The Heisman is the Academy Award of college football. Remind yourself of that fact as you watch this Saturday's announcement.
Like the Academy's honors, I don't really care about the collective opinion of a body politic comprising sociopathic cokeheads, preening Scientologists, and serial anal bleachers - and now I'm referring to sportswriters - but I still watch the results with some interest so I'll know how many times I'll have to bite my lip in work/social situations when someone feels sufficiently validated by the Academy or the Downtown Athletic Club to tell you that Crash is a profound piece of art or that Chris Weinke was a badass.
The history of the Heisman is rich in unmitigated bullshit, media manipulation, and grand larceny. The kinds of favors that one can only score Downtown (Athletic Club). Below I list some of my favorite case studies. Some will be familiar to you, some unknown, but know that I evaluate each within the context of their college career - what they go on to do in the pros isn't validation. Nor do I look back with 20/20 hindsight - I try to place myself in the time and context of the era. Just because you recognize a big name with a NFL career finishing as runner-up, doesn't mean the winner was undeserving.
I'm also looking for straight-up robberies, not differences of opinion. People now know that Vince Young was a better player than Reggie Bush, but it would be difficult to contend that Bush was a weak Heisman winner. Did the wrong guy win the 2005 Heisman? Of course. Does it make the All-Time Worst Winners list? Probably not.
Here are my Great 8 Heisman hijinks.
We begin with our nation at war and West Point is the dominant force in all of college football...
No one can stop West Point sophomores Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis - Mr Inside and Mr Outside - and West Point rolls easily to the national championship. Aside from being the best fullback in college football, Blanchard was an absolutely dominant linebacker - the best in the country - and served as Army's punter and placekicker. Glenn Davis was an outstanding HB with sprinter's speed (he still holds the NCAA Record for yards per carry in a single season at 11.5 per carry in 1944), scored 20 TDs in 9 games, and was regarded as the most exciting player in college football.
Despite their dominance, Ohio State's Les Horvath won in a close vote. Horvath played for Ohio State in the early 40's, later re-enrolled in dental school, and then played as a 24 year old senior - the Chris Weinke of his day. He was also the 3rd best player in the country. Regionalism and the unwritten rule against sophomore winners conspired for this result.
Horvath won only one region of the country - the Midwest; Davis - a native Californian - won the West and East, Blanchard - a Southern boy - won the South; both West Pointers effectively split their votes and each region's base - totally discounting Horvath - underrated the other Cadet in hopes of elevating their own boy. A few media members even refused to include sophomores on their ballot, regarding it as unseemly. Horvath won, in fact, on the strength of an inordinate number of 2nd place votes.
The United States was unapologetically more regional back then and voting for "your people" was important. This is one of the earliest clear examples of regionalism, sandbagging, and vote splitting that occurs between teammates and it cost The Black Knights of the Hudson the hardware. Blanchard and Davis each went on to win Heismans in '45 and '46, so no feeling too bad for the two super sophomores.
Notre Dame offers up their first of many dubious winners when HB Johnny Lattner wins a lifetime achievement award as one of the better players on a very good Notre Dame team (many believe his backfield mate Bob Kelly was the better player) and despite leading the Irish in not a single category - passing, rushing, receiving, scoring - Lattner walks off with the hardware. Jack-of-all-trades and master of none does not usually constitute the best Heisman resume and his inability to dominate his own team's stat sheet is telling. You can blame a weak field and Notre Dame's impressive PR machine but his trophy is nowhere nearly as egregious as...
Paul Hornung - captain of a 2-8 Notre Dame football team - wins a close victory over a group of notables including Johnny Majors of Tennessee, OU's sensational Tommy McDonald (he never lost a game at OU), and Syracuse's Jim Brown. Yeah, THAT Jim Brown. Brown placed 5th overall despite finishing 1st in the country in rushing yards per game, setting the NCAA record for points in game with 43, acting as the team's placekicker, and setting the school record for yards per carry. He also led the basketball team in scoring and was an All-American in lacrosse. He placed first in the Eastern Region voting, but wasn't in the Top 5 in any other region in America. Apparently, his last name was a helpful warning for voters - we wouldn't get our first black Heisman trophy winner until 1961 (another Syracuse RB who wore #44 - Ernie Davis).
