Scott Mitchell is shaking his head in wonder. The media are calling him "The Franchise." Teammates are calling him "The Golden Child." Air Force Coach Fisher DeBerry is predicting that in a year or so Mitchell will be the best quarterback in the West. Sports Illustrated has named him Offensive Player of the Week - twice. A Colorado writer is announcing he will vote for Mitchell for the Heisman Trophy. That is before Mitchell throws for more yards in a single game than any college player ever. Interview requests are up to as many as a dozen a week. School publicists are suggesting that next year he limit his hours of availability, in order to handle the crush of interview requests.
"I can't figure it out," says (sorry) The Franchise. He is genuinely surprised at all the hoopla. "I've never even heard of half the records I'm breaking."But the stat people have. After every game they are busy working overtime, adding up Mitchell's growing numbers. In two years they expect him to be a candidate for the Heisman. "To tell you the truth," he continues, "I don't know where it all got started."
But it did. And there's no way, barring injury, he is going to be able to stop it.
- - - It isn't like Mitchell was a big surprise. When he signed with Utah out of Springville High, the coaches could barely conceal their glee. They hedged their bets by using such words as "development" and "progression" and "potential," but the expectations were thinly veiled.
There was no fooling anyone. Mitchell was the big catch from the first day.
After outrecruiting BYU and Stanford for Mitchell in 1986, they began building a team that would be centered around the left-handed quarterback. Fassel tried to avoid comparing Mitchell to his Most Famous Protege, John Elway, but couldn't. Everybody wanted to know how the 6-6, 225-pound youngster compared with the ultimate quarterback. Fassel wisely said nobody is a John Elway, but Mitchell is close enough.
Here was a kid with the right stuff.
There were the things Mitchell did by himself to draw attention. After redshirting his first year he spent last year as a high-profile backup to Chris Mendonca. All he did was win three games by bringing the Utes from behind. When he took over as starter this year, the records began to fall on the first night. Idaho State watched helplessly as he passed for 511 yards. OK. Idaho State is Idaho State. The next week he went for 335 against Illinois. By the time he got to the Air Force game he had hit full stride. In that contest he passed for 631 yards to set an NCAA single-game record. The totals continued to pile up. He is now the NCAA record holder in three categories, the WAC record holder in four others, and he owns nine school marks. His 391 yards a game intotal offense is the best in the nation. School publicists are hoping he will become the only player in college football history to average more than 400 yards a game.
In October alone, he passed for 2,025 yards - an average of 405 yards a game - to earn accolades as Deseret News Athlete of the Month.
If Mitchell continues at that pace, he will eclipse Todd Santos' all-time career passing mark by 2,000 yards.
The credits are steadily rolling in. "Scott Mitchell is the epitome of a dropback quarterback. We never played against a more accurate passer in my time here at the Academy," says Air Force Coach Fisher DeBerry.
"He may be as fine a pure passer as there is in the country," adds Wyoming Coach Paul Roach.
"The sky is the limit with Scott Mitchell," says Ute offensive backfield Coach Wayne McQuivey. "He has the potential to be a first-round draft choice. In my mind, an athlete like him comes out of this state maybe once every decade."
Through it all, Mitchell has remained remarkably unaffected. He returns phone calls to writers. He goes out of his way to mention his linemen and receivers after games. He self-effacingly answers questions about his celebrity by describing how his fiance, Kimberly Nifong, called him "Mike" the entire first night they met. Not everyone, he says, is impressed with star quarterbacks.
"It gets old being referred to as the Golden Child," he says. "I'm just one-eleventh of the offense."
And so the battle goes, Mitchell trying to keep perspective and hardly anybody paying attention. He plays a Saturday afternoon game and retires to his parents' home in Salt Lake to relax. A few moments later he will get a phone call from a friend who wants to talk over the game.
"Then there's the times I go to the grocery store," he says with a sigh. "It's worse than having an interview. They'll say they have a bet on the game and ask me if it's safe to pick Utah. What am I supposed to tell them? No, we're going to lose? It gets ridiculous."
Even quarterbacks can O.D. on football. "One of the most revolting things I find," he continues, "is to come home on a Saturday evening, physically and mentally exhausted. Then I turn on the TV and there's a football game. I hate to even watch football. It's just too stressed-out for me, it really is."
He does have his escapes. Last year, while helping the family move from Springville to Salt Lake, he found a box with an old train set. He tinkered with it awhile and then put it together. Before long he had turned it into a hobby. He now has three train sets. "It's kind of me. It's my own ideas and my own way of doing things," he says. "It is just my own deal. Nobody else's. It really is a source of great joy."
Mitchell says he plans to follow through on his hobby and someday have a room filled with trains. His devotion to a hobby is no surprise. With Scott Mitchell there is no turning back once committed. When he was forced to redshirt during his freshman year at Utah he called it "the most difficult period of my life." But he waited it out without complaint. Last year he was forced to sit behind a feisty, if less talented, Mendonca at quarterback, but never protested.
Mitchell says suggestions by well-meaning friends that he consider transferring (Utah is 4-5) are out of the question. "I believe when you make a committment, you follow through," he says. "When I signed my letter to play at Utah, I signed on for a five-year deal, whether we lose or not. Sometimes you have to make some adjustments. I don't believe you accept what happens and just forget about it, if things don't work out. There are still some things I want to accomplish here. But the thought of tranferring never entered my mind."
- - - So how good is Mitchell? Good enough to lead the country in total offense with an only sometimes effective offensive line and running game. Good enough to break some sort of record virtually every week out. Good enough that offensive line Coach Don Eck inspires his ranks by telling them they are protecting what could be the greatest quarterback - statistically - in college football history.
Mitchell is quick to point out that, as a sophomore, he isn't perfect. He is still learning to read defenses and hasn't yet mastered how to pick out secondary receivers. He throws too many interceptions, in part due to stubborness. As with Elway, Mitchell has such a good arm he will throw into a crowd rather than throw the ball away or allow himself to be sacked.
"I have to learn when to admit I can't get it done and move on to the next play," he says.
"He's good now," says McQuivey. "But the biggest thing is the psychological battle he will have to prepare for next year. He needs to understand that each year he will have to prepare harder."
But he is coming along quickly, visibly, in all areas. And as he does, the "Golden Child" image is likely to grow.
"I don't know how or why it's the way it is," he shrugs. "But I know who I am, and my own expectations. I expect a lot out of myself.
"People are entitled to their own opinions. And if they feel that I deserve what has happened, that's their opinion. I've done some of what I want to do, but I have a lot more to accomplish. I don't feel I've arrived yet."