"This Date in Cardinal Football": 9-03-96
September 3, 1996. It was just four days before the Cardinal's season-opening game against the Utah Utes and for the second straight year, the pre-premium-rusty-rail-encompassed practice fields had been the scene of a dramatic August duel for the much-coveted, tradition-rich role as Stanford starting quarterback.
But by the end of Labor Day weekend, the competition's loser was gone from the Farm for good. Feelings were hurt, camps were divided, fingers were pointed, and questions were raised once the Cardinal coaches had made the call and chosen a young player known more for his pitching arm over a previously-patient redshirt junior who had been one of the country's top quarterbacks coming out of high school while airing it out at pass-happy Los Alamitos High School in Southern California.
Hello, Chad Hutchinson. Adios, Tim Carey, whose difficult decision to transfer on this date 13 years ago made it a doubleheader of season-starting surprises.
"He took it real hard," said Hutchinson, who roomed with Carey during the August practices prior to being named as starter. "That's to be expected."
Highly competitive QBs like Carey, who in high school lead the state of California while throwing for the second-most single-season passing yards in the entire history of Orange County football (3,357 with 35 TDs!), typically don't go to college expecting to ride pine or carry a clipboard during their junior year and senior years. Timing would be tough on Mr. Tim.
Quarterbacking drama would continue down on The Farm; The Cardinal watched with ambiguous feelings as a talented signal-caller transferred out for the second time in three years. In the lasting wake of Bill Walsh's resignation at the end of the 1994 season, Scott Frost became frustrated with a highly-encouraged conversion to safety and wanted out. Frost, a universally recognized über-athlete, but one viewed as somewhat mechanically-challenged as a passer, moved back to Nebraska where he led his home-state Huskers heroically to their last national championship in 1997.
In 1996, Carey seemed the safe and logical choice. A prized recruit out of Southern California powerhouse program, he joined Frost, Greg Comella, Eliel Swinton, Mike Mitchell and the rest of Walsh's famed 1993 freshman class. Carey had battled fifth-year senior Mark Butterfield throughout fall camp in 1995, right up until the Monday before the season opener. "Butter" won out and subsequently led Tyrone Willingham's first team to a 7-3-1 (5-3) regular season mark and a Liberty Bowl matchup with East Carolina.
Carey appeared in one Stanford football game, a single series in fact, performing mop-up duty in a 24-3 win over Oregon State. The only scholarship quarterback on the Cardinal roster during spring ball in 1996 (John "Magic Man" Ynostroza was busy pulling rabbits out of his helmet!), Carey would prove unable to distance himself from his nearest competition - a dual-sport freshman who was actually over at Sunken Diamond, throwing 95-mph fastballs. The 6-foot-5 Hutchinson, after declining a $1.5 million signing bonus offer from the Atlanta Braves' after being chosen the No. 26 overall pick in 1995, went 7-2 on the mound for the Cardinal that spring.
So the real battle came in the fall, as an August practice battle began, all while a year of firsts in college football took shape. Locally, San Jose State prepared for its inaugural year in the newly super-sized 16-team WAC; First-year head coach Steve Mariucci readied his Cal players in his only year as head coach in Berkeley. August's final Saturday saw Kansas State joust with Texas Tech in the first Big XII conference game. A handful of programs, Boise State among them, readied for year one of Division I play.
Pac-10 contenders pinned their hopes on veteran quarterbacks: Jake Plummer at Arizona State, the Bears' Pat "Candy Man" Barnes and reigning Rose Bowl hero Brad Otton for USC. Into the fray came the much-heralded Hutchinson, the 1995 Gatorade High School Baseball Player of the year and the #1 high school prospect in the country according to Baseball America. It happens he was also an emerging, but inexperienced football player, a quarterback who had started all of 12 games while running the Wing-T at Torrey Pines High School near San Diego. As most Booties will recall, Torrey Pines was the very same alma mater of the Batson Brothers - Tyler, a DE from 1988-92, and outside linebacker Brian, who was a senior on the team in 1996, starting all 12 games.
After considerable contemplation, Willingham and not-yet -infamous offensive coordinator Dana Bible made their difficult choice on Sunday night, informing both Hutchinson and Carey of their decision in a morning meeting on Labor Day. Carey skipped that afternoon's practice. His decision to transfer hit the airwaves Tuesday, even being reported by ESPN's Keith Olbermann on that evening's SportsCenter. Carey later announced he would move on to the University of Hawaii, where four-time former Stanford assistant Fred vonAppen had become head coach of what were still known as the Rainbow Warriors.
Subsequently, a sudden scramble ensued. Hutchinson's only remaining backups were Todd Husak and Than Merrill, both true freshmen. "It is hard to say that Chad Hutchinson should start in his first season of eligibility when John Elway didn't," wrote sharp-tongued columnist Glenn Dickey in the San Francisco Chronicle . "Now, all their hopes reside in one inexperienced quarterback, one who didn't even play the position until he was a senior in high school."
Critics had further fuel when the Cardinal limped to a dismal 2-5 start. Hutchinson appeared hesitant and robotic, especially when Oregon State sacked him 11 times in an embarrassing 26-12 loss in Corvallis in which former AD Ted Leland could be seen kicking cones on the sideline over the deafening drone of Stanford Rose Bowl legend Pete Lazetich cursing Leland over the non-recruitment of Pete's son "Powderburn", who played instead for the Beavers. Hutchinson, however, was a quick study and would improve dramatically over the course of the season and the rejuvenated Cardinal began to roll...all the way to El Paso!
History remembers Ty Willingham as a coach who played things close to his red fleece vest. The decision to tab Hutchinson however was a gamble that paid off. He was clearly the better of the two combatants, eventually playing three NFL seasons.
Scott Frost clearly struck golden corn by returning to Nebraska and later earning himself a decent cup of coffee in the NFL (at safety of course, not as a quarterback). The grass however, is not always greener, even in the tropics. Sadly, Carey would fail to break 1,000 yards in his lone injury-plagued season at Hawaii in 1997. He threw four interceptions in his Bay Area return, a demoralizing, dream-dampening loss at San Jose State. Hutchinson, on the other hand, totaled over 2,100 yards in 1996, led the Cardinal to five-straight wins to end the season, and remains the last Stanford quarterback to win a bowl game, having been named "MVP" of the memorable 1996 Sun Bowl, a crushing 38-0 demolition of Nick Saban's spiritless Michigan State Spartans.
"That's life," said Willingham with characteristic reticence upon learning of Carey's decision to transfer. "We'll move on."
Wow, Sheriff, that was seven whole words, if you break out the contractions! What can we say, we had to love him!
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