Sports, Thrill of Victory

Has the Heisman lost its luster?

The Heisman Trophy, in many ways, the best award in sports. Perhaps no trophy in all of American sports is more easily identifiable. People talk about the Heisman for months before, during and after it is awarded. Pro football may be bigger than the college game, but I would bet that the average football fan could name more Heisman winners than he could NFL MVPs. And, how many other awards have their own selection shows?

You get my point by now. I have always loved the Heisman, and watching the award unveiling has usually been appointment TV for me. But it wasn’t this year. With each passing year, the award continues to lose its meaning with me for a number of reasons. They are:

1. Character is supposed to matter, but it doesn’t. According to the Heisman Trophy’s website, the Heisman qualifications are as follows: “The Heisman Memorial Trophy annually recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity.”

Now, outside of the year when Tim Tebow won the award, I don’t expect it to go to someone straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Nor do I romanticize past Heisman selections — O.J. Simpson once won this award, though that was long before we knew who O.J. really was.

If you’re looking for sterling examples of character, I think we can do better than three of the last four winners. I know nothing was ever proven with Cam Newton or Johnny Manziel, but does anyone really believe those guys met the “amateur” definition to the letter of the law? What about Manziel’s spoiled-brat attitude he displayed the entire summer, or the fact that Newton got kicked out of his previous college for theft?

I probably have a bigger problem with this year’s winner, Jameis Winston, than anyone. Without going into detail, the fact that the alleged victim made a 911 call within hours of their encounter, coupled with the way the city of Tallahassee seemed a lot more concerned with protecting Winston than it did discovering the truth, has caused me to have more questions about Winston’s character than the official exoneration did to make me feel better about the situation.

The fact that none of the three were ever convicted of anything was enough for most to vote for them. Knowing the way people rally to protect powerful athletes and programs when their glory is threatened, I’m not sure it’s good enough for me.

2. Most great college football players have no chance of winning the award. Twenty-one times, the NFL has made the first pick of its draft an offensive lineman, defensive lineman or linebacker.

How many times has a player from one of those positions won the Heisman? Zilch.

The best college player and the best NFL player aren’t always the same, but it’s still the same sport. If the NFL values those positions for the first pick in its draft that often, shouldn’t Heisman voters give superstars at those positions more credence?

Good luck in winning the award if you’re a receiver or a defensive back, too. Charles Woodson, a Michigan defensive back, won the award in 1997, but it was because he was also a return specialist with the unabashed support of ESPN. Receivers Desmond Howard (Michigan) and Tim Brown also won, but Howard also had the return-man card in his pocket and Brown played at Notre Dame, where you’ll never get a shortage of publicity.

It’s also hard to win the award if you’re not playing for a national title contender or a name program. It’s not impossible — if you have eye-popping numbers like Northern Illinois’ Jordan Lynch or Boston College’s Andre Williams , you can at least get invited to New York for the ceremony. But for the most part, you’re not going to get the benefit of the doubt, which is why a great player like Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews didn’t even sniff the top 10.

Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews might have been a first-team All-American, but that wasn't good enough for Heisman voters.

Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews might have been a first-team All-American, but that wasn’t good enough for Heisman voters.

In summary, we’ve disqualified 90 percent of the players on the field based on the position they play, and many of the remaining 10 percent because of where they play. When you’re searching for the best player, the field should be more open than that.

3. The Heisman Committee seems to be doing a worse job with each passing year. Starting from the mid-1970s on, the Committee seemed to be hitting home runs with each pick. Starting with Pitt’s Tony Dorsett in 1976, here’s a chronological list of Heisman winners until 1988: Dorsett, Earl Campbell, Billy Sims, Charles White, George Rogers, Marcus Allen, Herschel Walker, Mike Rozier, Doug Flutie, Bo Jackson, Vinny Testaverde, Tim Brown and Barry Sanders. Not a one of those guys was an NFL bust. Several went on to be Hall of Famers, and most made a Pro Bowl or two.

Since then, we’ve gone from a Who’s Who to mostly just a “who?” Oklahoma’s Jason White (2003) didn’t even make an NFL roster. Gino Toretta (1993) threw 16 NFL passes, while Tebow (2007), Ohio State’s Troy Smith (2006) and Chris Weinke (2000) didn’t last long in the league. Nebraska’s Eric Crouch was a college quarterback, but got just an NFL cup of coffee as a safety. Rashaan Salaam and Mark Ingram were more or less busts. Since Sanders, only Eddie George, Woodson, Ricky Williams, Carson Palmer and Newton really went on to be NFL stars, though there have been some other decent players in there.

I’m not necessarily saying that a player has to be an NFL star in order to validate what he did in college, but if we’re really picking the best college player most years, there should be more correlation to next-level success than we are seeing.

The common denominator on all those NFL busts is that they played for college powerhouses, where they certainly benefitted from great surrounding talent. Clearly, voters have spent too much time taking stats at face value and looking at the won-loss record of a player’s team, and have lost much of the ability to put these things into context.

1 Comment

  1. Bill Traughber

    Chris:

    I need your email. The one chris@vandysports.com does not go through. I have a suggestion for you.

    Bill