PULLMAN, Wash. – Gardner Minshew had two very different options to consider earlier this year.
Option 1: He could spend his final season of college football at defending national champion Alabama, most likely as a backup quarterback.
Option 2: He could become the potential starter at Washington State, a team that was rebuilding and still grieving after the suicide of its top returning quarterback.
“It wasn’t that hard,” Minshew says of his decision now. But he didn’t quite expect it to turn him into a local cult hero of sorts eight months later.
The mustachioed Minshew, a native of Mississippi, is the nation’s leading passer with 391 yards a game. He’s led No. 8 Washington State to an 8-1 record and an improbable run into the hunt for the College Football Playoff. And he’s done it with the flair of a Burt Reynolds movie character from the 1970s, inspiring fans to copy his look by wearing sunglasses, headbands and fake hair on their upper lips.
-- A Cougars gear store near campus, Crimson & Gray, is selling fake mustaches now for $2.
-- In nearby Colfax, businesses are planning to give out free fake mustaches on Nov. 21 and 23. Their promotion was going to be named “Gardner Minshew Days” until they received word that using his name would violate NCAA rules against commercial promotion of amateur athletes.
-- In last week’s 19-13 win against Cal, WSU coach Mike Leach noticed this craze, too.
“There were a lot of mustached women in the stands,” Leach said.
Yet it all came pretty close to never happening, hinging on that decision by him in March, which carried considerable risk.
Should he move to a campus with the lowest athletics revenue in the Pac-12 and join a team that had six assistant coaches leave in the offseason and was practically starting over? Or should he go to the most dominant program in the land, where the competition might be tougher but he also was offered a chance to join the coaching staff next year as a graduate student?
And what if he had made the opposite choice?
Two boxes and a suitcase
The 6-foot-2 Minshew graduated from East Carolina last December with one year of college eligibility remaining. After sharing time at quarterback there in 2016 and 2017, he decided to transfer elsewhere for reasons he declined to say.
Alabama soon jumped to get him, hoping to add him as an insurance policy at a position that suddenly had gotten more complicated after the national championship game in January. That’s when Alabama freshman QB Tua Tagovailoa came off the bench and won the game for the Crimson Tide, displacing regular starting sophomore Jalen Hurts.
“I was thinking Jalen Hurts probably was going to transfer at that time,” Minshew told USA TODAY after practice this week. “So I was thinking, `You know, you’ve got a freshman who’s played not a full game of football.’ As a competitor, I was going to take my chance.”
He committed to the Crimson Tide in February. Shortly afterward, he got a call from Leach, who offered him what his “Air Raid” offense always can offer quarterback recruits – a chance to throw the ball around 50 times a game.
Leach also was starting over with a group of quarterbacks who hadn't thrown a single pass in a major college game. Last year’s starting quarterback, Luke Falk, ranked 12th nationally in passing yards per game before moving on to a shot in the NFL. His backup, Tyler Hilinski, fatally shot himself in an apartment near campus in January, leaving the team reeling.
In stepped Minshew, who moved here in May with “two boxes and a suitcase” after a cross-country drive with his father.
“I was super grateful for everything (Alabama) Coach (Nick) Saban was offering, but this was a dream come true, really,” Minshew said.
A big reason for that is what might come next, because of how he’s playing this year – a chance to play in the NFL.
If he had stuck with Alabama, he’d have to compete for time with Hurts and Tagovailoa, this year’s favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, according to the USA TODAY Network Heisman survey.
Minshew is fourth. If he hadn’t come to WSU, he might not have played again. The Cougars also might not be where they are now, closing in on their first league title since 2002, less than a year Leach nearly left to coach Tennessee.
Smokey and the Bandit
The six assistants who did depart WSU after last season all left for where the grass looked greener: Ohio State, UCLA, Oregon, Texas Tech and the Chicago Bears. All have more resources than WSU, which ranked last in the Pac-12 in athletics revenuein 2016-17 ($64 million) and is 250 miles from Seattle, the nearest big city.
By comparison, Alabama had revenue of $174 million.
“We were kind of unsure of what the season would look like because we had lost so many faces,” said Nick Begg, a senior defensive lineman.
But this is why WSU is paying Leach $3.5 million this year – to win despite those disadvantages. His Air Raid system is designed to exploit inefficiencies on the field, spreading the field horizontally and vertically to stretch the defense and create space for ball carriers.
Minshew has mastered it at times, becoming a machine of short, quick throws that can wear out opponents. He leads all Power 5 conference quarterbacks with the highest percentage of passing attempts that have traveled five or fewer yards past the line of scrimmage (60.3%), not including yards gained after a catch, according to STATS, a sports data company.
He’s also led his team on three game-winning drives in the fourth quarter to add extra magic to this season, which included a raucous crowd on campus last month for ESPN’s College GameDay. Three wins in their final three regular-season games would give the Cougars their first 11-win season ever. On Saturday, they start going for it at Colorado (5-4).
“How the soup came together is pretty amazing,” WSU athletic director Pat Chun said Wednesday.
It’s been more than Minshew. His blockers are keeping him upright, ranking fifth nationally with only seven sacks allowed in nine games. But he’s the one stirring the bowl, on the field and off, where his moxie in both places sort of reminds Leach of the 1977 movie Smokey and the Bandit.
In that film, actor Burt Reynolds played the mustachioed Southern trucker who eluded his pursuers with a showboating style that was fast and fun. In the current drama at WSU, Minshew said he didn’t start growing his own mustache until August. Then came more wins and more fans, who latched onto it as a symbol of the season.
“I try to keep it light, try to keep it fun,” Minshew said. “I think they just kind of respond to that, and it’s been pretty awesome.”