Pete Thamel

Pete Thamel: Pride of Mount Carmel: The parallel paths of Jordan Lynch, Donovan McNabb

MIAMI — Nearly two decades separated the careers of Donovan McNabb and Jordan Lynch at Chicago’s Mount Carmel High. In the early 1990s, McNabb was so impressive as a triple-option threat that his coaches would make friendly wagers about whether he’d eventually contend for the Heisman Trophy. In the late 2000s, Lynch rekindled memories of McNabb by running the triple-option with verve; he dominated the competition by racking up 1,221 passing yards, 848 rushing yards and 31 total touchdowns as a senior. Neither player, however, received a single scholarship offer from a Big Ten school to play quarterback.

The under-recruited and overachieving career narratives of McNabb and Lynch can be traced back to same Mount Carmel playbook. Both McNabb and Lynch developed under coach Frank Lenti, an old-school triple-option aficionado. Known by those close to him as coach Frank, Lenti has never veered from the veer offense throughout his legendary career.

“No we have not,” Lenti said, when asked if he’s been tempted to change his approach. “It’s been very good to us. In the last 27 years, we played in 15 state championship games.”

On New Year’s Day, the 61-year old Lenti will watch as his second former quarterback starts in the Orange Bowl. McNabb’s illustrious career at Syracuse ended there after the 1998 season, while Lynch will lead upstart Northern Illinois in the game against No. 12 Florida State on Tuesday.

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Yet to fully understand how that happened, it’s best to start with Lenti, a high-school lifer who boasts a 326-59 record in 29 years as Mount Carmel’s coach. In that time, his triple-option offense has survived eras of football where it’s been considered antiquated, cutting edge and antiquated again. “He’s still running it,” said McNabb with a laugh in a phone interview. “It’s just so successful and puts so much pressure on the defense.”

Added Ohio State coach Urban Meyer: “He’s one of those guys, everyone says [the game has] passed him by and all he does is win games, and then people go back to it. He’s one of the most respected coaches in America, high school or college.”

Lenti has won 10 state titles. He became the state of Illinois’ all-time wins leader in 2011. And he’s done it all with a blend of precision timing, concise decision-making and relentless humility. “We’re very fortunate,” Lenti deadpanned. “We’ve had a lot of good kids who have overcome the coaching.”

Yet Lenti has also found success by emphasizing his system, one that builds the character of his most well-known standouts. Playing for a legend like coach Frank isn’t easy; part of the process is enduring a few verbal dress downs. McNabb recalled instances when Lenti had a “spitball hanging on the bottom his lip.” Lynch remembered his quick-wit one-liners, such as when Lenti complained that Lynch was “burning daylight” by taking too long to make reads while running the option.

Lenti’s system also means players are unlikely to pick a hat off a table on ESPNU, or brag to scouting services about the number of offers they’ve received. Lenti has sent far more kids to Division III schools and military academies than to major-conference programs, and he stresses that kids should go where they’re coveted. (McNabb picked Syracuse over Nebraska; Lynch didn’t hold out to get a Big Ten offer his senior year.)

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Still, looking back, both McNabb and Lynch stress that they wouldn’t change a thing. Lynch’s father, Jim, said that Jordan considers Lenti “a second father.” McNabb loves to come back to Mount Carmel and cut it up with coach Frank, the only person who can get away with calling him “Donnie.”

“He still calls me that to this day,” McNabb laughed.

Patience is required and gratification isn’t instant, but the reward is great. At McNabb’s induction into the Mount Carmel Hall of Fame before Lynch’s junior year, he parted some advice that Lynch took to heart.

“The biggest thing he said was, ‘Believe in the system, and believe in coach Frank,’” Lynch recalled. “‘He’s going to get you in the right spot.’”

*****

The name “veer” sounds like old-school football, as if the coach should wear a fedora and the quarterback a leather helmet. Lenti’s career doesn’t stretch quite that far back, but it does span from the era of encyclopedias to the age of Wikipedia. (In fact, Lenti is even mentioned in the “veer” Wiki entry.)

