5 Myths About The Heisman

With the Heisman ceremony fast approaching, I thought I’d clear up a few common misconceptions I hear about the Heisman. Sometimes, it’s not enough to rely on just The 10 Heismandments.

Myth#1: The Heisman always goes to a quarterback or running back on a team competing for the BCS Championship

This theory is often spouted by those who either don’t know their Heisman history or don’t care enough to get it right. The fact is that of the 12 Heisman winners in the BCS era, four have come from teams that did not appear in the BCS title game. A fifth–Alabama’s Mark Ingram in 2009–won the Heisman by the closest margin in the history of the award. This hardly supports the theory that BCS success is the slam-dunk key to winning the Heisman. Does it help?  Sure. But it’s not the sole determinant.

By the way, it’s also a good bet that this year’s Heisman winner will not play in the BCS title game, so that would make five out of 13 Heisman winners in the BCS era who did not play in the title game.

What I dislike about this way of thinking is that it supposes that voters just sit around and wait until they are handed the final BCS rankings and then they choose the Heisman winner out of sheer laziness. In reality, voters seem to intuitively understand that these teams would not be where they are without these outstanding players. In other words, the Heisman is the reward for, not the result of, this success.

Myth #2: There are always five finalists at the Heisman ceremony. 

I get asked a lot: “Who are going to be the five finalists for this year’s Heisman?”  or “Which five are going to New York?” But there’s no set number for who can and can’t be invited to the Heisman ceremony. In general, it is more than two and less than six. Over the last 20 years, there has been only three instances where five finalists were invited to New York. It is far more common for three or four finalists to be invited.

Myth #3: Defensive players have some kind of shot at winning the Heisman

As much as we feel defensive players should be seriously considered for the Heisman, it will never, never, never happen. It’s a not a bias against defense, it’s just the nature of the game. Before I continue, let’s not forget that the only reason Charles Woodson was able to win in 1997 was due to his status as a two-way player and punt returner. Had he been a pure defender, he never would have won. For pure defensive players, the award is basically off limits. I know, I know. Many of you feel indignant about this and see it as some kind of proof that the Heisman is a sham.

But consider the arguments for the various candidates that we see every year. The evidence generally rests on the stats produced by these players. A sad fact of football is that we can quantify offense much better than we can defense. How do you quantify the way a defensive tackle takes on double teams? There is no stat for that. How do you know if a cornerback has shut down a receiver on a play that may not have been intended for the receiver in the first place? We don’t know and that’s why it’s hard to figure out how a defender is deserving or not.  In the end, the case for the defensive player is more ephemeral. And ephemeral doesn’t get the votes.

In general, the rule is this: the more a player touches the ball after it is snapped, the better his chances of winning the Heisman. By order of who gets the most touches, it is: (1) quarterback (2) tailback and (3) wide receiver/all-purpose guy. A quarterback is involved, in some way, on almost every offensive play. A running back might get 30 touches in a 70-play game. When you get to the wide receiver position, things get more problematic. A lot has to happen for a receiver to touch the ball and a lot more can go wrong before he is able to do something with it, which is why a receiver who also returns punts and kicks (where he has better control of his destiny) has a far better chance to win the Heisman than a pure wide out. All that said, defense is a different story.  Defenses can’t control the flow of the game the way an offense can. A great defensive end can be avoided, a great corner can be thrown away from and a great linebacker can be schemed out of a play. A defender who is actually good enough to win the Heisman will never be allowed to do so by any competent offense. The end.

Myth #4: Just because a player’s team loses a game, his Heisman hopes are automatically dashed.

Yes, sometimes it is the case that a loss destroys a player’s Heisman chances. But it depends on the player and it depends on the context of the loss within the Heisman race. Sometimes a player becomes so firmly-established in the Heisman race and gets out so far ahead of his competition, a loss is easily absorbed. A great example of this would be Jason White of Oklahoma in 2003. He played poorly while his team got shellacked by Kansas State in the Big 12 title game, 35-7. The talk afterward was that he would not win the Heisman as a result. But I was confident he would win for a couple reasons: (1) his main competitor was a pure wide receiver (Larry Fitzgerald) from an 8-4 team and (2) White’s season as a whole was magnificent (40 TD passes) for a traditional power that was headed for the BCS title game. White would’ve lost the Heisman if his main competitor was from a traditional power with a comparable record. But that wasn’t the case. So, losses can be devastating, they can hurt, or they may not matter that much. But they don’t happen in a vacuum. Context matters.

Take this year, for example. Robert Griffin III is either leading or a close second right now despite his team having three losses. Voters do not penalize him much for those losses because they understand that Baylor is normally 3-7 at this time of year, not 7-3. They see Griffin III as the reason for this turnaround and, when coupled with his fantastic numbers and recent win over a highly-ranked team, it makes him a compelling candidate. Griffin III’s narrative is that he is helping bring his program to new heights, not that he is leading them on a path to perfection. On the other hand, Brandon Weeden’s position in the race is tied a bit closer to his team’s success. His narrative was that he was helping his program get to that next level, only that next level was supposed to be a BCS title game appearance. When that bubble popped, so did his chances at the Heisman.

Myth #5: Heisman campaigns don’t work

Yeah. Advertising and marketing don’t work. That’s why companies spend millions of dollars on it every year. It’s why politicians run commercials for their campaigns and why, after a commercial is run, the polls show that the public has moved in one direction or another as a result.

The Heisman is an award given by 925 voters to a college football player. There is no explicit criteria set forth to determine the winner, only that he be the ‘most outstanding’. But that’s a nebulous concept, isn’t it? That’s why it is up to the schools to inform voters about their candidates. For instance, I just found out today that Wisconsin’s Montee Ball is just the fifth player to score 30 or more touchdowns in a season. And I follow college football really close. If information like this was common knowledge to more voters, Ball would have a better chance in this race.

School administrators–most of whom lack basic PR sense–usually throw up the straw man when defending their choice not to campaign on behalf of their candidates. They say they don’t want to waste money on bobbleheads and Times Square billboards. But no one is arguing that such gimmicks are necessary (though, on occasion, they can help). All it takes is a consistent, creative, and timely narrative delivered with regularity to the media on the player’s behalf. Naturally, the player wins it or loses it on the field, but helping voters understand the scope of a player’s accomplishments can go a long way.

To do anything less is a dereliction of duty by a school. That player busts his ass to make money for you. The least you can do is support him. At least that’s my belief.

Trust me, this helped

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About Heismanpundit

Chris Huston, A.K.A. ‘The Heisman Pundit‘, is a Heisman voter and the creator and publisher of Heismanpundit.com, a site dedicated to analysis of the Heisman Trophy and college football. Dubbed “the foremost authority on the Heisman” by Sports Illustrated, HP is regularly quoted or cited during football season in newspapers across the country. He is also a regular contributor on sports talk radio and television.

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2 Responses to 5 Myths About The Heisman

  1. Kyle November 23, 2011 at 9:03 am #

    So if you want to win the Heisman, don’t go to an average program and try to make them excellent. Just go to a horrible one and try to make them average. Got it.

    • Frank Hart November 23, 2011 at 11:55 am #

      So Kyle, I have a question for you: Baylor’s 7-3 record–playing in the conference that statistically is #1 or #2 in strength of schedule this season–is considered “average”??! Ranked #18 in the BCS is considered to be “average” by you??! Huh, because I would have thought that a ranking of #60 more or less–considering there are 120 FBS schools–would be more accurately considered “average.”
      Baylor is likely to win one or both of it’s last 2 games, which would result in an 8-4 or 9-3 schedule. Interesting that is considered “average” by you.