The headlines and sports tickers must have seemed confusing that afternoon in February. Gardner Minshew? To Alabama?
A two-year starter at quarterback at East Carolina, Minshew had never been a sought-after football recruit. He started his college career as a walk-on. He spent a year in junior college. He briefly lost his starting job at East Carolina the previous season.
But Minshew, as a graduate transfer, was going to accept an offer to join the national champions? It didn’t seem to make much sense, and soon Minshew was inundated with messages from people who couldn’t believe the news.
“It was nuts,” Minshew said. “Most people were kind of like, ‘What the hell?'”
Within days, more of the calls came from college coaches hoping to poach an experienced quarterback coveted by Nick Saban and Alabama. In Tuscaloosa, the recruiters reminded Minshew, he might never get a chance to play.
A few days later, Washington State coach Mike Leach called Minshew with the most appealing proposal of all. “Do you want to be a backup at Alabama or lead the nation in passing?” Leach asked. “We’re going to lead the nation in passing one way or another.”
For Minshew, it was an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“I read his book when I was in middle school. I’ve always been a fan,” Minshew said of Leach’s New York Times-best-selling memoir “Swing Your Sword: Leading the Charge in Football and Life.”
“To have one of your coaching heroes call and ask you that? It was unreal.”
Leach’s recruiting pitch was more than telemarketing: Minshew indeed finished the regular season as the nation’s leader in passing yards, lifting the Cougars to their first 10-win season in 15 years and within a game of the Pac-12 championship game in what was expected to be a rebuilding year.
But Minshew’s impact on The Palouse extended far beyond his accurate right arm. His signature mustache — more Magnum P.I. than Ron Burgundy — and irrepressible swagger and self-confidence catapulted him to cult-hero status on campus.
“He has this kind of gunslinger attitude and charisma, an attitude of ‘You guys come along with me, or I’ll go alone,'” said Tom Hutyler, a Seattle-based sports broadcaster and longtime Cougars fan who released a song about Minshew called “Mississippi Moustache.”
Minshew’s improbable closing act will reach its end Friday against Iowa State at the Alamo Bowl (9 p.m. ET, ESPN). It’ll be Minshew’s final statement — nay, rebuttal — to everyone — almost literally everyone in major college football — who never envisioned him in this situation until Nick Saban showed up with a scholarship offer.
“People are going to think I’m full of it,” Minshew said, “but I always knew in the right situation I could be this kind of successful.”
Since before he could grow a mustache, Minshew had been training to play in Leach’s vaunted Air Raid offense.
Minshew was the quarterback of a wide-open offense in the youth flag football league of his hometown of Brandon, Mississippi, a suburb of Jackson. In seventh grade, he and his father sought the counsel of a local private school coach who was running an offense with Air Raid concepts. By ninth grade, that coach was the offensive coordinator at Brandon High School, and Minshew’s education began in earnest.
Almost every day at school, Minshew spent an hour with Wyatt Rogers in the school’s coaches office and watched video of Leach’s record-setting Texas Tech offenses.
“I really coached him his ninth- and 10th-grade year. He got a lot better before he even got his driver’s license,” said Rogers, who is still the offensive coordinator at Brandon. “By his senior year, it was more of a collaboration. There was nothing else I could teach him by then.”
As a sophomore, Minshew led Brandon to its first state championship game. He went on to accumulate all of the records and accolades befitting a big-time recruit, earning MVP honors at a couple of regional recruiting events and setting school records of 11,222 career passing yards and 105 touchdowns. He made the all-state team every year as a starter.
Minshew, ever the competitor, went to all the nearby camps and combines looking to prove he was every bit the equal of the best quarterbacks. He remembered going to an Alabama camp just so he could throw alongside David Cornwell and Ricky Town, two of the top QB recruits in the 2014 and 2015 classes, respectively.
“I always made sure I was throwing next to the dude they offered,” Minshew said. “I would even mix it up with them, talk a little crap and tell them I was going to prove that I was better.”
But none of it was enough to drum up interest from the big in-state programs: Mississippi, Mississippi State and Southern Mississippi. A scholarship offer from Akron dried up after the assistant who recruited Minshew died in a car accident. UAB showed some interest before shutting down its program.
The wait for that elusive offer, the one that would stir up interest from other schools, began to wear on Minshew and those close to him. Was he too short (listed at 6-foot-2)? Not fast enough (a shade quicker than 5.0 seconds in the 40)?
“Let me tell you: A lot of these coaches are sheep,” said Flint Minshew, Gardner’s father. “Because he never got that one [offer], coaches would say, ‘We’d like to offer him, but he doesn’t have any offers.'”
Minshew decided to go to Troy, where he had a full academic scholarship. He enrolled for spring 2015, hoping to get a head start on the quarterback competition. But several months into workouts there, Minshew realized that it wasn’t a good fit and followed up with some of the junior college coaches who’d recruited him earlier.
Jack Wright at Northwest Mississippi Community College, a two-hour drive north of Brandon, came with a plan for Minshew: play in the fall, graduate in December and move on to another FBS school by the spring.
“That would allow him to leave with a chance to play three more years,” said Wright, who is now the head coach at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. “As smart as he was, it was about finding all the pieces of the puzzle.”
Minshew was excited to go somewhere he was wanted — and was certain he’d be wanted even more when it was over.
“I felt like, if I went there and won,” Minshew said, “nobody could take that away from me.”
At Northwest Mississippi, Minshew did virtually everything but turn himself into a coveted college quarterback.
