Heisman Hype Rings Hollow For Team Seeking Title

For many Tennessee fans the mere mention of the name Heisman is enough to induce hives, night sweats or full-blown anxiety. That's reason enough to treat the brief about a Casey Clausen for the Heisman Trophy web site with at least a trace of trepidation.

Believing old scabs are best left unpicked, you'll be spared the painful details of Peyton Manning's second-place finish in the 1997 Heisman race — after he completed a stellar college career with a sensational senior season. For the sake of background: let's say Manning more than met the qualifications on the field, in the classroom and through community service. He was the embodiment of a student/athlete, he never missed a start, led his teams to a 39-6 record in four years as a starter and won an SEC championship as a senior in addition to breaking virtually every conference passing mark along the way. He went on to become the first player taken in the 1998 NFL Draft.

It was more than had been achieved by previous QB winners that included such passing luminaries as Andre Ware, Ty Detmer, Gino Torretta and Charlie Ward who captured Heisman Trophies between 1989 and 1993. Interestingly enough both Torretta and Ward of Miami and Florida State beat out a guy named Marshall Faulk. Whatever happened to him?

No wonder Heisman voters backed a tailback in 1994, although the choice of Rashaan Salaam was unfortunate. The year (1996) that Wuerffel won Jake Plummer finished third and offensive lineman Orlando Pace was fourth. Of course no offensive lineman has ever won the Heisman, neither has a defensive lineman or linebacker for that matter.

An end named Larry Kelley from Yale won the award in 1936 but every other winner has been listed as either a quarterback or running back with the exception of three years. Those were 1987 when a deserving Tim Brown of Notre Dame won the award, 1991 when MIchigan's Desmond Howard won as a wideout and 1997 — the year Michigan's Charles Woodson became the first defensive player to win the award in the 42 years since its inception. By the way, all three exceptions were also kick and punt return specialists.

That 1997 decision did a lot more to diminish the Heisman than it did to diminish Manning who won the Maxwell Award, the National QB Award, the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, to say nothing of Sullivan Award as the nation's best male amateur athlete and the ESPY for College Football Player of the Year. The vote of Woodson exposed the Heisman as a political process that did little to embrace the values it espoused. It also demonstrated how difficult it is to determine the relative worth of a defensive player vs. an offensive player.

Perhaps separate Heismans should be given for offense and defense. When it began in 1935, the platoon system was still 20 years away and it was common for players to start on both sides of the ball. Until that inequity is addressed the award is little more than a recognition of the best back or wide receiver in the nation as opposed to college football's best player.

The Heisman is not supposed to factor pro potential, but how can you determine the best college player without considering their professional potential? More often than not it seems to be an award recognizing the most valuable player on the nation's best team. How else could you explain why Manning was made responsible by the voting media for UT's losses to Florida when the defense and offensive line were the Vols biggest problem versus the Gators?

That's not to say it wouldn't be nice to see a Tennessee player win the award for the first time, and Clausen could become a deserving candidate this season or next. But for a team pursuing a national championship, a high-profile Heisman campaign poses more of a distraction than it is worth.

That's particularly the case if the school is involved in actively promoting a candidate. It sends a message that one player on the team is worth more any of the rest. In 1997 it was difficult enough for UT players to endure the networks touting every Tennessee broadcast as: See Heisman Trophy favorite Peyton Manning lead the Tennessee Vols against Team X.

Manning handled all the attention and pressure with characteristic class, but an undercurrent of resentment on the team seemed to build as the season wore on. By the time Tennessee reached the Orange Bowl, the discontent appeared to fester into inner turmoil. Remember Al Wilson and Leonard Little going jaw to jaw on the playing field?

The problems created by the Heisman preoccupation remained largely and publicly unspoken, but the next season's rallying call for the Vols was ‘a team with no stars.' That approach was good enough to carry the Vols to the national title. However the next season became a year of too many stars and Tennessee faltered down the stretch under the burden of heavy expectations.

The conclusion I've personally drawn from all of this is that the Heisman is not worth pursuing. If you're a quarterback with a team in the title hunt you'll likely be in the Heisman hunt. And it's much better to become a candidate by natural exposure than by promo posters or clever slogans.

The final point on this matter concerns the entire concept of touting a candidate before the fact. If, after all, the Heisman Trophy is based entirely on the achievements of one season and not a compilation of a career (as we often heard in regard to Peyton Manning), how could any contender be promoted on the basis of something that hasn't occurred?

The bottom line: the Heisman is primarily hype with vague guidelines and nebulous criteria. The only trophy really worth pursuing is crystal clear and emblematic of the national championship.


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