Michigan has had some memorable quarterback competitions over the decades, but not many were as peculiar as the one that transpired in 1999.
Although Tom Brady was Michigan’s starting QB in ‘98, Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr wanted to give sophomore Drew Henson a crack at the gig in 1999. “I know this: there isn’t a coach in the country who has a better situation at quarterback,” Carr said in August ‘99.
Henson was considered the best high school QB to ever come out of the state of Michigan, he was personally recruited by Bo Schembechler, Carr called him the most talented quarterback he had ever been around. All the hype directed towards Henson was something Brady noticed, and the fact he wasn’t named the starter heading into the season had him frustrated. “The hype ends today when the doors close and everyone leaves,” Brady told Detroit News’ Bob Wojnowski. “To be the best, you have to beat out the best. I’ve fought long and hard to be in this position, and I don’t plan to give it up.”
A great QB situation turned into an unconventional decision by Carr. Instead of naming a starting quarterback before the season, Carr had another idea. His plan called for Henson to start the first quarter, Brady the second, and the hot hand getting the nod for the entire second half.
“Being a day-in-day-out observer as a quarterback in practice everyday watching this, for me it was really never a decision: It was always Tom’s job. I think Tom earned the job in practice everyday and I think Drew was not ready at that point,” quarterback Jason Kapsner said. “He wasn’t the leader of the team, he hadn’t earned it in practice, but for reasons that were there, there was a lot of pressure to play Drew.”
According to receiver David Terrell, “it was more or less like: ‘Throw Drew in there.’ But it was Tom’s team.” While it may have been ‘Tom’s team’, it didn’t exactly feel like it for Brady. “It’s a pretty sore spot, to be honest with you,” the Tom Brady Sr. said. “He wasn’t treated very kindly by the head coach.”
In Week 1 of the season, Brady was responsible for Michigan’s comeback win over Notre Dame, but splitting reps with Henson lingered well into fall. Brady received the second half nod over Henson in four of the first five games, with Michigan winning all five games. However, the two-QB experiment started to derail when U-M played Michigan State. Henson got the second half nod and fared poorly, resulting in Carr putting Brady back in and nearly leading the team back, Michigan would lose 34-31 despite three touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
The next game resulted in a loss to Illinois after the defense blew a 20-point second-half, which marked the end of the quarterback controversy. Carr would name Brady the starting quarterback for the rest of the season.
Sports Illustrated: “In November, Brady threw three interceptions against Penn State as Michigan fell behind 27—17 in the fourth quarter. He was also sacked six times, and receiver David Terrell remembers coming back to the huddle and saying to his quarterback, “ ‘Damn, bro!’ ... He had a bloody face.” Brady responded, “DT, just do your job.” Brady did his, leading the Wolverines to a 31—27 win.”
The season and Brady’s career at Michigan would end on New Years Day 2000 in Miami at the Orange Bowl. In typical Brady fashion he led Michigan back from two 14-point deficits and finished Alabama off in overtime 35-34. Brady completed 34 of 46 passes for 369 yards and four touchdowns.
It’s hard to fault Carr for seeing the potential that Henson had, but it’s rare that playing two quarterbacks for an extended period of time actually works out. It’s hard saying what would have happened in 1999 if there wasn’t a controversy. Would Michigan have gone undefeated? All we can do is sit here and say ‘what if?’