San Diego — The bulldog qualities in quarterback Jim McMahon, who led Brigham Young to a 12-1 record this season (including an incredible 46-45 win over Southern Methodist in the Holiday Bowl), are so close to the surface that they can be read a easily as a stop sign.
This is a kid that Custer could have used at Little Big Horn, led the nation in total offense this year, and would someday like to make his living in the National Football League.
McMahon's regular-season credentials for 1980 include 47 touchdown passes; 4, 571 yards through the air; 26 NCAA offensive records; 40 completions against North Texas State; and a 58-yard punt against Colorado State.
Jim was fifth in this year's Heisman Trophy balloting, but with another year of eligibility left probably will go into next season as a top contender along with Georgia's Herschel Walker.
Although not a Mormon, McMahon elected to attend Brigham Young partly because of its reputation for graduating athletes. He lives off campus; he marches to his own drummer; and has often expressed a preference for calling his own plays during a game rather than having them sent in from the bench.
When Jim lost his starting quarterback job to Marc Wilson (now with the NFL's Oakland Raiders) as a sophomore, he nearly left school.
"I don't want to get into specifics, except that I felt I should have been used ahead of Wilson," McMahon explained. "I was ready to leave until the team doctor talked to me and straightened me out. There was no pressure. What he said made so much sense that I bought it. Now, of course, I'm glad I stayed."
If there is a second Air Force in the United States, it is the passing game of BYU head coach LaVell Edwards, who seems to think that three yeards and a cloud of dust is a football sin. Cougar running backs carry the ball just often enought to be annoying.
For example, McMahon threw 60 times this year against the University of Hawaii, 50 times against North Texas State, at least 30 times against most BYU opponents, and 49 times against Southern Methodist in San Diego's Holiday bowl.
SMU head coach Ron Meyer, who was a scout of the NFL's Dallas Cowboys in 1971 and 1972, when they won Super Bowl VI, says that McMahon's poise under fire rev minds him a lot of Bob Griese of the Miami Dolphins.
"with Jim in there directing traffic, Brigham Young is capable of beating any college team in the country," Meyer said. "The pros will draft him high because you have to take a look at any kid with that kind of throwing arm and quickness.
"I think McMahon probably would have a better chance in the NFL if he were just a little taller," Ron continued. (BYU lists Jim as just over six feet on its roster, although he looks shorter.) "But the way he scrambles, the way he handles the blitz, and the way he reads defenses might be all he needs."
Pro scouts who watched this year's Holiday Bowl had to be impressed with the way McMahon brought the Cougars back after Brigham Young trailed Southern methodist by 19 points at the end of the third period.
The play that allowed Brigham Young to defeat SMU was a Woody allen original with marginal notes and timing by Richard Pryor and Marty Feldman.
What happened was this: Trailing 45-39 with three seconds on the game clock, McMahon threw a 41-yard rainbow pass into subway traffic in the middle of the Mustangs' end zone.
Everbody and his cousin went up for the football. But the man who plucked it out of the sky was BYU tight end Clay Brown, who was listed in the program at 6 ft. 3 in., but who grew at least another foot for the occasion.
There are those, of course, who will say that McMahon was lucky -- that anyone could have thrown the ball up for grabs with similar results. But could anyone, except McMahon, have first passed and whipsawed the Mustangs' defense for 20 points in the final period to set up such an unbelievable finish?