Dick Harmon: Reflecting on Ty Detmer's career, praise comes easy
Editor's note: This is the second of three columns reflecting on the career of Ty Detmer.
When the folks who control the College Football Hall of Fame picked the 2012 class and announced it to the world this past week, it was a big deal in Texas that four of those players to be inducted grew up in one city: San Antonio.
Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer, a two-time consensus All-American at BYU, prepped at San Antonio's Southwest High. Other inductees from that great city are Tommy Kramer (Lee High and Rice University), Gabriel Rivera (Jefferson High and Texas Tech) and Scott Thomas (Jay High and Air Force Academy).
Football is to Texas as gasoline is to America.
Back when Detmer finished his BYU career, I had the opportunity to talk to a lot of very proud Texans. At the time, Detmer was the first high school player in San Antonio history to win the Heisman. He was the eighth native Texan to win a Heisman, following Andre Ware, Tim Brown, Billy Sims, Earl Campbell, John David Crow, Doak Walker and Davey O'Brien.
Quite the company.
One of those Texans I talked to was Hayden Fry, then-head football coach at the University of Iowa. Fry now lives in Mesquite, Nev., and coached against BYU and Detmer in the 1991 Holiday Bowl, a 13-13 tie. Fry was inducted into the College Hall of Fame in 2003.
Here are some excerpts from Fry, a seriously one-liner type of guy.
"Being a west Texas boy, I don't know if I could come up with enough adjectives to describe Ty Detmer," said Fry. "I don't have that kind of vocabulary. It comes from growing up in Odessa."
Fry is tied to Detmer not just because both are Texans, but their ancestors fought together with Sam Houston against Santa Anna in the battle of San Jacinto. On Fry's side, it was his great-great grandfather Benjamin Franklin Fry. Detmer is a seventh generation Texan. His mother, Betty Spellman, can trace her roots to what historians call the "Old 300," a group of settlers who came with Stephen F. Austin in the 1820s and received land grants from the ruling Spanish Commandant of Texas. Detmer's ancestors fought as freedom fighters alongside Davy Crockett at the Alamo.
"Ty may be the best college quarterback I've seen in 30 years as a college football coach," Fry said. "At the University of Iowa we have had the Big Ten all-conference quarterback seven of the past nine years (back in 1991), including Chuck Long. We think we know something about evaluating quarterbacks and knowing their skill level and leadership."
"Ty is the best pure passer I've seen," Fry continued. "He has tremendous leadership on the field and a presence that is commanding and demanding. He's one of the most inspirational leaders I've seen."
Fry faced Detmer only once on the field, but he had three years of game film to study in preparation for the Holiday Bowl.
"Ty has unbelievable radar," Fry said. "He knows when a guy is closing in on him from a rushing standpoint. He can elude him and then find his number three or four receiver down the field. Ty can throw back clear across the field when he's running full speed in the other direction, find the guy and hit him right on the numbers."
Fry's team kept Detmer out of the end zone several times when BYU was knocking on the door, trying to take a lead and control the game.
"He's got to be one of, if not the, greatest quarterbacks to ever play college football," he said. "He sure ate up a lot of grass against us. Our team had been in the Rose Bowl the year before, and that year we were the runner-up to Michigan in the Big Ten.
"We were fortunate our defense kept BYU out of the end zone that night in San Diego, and we tied. Still, Ty passed for 350 yards. That's a lot of real estate. At times in that game, Ty literally lifted that BYU offense and they followed him like a band does a drum major — they marched."
Before facing Detmer, Fry stayed up late and watched the Cougars against San Diego State. It was a shootout that ended in an NCAA record 52-52 tie.
"Ty had suffered a cut over his eye, and when he came off the field he'd put a towel over his eye and wipe the blood away. When it came time to go on the field, he'd throw down the towel, pick up his helmet and run on the field," Fry said. "He'd do that over and over. Ty showed me he was a Texas football player. Boy, that guy has guts. When we played him, he was everything we expected to see, a gutsy playmaker and fierce competitor."
Fry took a lot of pride in Detmer. He knew his father Sonny and brother Koy.
"You'd want your son to be like Ty. You'd want your daughter to marry Ty. If you go to battle you'd want Ty Detmer in your foxhole," Fry said. "If you play against him, he's not a player you want to take lightly, I promise you."
Part of the legacy of Detmer during and after his football career is the charisma that surrounds the guy.
"The thing that made Ty marketable was his play on the field," said Val Hale, then-associate athletic director at BYU, now vice president for university relations at Utah Valley University. "The event that really launched him was the bowl game against Penn State in 1989. He had some phenomenal performances that sophomore year, but critics said he never played anybody. But that changed in the Holiday Bowl. Penn State was known for its defense under Joe Paterno.
"In that bowl game, he absolutely picked the Nittany Lion defense apart, and that night he set a national record for passing yards in a postseason game. After the game Paterno really gave some great quotes about Detmer, which we used to build a Heisman Trophy campaign that summer and set things up for the Miami game in Provo the next fall. He was on his way."
On Friday, Hale said Detmer was a PR man's dream come true. "He had that 'aw, shucks' personality and always deflected credit to his teammates. It was the kind of personality everyone, including sports writers, just loved."
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