That backdrop is fitting for the relationship that led Lynch to Northern Illinois. Back in the early ’90s, Lenti and Jerry Kill were among the regulars who made presentations on the veer offense in the coaching-clinic circuit. Kill won a national title as the offensive coordinator at Division II Pittsburg State in 1991 — guess which offense he ran? — and later landed as the head coach at Southern Illinois. He led the Salukis to five consecutive Division I-AA playoff appearances before taking over at NIU in 2007.

The summer before his senior season, Lynch attended a one-day camp at Northern Illinois. Kill liked what he saw, and he called Lenti for the scoop.

“I would take Jordan Lynch in a heartbeat,” Lenti recalled telling Kill. “He can give you everything you need to have in a Division I quarterback. Big Ten schools just want to recruit him as an athlete. But Big Ten schools just wanted to recruit Donovan McNabb as an athlete as well.”

When looking for a college, Lynch simply wanted to play quarterback, preferably close to home. He grew up in Mount Greenwood, an Irish-Catholic neighborhood on the southwest side of Chicago, and was raised in a family that doesn’t take things for granted.

Lynch’s father, Jim, drives a truck for the city. When he answered his cell phone for an interview on Friday, he was plowing Lakeshore Drive at noon, the 14th hour of a 16-hour shift.
“When it snows,” he said matter-of-factly, “it’s a long day out there.” Jordan’s mother, Sheila, recently lost her accounting department job when the company she worked at for 26 years decided to move away.

In 2008, when Northern Illinois offered Jordan, Jim called Lenti, who praised his old friend Kill. “Coach Kill and his staff were giddy about getting Jordan,” Jim said. “The other schools didn’t see too much.”

Four years later, Lynch’s talent is impossible to ignore.

Lenti knew he had a star in the making when Lynch was a mere varsity backup as a sophomore. At a summer passing camp, Lynch played poorly, prompting Lenti to launch into his old spitball-on-the-chin routine. “I got in his crawl space a little bit,” said Lenti, fully admitting that he was using the routine as a test. “He didn’t flinch or bat an eye or make a sour-puss face. He kept right on doing what he had to do.”

That same unflappability has served him well at NIU. Lynch was a backup for three years before becoming the starter as a redshirt junior this season. He’s cycled through four quarterbacks coaches, three offensive coordinators and three head coaches during his Huskies’ career. (Following head coach Dave Doeren’s hiring at NC State, Lynch is likely to play under a fourth offensive coordinator next year.)

Yet entering bowl season, Lynch’s impact is undeniable. He led the FBS in both total yards (4,733) and rushing yards (1,771) after the regular season, stunning coaches around the MAC and the nation in the process. After losing to Iowa in the opener, Northern Illinois rattled off 12 consecutive wins to bust the BCS.

“Everyone in league is looking around saying, ‘Where did this kid come from?” said former Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit. “He doesn’t look too flashy, but when the lights come on the kid is really impressive. I wouldn’t put anything past that kid.”

Perhaps most noteworthy, Lynch threw 25 touchdowns to just four interceptions, showcasing his progression from his simplistic high school playbook. Lynch said he entered college having thrown mostly one-man routes on play-action passes. Now, he’s running and throwing with aplomb.

And the scariest part? He’s still getting better.

“I had to get more comfortable reading coverages, and as the years went on I started to progress more and more,” he said. “I still feel like I have a lot more to learn.”

*****

McNabb vividly remembers the dance that colleges played with him back in high school. They’d come to Mount Carmel to watch film, and they’d damn his quarterbacking skills with faint praise. “We feel you’re a great athlete and have a strong arm and can throw the ball,” McNabb recalled recruiters telling him. Yet the compliments were always followed by a “but.”

“Then they’d say, ‘If you ever want to play receiver or running back, please give us a call,’” McNabb said.

