UCLA Football: From The Rosen One to The Great One

Who are the greatest UCLA Football quarterbacks of all time? Jamal Madni dives into the storied history of the great Bruins that played under center.

Jamal Madni
UCLA Football: UCLA Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson Hurdles A USC Defender. Photo Credit: Jesus Ramirez | UCLA Athletics
UCLA Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson Hurdles A USC Defender. Photo Credit: Jesus Ramirez | UCLA Athletics

UCLA Football: From The Rosen One to The Great One

In just a few days, year five of the Dorian Thompson-Robinson era in Westwood will commence. Quarterbacking a UCLA Football squad with more preseason expectations than any in nearly a decade. Beyond the possibility of a 5-0 start, a 10+ win season, and biting a few long-stemmed roses come New Year’s Day, DTR can chisel the Bruin history books as emphatically as Wayne Gretzky has authored NHL milestones like his own personal biography:

  • 2,991 yards shy of the UCLA total offense record
  • 28 touchdowns shy of the UCLA total touchdowns mark
  • 3,167 yards away from the UCLA passing yards record
  • 14 touchdowns short of the UCLA passing touchdowns mark

Essentially, if DTR plays exactly to his 2021 averages, three of the four records will have a new flag bearer, with only passing yards being any type of stretch goal. So, there you have it, DTR is 13 games away from definitively being the greatest QB to ever step onto Westwood.

Article over. Argument over. Well…not so fast.

DTR also has a 16-18 record as a starter, zero bowl victories, and no division championships or national individual accolades outside of being 2021 AP All-PAC-12 1st Team. There’s also this silly little principle known as “contextual dominance.” Namely, how dominant an individual was given what was considered average across the game’s era, environment, and style of play at that time. In any analytics or machine learning exercise, the first mathematical rule is normalizing the data. Namely, how “fair” is the data across each sample’s individual circumstances?

The only sport that has attempted to have a contextual dominance metric is baseball, with its Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Unfortunately, regular-season baseball is about as exciting as an anesthesia-inducing root canal on a day-to-day basis for most to take notice.

Contextual dominance is a principle that is glaringly lost in today’s sports analysis. All we seem to do every hour on sports television is illogically count things in absolute buckets to determine Jordan vs. Lebron, Bonds vs. Ruth, Wilt vs. Shaq, or Ali vs. Louis. Because of contextual dominance, DTR is just on the outside looking in at the seven greatest QBs in Bruin history. He most certainly can crack this list with an epic 2022, but it’s going to take more than just numbers to climb it.

#7 Josh Rosen (2015-2017)

Media called him “The Rosen One,” die-hards called him “The Chosen Rosen,” but most people today call him disappointment. As a five-star recruit, Scout.com ranked Rosen the best QB of the 2014 class, while Rivals anointed him the best overall recruit that year.

Rosen came with daunting expectations of “monsoon-ing” the nearly 20-year UCLA Rose Bowl drought at the time. Early on, it was mission accomplished with his freshman year producing flashes of unbridled brilliance, including an 8-3 start heading into the crosstown rivalry game with a PAC-12 South Championship on the line. The Bruins lost that game due to two Rosen turnovers on back-to-back possessions in the 3rd quarter and his Bruin career was never quite the same again.

UCLA Football would lose the bowl game and Rosen’s sophomore year was marred by injuries with only six starts.

His junior year began with a legendary bang for the ages as he architected arguably the greatest comeback in college football history, by erasing a 34-point deficit against Texas A&M in the game’s final 18 minutes. Unfortunately, the rest of 2017 continually plagued Rosen by the injury bug and untimely inconsistency resulting in a 4-8 record and Jim Mora’s eventual demise.

Still, Rosen finished his UCLA career as the 2015 PAC-12 Freshman of the Year, author of two of the three greatest single passing yard seasons in Bruin history, and 3rd on the all-time passing yards list. An incredible career that was overshadowed by the possibility of transcendence.

#6 Tom Ramsey (1979-1982)

Ramsey played across four seasons as the Bruins’ signal caller, the first three of which resulted in only 29 passing TDs against 24 INTs. But his career amongst UCLA’s pantheon of legendary quarterbacks was due to one magical 1982 season.

That year Ramsey led the Bruins to arguably their single greatest season ever: 10-1-1 with TWO victories over Michigan, the latter bookending the Bruins’ first Rose Bowl of the Terry Donahue era. Outright PAC-10 champions, beating SC on the game’s final play by stuffing the Trojans’ two-point conversion attempt, and bringing the gutty little Bruins all the way back from a 21-0 deficit against Michigan at the Big House in their initial meeting. Simply magical.

In doing so, Ramsey finished that season with 2,986 yards and 21 TDs. Numbers that may seem pedestrian in today’s modern game, but the contextual dominance was exorbitant. Ramsey finished as 1982 PAC-10 Co-Player of the Year, 1983 Rose Bowl MVP, and finished 7th in the Heisman Trophy ballot.

