When Louisiana Tech found itself in a recruiting war with Oklahoma and Florida State over Jacksonville (Texas) High School quarterback Luke McCown in the late 1990s, most people thought it would take an act of God for the Bulldogs to land the highly-touted signal caller.
Call it divine intervention, but that’s what happened.
Luke, ranked nationally as high as No. 2 among quarterbacks in his high school class by some recruiting publications, eventually chose Louisiana Tech over the pair of annual national title contenders.
On the student-athlete questionnaire Luke filled out upon arriving on campus, his response to the question “Why did you choose Louisiana Tech?” told the story.
“This is where God wanted me,” Luke wrote.
For the Louisiana Tech coaching staff and fan base, Luke was truly an answered prayer.
Louisiana Tech and then-head coach Jack Bicknell were about to experience life without Tim Rattay, the record-setting quarterback who tossed the pigskin around for more than 12,000 yards in just three seasons in Ruston.
That thought was a little unnerving. That is until Luke opted to sign his national letter with the Bulldogs.
“I remember visiting with Luke and his family,” said Bicknell. “They were a model family, such great people. I loved them, and we were trying like heck to get Luke. Honestly, I wasn’t thinking we were going to get him, but we did and it ended up being a great thing for the program for sure.”
In his fourth season as the quarterbacks coach for Louisiana Tech, Pete Carmichael – now the offensive coordinator and quarterback coach for the New Orleans Saints – knew Luke could provide the Bulldogs with their next big-time passer. He also knew the recruiting battle Tech found itself in for the lanky, blonde-haired Texan.
“Jim Turner was the coach that had that area in recruiting,” said Carmichael. “He came back and said, ‘I got a guy we have to look at.’ We put the film on and it didn’t take us very long to decide we wanted to get this guy. We knew he could come in and probably play for us right away. But he had some big-time schools recruiting him.
“I think the read we could get off of Luke was that he felt confident in his abilities regardless of where he went. I think he felt like the offense at Louisiana Tech was a fit for what he wanted to play in. We were a team that threw it 50 times a game. He was smart to look at it and say, ‘Hey I can come in there and start relatively quickly and be in an offense that could show off my abilities.’”
It was a battle that the Oklahomas of the college football world won 99 out of 100 times in those days. So how was Tech going to convince Luke to wear the red and blue during his four-year college career?
“I was a top 10 national recruit,” said Luke, who will be inducted into the Louisiana Tech Athletics hall of Fame Sept. 29. “Ultimately, it came down to Oklahoma and Tech, and I chose Tech. People looked at me and said ‘Man, you are crazy. It’s Oklahoma.’ I said if you go to Ruston and visit that program, then you will fall in love with it like I did. When I took my visit and I left to go back home, my dad and I weren’t a mile down the road when I told him that I was going to sign with Tech.”
Luke – and the good Lord – had spoken.
After signing in February of 2000, Luke arrived on the campus that summer and began workouts with his new teammates. It was evident from the first day that the youngest of the three football-playing McCown brothers was the real deal.
“Coming from West Monroe (High School) I felt like I was in pretty good shape as far as quarterbacks go in terms of the core events in the weight room,” said Bulldog quarterback teammate Max Causey. “I felt like I was a pretty good power cleaner. Actually I was a pretty good power cleaner. But Luke came in and like power cleaned a house the first day. You could tell then he had that explosion. In summer camp he had a very strong arm which wasn’t a surprise after seeing him in the weight room. His athleticism jumped off the page right away.”
The initial game plan was for Luke to red-shirt in 2000 while senior Brian Stallworth handled the starting quarterback role. However, Stallworth suffered a season-ending injury in only the third game of the season. Causey earned the start the following week at Tulsa, but after an unproductive first half by the Bulldog offense, the decision was made for the Luke McCown-era to begin.
“That was a difficult decision in a sense,” said Bicknell. “Sometimes it is hard to do that to a kid, but he was great about it. I remember talking about it with the coaches at halftime. He was just such a talent we felt like we had to use him then.”
After watching his two brothers – Randy and Josh – go through the recruiting process, Luke had decided he wanted to redshirt his true freshman year, wherever he played. At 170-pounds “sopping wet,” he knew it would be a good opportunity for him to gain muscle and weight while getting accustomed to his new environment.
At halftime at Skelley Field, the plan suddenly changed.
“Coach Bicknell comes to me and says, ‘It is totally up to you, but we need you,’” said Luke. “‘If you want to play, I will pull the redshirt right now and you will start the second half.’ I’m going, ‘Coach, you are asking an 18-year-old kid who loves football if I want to play? Let’s go. Let’s run with this thing.’”
And run (and pass) he did.
Luke would start the next 43 games of his collegiate career, amassing some staggering statistics. In only his second start, he threw six touchdown passes in a 48-14 win over UL-Lafayette. The six TD tosses still ranks fourth best in Tech history. The following two weeks at Auburn and at Miami, he threw seven more as the Bulldogs played close with the two nationally-ranked Power 5 programs.
