This year’s campaign started with a cloud of controversy (still) hanging over the university. Despite President Royce Engstrom’s pleas that it was time to move forward from the multiple investigations into how the administration handled cases of sexual assault and whether the athletic department offered players improper benefits—and, for that matter, from a deep division that emerged within the fan base—there was a reminder of those issues lining up under center every week in the form of star quarterback Jordan Johnson. The offensive star’s return to the field after being acquitted in a high-profile sexual assault case did little to quell critics and only served to rally die-hards. The team even adopted the tagline “United,” a not-so-subtle nod to any detractors, and plastered it on posters, signs and social media.
Johnson handled the pressure with class and maturity, never appearing bothered by the extra scrutiny. He promptly threw for 250 yards and two touchdowns while leading the Griz to a 30-6 season-opening victory over Appalachian State in front of 26,293 fans, the largest crowd in Wash-Griz history.
More than three months—and nine wins—later, the faithful showed up in considerably fewer numbers for the team’s home playoff game. An announced crowd of 17,345 attended the coldest Griz game ever only to watch a team from South Carolina coached by a former CEO jump out to a 21-point lead and hold on for a 42-35 upset. It was an unexpected outcome with equally unexpected twists (that botched review!), but perhaps fitting for a team carrying as much drama as an episode of “Friday Night Lights.”
At the center of it all stood Johnson, a model of calm to his teammates and yet still a lightning rod to some. He finished the season with more than 3,300 passing yards and 32 touchdowns. Others may fill the highlights, but Johnson is the team’s unequivocal leader. On Sunday, the day after the Coastal Carolina loss, the Griz confirmed as much by naming Johnson the 2013 offensive MVP. One member of the athletic department tweeted the news, adding that Johnson and defensive winner Brock Coyle are “not just valuable players but very valuable citizens.”
For better or worse, Griz Nation will get to experience that value for another year, as the quarterback returns for his senior season in 2014.