HOUSTON -- On the 25th anniversary of his historic season, Andre Ware can appreciate how remarkable 1989 was for him and for the University of Houston.
In a story that seems like a Hollywood script, the Houston-area star led his hometown college to some of its brightest moments of glory -- including its lone Heisman Trophy.
But the real story is just how unlikely it was that American sports' most recognizable individual honor ever found its way into Ware's hands.
There was no preseason Heisman hype. No bowl eligibility for the Cougars. No live television, either. The latter two were the result of NCAA sanctions, punishment for violations that occurred well before Ware and the rest of the '89 Cougars ever stepped on campus.
"No one had ever won a Heisman with a team that had been on probation," Ware said.
But there was one other important factor.
"There had never been an African-American quarterback to win it."
Ware's historic season changed college football, and not just because of its record-breaking offense. Three of the past four Heisman Trophy winners have been black quarterbacks and more important, that discussion no longer takes place.
"That means more to me now than I think it did then," Ware said. "I don't know that I understood the magnitude of it back then. It means a lot now, certainly."
Ware's admittance into college football's most elite fraternity wouldn't have happened without a few fortuitous breaks. He was signed as an option quarterback for a team coming off a losing season, but a coaching change led to a new era of offensive football at Houston and placed Ware in a starring role on one of the country's most exciting teams.
The numbers were staggering: 365 completions, 578 pass attempts, 4,699 passing yards and 46 touchdowns. Ware completed 63.1 percent of his passes in the '89 season and tied or broke 27 NCAA records. Houston receiver Manny Hazard set the NCAA record for most receptions in a season (142) that year. Running back Chuck Weatherspoon set the record for highest yards per carry (9.6) in a season. The 1989 Cougars were the first FBS team to have a 4,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher and a 1,000-yard receiver in the same season.
The Cougars, who went 9-2 and finished ranked 14th in the country, set nearly 100 NCAA, Southwest Conference and school records that year. Their average of 624.9 total yards per game is still No. 1 in FBS history.
Other teams that had Heisman candidates spent money to send out promotional materials to voters propping up their candidates. Houston offensive coordinator John Jenkins recalls Ted Nance, then the sports information director for the Cougars, saying "All we do is send out Andre's stats each week."
But for Ware, the road to directing this historic attack was not as easy as the video-game statistics suggest.
When he came out of Dickinson High School just outside of Houston, plenty of colleges were willing to offer Ware a scholarship, but few intended to do so as a quarterback. Houston coach Bill Yeoman targeted Ware to run Yeoman's signature veer, the triple-option attack he invented in the 1960s.
Ware signed on, but was later ruled ineligible for his freshman season in 1986 -- which turned out to be Yeoman's last as head coach -- because he hadn't taken the SAT on an NCAA-approved date. He spent the season at Alvin Community College, working two jobs to help pay his tuition before joining the Cougars the next year.
Ware finally arrived at Houston in 1987, coinciding with the hiring of Jack Pardee and Jenkins, who brought along an innovative offense for a team in desperate need of new energy after a 1-10 finish.
"I went to UH and was recruited to be a veer quarterback and wound up being a run-and-shoot quarterback," Ware said. "The timing couldn't have been better for the offense, and certainly for myself."
The aerial attack was a seismic shift from Yeoman's ground attack. While the team improved, the first year brought its growing pains, and the Cougars stumbled to a 4-6-1 showing. Even worse, Ware appeared in five games, but broke his left arm against Wyoming and missed the rest of the season.
Jenkins, who carried a reputation as a mad scientist with unconventional ideas, was not deterred. Ware and the Cougars improved to 9-3 and an Aloha Bowl appearance in 1988. But in December, the team was slapped with NCAA sanctions that dated to the Yeoman era.
Still, the Cougars were a motivated, improving bunch heading into 1989.
"There was just a new energy we had in that offseason that we knew we had something and all the guys were committed," said Craig Alexander, a receiver on the '89 team. "We were real serious about our offseason program, working out and getting together on our own minus the coaches. We came into that '89 season feeling like we could win a national championship."
That was going to be unlikely, because the Cougars seemingly wouldn't be part of the national picture with no televised games and no hope for a bowl game.
But what they did offensively was impossible to ignore.
In the season opener, Houston hammered UNLV 69-0. Ware was 30-for-46 passing with 390 yards and five touchdowns. The Cougars led 56-0 at halftime and Ware didn't play the final 10:10 of that game, another theme that recurred throughout the 1989 season.
Jenkins made a proclamation afterward.
"After the game I remember reporters asking me, with the astonishing game Andre had, 'What do you make of this, if he's able to sustain something such as this?'" Jenkins recalls. "Without any hesitation, I said, 'Well, you're clearly talking about a Heisman Trophy winner, I'd say.'"
