It took more than three years, a trade to the opposite coast and a quarterback switch for him to finally become an NFL starter.
Things happened a little faster in college for Jimmy Garoppolo.
“It was a completely open competition — for about five passes,” Dino Babers said. “Then the competition was closed.”
Babers had just taken over at Eastern Illinois, his first head coaching job. It was the spring of 2012 and Garoppolo was the team’s returning starter entering his junior year.
But the Panthers had gone a combined 4-18 over the previous two seasons, Babers opting not to view tape of the players he was inheriting in order to better reach his own conclusions.
As he watched Garoppolo on Day 1, he was convinced something or someone was lying.
“I saw him throwing the ball around and I said, ‘This guy shouldn’t be here,’ ” recalled Babers, who is now the coach at Syracuse. “It didn’t make any sense to me. There should have been 40 or 50 coaches getting fired for allowing Jimmy to be there.”
From the underwhelming Ohio Valley Conference and tiny Charleston, Ill., Garoppolo will attempt to quarterback the San Francisco 49ers past the Green Bay Packers on Sunday and into the Super Bowl.
He will be making only his second NFL postseason start, the first coming last weekend when he completed but 11 passes (out of 19 attempts) on a day his offense ran 47 times in a 27-10 victory over Minnesota.
Because of that lopsided offensive attack, questions remain about Garoppolo and how he might respond to the heat of January, particularly when the opposing quarterback is super cool Aaron Rodgers, a living Hall of Fame bronze bust.
“OK, we ran the ball 47 times,” San Francisco right tackle Mike McGlinchey said. “What’s wrong with that? Why does it have to fall back on a negative about Jimmy? We won the game by 17 points and dominated.
“That’s what people don’t understand. On the outside world, they need flash. They need him to look a certain way. The media needs to talk about him in a certain way. It’s ridiculous. The guy is an unbelievable talent.”
That talent is precisely what Babers remembers seeing from the moment Garoppolo threw his first pass in practice. Having been an assistant at places such as UCLA, Arizona and Texas A&M, he knew what a major college quarterback looked like.
Babers was on the staff at Baylor when Robert Griffin III won the Heisman Trophy as a Bear. Those are the things he mentioned to NFL scouts when he encouraged them to come to Eastern Illinois to check out his quarterback.
“I don’t know what happened before I got there,” Babers said. “But for us and our system, his accuracy, his intelligence, his pocket presence was ideal. We stumbled onto a gold mine.”
New England drafted Garoppolo in the second round of the 2014 draft. After spending 3 1/2 seasons behind Tom Brady, he joined the 49ers in a trade in October 2017.
A month later, he replaced C.J. Beathard and won his first five starts as San Francisco went from 1-10 to 6-10 and Garoppolo from lightly used to heavily paid.
A pending free agent, he re-signed with the 49ers for five years and $137.5 million, which, at the time, was the richest contract in NFL history.
Limited to three games in 2018 because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament, Garoppolo has helped San Francisco to 14 victories this season to improve to 22-5 — including the playoffs — as an NFL starter.
“He’s a baller, honestly,” 49ers wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. “He makes his mistakes, but in clutch moments, he’s shown up. If you look at his record, it’s like .800. How is that not impressive?”
Garoppolo has directed four game-winning drives in the fourth quarter, third most in the league this season.
He matched Drew Brees throw for throw in a stirring 48-46 victory at New Orleans. He beat the Rams, first on the road and then again at home. He went into Seattle and helped San Francisco clinch the NFC’s No. 1 seed with a Week 17 win.
“You hear the talk that Aaron Rodgers is superior,” McGlinchey said. “We think that’s bull. Not that Aaron Rodgers … Aaron Rodgers is a Hall of Famer. But we’re very confident in No. 10. He’s just as good as anybody out there.”
Just as good, perhaps. Just as humble, most certainly. It would be difficult for any NFL quarterback — never mind one with a salary of $23.8 million — to be more deferential than Garoppolo.
At a news conference at the opening of training camp in July, he had to be told to step closer to the microphone because no one could hear him. When he does talk, Garoppolo would much prefer to address any subject other than himself.
This is a guy who leaves the San Francisco locker room each day with his playbook and other essentials slung over his shoulder in an Eastern Illinois backpack.
“He could have leather or Gucci or anything else he wanted,” Babers said. “Instead, he has his EIU book bag. That’s Jimmy’s character right there. He wants to remember where he came from.”
Even now — especially now — when he’s trying to go to a place he’s never been.