quarter, in what was probably the play of the game with Iowa State drawing near, he escaped a third-down pass rush to flip a last-second shovel pass to Tay Martin. The play went for 20 yards and a first down. Iowa State fans looked dazed and confused, wondering whether they were watching a walk-on quarterback or Brett Favre reincarnated.
Minshew completed 9 of 13 passes in the fourth quarter for 78 yards, which was all the Cougars would need. And with that, the marvelous Mr. Minshew sealed his fate and engraved his legend in Cougars lore.
Now Leach will have to find another big-armed quarterback for a team that returns 14 starters on offense and defense in 2019. Many think Cammon Cooper, a freshman three-star prospect who was rated as the 38th best pocket passing quarterback in the country by ESPN.com, is up for the challenge. If Cammon learned anything from a year of watching Minshew, it should be that it doesn’t matter where others rank you. Never stop fighting and chasing your dreams, even when others say you can’t or that your efforts are futile. With hard work and a confident swagger, you should be ready when the opportunity finally arrives.
What the future holds for the marvelous Mr. Minshew is uncertain now that his college days are done. Whatever he decides though, there are a few certainties. He’s in control of his destiny with his hungry and unwavering perseverance, and of course, there will be mustaches, lots of them.