Talk about your miracles on 34th Street ...
There at the corner of 34th Street and Seventh Avenue, just across the street from Madison Square Garden, is a 100-by-80-foot mural of Oregon quarterback Joey Harrington, which is interesting since many New Yorkers barely know Oregon from oregano. And they wouldn't know Harrington if he quacked his way up and down Broadway.
But that didn't stop the school's athletic department from dropping 250 large on the cost of the mural, thanks to big-money donations from eight or so Duck boosters. So what if the athletic department needed about $1.8 million from the university's general fund to pay its bills this year. So what if that $250,000 would have paid for 20 full in-state scholarships. The important thing is that Oregon hype its Heisman candidate.
"We'd like to think we'd be up there with the Nebraskas, the Florida States and Notre Dames, but the truth is, your common man on the street, that name doesn't roll right off the tongue," says Oregon assistant sports information director Greg Walker, who helped conceive the campaign.
Maybe not, but this probably isn't what the fellas at the Downtown Athletic Club had in mind when they commissioned the award in 1935. Heisman hype is one thing, $250,000 is another.
Texas Christian reportedly spent about $90,000 on last season's Heisman campaign for running back LaDainian Tomlinson. Tomlinson led the nation in rushing, earned a trip to the DAC and later was the fifth pick in the NFL draft.
"Would we do the same things over again?" says TCU sports information director Steve Fink. "Yeah, probably so. Our goal was to get L.T. to New York and we accomplished that."
But TCU played in the Western Athletic Conference, which was great if you had a jones for Fresno State-UTEP games. Since then, the Horned Frogs have switched to Conference USA, a league so hungry for attention that its 2001 schedule includes Friday night appearances.
Anyway, TCU had a semi-legitimate excuse for spending too much money on Tomlinson billboards in the Metroplex. No-name conference. Not much TV exposure. Agate-page members.
Meanwhile, Oregon belongs to the stately and revered Pac-10 Conference, home of the granddaddy of network appearances, of first-rate bowl tie-ins. Oregon's coach, Mike Bellotti, has been wooed by the likes of USC. The Ducks finished 10-2 last season, beat Texas for a second consecutive bowl win, and are no-brainers for a Top 10, maybe Top 5 preseason ranking.
And, no, Harrington isn't on the short, short list of preseason Heisman candidates, but he's within viewing distance. The guy is 14-2 as a starter, with two other victories in relief. Even a dimwit Heisman voter doesn't think Oregon without thinking Harrington.
Just in case, the mural features Harrington's last name crossed out and replaced with the word Heisman. Subtle. And more Oregon football murals are planned, one in Los Angeles and another in San Francisco.
Oregon officials say this is an innovative way to grow the brand, to celebrate 125 years of Duckdom, to add to the Quack Attack publicity. But none of it will mean squat if Harrington goes 9-of-24 against Wisconsin in the season opener, or tweaks a knee, or watches the Ducks go in the tank.
Nothing against Harrington -- who will get my Heisman consideration with or without a mural -- but Oregon didn't need to do this. It cost a lot of money, but it still looks cheap. It looks like someone trying to buy Heisman publicity.
Oregon football has arrived. Problem is, nobody needed a $250,000 reminder.>
Gene Wojciechowski is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail Geno at email@example.com.
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