That 1982 masterpiece propelled Ramsey to 7th all-time in Bruin passing yards and 6th all-time in Bruin passing touchdowns. A 1998 UCLA Hall of Fame inductee, a 2007 Rose Bowl Hall of Fame inductee, and undeniably the sixth greatest Bruin quarterback on our list.

#5 John Sciarra (1972-1975)

Sciarra’s career was eerily like that of Ramseys, and an argument can certainly be made to flip this order. After all, Sciarra was also a starter spanning four seasons, yet his signature signal-calling came in year four. In 1975, Sciarra threw for 1,313 yards, which represented HALF his career total, and tallied 8 TDs versus 14 INTs. But what made Sciarra so iconic was being the Bruins and West Coast’s first true dual-threat quarterback. The evolutionary lineage of Lamar Jackson, Michael Vick, and Randall Cunningham can be traced back to Sciarra.

After all, he ran for 787 yards and 14 TDs in that 1975 campaign, culminating in arguably the Bruins single greatest victory in program history: the 23-10 upset in the 1976 Rose Bowl versus #1 Ohio State.

In pulling off that victory my father STILL talks about, Sciarra won the 1976 Rose Bowl MVP to accompany his 1975 Consensus All-American award and 7th place Heisman Trophy finish.

Like Ramsey, Sciarra was also inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame in 1991, and the UCLA Hall of Fame in 1994. But ultimately for me, what puts Sciarra above Ramsey wasn’t just his paradigm-altering style of play or his denying Woody Hayes of another national title, but the fact that he was a College Football Hall of Fame inductee in 2014. Contextual dominance at its finest.

#4 Brett Hundley (2012-2014)

Hundley is where it gets perplexing, polarizing, and deeply debatable. There’s an argument to be made to have him as low as 6th or as high as 1st. On the one hand, Hundley is the Bruins all-time leader in passing touchdowns, total offense, and total touchdowns. He’s second all-time in passing yards while also owning the three greatest total offensive single seasons in UCLA history.

He quarterbacked the Bruins to a 29-11 record over his three years as a starter; those 29 wins are the most UCLA has won in a three-year period, EVER. He was 3-0 versus USC after the Bruins were previously 1-12 against the Trojans immediately prior to him stepping on campus.

Hundley’s argument for his place in UCLA quarterbacking history is the same as Lebron’s in the NBA GOAT debate: nobody was better for longer. If we simply fall into the trap of modern sports analysis, we could lazily proclaim Hundley as UCLA’s QB GOAT. But the power of contextual dominance allows us to dig deeper and get smarter. While Hundley was 29-11 as a starter, he went 0-6 combined against the two dominant PAC-12 teams at the time: Stanford and Oregon. As a result, Hundley never even was a PAC-12 2nd team quarterback, let alone the recipient of more meaningful individual hardware.

Furthermore, while he was 3-0 against the team across town, SC was in the heart of their sanctions period post-Reggie Bush having to deal with scholarship reductions and depth issues. SC’s scholarship reduction period was 2010-2012, meaning those recruiting classes would most impact the 2012-2014 seasons, when we consider the power of “year three” for coaches in a pre-transfer portal era. Surprise, surprise…2012-2014 was exactly the Hundley era in Westwood.

Hundley did win a Sun Bowl, an Alamo Bowl, and the 2012 PAC-12 South Division Championship. However, if we adopted the PAC-12’s division-less rule from 2022 to the 2012 season, UCLA would not have been invited to the conference title game.

Given the state of SC, there was a ripe opportunity for the Bruins to completely take over the city and turn those non-New Year’s Day games into Rose Bowls. While nobody was better for longer, the ceiling was limited. Hundley’s three-year QB body of work was more consistently impressive than just Ramsey’s ’82 or Sciarra’s ’75 single seasons, respectively. That’s why he gets the slight nod at #4…but the guys in front all had higher and more decorated multi-year ceilings.

#3 Troy Aikman (1987-1988)

If we combine college and professional careers, Aikman is the GOAT by a landslide. But his college career was a fascinating one – after all, he only spent two years in Westwood after getting injured early in Oklahoma’s 1985 national title season and subsequently sitting out the 1986 season due to transfer rules. But what a memorable, show-stopping two years it was.

Aikman went 20-4 as a starter, won PAC-10 Player of the Year in 1987, was UCLA’s first-ever Davey O’Brien Award winner in 1988 (given to the nation’s best quarterback), was a 1988 Consensus All-American and won the 1989 Cotton Bowl MVP after the Bruins defeated #8 Arkansas 17-3 in Dallas. He’s one of only two UCLA Football quarterbacks to spearhead back-to-back top 10 season finishes, and the last Mighty Bruin to quarterback a #1 ranked team. Aikman was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2008 and UCLA retired his #8 jersey in 2014.

The only blemish to his sterling Bruin resume was his 0-2 record versus USC. In particular, the 1988 game pitted 6th ranked UCLA versus the 2nd ranked Trojans. Win that game against rival Rodney Peete, and he probably leads the Bruins to a national title while finishing 1st on this list.

