It’s hard to think of a four-year starter, and conference record three-time Big East Offensive Player of the Year as someone who overcame odds. But there was a time when the greatest quarterback in Syracuse history wasn’t even thought to be a quarterback. As a dual-threat, many schools wanted him as a receiver or tailback. Only two teams recognized his true potential as a signal caller. Tom Osborne’s Nebraska and Paul Pasqualoni’s Syracuse. McNabb said he was originally leaning towards the Cornhuskers, but the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications broke the tie.
McNabb redshirted his true freshman season, learning from senior Marvin Graves. But even heading into his second year on the Hill in 1995, nothing was guaranteed. The position battle between McNabb, Kevin Johnson and Keith Downing was so close that Pasqualoni granted him the starting job with just hours before kickoff in the season opener on Chapel Hill. McNabb’s three straight fourth quarter scoring drives led SU to a 20-9 victory, and left no doubt in Pasqualoni’s mind.
The Orange would eventually win eight consecutive games en route to a 9-2 record. Along the way, McNabb shattered the NCAA freshman passing efficiency record and helped Marvin Harrison emerge as an NFL first-round pick with a 1,000 yard receiving season, proving to be more than just a runner. McNabb was a unanimous pick as the Big East’s Offensive Rookie of the Year and selected to the league’s first team. The record-setting freshman season was capped off with a 41-0 showcase against Clemson in the Gator Bowl.
In his sophomore season, McNabb led the Orange to another nine-win year. Syracuse toppled Houston in the Liberty Bowl after taking a share of the Conference Title while McNabb took a share of Conference Player of the Year honors.
McNabb finally got over the Miami hump in his third season. The Hurricanes had defeated the Orange in 1995 and 1996, keeping them from claiming sole possession of the Big East Championship. But in 1997, McNabb, the Conference Offensive Player of the Year, stood atop of the Big East mountain with plenty of elbow room. As a junior, McNabb also grabbed sole possession of SU’s all-time touchdown pass record (finished with 77), and accounted for more all-purpose yards in a single-season than anyone else in program history (2,892).
No Syracuse fan remembers McNabb’s senior season for his third-straight Big East Offensive Player of the Year selection, fourth-consecutive first team nod, program record 30 touchdowns or any other record or accolade. The 18-point comeback against Virginia Tech stands alone as one of the greatest Dome victories ever.
For McNabb, the name of the game was revenge. The Hokies defeated the Orange 31-7 in 1995. Virginia Tech turned around in 1997 to wollap SU 31-3 on their home turf. But McNabb led the Orange to the historic 28-26 victory behind a game-winning drive. He scrambled from the SU 44 yard line for 41 yards on 4th and 7 with under two minutes left and the game on the line. That set up the iconic 13-yard cross-field hookup with the tight end Stephen Brominski as time expired.
McNabb’s Orange seized the Big East Title by storming the Hurricanes in the Dome two weeks later 66-13.
Syracuse never finished outside the AP Top-25 with McNabb under center. The Orange never finished worse than 2nd place in the Big East, winning the conference outright twice and tying for first with Miami once. His career 8,389 passing yards, 1,561 rushing yards and 96 total touchdowns yielded AP Conference Offensive Player of the Decade honors.
The career 35-14 quarterback doesn’t need anything else to land him in the top-10 of this list, but he was a member of the 1995-1996 basketball team that reached the National Championship Game. Also, as a walk-on, his 10 points against Georgetown in 1997 were essential in SU’s 77-74 win.
He doesn’t even need the five NFC Championship Games or one Super Bowl appearance to boost his legacy on the Hill. McNabb’s stardom at Syracuse speaks for itself. No other quarterback was as dominant as McNabb for as long as he was, and it is possible than none other ever will.