Opinion: Colt Brennan left mark on college football landscape and NCAA record books with prolific passing game

Paul Myerberg
USA TODAY

To watch former Hawaii quarterback Colt Brennan took dedication: to dropping a chunk of change on the college football TV package in the days before every game was televised in one form or another, and then to staying up late on the East Coast to see Brennan toss five touchdowns and the Rainbow Warriors drop 60 points on San Jose State, Idaho and the other patsies in the Western Athletic Conference.

But to watch Brennan was to witness a player well ahead of his time: The three-year starter and Heisman Trophy contender put up video-game numbers in a pass-happy system long before gaudy passing totals became the standard, earning him a place in college football history even as later quarterbacks bumped Brennan's name down the charts in the NCAA record books.

Brennan died Tuesday at 37, his father told ESPN. 

The number of players able to entrance a national audience has grown exponentially in the age of Twitter and breathless year-round coverage of the sport. In the years just before the social media explosion, Brennan was an organic national star — without the help of trends and hashtags, his production and success in coach June Jones' run-and-shoot offense made Brennan must-see TV.

During his final two seasons, Brennan helped broaden the map of college football to a point never before and never again reached, extending the quest for major bowls, the national championship and the Heisman beyond the West Coast and into the Pacific Ocean.

While other non-major programs have made a run at end-of-year hardware, from Boise State to Central Florida and Cincinnati, none have done so with as much charm and charisma as Hawaii and its star quarterback in 2006 and 2007. Even before social media platforms took hold, Brennan's career was a weekly communal experience shared on blogs and message boards.

Colt Brennan became Hawaii's first All American since 1978 and set a single-season touchdown pass record of 58 in 2006.

He threw for 5,549 yards and a then-record 58 touchdowns as a junior in 2006, finishing sixth in the Heisman voting. He then tossed 38 touchdowns in 2007, when he finished third for the Heisman, to lead Hawaii to an unbeaten regular season and a matchup with Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. Brennan's 70.4 percent career completion percentage remains first in FBS history among passers with a minimum of 875 attempts.

Multiple FBS quarterbacks in 2020 matched Brennan's output. Eleven passers averaged at least 9.4 yards per attempt, matching Brennan's career average. Another eight completed at least 70 percent of their throws. Alabama's Mac Jones averaged roughly as many attempts per passing touchdowns as Brennan in 2006; that single-season mark was broken by LSU's Joe Burrow in 2019.

That doesn't diminish Brennan's accomplishments as much as highlight how his success helped move pass-first offenses into the FBS mainstream after decades of being minimized as gimmicky compared to the clouds-of-dust style that had defined the sport.

Within five years, nearly every successful Group of Five program was embracing an offensive style that was viewed as unorthodox next to the Power Five standard. Within a decade, the number of programs still clinging to antiquated schemes were far outnumbered by those who had embraced the offensive revolution.

Heading into the 2021 season, you can count on two hands the number of teams that don't use some sort of spread-based or run-pass-option style on offense. Brennan and Hawaii helped pave the way for these dramatic, landscape-altering changes.

But his legacy rests in nostalgia. It's now almost impossible to imagine a quarterback coming out of nowhere to captivate a national audience of fans from scattered fan bases, all coalescing around Brennan and Hawaii with no direct investment in the team's success. In that sense, Brennan was the first of his kind and also the last.

Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg