By Dallin Turner
Pop quiz: Who was LaVell Edwards’ first award-winning quarterback?
It’s not Gifford Nielsen, Marc Wilson or Jim McMahon.
It’s also not Virgil Carter — he played at BYU years before Edwards became head coach.
No, the correct answer is Gary Sheide.
Haven’t heard of him? You’re not alone.
Somehow, Sheide has remained largely forgotten by history, despite being Edwards’ guinea pig for a pass-oriented offense and starting a trend that earned BYU the nickname of “Quarterback U.”
On Saturday, Sheide was inducted into the BYU Athletic Hall of Fame, nearly four decades after his playing days at BYU were done. Four other Cougar greats were also inducted, including former men’s volleyball coach Carl McGown, track and cross country star Courtney Pugmire Meldrum, golfer Andy Miller and women’s volleyball player Mariliisa Salmi.
In Edwards’ second season as BYU’s coach, he needed to replace the nation’s leading rusher, Pete Van Valkenburg, who ran for 1,386 yards and led the Cougars to a 7-4 record in 1972. Instead of replacing Van Valkenburg with a dominant running back, Edwards decided to build his offense around the quarterback and a drop-back passing game — something unheard of in college football at the time. His candidate for this experiment: Sheide, a quarterback from Diablo Junior College.
In 1973, Sheide completed 60 percent of his passes while throwing for 2,350 yards, 22 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He was second in the nation in completions per game (17.7) and third in total offense (234.3 yards per game). However, BYU finished with a 5-6 record — the only losing season in Edwards’ 29-year career.
In 1974, Sheide had 2,174 yards, 23 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. More importantly, he led the Cougars to a 7-4-1 record, which was enough to win the WAC championship and give BYU its first bowl game appearance — the Fiesta Bowl, where BYU lost to Oklahoma State, 16-6.
Sheide was named the WAC MVP, was an All-American honorable mention, finished eighth in the Heisman voting and became the first of seven Cougars to win the Sammy Baugh Trophy, awarded to the nation’s best passer.
In 1975, the Cincinnati Bengals drafted Sheide in the third round with the 64th overall pick. However, a shoulder injury prevented him from ever playing a game in the NFL. Instead, he became a businessman, gym teacher, high school football assistant coach and color analyst for BYUtv, all while fading into history and becoming BYU’s forgotten quarterback.
Last year, BYU held a large quarterback reunion with Carter, Nielsen, Wilson, McMahon, Steve Young, Robbie Bosco, Ty Detmer and Steve Sarkisian. Sheide was invited, not as an honored guest, but as a paying customer. Deseret News columnist Lee Benson wrote about the snub, which Sheide believes may have been influential to him being inducted into the BYU Hall of Fame this weekend.
But why did it take nearly 40 years for Sheide to receive this honor?
Perhaps his resume was just not impressive enough. He ranks 13th on BYU’s career passing yards list (4,524), but he’s only 1,353 yards ahead of current Cougar quarterback, sophomore Jake Heaps. He has the second-most touchdown passes in a game (6), but so does six other former Cougar quarterbacks.
Maybe Sheide just got lost in the shuffle of all the other great BYU quarterbacks. He didn’t put up mind-boggling stats like Detmer, he didn’t have a Hall of Fame career in the NFL like Young and he didn’t win a bowl game with a last-second miracle like McMahon. He wasn’t a first-team All-American and he only won 12 games in two years.
Statistically, Sheide was good, but not great, which may have hurt his legacy over the past four decades. Measurable statistics and awards stand out better over time than intangible qualities like being a pioneer of a storied offense.
Over the years, there have been a few stories about Sheide being the forgotten quarterback at BYU and how he deserves to be included in every great quarterback list. But as soon as it was announced he would be inducted into the BYU Hall of Fame, the interest and attention seemed to fade.
At halftime during BYU’s 24-17 win over UCF on Friday, the media were allowed to interview Sheide, but only two reporters went down to the field to talk to him. Perhaps he was more interesting as BYU’s greatest snub and forgotten hero, and now that he is being remembered and properly honored, there’s nothing more to say.
Sheide himself didn’t have much to say — maybe because the marching band began playing its halftime show nearby, or maybe because he simply likes to deflect the attention off himself.
He showed no signs of bitterness or resentment for being forgotten for 37 years, and repeatedly emphasized his gratitude for the award and the distinction of being labeled as the first great quarterback of the LaVell Edwards era.
“It’s a real honor,” Sheide said. “This is a special treat for me.”
He also enjoyed reminiscing about big wins over Utah and then WAC-powerhouse Arizona State during his career.
“We had a great team those years with a lot of great players,” he said. “We made some memories that’ll last forever.”
So now, after remaining in obscurity for so long, Cougar fans younger than 50 may now begin to understand the impact Sheide had on BYU. Without him succeeding in Edwards’ then-revolutionary approach, greats like McMahon, Young and Detmer might never have come through BYU.
No longer the unsung hero or BYU’s biggest snub, Sheide is now properly put in the category of gone, but not forgotten. Better late than never.