McNabb appreciated the bluntness of some schools, but he used their dismissal as motivation. Nearly 20 years after his recruitment, McNabb is still steamed that Boston College chose to offer Scott Mutryn — a former highly touted quarterback out of Saint Ignatius High in Cleveland — instead of him. “They told me I wasn’t the passer they were looking for,” McNabb said. “Obviously when I was playing Boston College, I looked to terrorize them every year because of that.”

McNabb was successful to that end, finishing 4-0 against Boston College in his career. He led Syracuse to the Fiesta Bowl in his junior season and the Orange Bowl in his senior year before eventually becoming the No. 2 pick in the 1999 NFL draft. But before all of that, McNabb pined to play at Illinois, where former Mount Carmel star defensive end Simeon Rice had shined.

While the Illini would have been a logical landing spot for McNabb, they didn’t want to recruit him as a quarterback. “It didn’t work out for the Fighting Illini after that,” McNabb said before mentioning the ill-fated Lou Tepper era. “Coaches were getting fired and people were blaming me for it.”

At the time, Lenti went to visit Syracuse’s spring practice and saw then-Orange quarterback Marvin Graves. He told Syracuse offensive coordinator George DeLeone — another old buddy from the clinic circuit — that he had a similar but bigger version of Graves in Chicago. DeLeone visited Mount Carmel later that year, and he loved what he saw on film.
“George saw him in the cafeteria and knew that he was the guy,” Lenti said.

McNabb’s career took off. Now, it seems Lynch is following a similar trajectory.

From his perch working as contributing analyst for Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia, McNabb says he’s enjoyed following Northern Illinois and Lynch this season. He can relate to a triple-option quarterback learning to become more complete in college, and he’s been rooting for the Huskies to succeed. “I’ve seen and heard a lot of great things that went on for him,” McNabb said of Lynch. “Anytime you can have a guy represent your high school, with the things he’s been able to do, that’s bragging rights for me.”

He then took one final, not-so-subtle jab at the program that once spurned him. “They don’t get many Illinois’ schools in the Orange Bowl,” McNabb said, “including Illinois.”

*****

Jim Lynch jokingly alludes to the next generation’s great Mount Carmel quarterback. He says nine-yard-old Justin Lynch already displays the traits of his dominant older brother. “He looks like Jordan, and his athletic ability is just like Jordan,” Jim said. “I’m glad I get to do this twice.”

Justin and Jordan are very close, and Lynch’s roommate, NIU offensive lineman Matt Krempel, said that the backdrop on Jordan’s computer always shows a picture of his little brother. There’s nothing Jordan gets a bigger kick out of than knowing that Justin plays football back home pretending to suit up for NIU. When Jordan does return for breaks, he spends most of his time playing Madden NFL ’13 with his brother and throwing the football around with the neighborhood kids.

“When you see the love and the support of the Lynch family, it makes you feel good about where college football is going,” said Jeff Phelps, who recruited Lynch to Northern Illinois and now works under Kill at Minnesota.

But for now, its time to embrace the present — and there’s plenty to celebrate. When NIU and Florida State take the field, it will add the next chapter to several parallel journeys. It will add to the legacy of coach Frank, and it will harken back to McNabb’s storied Syracuse career. Yet most of all, it will add to the growing legend of the kid from Mount Greenwood, the one who continues to defy the odds during his meteoric ascent.

Next time, when coaches pass through Mount Carmel, they won’t discount the routinely overlooked quarterback, no matter how often he runs instead of passes. Scouts won’t discount Lenti’s longstanding veer offense, not matter how old-timey it seems.

Because if they do, they could pass on a one-of-a-kind talent, the kind who can improbably carry a program — even one as unlikely as Northern Illinois — to the Orange Bowl.

Just ask the Big Ten recruiters who came into Lenti’s office this spring. They’d sit down, and without a prompt, they’d bring up Lynch’s sensational season at NIU. “OK, you don’t have to say it,” one after another told Lenti. “You told us so.”

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