“Luke didn’t have any type of fear or awe like most freshmen do,” said former Bulldog wide receiver Sean Cangelosi, who as a senior was on the receiving end of plenty of Luke’s freshman passes. “I don’t know if it had to do with growing up competing against two older brothers (who were both college quarterbacks), but he never lacked confidence.”
Luke set an NCAA single-game freshman record by throwing the ball 72 times in the 42-31 loss to Miami at the Orange Bowl in his fourth college start, this coming against a Hurricane team loaded with NFL talent.
“His fearlessness when it came to throwing the ball is what really stood out early in his career,” said former Tech offensive coordinator Conroy Hines. “There wasn’t a throw he couldn’t make, and he knew it. His athleticism and the fearlessness were what made him special.”
As a sophomore Luke led Tech to the Western Athletic Conference title, the program’s first conference title since the early 1980s. He threw for more than 3,600 yards and 29 touchdowns, including 464 yards and four scores in a critical 48-45 league win over Boise State at Joe Aillet Stadium. Wins over UTEP and Tulsa to end the regular season led to a berth in the Humanitarian Bowl against Clemson, Tech’s first bowl appearance since the 1990 Independence Bowl.
The nation was taking notice of the Bulldog QB. National publications were calling Ruston. NFL scouts were flocking to Joe Aillet Stadium. Luke’s name was being mentioned in Heisman Trophy circles.
He was proving an Oklahoma jersey wasn’t necessary in order for the nation to take notice. And he was giving the Bulldogs a chance in any game.
“If you have a quarterback like we had in Luke, you had a chance,” said Bicknell. “He not only gave the coaches a sense of confidence going into every game, but he gave his teammates the same feeling. It gave us hope in those situations and it elevated the play of everyone else. We knew if we kept hanging in there, Luke would eventually make a play.”
And that’s what he did in two of the program’s bigger wins against Oklahoma State in 2002 and Michigan State in 2003. He made plays late that led to victories and to increasing his status as one of the elite quarterbacks in the country.
Luke’s 36-yard strike to Erick Franklin on a fourth-down-and-10 play with 60 seconds to play gave Tech a 39-36 win over OSU at Independence Stadium on a hot summer evening in Shreveport in the opener his junior season. Exactly 54 weeks later, McCown tossed two TDs in the final 70 seconds, including the game-winning 11-yard dart to DJ Curry with two seconds left, to beat Michigan State, 20-19, in East Lansing.
Both wins are among Luke’s top moments from his Bulldog career.
“A lot of people would think Michigan State and certainly that does, but the Oklahoma State game in the Independence Stadium my junior year was my best memory,” said Luke. “To me that game embodied what my experience at Tech was about. It was never one guy. It was never one person. It was collective.”
Luke ended his collegiate career, ranked among the all-time leaders in both school and NCAA history in numerous statistical categories. To this day, he ranks No. 1 in Bulldog history in attempts (1,827), completions (1,088) and passing yards (12,994), and No. 2 in passing touchdowns (88), trailing only Rattay.
His election to the Louisiana Tech Athletics Hall of Fame isn’t a surprise to the people around the program who watched him play for four years.
“It’s humbling to say the least,” said Luke. “You reflect on moments like that and go back and think about what it took to get to this point. The only way you can authentically think about it is going through the countless people that had their hand in helping you get there. For me its people like Jim Oakes, Coach Bicknell, Pete Carmichael, Tim Rattay and so many guys I played with.
“It is people like Pete Perot, our offensive line coach. Before every game he would whisper in my ear, ‘Just go lead them. Just go lead them.’ He will never know the impact that had on me and the confidence of an 18-year-old kid to go out to the Orange Bowl and play Miami. It’s humbling because you go back and say it wasn’t just me. It was so many more people who had an influence and had their fingerprints on what I was allowed to do in this program in four years.”
Luke left a lasting impression in Ruston. Not only in the Tech record books and in the memories of Bulldog fans, but on the impact he had on his follow Bulldog players and coaches.
“He was one of the best teammates I ever had,” said Causey. “He is really the model person. From Day One when he came in, you could tell he had a love of the Lord, and you knew where he stood in that regard. I view him as someone you would want your daughter to marry. That is the best way I could describe him.”
The young man from Jacksonville, Texas, followed his heart to Ruston.
That decision has led to a lifetime of happiness. Luke and his wife Katy, a former LA Tech cheerleader, are back living a Hail Mary’s throw from where he grew up. They have been blessed with six children – Jonah, Elijah, Micah, Anna, Isaiah, and Leah – and plenty of adventures during his 14-year NFL career.
It’s been almost two decades since Luke made what has been a life-altering decision. When asked who gets the credit for his career path, Luke is quick to tell you it has all been a part of God’s plan.
“For my family, my wife and my six children, when football is done, we will probably take some time to really pray and dive into what does God have next for me,” said Luke. “That has served me quite well over the course of my life. It led me to Louisiana Tech.”
And the Bulldog faithful said, Amen.
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