He led the Rangers to an 11-1 record and their first national championship since 1992, an immediate one-season turnaround for a program normally considered an afterthought in the competitive conference of Mississippi community and junior colleges. In the title game, Minshew threw for 421 yards and five touchdowns in a 53-point victory.
December came and went, and Minshew still had no scholarship offers. It wasn’t until May, after Wright had already left for another job and Minshew had resigned himself to another year in junior college, that East Carolina came calling.
Minshew opened the fall as the backup to a senior, someone who’d been waiting his turn for two years and had a head start on picking up first-year coach Scottie Montgomery’s offense. After the starter struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness, Minshew got his chance and took over for the final two games of the 2016 season — losses to Navy and Temple.
The following spring, East Carolina brought in Duke graduate transfer Thomas Sirk to compete with Minshew. The quarterback competition turned them into close friends, as they did almost everything together that summer: leading workouts, watching film, hosting cookouts — and even growing mustaches.
The mustaches, Sirk said, were Minshew’s idea.
“He was definitely more set on it than the rest of us,” Sirk said. “My wife absolutely hated it. But whether Gardner did or didn’t have a girlfriend, he doesn’t really care what anybody thinks. He’s just going to be him.”
Minshew got the start over Sirk in the 2017 season opener. It took only three quarters for him to lose his spot following a 7-of-18, 82-yard, one-interception flop in an upset loss to FCS school James Madison.
But what probably would’ve been a humbling, if not deflating, moment for anyone else was actually a revelation for Minshew.
“I guess that’s the worst thing that can happen,” he said. “So I said the next time I got my chance, I was gonna go out and enjoy it. It opened me up.”
Minshew got that chance against Houston in November, coming off the bench to complete a school-record 52 passes for 463 yards and three touchdowns. He finished the season as the starter in the final three games, two of them losses. But Minshew had finally tapped into the player he’d always believed he could be, completing nearly 69 percent of his passes for 1,023 yards and seven touchdowns with four interceptions.
In a pleasant surprise, with a season of eligibility left, Minshew found out that interest in him from other schools had never been higher.
Alabama seemed like the perfect fit.
It was only two and a half hours east on Interstate 20 from Brandon. Minshew looked forward to finally soaking up the environment of big-time college football, and he had been thinking about his post-graduation plans.
He had always had a taste for coaching, even taking on the offensive coordinator duties for a youth-league football team run by his father while in high school. On his phone, Minshew has stored some video clips of his offense from those two seasons as a coach — “and two league championships,” he added.
What better place to learn more about coaching than under the famously demanding Saban? As part of their recruiting pitch, the Crimson Tide promised Minshew a two-year graduate assistant’s position on the staff after the 2018 season.
Also, with Alabama headed into the spring with a quarterback competition between incumbent Jalen Hurts and national title hero Tua Tagovailoa, it seemed likely that the loser would transfer away and Minshew would take over as the top backup.
“Worst case,” Minshew said, “you’re one snap away from being quarterback on a national champion team.”
But the phone call from Leach changed those plans.
Because he wouldn’t be able to participate in spring camp in Pullman, Minshew reached out to an old friend of Leach’s who was only a few minutes away: Hal Mumme, known as one of the architects of the Air Raid offense and then an offensive coordinator at FCS school Jackson State.
Minshew started going to the school for a crash course in the offense from Mumme, who had once employed Leach as his offensive coordinator at Kentucky.
“I knew he’s got all the stuff you look for [in a quarterback] because I wanted to put him into my system,” said Mumme, referring to the three years he coached at NAIA school Belhaven College in Jackson. “And I trusted Mike [Leach]. If anybody could get greatness out of him, I knew Mike could.”
Minshew, a fun-loving Mississippi gunslinger in the mold of Brett Favre, took quickly to Leach’s version of the Air Raid offense, throwing for 4,480 yards and 36 touchdowns while inspiring a legion of mustachioed followers.
“Being a new face and playing the way he did, it brought a new level of excitement,” said Trey Tinsley, a junior quarterback. “When our energy was down, Gardner instantly picked it up.”
To Leach, it was fairly clear by midway through preseason practices who the leader of the team would be — even though Minshew didn’t officially start practicing with the team until August.
“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.”
Minshew’s easygoing manner also helped him create one of the season’s most memorable moments, just minutes after he finished throwing a school-record seven touchdown passes and 473 yards against Arizona on Nov. 17.
With Leach in the middle of a postgame interview on the field, Minshew snuck up behind him and attempted to place one of the replica mustaches above the coach’s mouth. Leach flinched, then allowed the giddy Minshew to smooth out the mustache.
“I don’t even think he had a mustache when I recruited him,” Leach said to the reporter.
Recalling the viral moment a couple of weeks later, Leach reflected on Minshew’s impact, saying, “I’ve never been in a town where more women had more mustaches than Pullman, Washington.”
Now the charismatic quarterback has brought that mustache magic to San Antonio, where he arrived to much fanfare on Sunday in a ’70s-style costume. The outfit’s highlights included flared red pants and a red jacket with silver Cougars logos and a metallic shirt unbuttoned nearly to his navel, exposing a torso blanketed in hair.
Minshew enters off a fifth-place finish in Heisman Trophy voting, a development that would’ve seemed unthinkable even six months ago.
“It’s incredible and feels almost full circle,” Minshew said. “You always want to leave a place better than you found it. I couldn’t ask for anything better than this.”