There are athletes who always talk about wanting to save their best game for last, that the peak performance of their season should be the final time they suit up.
Fourteen years ago, then-Georgia senior quarterback Mike Bobo went everyone one better.
In his final game ever wearing the red-and-black, after five years of growth, heartache, injury, rehab, resiliency and determination, Bobo had the greatest game of his college career.
Go ahead and open not only the SEC record book, but also the NCAA record ledger. It’s still there in black and white:
Highest completion percentage in a bowl game: .929 (26-of-28 passes) – Mike Bobo, Georgia vs. Wisconsin (1998 Outback)
Most consecutive completions in a bowl game: 19 – Mike Bobo, Georgia vs. Wisconsin (1998 Outback).
“The funny thing is I don’t think I threw one spiral all week at practice before that bowl game,” recalls Bobo, 36, now the Bulldogs’ offensive coordinator, who threw for the bulk of his 6,334 career yards and 38 touchdowns in 1996-97 when he started 21 games. “I hardly completed anything at practice. It was cold, it was damp and I threw the ball terrible.”
But once the game started, which transpired into a 33-6 Georgia victory over the overwhelmed Badgers of the Big Ten Conference, Bobo played like a ray of light shinning down on him every time he lifted his arm to throw.
“There were some screens and stuff, but it was one of those days when I couldn’t miss,” says Bobo, whose only incompletions were a dropped pass and another pass he threw away under pressure. “I had guys make plays. It was a good day.”
A good day? A phenomenal day for Bobo and Georgia who ended the season 10-2 and ranked 10th nationally in the polls. It was the first time since 1992 that the Bulldogs finished the year ranked in the top 10 and had a double-digit win total.
“The last pass I threw that day, my last college pass, was a touchdown,” Bobo says. “It was also my 19th straight completion. I didn’t realize what I was doing until the fourth quarter when (Georgia head) Coach (Jim) Donnan’s son told me I’d completed about 14 or 15 in-a-row.”
Until his senior season, Bobo’s college career hadn’t been as storybook as his high school accolades hinted it would become.
As a star quarterback at Thomasville (Ga.) High, he was USA Today’s Georgia Player of the Year. He broke every school and region career passing record, and his 5,167 career yards was the best in Georgia high school history.
Even with all that, it took Bobo three years until his redshirt sophomore season to see any substantial action. He started four games until his season ended with a broken leg sustained in an 18-10 loss at Ole Miss, and wide receiver Hines Ward took over as starting quarterback.
“I was sprinting out against Ole Miss in Oxford and the golden rule is that if you ever sprint out of the pocket you don’t pull up,” Bobo remembers. “I pulled up and the Ole Miss pass rusher pursuing from behind dove over Hines Ward and hit me.
“I always jokingly tell Hines that he let that guy hit me on purpose so he could play quarterback. He was a quarterback in high school. His dream was to play (college) quarterback.”
The next fall, Bobo still had three screws in his knee and wasn’t fully healed when he began his first full-year as a starter. He threw for 2,440 yards, but he uncharacteristically completed just 50.9 percent of his passes. He tried too hard to make up for lost time in the previous season and threw more interceptions (16) than touchdowns (13).
The disappointment of a 5-6 junior season only made Bobo and his primary offensive weapons Ward and tailback Robert Edwards more determined for their senior season in 1997.
“We committed ourselves before our senior season that we were going to get Georgia back in a New Year’s Day Bowl,” Bobo says. “It was total commitment from our team to get better. As a senior, I did a better job of getting the ball to guys like Hines and Robert, and we even had (all-America cornerback) Champ Bailey playing some on offense.”
How much better? Bobo went from a scattershot junior QB to leading in Division 1-A in passing efficiency as a senior.
He improved his completion percentage almost 15 points to 65 percent, threw for 2,751 yards and threw for twice as many touchdowns (18) as interceptions (9). Just prior to the Outback Bowl game, he completed 30-of-39 passes for 415 yards in a 27-24 regular season-ending victory at arch-rival Georgia Tech.
“When you go through a season like I had as a junior, where as a quarterback in the SEC you get a lot of criticism, it was a rough year for me personally,” Bobo says.
That’s why finishing his career the way Bobo did in the Outback Bowl was so fitting. Not only did Bobo have a record-setting day that resulted in 267 yards passing, but Ward set an Outback Bowl record for receptions and yardage (12 for 154) and Edwards set a Georgia bowl record with three rushing TDs in a 110-yard performance.