#2 Cade McNown (1995-1998)

While McNown only went 12-11 his first two years as Bruin signal caller, the magic began in his junior year. After an 0-2 start with consecutive 3-point losses to the top two picks in the 1998 draft (Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf), McNown led UCLA to its greatest renaissance period of the past 25 years: a school-record 20 consecutive wins. That streak resulted in the Bruins winning the Cotton Bowl over Texas A&M in the 1997 season and beginning the 1998 campaign 10-0, ranked #3 in the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) and a chance to play in the inaugural BCS title game versus Tennessee (due to a shocking loss by #2 Kansas State in the BIG-12 championship).

UCLA football has never been the same since that rescheduled December game with Miami. But McNown was brilliant in that “phantom Brad Melsby fumble” contest, throwing for a still school-record 513 yards.

McNown is UCLA’s all-time passing leader, was 1998 Cotton Bowl MVP, 1998 PAC-10 Co-Player of the Year, 1998 Consensus All-American, 1998 Johnny Unitas Award winner (given to the nation’s top upperclassman quarterback), and finished 3rd in the Heisman Trophy voting that year. He’s also the last Bruin quarterback to play in the Rose Bowl game and along with Troy Aikman, is the only other quarterback to architect back-to-back top-10 season finishes.

And oh, by the way, he’s the only Bruin quarterback ever to go 4-0 versus a fully stacked, non-sanctioned USC team, including the iconic 48-41 triple OT comeback victory in 1996, which is still the only time the crosstown rivalry has ever gone into overtime. McNown’s heroics allowed UCLA to overcome a 17-point deficit with less than six minutes left in regulation to force overtime. At the time of his storied UCLA career concluding, McNown held the PAC-10 record for total offense.

For these Herculean efforts, McNown was inducted into the UCLA Hall of Fame in 2009, the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame in 2017, and the College Football Hall of Fame in 2020.

#1 Gary Beban (1965-1967)

The Great One is the greatest Bruin quarterback of all. No question. No brainer. No contest. Anybody that thinks otherwise desperately needs a history lesson. Beban was 24-5-2 as UCLA’s starting quarterback and was the epitome of contextual dominance.

While he threw for 4,087 yards in 23 TDs IN HIS CAREER, while running for another 1,271 yards and 35 TDs, his school record for total offense lasted 15 years. By comparison, McNown’s record lasted 16 years until it was broken by Hundley, and Hundley’s will most probably last eight until it’s broken by DTR.

Even though it has been 55 years since Beban played in Westwood under polar-opposite circumstances to today’s game, he still ranks 9th all-time in UCLA total offense, 7th all-time in total touchdowns, and 4th all-time in rushing touchdowns.

Notable moments from Beban were the 1965 Crosstown Rivalry game, where he threw two touchdowns in the game’s final four minutes to overcome a 10-point deficit and beat USC. That enabled Beban to architect the other greatest victory in program history a few weeks later, by upsetting #1 Michigan State 14-12 in the 1966 Rose Bowl, where he accounted for both touchdowns.

At that time, the PAC-8 had a bizarre, unnecessarily political, voting-induced tie-breaking rule, otherwise UCLA would have returned to the 1967 Rose Bowl game after a 9-1 regular season finish. Furthermore, the 1967 UCLA-USC game was touted the “Game of the Century” as Beban led the top-ranked Bruins against 2nd ranked USC anchored by OJ Simpson. Even though the Trojans ultimately prevailed 21-20 on a long, iconic Simpson touchdown run, Beban threw for a staggering 300+ yards and two touchdowns, despite torn cartilage in his ribs.

That courageous performance, coupled with his overall body work trampolined Beban to be UCLA’s first and only Heisman Trophy winner in 1967, along with winning the 1967 Maxwell Award and being a 1967 Unanimous All-American.

Given Beban’s specific greatness in 1967, UCLA remains the only school to be #1 in basketball and #1 in football at the same time, while also being the only school to win college basketball’s and college football’s player of the year award in 1967 (some guy named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won college basketball POY that year).

Beban was inducted into the UCLA Hall of Fame, Rose Bowl Hall of Fame, and had his #16 jersey retired. The only quarterback to lead the Bruins to three consecutive top 10 finishes, the only UCLA quarterback with two top-5 Heisman finishes (his 1967 win was accompanied by a 4th place finish in 1965), the only quarterback to win a Rose Bowl and a Heisman Trophy in Bruins history, and the only quarterback to conceivably finish 1st on this list.

DTR, you have work to do, and the clock starts at 11:30 AM PST on Saturday.

What do you think? Who is the greatest UCLA Bruins QB of All-Time? Vote Below!

UCLA Football: UCLA Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson Hurdles A USC Defender. Photo Credit: Jesus Ramirez | UCLA Athletics
UCLA Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson Hurdles A USC Defender. Photo Credit: Jesus Ramirez | UCLA Athletics