Heisman Trophy campaigns, like college football, have grown exponentially.

Share story

Old-timers might remember when the Heisman Trophy was just an award.

Terry Baker, the 1962 Heisman winner as Oregon State’s quarterback, found out he won after being called out of engineering class.

“Then I went back to class,” Baker recently recalled.

No matter who wins this year — USC is aiming for a Matt Barkley conquest — there is no doubt today’s Heisman is shinier and louder. It is a combination election, beauty contest and high-school musical — moderated by an Arkansas hog caller.

The trophy mirrors the sport’s open-ended ridiculousness.

“It’s as silly as college football itself,” said Chris Huston, who runs Heismanpundit.com. “College football is all about arguing. It’s a never-ending constitutional convention.”

The Heisman playing field is as level as the Himalayas. Offensive linemen, for example, need not apply. And it is clear USC and Notre Dame have certain inalienable rights over Slippery Rock and Vanderbilt.

Like a national-title run, a Heisman campaign is a snapshot taken by a myopic. Each season is a snowflake. Peyton Manning’s 1997 setback to Charles Woodson has no correlation to Andre Ware’s 1989 victory over Anthony Thompson.

The sport that allowed Brigham Young to win the national title in 1984 also permitted Gino Torretta to win the Heisman in 1992.

Catchphrases help — Sports Illustrated led a hopeless 1985 Heisman charge for a Plymouth (N.H.) State player: “What the Heck, Why Not (Joe) Dudek?” — but ingenious sloganeering gets you only so far.

In the 1960s, a skinny Notre Dame freshman quarterback at practice raced past South Bend Tribune sports editor Joe Doyle.

“There goes Theismann,” said Doyle, pronouncing it correctly as “Thees-mann.”

Roger Valdiserri, Notre Dame’s legendary sports-information director, had an epiphany. Reflecting on the moment recently, he recalled, “No, I said, ‘There goes Theismann, as in Heisman.’ “

Valdiserri convinced Theismann to change the pronunciation of his name, although the quarterback’s best finish in the voting was second in 1970 to Stanford quarterback Jim Plunkett.

“It became a big deal,” Valdiserri said, “but I didn’t spend one cent promoting Joe Theismann. And Joe said, ‘Yeah, well, I didn’t win it.’ “

In 1997, Washington State coach Mike Price promoted Ryan Leaf by taking foliage advantage of his quarterback’s name.

Sports-information man Rod Commons, who is retired, remembers dispatching office staff to rake leaves around campus.

“They came back with sacks,” he said.

A single leaf, nothing else, was mailed to voting members of the media in nondescript envelopes.

Leaf finished third behind Michigan defensive back Woodson and Tennessee quarterback Manning, but the campaign was almost universally praised.

Commons mulled another promotion that involved munitions. “I had a great one,” he recalled. “His name was Barry Rifle. But it didn’t work out. He was an offensive lineman.”

Heisman campaigns, like college football, have grown exponentially and hyperactively. And, like a lot of things, the launch of ESPN in 1979 seems to be the pivot point.

The 24/7 promotion and increase in television revenue have resulted in a heavy burden on SIDs and postal workers.

Brigham Young, in 1990, mailed cardboard ties to promote quarterback Ty Detmer. That, and Detmer’s throwing for 5,188 yards and 41 touchdowns, earned him the Heisman.

In 2001, Oregon spent $250,000 to plaster a King Kong-sized billboard of quarterback Joey Harrington on a New York skyscraper. The audacious move, greenlighted by then-Oregon athletic director Bill Moos, was ridiculed by some.

Moos, who is the Washington State AD, said a New York Times reporter called essentially to ask what he was smoking.

“My response was, ‘How else would I ever be getting a call from The New York Times?’ ” Moos said.

The Ducks finished ranked No. 2, Harrington ended up fourth in Heisman balloting and the “Joey Heisman” campaign, Huston said, marked the launch point for Oregon football as a national brand.

The next year, WSU parodied Oregon’s campaign by putting an image of quarterback Jason Gesser on the side of a grain silo. Gesser finished seventh in voting.

These aren’t your grandfather’s Heisman campaigns.

Valdiserri said when Notre Dame’s Paul Hornung was informed he had won the 1956 Heisman his response was, “What’s that?”

Oregon State SID John Eggers is credited with mounting the first Heisman campaign in 1962 when he sent out weekly mailers promoting “Touchdown Terry Baker.” It was a rather low-key promotion: Baker said he learned of his “Touchdown” nickname five years ago.