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Mark Axelrod

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Hip, Hip, Hooray: The Patently Perennial Heisman Hype

Posted: 11/22/11 09:25 AM ET

So, Brandon Weeden had a "bad" game against Iowa State and, well, he fell out of the top spot for the Heisman. So, Andrew Luck had a "bad" game against Oregon and, well, he fell out of the top spot for the Heisman. Then there was Trent Richardson who had a "bad" game against LSU and, well, he fell out of the top spot for the Heisman. The last time I counted, there were at least 22 players on both sides of the football. But the way the Heisman Hype goes, one would think there's some connection between how well a player plays in one particular game and how well his team performs relative to the individual's nominating status for the Heisman. But when did that happen? Is that some kind of arbitrary decision the Heisman committee uses in its decision-making process or is the Heisman committee influenced by the sports media?

Well, not according to the Heisman Trust Mission Statement which states: "The Heisman Memorial Trophy annually recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity. Winners epitomize great ability combined with diligence, perseverance, and hard work. The Heisman Trophy Trust ensures the continuation and integrity of this award..." That is, "whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity." Nothing in the mission statement says if a particular player (on offense or defense) has a bad game he's eliminated from Heisman contention. Who made up that frivolous rule?

A brief survey of previous Heisman winners attests to the fact that the "You're only as good as your last game" phenomenon is a relatively new one. For example, Jay Berwanger, who won the first Heisman in 1935 while at the University of Chicago, was part of a team that posted an astonishing 4-4 record. In 1939, Iowa's Nile Kinnick won the Heisman even though Iowa finished 6-1-1 and in 1954 Wisconsin's Alan Ameche won the Heisman while the Badgers went 7-2 and 5-2 in the Big Ten. But probably the most egregious Heisman ever given (at least based on present day standards) was the one that went to Paul Hornung who won the 1956 Heisman while Notre Dame finished 2-6 with one of those victories coming against Indiana, the worst team in Big Ten history.
What were the Heisman standards then? What was the Heisman committee thinking with Ty Detmer, Gino Torretta, Rashaan Salaam, Eric Crouch, or Jason White? Were those players worthy of the award because of their individual performances or because they had a remarkable team to support them?

Ironically, it would appear that the Heisman committee made the perfect choice with Hornung since he truly epitomized "great ability combined with diligence, perseverance, and hard work" and the award wasn't awarded predicated on some arbitrary notion of what constituted "Heisman style points." If one were to look at the present Heisman contenders based on the Hornung Principle (which throws out the win-loss records) then the committee would have to consider Andrew Luck and Trent Richardson as two of the highest candidates regardless of their records. And if you don't think so, try guessing where Luck is going to throw the ball next or try tackling Richardson around the thighs.

Regardless of who wins the Heisman, it seems as if the Heisman committee is somewhat the lackey of the sports media. For example, to my recollection, the last Ivy League player to be considered for the Heisman was Cornell's Ed Marinaro back in 1971. Before that, it was Princeton's Dick Kazmaier in 1951. In the past two decades, no one has won the award who has not come from a major Division I university. It's hard to believe there are no outstanding football players at other institutions whose on and off the field contributions wouldn't meet the standards of the Heisman Mission Statement.

It's almost as if there's some kind of collusion between the sports media and the Heisman committee relative to who's going to be nominated for the award. Then again, Heisman (whose first name no one really knows) must have been somewhat prescient about the notion of "style points" evinced by a 1916 game he coached in Atlanta. Heisman's Georgia Tech squad defeated the Cumberland College Bulldogs, 222-0. Allegedly, Coach Heisman ran up the score in retaliation for Cumberland's baseball team running up the score against Tech, 22-0, a year earlier with a number of ringers on the team and that Heisman was unhappy with the fact that he felt sportswriters were too focused on numbers alone. Go figure. Regardless, even with all the talk about who's deserving of the Heisman and who's not, the one thing that is seemingly apparent, if not patently perennial, is the Heisman Hype. This year will be no different.