Aside from highlighting clear racial injustice, there were at least a dozen players more deserving than Hornung. Probably the greatest Heisman fraud of all time. During the year Hornung ran for 420 yards, averaging 4.5 yards per carry and threw for 917. On a team that won 20% of its games. There are no words.
UCLA's Gary Beban wins over LeRoy Keyes, Larry Csonka, and OJ Simpson, despite UCLA losses to both Csonka's Syracuse and Simpson's USC squad; games in which both backs dominated. Beban threw for just under 1400 yards, 8 TDs and 8 INTs on the year, wasn't a particularly gifted runner, and was primarily a caretaker for the Bruin offense. Simpson dominated throughout the year and led USC to a thrilling win over UCLA with a 64 yard 4th quarter TD scamper, but Beban played through a rib injury on national television (and a Pick 6 TD to USC) and his pluck became the sort of scene-stealing mythos that can project a solid college player surrounded by a great supporting cast into legendary status. He then sat out the next week's game against Syracuse in which UCLA was completely whipped.
You could also make a very strong argument for Purdue's Leroy Keyes for the Heisman - he was college football's last 60 minute man. He was an All-American halfback and cornerback who also returned punts and kickoffs for a Top 10 Purdue squad. Poor LeRoy finished second the next year to OJ Simpson.
Certainly one of the most bizarre awards ever as Beban was likely not even among the Top 10 players in college football.
Ah, the Archie Griffin legacy award. The second of Griffin's two Heisman trophies. The first was richly deserved. The second was a travesty. Truly one of the worst awards of all time. Griffin scored four touchdowns the entire year while being outshined by Cal's Chuck Muncie, USC's Ricky Bell, Pitt's Tony Dorsett, and OU's spectacular Joe Washington (to name just a few). He managed just 46 yards against arch-rival Michigan and was outshined all year by backfield mate Pete Johnson (who scored 26 TDs to Griffin's 4).
The Buckeyes had a great team that year and the media all but handed Griffin the award for coming back in his senior season. Lazy sportswriters don't like doing rewrites. Despite his lack of performance, Griffin won in a landslide. The most prolific Heisman winner ever then went on to the NFL where he was a distinguished fumbler and franchise killer.
Tim Brown, AKA Paul Hornung Part II. Brown was a ridiculously talented and poorly utilized player on a middling 8-4 football team. People generally give him the benefit of the doubt because Brown went on to a NFL Hall of Fame career, but that sort of reasoning doesn't hold water. There were several games where Brown never made an impact and the Irish were certainly nothing special that year. This was a theoretical Heisman awarded on the premise that had Notre Dame given Brown the ball more in an offense belonging to the 20th century, he would have made more plays.
One area in which he did make plays was as a punt returner - he brought back 3 that year - but a grand total of FOUR TDs rushing and receiving make this Heisman an eye roller. The only argument in his favor - and it's a weak one - is that he was competing with a soft field. Still, Emmitt Smith was tearing it up at Florida and Thurman Thomas was good enough at OSU to keep Barry Sanders as a kick returner. LB Chris Spielman was also playing like a mutant at Ohio St.
There was also a forgotten player from that voting: Syracuse's Don McPherson, the runner-up to Brown. He had big production and wins back when Syracuse wasn't just a basketball school. The freeze option was the zone read of its day and McPherson was a master. He led the Orangemen to an undefeated season, a top 5 ranking, and led the nation in passing efficiency. He was the deserving winner.
Marshall gets Faulked. By Sopranos hopeful Gino Toretta. Toretta's QBing strategy was most notable for throwing the ball into the air end over end like a kid playing Smear the Queer and counting on one of Miami's three NFL receivers to grab it. He was Weinke when Weinke wasn't cool. Faulk was notable for running behind a horrendous OL with a minimal supporting cast and juking nine different defenders to take it to the house every ten times he touched the ball. The Aztecs hadn't been screwed this thoroughly since Cortes. It's one of the more amusing Heisman results and a clear indication of the voter's desire to give the award to a QB on a good team, even if he's not even among that team's best 5 players.
A forty three year old Chris Weinke wins over Drew Brees, LaDanian Tomlinson, and Josh Heupel. Josh Heupel won OU a MNC, used to have Bobby Stoops convinced that big game wins were his birthright, and resurrected Sooner football as we know it (and despise it). As for Drew Brees, please recall that Brees passed for 3500+ and ran for 500+ playing for a talentless Purdue team that he led to the Rose Bowl. Drew Brees was as dominant a college QB as I've ever seen and his receiving corps comprised an array of Caucasians and parking meters. He was my choice from that year. LaDanian Tomlinson...was LaDanian Freaking Tomlinson. He convinced college football that Dennis Franchione was a great coach. That alone should garner the hardware. I've always wondered if Aggies hate LT for that. Weinke was probably the 4th best choice that year.
