MIAMI GARDENS, Fla.— Besides everything else, Joe Namath is a fan. Of the game, his alma mater and, of course, University of Alabama quarterbacks.
Having the Crimson Tide back in the national championship picture on a regular basis like when he was a player in the 1960s has been a lot of fun for him. So has been following Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts.
He’s impressed with the latter, the 2016 SEC Offensive Player of the Year who showed a lot of heart coming off the bench and leading the win over Georgia in the recent SEC Championship Game
But like so many others, Namath is enamored with the former.
“He’s sensational,” Namath said before listing numerous things that have stood out to him about Tagovailoa, from the way the 20-year-old carries himself and with his family to the way he can throw a football.
But then the Pro Football Hall of Famer talked about the “it” factor. Things that can’t necessary be taught yet are considered must-have qualities for a quarterback to be successful at the highest levels.
“He has that sense of what’s happening — a sixth sense, a seventh sense that some of us no doubt have when it comes to feeling what’s around him or anticipating what’s developing —I think he has a special feel out there,” Namath continued. “The presence of the pressure, where it’s coming from, whether its with a quick glance, he has a wonderful feel. Some players are more robotic with what they do.
“Man, he has an awareness that’s special.”
When Alabama squares off against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl (7 p.m., CT, ESPN), a spot in the National Championship Game won't be the only thing on the line. College football has had epic quarterbacks showdowns before, including three meetings of Heisman Trophy winners (most recently Oregon's Marcus Mariota vs. Florida State's Jameis Winston in the 2014 College Football Playoff), but this will be a little different.
Both Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray and Tagovailoa, who finished 1-2 in the Heisman race, are on pace to break the NCAA single-season record for passing efficiency. Murray took the lead just before the balloting, after Tagovailoa hurt his ankle against the Bulldogs, 205.7 to 202.4. The rating is how the NCAA determines its annual passing champion.
Murray won the Heisman and the Davey O’Brien Award as the nation’s top quarterback. Tagovailoa landed both the Maxwell and Walter Camp awards for most outstanding player and was named the consensus All-American at the position.
Consequently, this is like the ultimate tiebreaker. Rightly or wrongly, the winner of the CFP semifinal showdown will have bragging rights and be called the player who should have won the sport’s highest honor. It doesn’t matter that football is a team game.
“The guys who have won championships, we were supported by the team,” Namath said. “Tua would be the first one to tell you it’s about his teammates doing their jobs as well.”
Yet it’ll be his legacy on the line.
The way he’s been setting records, Tagovailoa can already be considered the best passer in Alabama history — and he pretty much had to be to win the job from Hurts. The sophomore also hasn’t lost a game as a starter.
Nevertheless, in terms of iconic stature one has to go all the way back to Namath to find an equivalent at Alabama. That’s no disrespect to anyone else, from Steve Sloan and Kenny Stabler during Paul W. “Bear” Bryant’s initial heyday, to AJ McCarron and Greg McElroy under Nick Saban, who all like Jay Barker were part of title-winning teams.
Yet there are two in which all one has to do is mention his first name. It doesn’t matter that they’reas dissimilar as the places from where they hail, Beaver Falls, Penn., and Ewa Beach, Hawaii.
After each game and the initial handshakes are completed on the field, Tagovailoa always goes and finds his parents in the stands. It’s a solitary walk that he makes alone, and ends with his mother draping a colorful lei around his neck.
“I’m not too sure,” he said about its origins. “That’s just how people out there in Hawaii do it. The lei kind of represents congratulations or goodbye. It means many things.”
The custom was initially foreign to Tuscaloosa, although local flower shops started stocking the necessary flowers. Tagovailoa may be the first Crimson Tide player to be named the Polynesian College Football Player of the Year, but Alabama fans eased into how different one from the Pacific Rim might be with Jesse Williams in 2011-12.
The tattooed defensive tackle looked like the kind of person you’d desperately want to have on your side in a barroom brawl, but was also armed with a warm smile and gentle nature that could win over any child. The Australian walked around barefoot and in shorts, even during those rare times it snowed, along with a Mohawk haircut.
"Nobody's making fun of it," former teammate Josh Chapman said at the time and with good reason. But Williams is perhaps best known for winning national championship during his only two seasons at Alabama.
That kind of status is only magnified with the quarterbacks. Like at so many other places they’re beloved at Alabama, but with the title aspirations always the priority no one has ever won the Heisman. Tagovailoa, who had been this year’s favorite since even before he won the starting job, came the closest.
Yet he didn’t return from the New York ceremony talking about the disappointment of finishing second. Tagovailoa raved about the experience, and meeting more football great who now become peers.
“I got to meet Eddie George. I got to meet Barry Sanders, as well. So, that was pretty cool,” he said.
“When I came here to the University of Alabama first and I saw guys like Mark Ingram, guys like Derrick Henry, I was definitely star-struck. But then when you see guys like Julio Jones coming here over the summer, working out, it’s like you’re just used to it. I wasn’t as star-struck, but it was just definitely a great opportunity.”
It’s all just becoming part his everyday existence. A typical day might include something like Bart Starr dropping by to see him and Hurts.
That only begins to explain how Tagovailoa’s life changed in 2018. He went from the second-and-26 overtime pass to DeVonta Smith to beat Georgia in overtime to having his face grace the cover Sports Illustrated. For the SEC Championship Game, ESPN sent a writer to profile his family back in Hawaii.
In between, he’s passed for 3,353 yards and 37 touchdowns while barely playing in a fourth quarter. When he’s on the field, the Crimson Tide offense is averaging .8 points scored per snap.
“He’s sensational,” Namath said. “He’s going to get better. If he can stay healthy like any of us in anything he’s got a great future in the sport.”
Even though he retired from football in 1977, there’s still nothing average about the man still called Broadway Joe. Namath still can’t walk on to campus, or nearly anywhere else, without being besieged by fans.
He’ll likely never be in the College Football Hall of Fame (one of the minimum requirements is first-team All-American status), and statistically his overall numbers weren’t great in comparison to what we see today.
For his career, Namath threw for 2,713 yards and 24 touchdowns, with a passer rating of 125.7. Granted, it was a different time, but what especially stood out was how the Crimson Tide responded to him over and over again, especially when coming off the bench while dealing with knee issues. That’s why he was the 12th-overall selection in the 1965 NFL Draft by the St. Louis Cardinals, and the first-overall pick by the New York Jets in the pre-merger AFL draft.
Namath, who has a new book coming out in May, “All the Way: Football, Fame, and Redemption,” also played twice in the Orange Bowl and both times were memorable.
In 1963, he helped lead Alabama’s only win ever against Oklahoma, 17-0, a game that was highlighted by linebacker Lee Roy Jordan making 31 tackles.
Two years later, he completed 18 of 37 passes for 255 yards and a pair of touchdowns to be named the game MVP despite being on the losing side. Down 21-17 in the final seconds, Alabama had the ball inches away from the goal line and called for a quarterback sneak behind center Gaylon McCollough. One official signaled touchdown, but another overruled. Namath said afterward: “I’ll go to my grave knowing I scored.”
The Crimson Tide was still named the national champion because back then the final polls were held prior to the bowl games. That's the part that gets remembered the most.
With Barker it was going 35-2-1 as a starter. McCarron won two national titles and came close to a third. But Alabama didn't revamp and open up the offense for either.
Combined, Tagovailoa and Hurts already have two titles and more may be on the horizon.
That’s what has even Joe excited. He's watching this generation’s version of Namath-Sloan-Stabler at Alabama.
“We want to win. We want to prove that we have the best program in the country,” Namath said.
“What we embrace is winning, and people who are winners.”