Former Bengals QB Virgil Carter found a home off the field teaching statistics at Xavier
Most avid football fans know that one-time Cincinnati Bengals assistant coach Bill Walsh, under the tutelage of Paul Brown, was the “Father of the West Coast Offense”—the high-powered, short-pass game that Walsh eventually took with him to the San Francisco 49ers and used to win three Super Bowls. But few people realize that the first quarterback to run the West Coast Offense wasn’t Joe Montana but a one-time, little-known Xavier statistics teacher.
After the 1969 season, the Bengals secured a backup quarterback from the Chicago Bears named Virgil Carter. Carter was the beginning of a line of great quarterbacks from Brigham Young University that included Jim McMahon, Steve Young and 1990 Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer. At BYU, Carter set six NCAA records, 19 Western Athletic Conference records and 24 BYU records and finished 11th in the 1966 Heisman Trophy voting. But his best numbers came in the classroom. As a mathematics major, Carter was BYU’s top Engineer Science student and was a two-time Scholastic All-American. He prepped at Sacramento’s Folsom High School and actually attended BYU on an academic scholarship.
The Bengals already had a great quarterback named Greg Cook—whom Walsh, in his autobiography, said had the most talent of any quarterback he ever coached, including Hall of Famers Montana and Young. Cook was named American Football League Rookie of the Year in 1969—ahead of OJ Simpson and “Mean” Joe Green.
While he had a stellar rookie season, however, Cook also suffered a shoulder injury, and when he could not come back from the injury at the start of the 1970 season, Carter became the Bengals’ starting quarterback by default. At 6-foot-1, 192 pounds with a mediocre NFL passing arm, Carter was no Greg Cook. But he was quick, nimble and could read defenses like an IBM mainframe computer.
With Carter in mind, Walsh went back to the drawing board and created an offense that revolved around quarterback movement and precision short passes to the wide receivers, tight ends and running backs. What made it different, though, was the passes weren’t just thrown down the field but went horizontally, from sideline to sideline. The Carter and Walsh combination was so successful that in its third year of existence, the Bengals went to the playoffs after winning the AFC Central Division with an 8-6 record. They eventually lost to the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Colts, who were led by Johnny Unitas and Bubba Smith.
Unlike professional football today, though, in the 1960s and 1970s, NFL players worked or went to school in the offseason. During his two years with the Bears, Carter secured a master’s degree in mathematics from Northwestern University. When he was traded to the Bengals, he contacted Xavier about a part-time teaching position. Jane Klingman, who ran the statistics program in the College of Business Administration, was impressed with his background and hired him to teach Bayesian and Classical Statistics during the spring semester in 1971.
Carter was confident in his ability to successfully teach the subject, but he had a big problem. He had just had surgery on his right wrist. He handled the situation as adroitly as he did the West Coast Offense. Until he learned how to write on a chalkboard left handed, he employed his wife, Judy, and Bengals rookie Ken Anderson, who was a math major at Augustana College, to be his helpers.
Steve Busam, a 1972 marketing major and member of the men’s golf team, remembers having Carter for class. “I did a paper for the class, which I based on taking 1,000 3-foot putts. I made 997 of them, or 99.7 percent of them. In statistical terms, my made putts were within three standard deviations from the mean. The class later became invaluable to me when I later ran DuBois Chemical’s application engineering lab and we had to meet the automotive industry and GE’s Six Sigma standards.”
Fellow 1972 marketing major Bob Sherman also remembers taking Carter’s class—although not necessarily for the statistical lessons. “I never missed a class,” he says. “I liked statistics OK, but XU had about 50 women on campus at the time, and Judy Carter had been the head cheerleader at BYU.”
Although the Bengals managed just a 4-10 record in 1971, Carter had a great year—statistically speaking, anyway. He had the highest completion percentage of any quarterback in the NFL and ranked No. 3 in overall passing statistics.
After the season, Carter not only continued to teach undergraduate statistics, but he also started teaching a course on quantitative methods in the MBA program. Carter and Klingman began collaborating on a statistics book that used NFL situations and football and sport permutations and combinations to enliven the subject. However, the book was never completed. Anderson, who was bigger and had a stronger arm, took over the starting quarterback role for the Bengals.
Carter went played for the World Football League’s Chicago Fire before returning to the NFL in 1975 with the San Diego Chargers and 1976 with the Chicago Bears. In seven seasons in the NFL, he passed for 5,063 yards and 29 touchdowns. Today, Carter lives with his wife, Judy, in Helendale, Calif., where he runs an insurance business. They have two grown sons.