TBT: Charlie Ward Was A Boss (and The Disaster of 1990s National Championships)


Bobby Bowden’s criticism of Jameis Winston earlier this week sent the sports echo chamber into a frenzy. Bowden may be less than enthused with the 2013 Heisman winner, but one of Bowden’s best pupils has taken on the task of mentoring Winston: 1993 Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward.

If Winston’s going to get the Florida State legend Bowden’s seal of approval, Charlie Ward is a worthy role model. Sports Illustrated described him as “a gentleman and a scholar,” juxtaposing his work ethic and humility against the party atmosphere of Florida State.

Praise is lavished on Ward more than two decades after his Heisman and national championship-winning season. In 2013, he was named the greatest quarterback in ACC history:

He threw for over 3,000 yards, completed 69.5 percent of his pass attempts, scored 27 passing touchdowns against just four interceptions and rushed for 339 yards with four scores in 1993.

Today, it’s not particularly noteworthy if a quarterback can run as well as he throws. In fact, it’s easier to win the Heisman Trophy if you are a dual-threat playmaker a la Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, Johnny Manziel and Marcus Mariota. However, in the early 1990s, such statistics were almost unheard of.

As an elementary school student first getting into college football, Charlie Ward was my favorite offensive player (Tedy Bruschi was tops among defenders, if you’re curious). Ward was ahead of his time by a good two decades.

For as outstanding as he was, Ward failed to accomplish one milestone Winston reached in 2013: the 1993 Seminoles did not go unbeaten. Their trip to Notre Dame that season — a rare “Game of the Century” that lived up to its billing — was a blemish that lives on as one of the sport’s all-time great controversies.

The loss didn’t prevent Charlie Ward from leading Florida State to the national championship. The Seminoles were invited to the 1994 Orange Bowl to face Nebraska in the de facto national title game, and Ward put on one of his most impressive shows in an altogether impressive season.

Florida State moved into that spot when Notre Dame lost to Boston College in the regular season finale. The Eagles were one of three teams the Irish played all season ranked in the final AP Top 25; the Seminoles ended the regular season with a two-touchdown defeat of Florida, ranked No. 5 in the final AP Top 25 and the fourth team ranked at season’s end FSU had beaten all year.

There was precedent for Oklahoma State facing LSU in the 2012 BCS Championship Game, making the “Game of the Century” rematch with Alabama all the more ridiculous, but I digress.

Still, the 1993 title picture remains one of the more controversial all-time. College football championships in the 1990s were, in retrospect, pretty accurately reflective of the decade’s culture: pretty jacked up.

The decade started with Colorado and Georgia Tech splitting the first of three disputed national championships in the decade. While three may not seem *that* egregious, bear in the mind that the BCS was introduced in the 1998 season. Thus, nearly half of the ’90s pre-BCS titles were contested.

Washington and Miami followed suit in 1991, with Michigan and Nebraska splitting the final championship before the BCS began. A split championship is never ideal, but the ’91 and ’97 editions at least made sense. The split 1990 championship was especially dubious, given Georgia Tech finished undefeated at 11-0-1, and Colorado was 11-1-1, with one of its wins coming in one of the worst finishes of the modern era: the infamous Fifth Down Game against Missouri.

It’s a wonder Missouri opted to leave the Big 12 two decades later.

Quite frankly, Notre Dame could have staked a reasonable claim to the 1993 title, and would have had the most defensible rationale for doing so of any of the co-champions of the pre-BCS era.

But there was no disputing Charlie Ward was a deserving Heisman Trophy winner that season, just as there’s no denying that his impact on how the game is played today is indelible.