These are just a few of my own thoughts on some notable winners.
Chicago's Jay Berwanger, a quality winner and a good player in his day, won the first Heisman trophy. But that award was for the "Most Outstanding Player East Of The Mississippi." Some will argue that this is still the case. That precluded the great Slingin' Sammy Baugh from the voting (he was the best player in the country) and TCU would win their first Heisman three years later with Davey O'Brien when the scope of the prize expanded to a national award.
John Huarte's win for Notre Dame is long held up as one of the great examples of a tarnished Heisman, but I disagree. Huarte was a lightly regarded player who never played much until his senior year and Ara Parseghian became the new head coach. He had a tremendous senior year averaging more than 10 yards per attempt, 2,000+ passing yards, came up big in big games, and led the Irish to a 9-1 record after they went 2-7 in 1963. Irish football was back and John Huarte got a lot of the credit. A Heisman makes some sense. So what's the problem?
He beat out some amazing and extremely recognizable names like Dick Butkus, Joe Namath, and Gale Sayers. So after a cursory glance, we gnash our teeth and engage in simple revisionism. The truth is that Butkus was disadvantaged as a defensive player and Illinois was completely mediocre, Joe Namath never threw the ball at Bama, and Gale Sayers ran for 633 yards for a 6-4 team. Perhaps Sayers was named the Kansas Comet because that's how often you got to see him run? John Huarte became the ultimate Lazy Man's Heisman Critique because he fits the Heisman hate profile: a Notre Dame QB, he flopped in the NFL, he's unrecognizable, and below him are a roster of NFL legends. It must have been a con! But it really wasn't.
Eddie George wins over Tommie Frazier. Objectionable in retrospect, but not indefensible. Similar to the Vince Young/Reggie Bush dynamic. The average football writer couldn't understand how Frazier catalyzed Nebraska's option attack and George got the Eastern and Midwestern press with great statistics (1927 yards, 24 TDs) and a good regular season (and an all-important win over ND on national television) while Frazier's domination didn't translate as well statistically despite leading one of the most dominating football teams in the modern era. After Frazier destroyed Florida in the MNC game and George was shut down in his bowl game, I'm thinking a few votes were regretted. That written, George was a very good player, so let's not confuse him with Gary Beban.
Ron Dayne beats Joe Hamilton. This isn't a particularly controversial Heisman and I can understand why. But it bothered me then and it still does today. Joe Hamilton is already one the great forgotten football players in college football history despite being one of the early great spread dual threats. If Todd Reesing had run a 4.4 40 and had a better arm, you'd have Joe Hamilton. He was 2nd in the nation in passing efficiency, Georgia Tech led the country in offense, and he threw for 3,000+ and ran for 700+. Tech had a miserable defense and a fairly weak supporting cast on offense, but Hamilton brought it every Saturday.
He also played biggest in the big games, victimizing the very best teams in the country. He had 4 game winning 4th quarter TD drives as a senior and engineered an epic upset of arch-rival UGA 51-48 with 435 yards of total offense. He also almost took down the #1 Seminoles (back when they were still the Seminoles) going 22 of 25 for 387 yards, but losing 41-35.
Ron Dayne was a good college back in a great running system who won a Heisman lifetime achievement award when he broke the NCAA rushing record as a senior. His ability to drop a big game on Murray State was unparalleled. OK, I'm being bitter and unfair, but I never thought Dayne was all that special.
Many complain about Jason White's victory over Larry Fitzgerald and it's fairly absurd in retrospect given Fitzgerald's total destruction of the college game and his subsequent NFL career, but OU was considered absolutely dominant before their KSU upset and many voters had already mailed off their ballots. White also bludgeoned voters with incredible numbers: 3846 yards and 40 TDs, and a national television destruction of Texas. It's also a regular season award - the post-season egg laid against LSU wasn't a factor for consideration.
Anyway, this was a fun project. Perhaps you can win a couple of bar bets off of some of the arcana I unearthed. I'm also interested in your opinion, so have at it.