The college football season is officially winding down, which means the selection of the 81st Heisman Trophy winner is on the horizon (the announcement will take place December 10). Author Cory McCartney is a longtime Heisman voter and provides a unique perspective regarding the history of the trophy, in his book The Heisman Trophy, which published last month.
Sports Publishing: Since Jay Berwanger received the very first Heisman (then the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy) in 1935, how has the perception or prestige of the accomplishment changed over time?
McCartney: Basically, the Heisman Trophy has gone from its inception as a promotional tool for an athletic club to a television spectacle that, for the program that welcomes the fraternity’s latest member, can mean millions in media exposure.
Case in point there is Texas A&M, which used a sports and sponsorship evaluation company after Johnny Manziel’s win in 2012, and found that the quarterback’s win translated into 1.8 million media impressions, worth an estimated $37 million. That figure doesn’t include additional booster donations that were spiked by the win, increased tickets sales, or the like.
That’s quite the departure from Berwanger, who first saw it as little more than a free trip to New York, and was much more interested in winning the Silver Football, which went to the Big Ten’s best player.
Sports Publishing: Who was the least deserving and most deserving winner in the history of the Heisman, in your opinion?
McCartney: I use “least deserving” only in terms of the oddity of it, because Notre Dame’s Paul Hornung winning on a team that went 2-8 in 1956 is stunning. Syracuse’s Jim Brown finished in fifth, but probably should have won as he was third in the nation in rushing and led the Orange to a spot in the Cotton Bowl, but there was the lure of the Fighting Irish and race was still a glass ceiling that wouldn’t be shattered for five years by another Orange RB, Ernie Davis.
In terms of the most deserving, I look to a player who is no longer recognized as a Heisman winner in 2005 recipient Reggie Bush. His season, in which he piled up 2,611 all-purpose yards and 18 TDs, was the most electrifying season of my lifetime and he deserved to dominate a vote that included a record for the highest percentage of the maximum possible points (91.7).
Sports Publishing: Chapter four of your book is devoted to the only two-time Heisman winner to date, Archie Griffin. In this chapter, you cite others who have come close, but haven’t been able to match Griffin’s feat. What do you think are the chances that someone else can do so between now and, say, 2020?
McCartney: The fact that we’ll likely see Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, a sophomore, claim this year’s trophy means this will be a hot topic next season and potentially the year after if he stays in college. But the truth is, these players getting more opportunities as underclassmen winners has made it seem even more impossible.
Everyone is held to a different standard in their follow-up, or follow-ups, but there’s almost been a backlash or fatigue surrounding these bids. Look at the case of Tim Tebow. In 2008, his first follow-up bid, he earned more first-place votes than winner Sam Bradford or second-place Colt McCoy.
That would seem to show that in Tebow’s case, the majority of voters were willing to get behind another two-time winner. But a year later, he finished fifth, which at the time was the worst finish for any returning winner that didn’t miss substantial time with injury.
Griffin believes it’s an inevitability, but as his win grows in mystique, it just seems that much further from reality.
Another football blog post: View from the O-Line
Sports Publishing: The Heisman Trophy is awarded in early December, before bowl games are played, an issue to which you devote a chapter in your book. In the text, you recommend that a change be made. Why do you think this change hasn’t yet taken place?
McCartney: It could certainly change the complexity of the race, and as I broke down in my book, would have changed a number of votes over the years.
The Trust’s decision to continue using championship weekend as the cutoff for voting seems even more bizarre considering the NCAA began including bowl statistics in 2002. If records can still be broken in the bowl season—which we could see this year with San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey chasing the all-time rushing mark—shouldn’t the Trust want voters to have the most informed approach to that season? The trophy’s governing body, though, has maintained this is a regular-season award, and they won’t be altering that.
The case can be made that the bowls could lead to knee-jerk reactions from voters, but there’s also a prime-time TV show that is at the center of all this and that’s a stage the Trust also doesn’t seem to have interest in altering.
Sports Publishing: How has campaigning for the Heisman changed over the years, and why?
McCartney: It’s pretty incredible to think that in 1962 it was cutting edge when Oregon State sent out statistics from every game to voters or in ’63 when Navy’s SID sent out a four-page mailer the size of an index card.
That approach of the physical Heisman push reached its zenith in 2001 when Oregon spent a quarter of a million on the Joey Harrington billboard across from Madison Square Garden, and while it’s now mainly digital campaigning, an interesting trend is the amount of schools that do little or nothing to promote candidates.
Alabama didn’t put together a campaign for Derrick Henry, and neither did Oregon with Marcus Mariota. Of course, letting the play speak for itself works for those major programs, and we’re still seeing some instances of traditional promotional tactics at smaller schools or those that don’t meet that blue-bloods label.
Sports Publishing: Do you think a non-QB or running back stands a chance of winning in the near future?
McCartney: Those have long been the positions of power in the Heisman race, and given how much college football is an offensive-focused game, that isn’t likely to change. Even when a receiver puts together a dominant season, more often than not we’ve seen the credit there go to the QB, like Texas Tech’s Michael Crabtree (the WR) and Graham Harrell (the QB) in 2008.
Sports Publishing: Regarding this year’s race, there has been a lot of hype around names like Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, and Jabrill Peppers lately. Any predictions?
McCartney: Now I can’t divulge my ballot, but this certainly looks like a vote that Lamar Jackson should dominate. How much after back-to-back losses [by Louisville] to end the regular season remains to be seen, and may provide the only real drama in this vote, but there hasn’t been another candidate in position to take advantage of Jackson’s slip-ups.
Had he not suffered those setbacks, I thought we’d see Jackson challenge Ricky Williams for the most dominant win for a player whose team didn’t content for a national title. Williams won with 85.2 percent of the vote in 1998, and 56.5 percent more than the second-place finisher, Michael Bishop.
Jackson should still win handedly, but [his team’s] losses have provided an out for those who instead want to throw their weight behind the likes of Deshaun Watson or Jake Browning.
-Cory McCartney and Sports Publishing
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