MARKED MAN : Being Brother of Oakland A’s Star Is Extra Burden for Dan McGwire

Times Staff Writer

Living up to his own expectations always was more than enough for Dan McGwire, San Diego State’s junior quarterback.

At 6 feet 8 inches, with a throwing arm like a booster rocket and confidence to match, McGwire graduated from Claremont High School in 1986, apparently destined for athletic stardom.

“I just want to be the best Dan McGwire can be,” McGwire will tell you.


If you wonder how good that is, he will tell you that, too: “I know I can be a very good player. But I want to be a great player.”

As high a goal as that may be, McGwire fears it no longer is enough.

Circumstances are different. McGwire’s older brother, Mark, has become a baseball star in the past three years with the Oakland Athletics. That has meant changes for Dan.

No longer is he best known as the tallest quarterback in the history of the National Collegiate Athletic Assn.'s Division I-A, the tallest and second-youngest of five sons of John McGwire, a Claremont dentist, and his wife, Ginger. He is Mark McGwire’s younger brother. In McGwire’s mind, that gives him a new burden.

“People expect a lot out of me because they see what Mark has done,” Dan said. “Mark was a nobody and became this superstar.

The nation loves him. He is a super-hero. He is everyone’s favorite because he hit 49 home runs his rookie season (in 1987), and no one had ever done that. People expect a lot from me because I am his brother. They want me to lead San Diego State back to greatness. But I am not a hero. I am only one player.”

But for a football program starving to return to the winning ways of a decade ago, McGwire stands tall as a great hope. It is that responsibility and the attention of the McGwire name that he will bring to San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium Saturday night when the Aztecs play host to No. 20 UCLA in a nonconference game.

The path he has traveled is not what McGwire envisioned when he left Claremont after three seasons on varsity in which he led his team to a 36-3-1 record, throwing for 6,559 yards and 65 touchdowns.

One of the nation’s most highly recruited quarterbacks, McGwire accepted a scholarship to Iowa. If he was ever to play UCLA, he figured it was to be in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day.

“I wanted to play big-time football, and the Big Ten caught my eye,” McGwire said. “To come back with a Big Ten team and play in the Rose Bowl, that was a dream of mine.”

But the dream turned sour early in his sophomore season. McGwire had won the starting position in spring practice over junior Chuck Hartlieb and redshirt freshman Tom Poholsky, but when he returned for preseason camp, he was told the competition was being reopened.

He started two of the Hawkeyes’ first five games but left both early--once to allow the other quarterbacks to play and once because of a leg injury.

McGwire said he was told before the sixth game that Hartlieb would be the starter for the rest of the season. Unhappy and unwilling to accept a redshirt season as a junior, McGwire decided to transfer to San Diego State at the end of the 1987 season.

“We would have loved for Dan to have redshirted,” said Kansas State Coach Bill Snyder, then offensive coordinator at Iowa. “He would have become a far superior quarterback. But Dan is a very competitive young guy. He wanted to do it now. We gave him that opportunity to try.

“Dan had the better physical tools and the skills of all the quarterbacks we had. But Chuck had the experience of being in our system.”

Nearly two years later, McGwire remains bitter.

“I felt I played the best of the three quarterbacks, but I didn’t get the job,” McGwire said. “Coach (Hayden) Fry touted me the whole summer. He built me up to be this great player, this great god, this savior, and he never really gave me a fair chance.”

McGwire said he chose San Diego State because he had been impressed by the Aztecs the year before, when they lost to Iowa in the 1986 Holiday Bowl, 39-38, and because their coach at the time, Denny Stolz, had a reputation for throwing the football.

McGwire said he also wanted to return closer to home and figured if he had to sit out the 1988 season, as required under NCAA transfer rules, he would prefer do that in Southern California.

“I know people say it is a step down, going from the Big Ten to the WAC (Western Athletic Conference),” McGwire said. “Well, maybe it is. But I did it to better myself and be a part of a program that wants to get to the Holiday Bowl.”

But that plan, too, went astray at first. The Aztecs went 3-8 last season, and Stolz was fired. His replacement, Al Luginbill, had been a defensive coordinator at Arizona State. McGwire knew nothing of his offensive plans.

“I was stuck,” McGwire said. “If they brought in an option quarterback coach, I don’t know what I would have done. But when Coach Luginbill came in, he said we were going to throw the ball. I was very happy. I didn’t plan on going away.”

McGwire responded by earning the starting position last spring. In his Aztec debut, a 52-36 loss at Air Force Sept. 2, he completed 30 of 46 passes for 361 yards, with two touchdowns and two interceptions.

“I was a little anxious going out there,” McGwire said. “It took me a little while to get comfortable. As the game went on, I got stronger. I don’t feel rusty. My arm is as strong as ever.”

No one has ever questioned his strength. Tales of McGwire’s right arm rival those of Paul Bunyan. The best one may be of the spring game in his freshman season at Iowa. That was the time McGwire said he took a half-step back and threw a 67-yard pass to Quinn Early.

“Might have been farther than that,” said Early, now a wide receiver with the Chargers.

Now if only Early had caught the ball . . .

“It hit him right in the face mask,” McGwire recalled. “The sun was in his eyes, and he couldn’t see it. I hit him right on stride.”

But his arm is not his only asset. McGwire’s height gives him a clear view of the field, and at 235 pounds, he is not the easiest to bring down. Of course, he is not the fastest either, but the Aztecs’ quick-drop passing attack does not require that he spend much time sitting in the pocket.

His biggest battle now is to become familiar with the offense. That should come through repetition.

“I’m young; I’m 21 years old,” McGwire said. “I’ve been around college football three years now. I haven’t played much, but I have matured a lot in the last three years. I’ve been through a lot back at Iowa. I’ve been through a lot here at San Diego State.

“I’ve matured very fast and very well. I have (adjusted) well to the situation presented to me.”

McGwire delivers these statements in a confident, friendly tone that makes it difficult to imagine that this is a player with any worries. But that would ignore the side effect of his brother’s success.

“I am not a super-hero,” McGwire said. “People expect me to be a super-hero because Mark became so great in one year. They expect me to have all this weight on my shoulders, all this pressure. ‘Hey, Dan, take this program that was 3-8 last year and turn it around to an 11-1 ballclub; take them to the Holiday Bowl. If Mark can hit 49 home runs and be a national hero, then you can turn this ballclub around.’

“It just doesn’t happen that way. I have go out there and play the best that Dan McGwire can play without making mistakes. I just have to try to be part of 22 guys trying to make the team win.”

Dan knows it is not Mark who has placed the expectations on him; it is the fan who knows him only as the younger brother of the Oakland Athletics’ slugger.

“People are always asking me, ‘Are you going to be as great as Mark?’ ” McGwire said. “I can’t be as great as Mark. I play football, and he plays baseball. They are two different types of sports, two different types of athletes. I don’t feel any pressure that because Mark is in pro ball, I have to play pro ball. If I don’t, I’ll go on with life.”

Maybe that is because Dan McGwire, all 6-8 of him, knows he will always be the little brother of Mark McGwire.

“He helps me in ways people don’t see,” McGwire said. “He has done so much for me. Mark is my brother. He also is a great friend.”