“We were the seniors that re-dedicated ourselves and to come out on top like that was very satisfying,” says Bobo, “especially since I knew it was my last game. I knew Hines and Robert would go on and play (in the NFL).”
After his near-perfect Outback Bowl performance, Bobo played in the Hula Bowl (“It was a lot of fun, we basically practiced an hour a day and then hung out at the pool and the beach,” Bobo says), but he wasn’t drafted.
He signed as an NFL free agent with Tampa Bay, but he was realistic about his chances at a pro career.
“I knew they just needed another arm for (training) camp,” Bobo says. “Even after they cut me and later called me back to camp in August, Coach Donnan had already offered me a job as a graduate assistant. I already knew I wanted to coach.”
Bobo realized that long before his final college game as a player.
“My Dad (George) was my coach at Thomasville High and watching the effect he had on all those kids, I always thought I’d be a high school coach,” Bobo says. “That’s all I ever wanted to do, until I got a chance to play at Georgia. Then, I figured I’d get a chance to maybe coach in college, maybe at Georgia.”
After a couple of years at Georgia as a graduate assistant under Donnan and following his first full-time job in 2000 as Jacksonville State’s quarterbacks coach, Bobo was one of then-new Georgia head coach Mark Richt’s first hires in 2001.
Since then, as quarterbacks coach and then also as offensive coordinator the last four seasons, Bobo has developed three All-SEC quarterbacks (David Greene, D.J. Shockley and Matthew Stafford), two SEC championship game MVPs (Greene in 2002 and Shockley in ’05) and a No. 1 overall NFL draft choice (Stafford).
His latest protégé is redshirt freshman starting quarterback Aaron Murray, who plays with the same unruffled demeanor that Greene displayed when he was a freshman in ’01.
Earlier this season when 6-6 Georgia started the year 1-4, playing the first four games without star receiver A.J. Green who was serving a NCAA suspension, it seemed like the world was caving in on the Bulldogs, particularly the struggling offense.
Though Bobo admits it’s much harder to be a quarterback these days than when he played. Now quarterbacks deal with more sophisticated defenses and intensified scrutiny and criticism because of the internet and various forms of social media. Bobo’s past playing experience is helping to keep Murray focused.
“Coach Bobo has been through it,” says Murray, who already has the second best total offense (3,014) and passing yardage (2,851) totals by a freshman in SEC history as he heads into Friday’s 52nd annual AutoZone Liberty Bowl against Central Florida. “He’s been harassed, he had people booing him and he’s been through the great times too. He’s been through it all. He relates to us. He made his mistakes as a player when he had opportunities to go out there and make plays. He knows it’s going to happen, so he’s not as hard on us.”
Bobo says he remembers how his college head coach, Donnan, guided him through the rough spots, and how he does the same with his quarterbacks.
“The main thing I tell my quarterbacks,” Bobo says, “is `Son, you listen to me. Your momma loves you, your daddy loves you. But they don’t coach you. These fans don’t coach you. I coach you. You listen to me.’
“It’s a process to keep a kid focused. They have people wanting to know why they aren’t starting, or why they aren’t doing something else offensively that fits what they did in high school.
“When I played, I went through a coaching change from Ray Goff to Coach Donnan, and I didn’t play very well in Coach Donnan’s first year (1996). Everybody was saying, we need to do this and that, and that we needed a new quarterback.
“Coach Donnan stood by me. He said, `Son, listen to me, you’ll get better.’ He was honest, upfront, he instilled confidence in me. He helped me get through it. I still talk to Coach Donnan to this day. I’m still appreciative that he not only gave me the opportunity to play, but that he stuck with me.”
There was never a question this season whether Bobo would abandon his redshirt freshman QB, who got better every week. While getting Green back in the lineup helped the Bulldogs, let it be noted that heading into Friday’s Liberty Bowl that Georgia has scored 30 or more points in seven straight games.
And unless Murray has a total collapse against Central Florida, he will break several school records, one of which is Bobo’s school pass efficiency mark.
Yep, it’s the one Bobo set as a senior, topped off with his outrageous Outback Bowl game.
And all of this brought Bobo full circle to the message he told his offense in a team meeting on Monday.
“I told them this is the last chance we get to play this season, the last chance game ever for some of our seniors,” Bobo says. “It’s the last chance they get to make their mark. We need to make sure we’re ready.”
Those players need to take that advice to heart. Especially from Mr. 26-of-28, who walked smoothly from one career phase to the next.