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It has been 20 years since the kid from Hyden, Ky., became the No. 1 overall selection in the 1999 NFL Draft.
And as the 2019 version begins Thursday in Nashville, what does Tim Couch remember of that night two decades ago in New York?
“We actually signed the contract with the Browns in the men’s room there at Madison Square Garden,” Couch said Tuesday.
That’s one anecdote on what was a surreal evening for the former Kentucky quarterback, who had led the Wildcats to the Outback Bowl his junior season before being chosen first overall by the expansion Cleveland Browns.
“It all just happened so fast,” said Couch, who lives in Lexington with his wife and two sons, ages 13 and 10. “I felt like I had just graduated high school, really. It was just three short years. I only played two seasons at Kentucky. My freshman year I didn’t really get to play that much. It felt like it was really flying by and that moment was there.”
Arguably the most heralded recruit in UK football history, the former Leslie County star’s career took off when Hal Mumme was named the team’s head coach before the 1997 season. Immediately named the starter, Couch threw for 37 touchdowns as a sophomore. The Cats improved to 8-4 in 1998 for their first New Year’s Day bowl game in a quarter century as Couch finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting, won by Texas running back Ricky Williams.
“It was a very hard decision,” said Couch of his choice to enter the draft. “I really wanted to stay at Kentucky, to be honest with you, for my senior season. There were some things I wanted to accomplish with my team.”
All five of Couch’s offensive linemen, plus leading receiver Craig Yeast, were graduating, however. After throwing for 4,275 yards with 36 touchdowns, Couch’s draft stock was not likely to be any higher if he returned for one more college season.
Leading up to the draft, however, the speculation about the No. 1 overall pick centered on three quarterbacks — Donovan McNabb of Syracuse, Akili Smith of Oregon and Couch. It wasn’t until the Browns came to Lexington for a private Couch workout that the scales tipped in his direction.
“I threw the ball really well that day,” Couch said. “I think that was the one that sealed the deal.”
With 1999 being the first season since the old Browns left for Baltimore in 1996, Cleveland did not want a holdout, however. Prior to the draft, team officials had been negotiating with Couch’s agent, Tom Condon. The parties involved reached a deal the night before the first round, which is why Couch ended up signing the contract in the men’s room.
“Even though I kind of new what was going to happen,” he said, “it doesn’t seem real until the commissioner walks out there and calls your name and you walk on stage, shake his hand and get the jersey. That’s when it really sets in and it’s a great moment for you.”
Alas, as an expansion team, the Browns struggled to put enough talent around their new quarterback. Coaching and front office changes didn’t help. The Browns did reach the playoffs in 2002, still their last appearance. A leg fracture kept him out of the wild-card game that year, however, and by 2003 the hits he had taken — a league-high 56 sacks his rookie season — took their toll.
“My only regret is the injuries,” said Couch, who underwent his first shoulder surgery with Green Bay in 2004, and was out of the league soon after. “I’m really proud of being able to take that franchise, starting day one to (the playoffs) before the injuries started to set in. It was just a really tough situation for a young quarterback and I look back at it now and it was really kind of a no-win situation.”
Couch returned to Cleveland last year as a broadcaster on the Browns’ preseason games, a role he will fill again this season. And he has nothing but fond memories of April 17, 1999, when his was the first name called.
“I got the opportunity to live out a dream of being a franchise quarterback in the NFL,” Couch said Tuesday. “Be the No. 1 pick, lead an NFL team to a playoff, financially I did really well. All those things were great. … I’m proud of what I accomplished, I just wish I could have done it over a longer period of time.”
Thursday’s TV: First round starts at 8 p.m. on ABC-36, ESPN and the NFL Network