College Football Preview 2001
Message Board
Wednesday, August 15
Updated: August 16, 5:22 PM ET
Publicity, not talent, may win the Heisman

By Bob Harig
Special to

Two-a-day workouts are just underway, and coaches across the country are doing their obligatory rounds of interviews, giving fans a reason to look with hope toward the coming season. So why are we talking about the Heisman Trophy?

Part of the award's charm and curse is that it receives so much attention, even before the first tackle is made. In no other sport do they begin to handicap the field at such a stage. The season is allowed to play out, and the winners typically make their case.

But in college football, the trophy that was originally called the Downtown Athletic Club Award and dates to 1935 takes on a life of its own as perhaps the most recognized individual award in sports.

Of course, it didn't start out that way. Jay Berwanger of the University of Chicago won the first award and didn't hear about it until a letter arrived in the mail. A year later, the award was named for John Heisman, the legendary coach who had been the athletic director of the Downtown Athletic Club.

Michael Vick
Michael Vick was the No. pick in the NFL Draft, but wasn't good enough to win the Heisman.
Heisman could have never envisioned the importance placed on his award today.

Voters across the country will soon be inundated with postcards, notepads, posters, T-shirts and brochures touting the various candidates. Newspapers and websites will provide their weekly "Heisman Watch." Television will give us updates, too.

And if you think this Heisman hype is a thing of the recent past, go back to 1968, when Notre Dame got the idea to change the pronunciation of quarterback Joe Theisman's name from "THEES-man" to Theisman, as in Heisman.

It didn't work, but Theisman did finish second to Stanford's Jim Plunkett in 1970.

Last year, Virginia Tech unveiled a special web page for quarterback Michael Vick, who had finished third in the voting a year earlier. Tech officials believed it was important to make people aware of Vick and his accomplishments. They discussed a plan to put it together almost as soon as returning home from a Sugar Bowl loss to Florida State, a game in which Vick nonetheless had already emerged as a candidate for the 2000 season.

Alas, Vick didn't even get invited to New York for the ceremony. An ankle injury hurt his chances. So did a Tech loss to Miami.

Yet Vick was still the No. 1 pick in NFL Draft, which again points out that the best player is not always worthy of Heisman status.

In fact, the Heisman does not necessarily go to the best college player in the country.

It is not based only on single-season performance.

It often comes down to marketing and hype.

And it definitely isn't fair.

Consider last year when Florida State's Chris Weinke won the award over Oklahoma quarterback Josh Heupel by 76 points. Only 86.3 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. There were 922 ballots mailed out by the Downtown Athletic Club, but only 796 were counted.

And how many of those voters cast their ballots based on regional bias? It is an understood practice, which sort of makes a mockery of the concept. Shouldn't the voters choose whom they believe to be the best player in the country?

Example. Two seasons ago, Wisconsin's Ron Dayne won the Heisman Trophy. He had 1,834 yards, capping a remarkable career. He was obviously rewarded for his four-year prowess. And yet, during the 1999 season, Dayne was not the leading rusher in the country, nor did he lead the nation in all-purpose yards or scoring. In fact, his 1,834 yards were the lowest total by a Heisman winner since Bo Jackson in 1985. Then there's the 1997 season, when Michigan's Charles Woodson edged Tennessee's Peyton Manning. Woodson, predominantly a defensive player, won over the year-long favorite. But should Manning have even had a chance? Some argued he wasn't even the nation's best quarterback that year, let alone the best player. He was just fifth in passing yardage, tied for fifth in touchdowns. There were 13 other quarterbacks with a better passing efficiency rating.

So who are this year's contenders? It seems silly to say now, but a couple of good guesses would be Northwestern tailback Damien Anderson, Clemson quarterback Woody Dantzler and Indiana quarterback Antwaan Randle El.

Others being mentioned at this early date are Miami quarterback Ken Dorsey, Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch, Oregon quarterback Joey Harrington and Oregon State tailback Ken Simonton.

It's really too easy to say who will emerge. The season needs to unfold.

But you can bet when the contenders line up in December, too many ballots, too many regional biases and too much hype will overshadow the process.

Bob Harig covers college football for the St. Petersburg Times.

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