How to rescue the Heisman

Acknowledging that the days of leather helmets, the quick kick and both-way players are gone would be a start.


Allen Barra
December 7, 2000 1:00AM (UTC)

Reformers say that the proper time to talk about election reform is just before an election because afterward everyone forgets. I don't know that I believe it, but on the possibility that it's true I'm going to suggest to New York's Downtown Athletic Club some reforms that might help future Heisman Trophy presentations regain the luster they had in the past -- the kind that's going to be missing from this Saturday's ceremony.

First, I'll start by acknowledging that the Heisman in particular, and college football in general, are never going to be what they were in terms of the national imagination. As the last great college football writer, Dan Jenkins, once pointed out, for most of the last century the most famous football player in the country was always a college player. I don't know exactly when it stopped being true, though I'd guess it was around the time Joe Montana and Dan Marino started to dominate NFL headlines. (Both were well known in college, but considered in the good-not-great category.) Certainly it was true from the end of World War I to at least the early '70s, with Joe Namath and O.J. Simpson being household names before they were drafted, and even most of the best-known pro players of the '70s -- Roger Staubach, Tony Dorsett and maybe Kenny Stabler -- were famous from their college exploits before playing a down in the pros. Who was the last college player to be the most famous football player in the country? Maybe Doug Flutie in 1983.

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What changed? Well, the game for one thing. As college football became big business, more and more schools that weren't traditional powers began sending players who hadn't had much national TV exposure to the pros. (Terry Bradshaw, for one, came from Louisiana Tech, and Jerry Rice, for another, came from Mississippi Valley State.)

Another thing that changed was the players. As the competing pro leagues made bonuses and salaries skyrocket, more and more star players left college before playing the defining game that might have helped us remember them best. (The one that sticks out most in our minds is probably Herschel Walker, who caused an uproar in '83 when he left Georgia with a year of eligibility.) The trend hurt the NFL, which was deprived of all the free publicity and public visibility that comes with drafting rookies who were already celebrities, but it also began to hurt college ball. What college players from the past 15 years can take their place alongside Red Grange, the Four Horsemen, Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard or Joe Namath in American football lore?

Something else has changed about the game. In recent years critics have charged that defensive players are ignored by Heisman voters, but this really isn't true. Up until the early '60s, when influential coaches succeeded in overturning all rules limiting substitution, Heisman Trophy winners had to play at least some defense, and how well they played it became part of their evaluation. It's true, of course, that it's an impossibility for the Downtown Athletic Club or anyone else to select "The Outstanding College Football Player in the Country." Who could even see, let alone evaluate, so many players? But at least the winner could be counted on to fit the bill as well as any of a dozen or so other candidates who come to mind.

But the era of unlimited substitution brought about specialization. For all intents and purposes the award no longer went to the most outstanding football player but to the outstanding passer or runner -- or, on very rare occasions, to a receiver-kick returner (twice) or defensive back (once). Or at least to the man perceived to be such. The Heisman race became a kind of light industry, with universities regularly spending $200,000 or $300,000 or, as rumored in some cases, up to half a million to promote their candidates with a barrage of brochures, flyers and videotapes.

And to give them something to promote, coaches would often allow players to ring up huge, meaningless numbers against defenseless, beaten opponents in order to catch the media's eye. Given such conditions, who could possibly say which passer or runner was the most outstanding? The result of all this nonsensical numbers crunching has been the selection over the past 15 years or so of some truly terrible Heisman Trophy picks. Does anyone know where Andre Ware is today? Is Gino Toretta still with Hamburg, or is it Madrid?

Here are some suggestions to put some meaning back in the Heisman. One, have the voters declare that they're doing a little research, that they're using some standards. What kind of schedule did the candidates play against? What kind of numbers did they put up when the game was on the line? Second, let's acknowledge that the age of specialization is here to stay. Let's pick an offensive and defensive winner -- or else how can the award possibly be called fair to defensive players? For that matter, why can't there be a trophy for offensive linemen, who also have no stats to go by? Why can't special committees be appointed to screen and review the non-statistical players from all over the country?

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And, finally, in an age when virtually everybody plays in a conference playoff or in a bowl game, why not count those games, too? The idea of not counting post-season games might have made sense back when the Cotton, Sugar and Orange bowls were the only big games. But nowadays everybody gets some kind of post-season game. To not count them is to perhaps exclude our best chance of seeing a Heisman candidate against his toughest opponent.

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I'm a little peeved at CNN for including me among critics of Richard Ben Cramer's "Joe DiMaggio -- A Hero's Life" who "have faulted him for pushing DiMaggio off his pedestal." To my charge that Cramer "relentlessly, pulverizingly tells us that the man wasn't worthy of the legend built around him," Cramer replied, "I think among older fans that there's a sense that I'm somehow messing with their own memories ... to me the life of DiMaggio was always more interesting than the myth."

For the record, if I'm older than Cramer it's news to me, and as Cramer knows from our conversation while he was researching his book and also from my eulogy for DiMaggio in the Village Voice, I have no memory of DiMaggio that can't be "messed" with. And to me neither DiMaggio's life nor his myth is particularly interesting, at least not as interesting as the player. In any event, my criticism of Cramer's book has nothing to do with my attitude toward Joe DiMaggio. Judge for yourself.

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Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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