The run 'n' shoot, while employed before elsewhere, operated at its peak at Houston with Jenkins calling the plays and Ware making them.
"I don't know that I was coached as a quarterback as hard and as tough and learned more than the time I spent with John Jenkins running that offense," Ware said.
The numbers that followed were downright silly: 503 passing yards against Arizona State. Seven touchdown passes and 413 yards against Temple. Ware racked up 514 yards and six scores in a 66-10 whipping of Baylor.
An SMU team fresh off the NCAA's unprecedented "death penalty" probation was embarrassed by the Cougars in the Astrodome. While Ware played just the first half, he racked up 517 yards and six touchdowns in a 95-21 win. The result ruffled a few feathers, considering the Mustangs had a mostly freshman squad.
The Cougars lost just two games that season by a total of 10 points. Texas A&M handed the Cougars a 17-13 defeat -- the team's season low in points. Ware threw for 247 yards and a touchdown but threw three interceptions and was sacked six times. Later, Arkansas won a 45-39 shootout in Little Rock.
But Houston won its final four games, including a 47-9 thumping of Texas in the Dome. Gradually, the attention surrounding Ware began to grow. Sportswriters from across the country came to see Ware in person and witness how he and the Cougars were lighting up the scoreboard.
"Sports Illustrated was coming around, all the various reporters from different publications were coming around, different guys were doing interviews for different television stations," said Mike Holley, a starting guard on the 1989 Cougars. "That's when we started to figure out everybody was paying attention to us."
Ware tried to stay levelheaded about it all. Going into the season finale against Rice, Ware recalls trying to block out of his mind any thoughts of the Heisman Trophy.
"I tried to put it behind me. I woke up that morning and told [running back] Kimble [Anders], 'Hey, let's go have a big game. I feel like I'm going to have a big one today,'" Ware said. "That really wasn't on my mind. I tried to just really concentrate on what I could control, which was the game itself and let everything else fall as it may."
After a 64-0 drubbing of the crosstown Rice Owls, a game in which Ware threw for 400 yards and two touchdowns while not seeing any fourth-quarter action, the campaign was complete. History knocked.
In a scene that seems bewildering in today's era of college football television coverage, Ware wasn't even at the Downtown Athletic Club in Manhattan for the Heisman Trophy ceremony because the Cougars had just wrapped up their season finale.
The team watched and learned of the news in the locker room at Rice Stadium.
"It was almost like the whole team was waiting to win an award," said Ted Pardee, Jack's son, a linebacker on the team. "We all hung out. There's a picture of my dad sitting there with the offensive line and Andre when they announced that he was the winner of the Heisman."
Ware won the vote by 70 points over Indiana running back Anthony Thompson, which at the time was the fourth-closest vote in history.
"I've never been nervous in a game calling plays or attacking defenses," Jenkins said. "But there, it was out of my hands and I was just as nervous as I could be. When they announced his name, gosh, I was happy as he was. He worked so hard and he earned everything he accomplished, believe me. Nothing was given to him."
Ware wanted to ensure that his teammates were part of the moment, particularly the receivers and offensive linemen who had smoothed his transition during the coaching change.
"He had a rough go there when they first started the run 'n' shoot in '87 when Coach Pardee first came in," said Jason Jessup, the '89 Cougars' starting left tackle. "He appreciated what we did for him so much that he made them allow us to go in with him into the room where they filmed him. So we all piled in the little bitty room under Rice Stadium and we all got a little TV time."
In the aftermath of the magical '89 season, Ware headed for the NFL draft, where he became a first-round pick (seventh overall) by the Detroit Lions.
The Cougars' offense inspired a new generation of offense-minded coaches. The run 'n' shoot had already made its way to the NFL and around that same time, Hal Mumme's "Air Raid" was born. It eventually became a prominent part of college football, and many of the records Ware and the Cougars set have since been broken as a result of the explosion of spread offenses.
The Heisman certainly had an impact on Ware's life after his playing days. Now 46 and a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, Ware is still heavily involved in football as an analyst for ESPN and the Houston Texans Radio Network.
"I think it opened a lot of doors in terms of what you wanted to do career-wise after football," Ware said. "It certainly did with what I'm doing now. I would be kidding myself to think otherwise.
"It taught you responsibility to own up to certain things. You have a responsibility to uphold the award and you don't want to shine a bad light on it because of you. In that regard, you have a responsibility to do your part to hold up the prestigious part of the award and live your life right and do the right things."
But the real impact lives on in more than just statistics and football glory. Ware, who chose Houston simply to become a college quarterback, ended up a trailblazer.
"You look at [a Robert Griffin III], a Cam Newton and a Jameis Winston, Charlie Ward a couple years after me, Troy Smith," Ware said of the many African-American quarterbacks who have since won a Heisman Trophy. "Those guys, I'd like to think they benefited because I was the first to step through that door."