Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Top 40 countdown: John Friesz, Jason Gesser and Ryan Leaf set the standard for greatness among local college QBs over the past 40 seasons

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

In the quest to rank every sporting thing under the sun comes this contribution in which apples will be compared to … apple cider vinegar.

Actually, it’s quarterbacks to quarterbacks, but you’ll get the drift.

With apologies to Billy Diedrick and Slingin’ Steve Olson and the Throwin’ Samoan – standard setters of the 1960s and 70s – it’s pretty much a given that the Golden Age of College Quarterbacking in our neck of the gridiron extends from the early 1980s to today. In that span, the college programs of the Inland Northwest have produced 10 NFL draft picks, five Walter Payton Award winners and 26 of the 30 winningest quarterbacks in the schools’ collective histories.

So 40 pretty good years. Let’s see if we can come up with the best quarterbacks, from 1 to 40.

There is a built-in flaw in the construct of this endeavor, of course. Our neighborhood schools range from a Power 5 program to an FCS redblood to a football-in-proper-perspective retreat that offers no athletic scholarships – plus Idaho, which has pinballed from one perch to another. How can you compare an Idaho quarterback against Washington State’s best? How can the Whitworth guy possibly be measured against his Eastern Washington placeholder?

Only from a virtual barstool like this.

For ingredients, we began with every quarterback who started a game in the past 40 seasons – yes, Kevin Lopina is in there, and Ed Powers and Andy Beitia, too. Then we cooked up a database stew of stats, honors won, rivalries dominated, championships, bowls and playoffs achieved and, perhaps most important, pitcher-of-record determinations.

Then we salted it to our taste.

That means three-year starters had the advantage over one-year wonders, unless that single season was a watershed moment. That means, given the programs’ relative statues, a 12-win Wazzu quarterback might have more heft than an Eastern guy with 22 to his name, especially since the EWU guy couldn’t get off the bench when he became a Cougar.

Still, you’ll note that there are three Division III quarterbacks in there among the guys who celebrated FCS playoff and Apple Cup victories – and no, even though all three were conference players of the year, it’s improbable that any would have taken a snap in the Pac-12.

But if that’s all this exercise is about, then you might as well rank Cougar quarterbacks 1-through-15, then tack on the 10 best from Eastern and Idaho and call it a day with a top 25.

Ultimately, after all the honors and statistical ratings, the tipping point needs to be value – how much these quarterbacks meant in reaching peaks and pulling programs out of valleys. Who was calling the signals in the defining moments? Who lifted a team to unexpected heights?

So you get, say, WSU’s Gardner Minshew at No. 5 despite being a one-off transfer, as he passed the Cougars to their first 11-win season in history.

You get John Welsh, who as a freshman led Idaho to its first bowl game – and victory – over Connor Halliday, the only Coug to throw for more than 700 yards in a game.

You get Bo Levi Mitchell and his national championship ahead of fellow Eastern greats Matt Nichols and Erik Meyer, who won 47 games between them.

And you get Idaho’s John Friesz at No. 1 over WSU’s two Rose Bowl quarterbacks.

Here’s the raw resume: First quarterback in the area to throw for more than 4,000 yards in a season. First to win the Payton Award as the top FCS offensive player. Three time Big Sky player of the year. Twenty-nine wins – and a 22-2 conference record. And three Big Sky championships.

One more bit of bookkeeping: Only performances from 1982 on have been factored. That robs Idaho’s Kenny Hobart of two productive seasons and maybe a spot higher on the ladder. And it also bumped WSU’s Clete Casper from the fab 40 completely, with the Cougars’ 1981 Holiday Bowl season eliminated – though he remains the quarterback of record in the most stunning Apple Cup upset in history.

So start your quibbles. It’s all about armchair quarterbacking now. Maybe next time we’ll fashion a top 40 for that.

1. John Friesz, Idaho, 1986-89

2. Jason Gesser, WSU, 1999-02

3. Ryan Leaf, WSU, 1995-97

4. Vernon Adams, EWU, 2012-14

5. Gardner Minshew, WSU, 2018

6. Eric Barriere, EWU, 2017-21

7. Drew Bledsoe, WSU, 1990-92

8. Doug Nussmeier, Idaho, 1990-93

9. Luke Falk, WSU, 2014-17

10. Bo Levi Mitchell, EWU, 2010-11

11. Timm Rosenbach, WSU, 1986-88

12. Mark Rypien, WSU, 1982-85

13. Erik Meyer, EWU, 2002-05

14. Ken Hobart, Idaho, 1982-83

15. Alex Brink, WSU, 2004-07

16. Matt Nichols, EWU, 2006-09

17. Anthony Gordon, WSU, 2018-19

18. Matt Kegel, WSU, 2000-03

19. Gage Gubrud, EWU, 2015-18

20. John Welsh, Idaho, 1998-01

21. Connor Halliday, WSU, 2011-14

22. Scott Linehan, Idaho, 1982-86

23. Nathan Enderle, Idaho, 2007-10

24. Joel Clark, Whitworth, 2003-06

25. Rick Worman, EWU, 1984-85

26. Harry Leons, EWU, 1994-97

27. Matt Linehan, Idaho, 2014-17

28. Josh Blankenship, EWU, 2002

29. Rick Sloan, Idaho, 1984-85

30. Jayden de Laura, WSU, 2020-21

31. Ian Kolste, Whitworth, 2013-17

32. Ryan Fien, Idaho, 1996

33. Eric Hisaw, Idaho, 1992-95

34. Ricky Turner, WSU, 1982-3

35. Brian Brennan, Idaho, 1994-97

36. Fred Salanoa, EWU, 1999-01

37. Mark Tenneson, EWU, 1989-92

38. Brian Lindgren, Idaho, 2001-03

39. Chad Davis, WSU, 1994-95

40. Scott Biglin, Whitworth, 1999-02