Young once said he learned to throw the football by watching McMahon, like a young Phil Mickelson swinging a golf club left-handed and mirroring his father. Young's passing ability surfaced as "one of those talents you didn't know you had," he said.
Beyond that impact, McMahon's lasting influence is the attitude he brought to quarterbacking, reflected in the likes of Detmer, Hall and now Taysom Hill. Those guys have played with natural confidence and personality that elevated their teams, beyond the structure of the system.
Gary Sheide, Gifford Nielsen and Marc Wilson made BYU's revolutionary scheme successful; McMahon took it to another level by adding some improvisation to the script.
A former BYU offensive line coach once told me that working with McMahon was challenging, because "you never knew where he was going to be." I was anticipating tales of off-campus antics, but the coach merely meant that designing protection schemes was difficult, because of McMahon's roaming nature. That coach also picked McMahon as his all-time top QB.
BYU and McMahon were an interesting pair. The quarterback thrived in an offensive system that showcased him in the early 1980s, and he survived for five football seasons on a campus that, let's just say, reined in his lifestyle.
His family moved to Roy from northern California for his junior year of high school, explaining how BYU and McMahon found one another. When he was inducted into the Utah Sports Hall of Fame last October, McMahon described the event as ironic "for a guy who never wanted to come to Utah."
Same thing with the BYU Hall of Fame, but it's a good story, how the school stuck to its rule of honoring only graduates and McMahon completed his degree at age 55.
The most unlikely aspect of this saga is McMahon's willingness to stay in Provo for five seasons. He redshirted in the middle of his career after the unsatisfying experience of sharing the QB job with Wilson. McMahon believed he was the better player, but he played along with the plan, recognizing his future opportunities at BYU and in the NFL.
"The guy's a lot more shrewd than he's given credit for," former BYU coach LaVell Edwards once said.
During that Utah Sports Hall of Fame speech, McMahon looked at Edwards and said, "I know we had our run-ins, but we had some fun too."
McMahon's iconic moment at BYU was rescuing a 46-45 victory over SMU with a Hail Mary pass to Clay Brown that capped a comeback from 20 points down with 4 minutes to go in the fourth quarter of the 1980 Holiday Bowl. My lasting memory of him came earlier that season in Logan, when Utah State made the mistake of mildly rallying in the second half, forcing or enabling Edwards to keep his quarterback in the game.
McMahon finished with 485 passing yards, accounting for eight touchdowns via running and passing in a 70-46 victory.
The Aggies will provide part of the backdrop for McMahon's honor this week. The last time McMahon was part of a BYU celebration, a reunion of All-America quarterbacks in 2010, he summarized his Provo experience by saying, "Well, I had a great time on Saturdays. The rest of the week was a little rough, but playing on Saturdays was fun."
In this week's case, Thursday and Friday should be pretty good.
For the win
Win-loss records for BYU starting QBs since the school's modern passing era began in 1973 (minimum 10 starts):
Robbie Bosco 1984-85
Brandon Doman 2000-01 14-2 (.889)
Jim McMahon 1978-81
Marc Wilson 1977-79
Max Hall 2007-09
Steve Sarkisian 1995-96
Steve Young 1981-83
Ty Detmer 1988-91 29-9-2 (.750)
Gifford Nielsen 1975-77
Taysom Hill 2012-14
Jim McMahon wore No. 16 at BYU as a punter and backup quarterback in 1977 and again as a part-time starting quarterback in 1978, when he was named the Western Athletic Conference offensive player of the year. He switched to No. 9 in 1980, following a redshirt season.