Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater drew attention recently for announcing that he wishes to bypass a Heisman campaign this fall in favor of focusing on team goals.
“The Heisman isn’t a goal of mine,” he told Eric Crawford of WDRB in Louisville. “A team effort, a national championship, a BCS game, those are our goals.”
Cardinals coach Charlie Strong backed up his star.
“We’re going to let Teddy go and play,” Strong told WDRB. “Teddy doesn’t want to let people down, and he doesn’t want all of the attention. He wants to win first and foremost.”
It’s an admirable and well-intentioned move by the rising junior, who led his team to an 11-2 record and a Sugar Bowl win over Florida last season. But is it the right move?
In fact, Louisville should politely ignore Bridgewater’s request and promote him anyway.
But before getting to the specifics of why, it’s important to address the subject of campaigns in the first place.
A rather odd mentality has taken shape over the years regarding the idea of marketing in college football. Coaches who lobby for their teams to be ranked highly in the polls are considered out of bounds or acting in poor taste. Schools that push their players for postseason honors are seen as tacky and uncouth. Heisman campaigns in particular draw the ire of media and sports information directors alike, with both sides usually poo-pooing the notion they have any effect on the award’s outcome.
But there are two reasons companies, politicians and other public entities spend billions of dollars every year on marketing and public relations campaigns.
1. They work.
2. It’s in their best interest.
So why should it be any different for college football? After all, this is a sport where media and coaches, via the polls, help determine the outcome of the season. All-American teams are really popularity contests (remember when Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher, the first pick in the recent NFL draft, was named a consensus first-team All-American? Yeah, me neither). The Heisman is voted upon by 926 voters who are given no set criteria to fill their ballots other than to select the player they deem to be the “most outstanding.”
In what world is it considered smart to not chime in when others are left to decide your fate, especially when millions of dollars are at stake? Only in college football’s world, apparently. Would a toothpaste company not let people know why its product is superior? Would a politician not tell voters of her qualifications for office, or explain why she is better than her opponent?
Of course not.
Because there is so much subjectivity in college football, the teams and players with the established brands have a distinct advantage. Schools like Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, USC and Alabama (among others) spent decades building their programs, often before limits were put in place to establish parity.
They are now the Coke, General Motors and AT&Ts of the sport. People who follow college football equate these names with sustained success and excellence. As a result, they generally get the benefit of the doubt over lesser schools when it comes time to rankings, awards and honors.
That’s why a school like Louisville must strike now, while it still has a Bridgewater to brag about. Having a player of his caliber on the roster gives the Cardinals a unique shot at building its brand.
Winning a Heisman can go a long way toward doing that. Just ask Boston College or Baylor.
Oh, that doesn’t mean the school has to send out bobbleheads or some other gimmick in support of its star. It merely has to follow the successful examples of previous campaigns that found some kind of compelling hook or narrative to capture voters’ imaginations.
Think of Texas sports information director Jones Ramsey’s invention of “yards after contact” to illustrate the power of running back Earl Campbell in 1977. Or how Charles Woodson was promoted as a throwback to the one-platoon era when he won in 1997.
It’s not cheesy or improper to note these things. If done right, it can be informative and insightful.
Sometimes a bold step or two should be taken if the opportunity presents itself.
Oregon was ridiculed in many circles back in 2001 for putting up a giant billboard of quarterback Joey Harrington in New York’s Times Square that read “Joey Heisman.” Was it overboard? Maybe a little.
But the advent of the juggernaut that is the current Oregon program can be traced to that bold decision. It sent a clear signal that the Ducks were going “all-in” to become a power. And that’s what happened, even if Harrington didn’t win the Heisman.
Of course, Heisman campaigns aren’t always necessary.
Johnny Manziel didn’t have one last year and didn’t even speak to the media until the very end of the season. But he also had 5,116 yards of total offense and 47 combined touchdowns rushing and passing — numbers that were a campaign unto themselves.
Bridgewater isn’t going to have 5,000 yards of offense. The Louisville scheme doesn’t work that way. If all goes right, he’ll have a highly-efficient, very productive year that probably won’t touch the outlandish numbers being put up by this era’s spread quarterbacks.
So he’ll need some sort of campaign to let people know that, despite his decidedly ungarish stats, he’s still the best quarterback in the country. It’s a tough argument to make, which is one reason Andrew Luck didn’t win the Heisman. Having the ability to expertly check off to a run play doesn’t thrill voters.
Without a smart campaign, the brilliance that is Bridgewater could be overshadowed by next season’s next big thing.
What about the team?
What about Bridgewater’s unselfish desire to keep the focus there, where it belongs?
These are nice sentiments for May. It shows Bridgewater’s great attitude. There’s no downside to him having this mentality.
But don’t believe for a second he doesn’t want to win the Heisman.
Louisville shouldn’t believe him either. Nor should it care. For his own good, for its own good, it eventually needs to let everyone know why he’s so special.
Or, it can just hold off until the next Teddy Bridgewater comes along.
It might be a long wait.