Skip to main content
Original Issue

Air Aztec is flying high

Coach Doug Scovil, a master at developing quality quarterbacks, has San Diego State winging once more and it has zoomed to three straight wins on the road

Given his approach to football, it's easy to imagine Doug Scovil as a Mad Bomber sort. You know, thick glasses, darting eyes, a cackling laugh and a grenade in either hand. Wherever Scovil has coached, bombs bursting in air has had nothing at all to do with the national anthem.

During his four seasons as offensive coordinator under Coach LaVell Edwards at Brigham Young, the Cougars shattered all kinds of NCAA passing, scoring and total-offense records, earning for whoever was throwing the ball the NCAA passing title and a pro contract. BYU struck for 83 points in one game last year, 70 in another. And this season at San Diego State, where Scovil has taken over as head coach, the game plan's the same: The Aztecs have come out throwing.

San Diego opened by putting the ball up 52 times in a 30-14 victory at Colorado State, and then followed that with 36 passes while winning at Oklahoma State 23-16, before New Mexico's unconventional blitzing defense stymied the Aztecs' attack last Saturday night in Albuquerque. Still, San Diego State won 17-15, surviving all sorts of disasters, including five sacks of Quarterback Matt Kofler in the last 10 times he tried to pass. Kofler became so exasperated that early in the fourth quarter, after he had been thrown for a 19-yard loss, he got into a pushing match with Defensive Back Julius Johnson and wound up getting sacked one last time—by the officials, who tossed him out of the game.

Despite everything, the Aztecs escaped when New Mexico blew a two-point conversion attempt late in the game, failing to get the ball in from the one-yard line after a San Diego State penalty. When the game was over, Scovil looked harried and distraught, as if he had been sacked. His team had all of minus nine yards of total offense in the second half, a performance so embarrassing that Scovil said he couldn't remember one as bad. The solution: "We got to get back to throwing the ball," said Scovil, predictably. They will, probably 40 to 50 times a game, but for the moment Aztec fans are thrilled with a new brain trust that has taken a lightly regarded team to three straight victories, all on the road.

Despite the flamboyance of a passing offense that in its first two games averaged 297.5 yards, second best in the nation behind—who else?—BYU, Scovil is a professorial sort who speaks softly and carries a big playbook. Up before the sun most mornings, he fills the time before breakfast by studying game films and computer printouts. Very few of his quotes will wind up pasted on the wall of an opponent's locker room, and the best place for him as an after-dinner speaker would be a slumber party. But when he dons his headphones on the sideline, it is as if he has slipped into a clown's costume: He is transformed into a showman.

"Coach says he likes to see the scoreboard roll up like a slot machine," says Kofler. "He gets a grin on his face, and he doesn't have to do any more than that. His body language is understood."

Some men are born to train horses, or to raise flowers. Doug Scovil was born to work with quarterbacks. They are his favorite breed, and since he began his coaching career at the College of San Mateo, in 1958, he has tutored some very talented ones. He taught Roger Staubach at the Naval Academy, and for four years he was the backfield coach for the San Francisco 49ers when John Brodie was with them. Scovil also can take credit for Bob Lee at the University of the Pacific, as well as Gifford Nielsen, Marc Wilson and Jim McMahon at Brigham Young. Last year McMahon became the first player in NCAA history to pass for more than 4,000 yards, and before last weekend he was second only to Kofler in the 1981 stats. McMahon also had a lost weekend, sitting out his team's 32-26 victory over Utah State last Friday night because of a hyperextended left knee.

Wilson and Nielsen have become pro quarterbacks, Wilson with Oakland and Nielsen with Houston. Says Brian Billick, Scovil's receiver coach, who was also with him at BYU, "I remember the first time I saw Gifford, I thought, 'What are they doing, giving away scholarships?' But by the time Doug was through with Gifford, he was a hell of a quarterback. And I think Marc Wilson would tell you: 'If it wasn't for Doug Scovil, I wouldn't be in professional football.' "

With Scovil aboard, BYU won the NCAA passing title in 1976, 1977, 1979 and 1980. So what happened in '78? Well, Scovil was with the Chicago Bears that season, a job he left when it became apparent that any team with Walter Payton wasn't about to turn into an aerial circus.

Scovil has a way of getting the players to believe, and the power of positive passing can be awesome. It can also camouflage a lot of deficiencies. Obviously, the secret of Scovil's success isn't some private knowledge discovered in those pre-dawn hours spent by the flickering light of a film projector. There are no secret strategies in college football. "The passing system itself is nothing great," Billick says. "It's Doug's ability to teach it, plus his play-calling. I don't know how he does it. He's uncanny. He sees something the rest of us don't."

Against New Mexico, Scovil took what the Lobos gave him. A milestone of sorts was reached early in the third quarter when he ordered the Aztecs to run on three straight plays, the only time all year that such a pedestrian thing had happened. (Not surprisingly, Scovil is a tennis player. In golf, you see, the ball rolls on the ground too much.)

When the coach went to BYU the Cougars were coming off a 6-5 record, but with Scovil they were 9-3 and WAC co-champions. They haven't surrendered the title since. At San Diego State, Scovil finds himself in a similar situation. The Aztecs for years were a passing powerhouse—producing quarterbacks like Brian Sipe, Dennis Shaw and Don Horn, as well as wide receivers Isaac Curtis and Haven Moses. Last year, however, the club disintegrated, losing eight of its first nine games. The team had its lowest offensive output in 20 years, and attendance dropped by 15,000 a game.

Now P.R. types are blaring the theme: "The Pass Is Back in the Aztec Attack." And this week, to celebrate the club's first home game with powerful Iowa State, there will be a postgame fireworks display. Scovil and pyrotechnics seem to go together.

Early in the game against New Mexico it looked as if San Diego would be exploding again as Kofler hit on four of his first five passes. Then the Lobos started swarming all over him. In fact, in the third quarter they chased him right out of the end zone for a safety.

Afterward Scovil was thankful for small favors, and he was feeling a bit awkward about his team's total offense of 117 yards. Said he, "It looks as if we're going to have to go back to the drawing board." Make that bomb bay.


Matt Kofler hopes Scovil can do for him what he did for Wilson, Nielsen and McMahon while at BYU.