Oh, the hype.
The other day, I tuned in to ESPN Radio and heard an interview between Dan Patrick and Michigan State’s junior wide receiver, Charles Rogers. Among other things, they discussed the possibility of Rogers leaving MSU early for the NFL draft, his record-setting day against Notre Dame, and MSU’s chances of winning the Big 10 this year.
It was a typical sports interview, laced with overused clichZ
My ears perked up, however, when I heard Patrick’s segment-closing comment: “He won’t win the Heisman Trophy, but he may just be the best player in college football.” Like any good sports fan, I had this classical notion that the Heisman trophy was reserved for the best player in college football each year.
So what was Patrick thinking?
Probably the same thing I was thinking when the David Carrs and Steve McNairs of the world lost the Heisman to arguably less brilliant stars from schools with bigger names.
Each December, an obsessed and adrenaline-charged American sports public faithfully tunes in for the induction of yet another player into the most exclusive of college football fraternities. So with the posters of Iowa State’s Seneca Wallace already gracing ESPN’s “College Gameday” and a host of other Heisman campaigns well under way, does the process behind college football’s most prized honor need to be reevaluated?
Without second-guessing Patrick, let’s debunk a few popular perceptions:
— The Heisman Trophy is not necessarily awarded to the nation’s best college football player.
— It is not necessarily awarded to the player with the best single-season statistics.
— It is not necessarily awarded to the most deserving player.
— It is not necessarily fair.
Good. Now we know what it isn’t. But is there anything about the Heisman now that begs for review?
In the days of Tom Harmon, Dick Kazmeier and Roger Staubach, the Heisman image came from a candidate’s performance on the field, not in the press room. Now, to be legitimately competitive, you need an exceptional publicity campaign as well as an exceptional throwing arm.
You better have: (1) the university’s sports administration shelling out thousands of dollars months in advance to use pointed mailings and “hype campaigns” that control the inevitable public relations war (just look at Washington State’s Jason Gesser); (2) your own bobble-head doll like Marshall’s Byron Leftwich; (3) your very own state-of-the-art interactive website like Florida’s Rex Grossman; and (4) your own obnoxiously large billboard in Times Square like Oregons’ Onterrio Smith, who follows in alumnus Joey Harrington’s footsteps (note to Smith, not even a building-sized billboard was enough to help Harrington win the Heisman).
Oh, and it goes without saying that you better be a quarterback, runningback or wide receiver playing an integral role on a national championship-contending team, in a major conference, with the bulk of your games broadcast nationally. And if you aren’t a natural at one of these positions, you can be like Michigan’s Charles Woodson in 1997 — get your coach to put you in for some punt returns and the occasional shotgun set on offense — because being an exceptional cornerback isn’t enough.
Got it? It’s not fair. The football gets lost in the hype.
Recent losers of this Heisman PR race include record-setting running backs Troy Davis (1995, Iowa State) and LaDainian Tomlinson (2000, TCU). Both had spectacular, Heisman-worthy seasons, and did not come close to winning because (1) their names weren’t Eddie George (1995 champ) or Chris Weinke (2000 champ), (2) their schools weren’t winning against the “toughest” major competition on the national stage — like George’s Ohio State Buckeyes or Wienke’s Florida State Seminoles — and (3) they weren’t regular features on ABC Saturday afternoons. They never had a chance.
Troy who? Exactly.
Expect more of the same this year. Don’t check the current statistics to see who is putting up Heisman numbers. I can assure you no player on San Diego State will receive consideration, even though two of their receivers lead the nation in receiving yardage.
Look at the marquee teams in BCS contention and find their integral players — only quarterbacks, runningbacks or wide receivers, mind you — and choose the ones hyped in major marketing campaigns long before the summer started. Then, you may have the small, potential pool for this year’s Heisman.
But it shouldn’t be this way. Instead of making this a complaint column, let me offer a small suggestion. In the future, the NCAA should: (1) review the intent of the award as conceived in 1936; (2) establish some objective selection criteria; and (3) consider the current role of money, media access and exposure in the Heisman race.
Get past the hype.
Maybe the first step in getting past the hype came this summer when the NCAA decided to move the Heisman awards ceremony to the Yale club.
With two of the first three Heisman trophy winners and legendary football coach Walter Camp coming from Yale, this step may represent a return to a simpler time, when numbers mattered more than name recognition.
For the sake of college football and its highest honor, let’s hope this is the case.