Times Staff Writer

There are at least 13 million reasons, with more to come, why the race for the 1989 Heisman Trophy will not be what college football followers might have expected just a few months ago.

The reasons are dollars, the millions of dollars that this year enticed some of the best Heisman hopes to give up their senior seasons and apply for the National Football League draft.

Previously, these payoffs went almost exclusively to members of college football's graduating seniors. But that system changed this year, possibly for good. And the race for the Heisman may never be the same.

Gone prematurely from this year's Heisman competition are tailback Barry Sanders, the 1988 winner from Oklahoma State; quarterback Steve Walsh of Miami, who finished fourth in last year's voting; quarterback Timm Rosenbach of Washington State, seventh last year, and three challengers to Sanders as the best tailback in college football--Bobby Humphrey of Alabama, Sammie Smith of Florida State and Tim Worley of Georgia.

All six were selected in the first round of either the 1989 regular or supplemental draft. Four have signed contracts with a total value of more than $10 million. And with Sanders and Smith--the two highest underclass selections in the regular draft--yet to sign, that is bound to appreciate considerably.

"Staying in school just to win the Heisman is not really something I thought about," said Walsh, selected in the supplemental draft by the Dallas Cowboys. "You never know what can happen. You can have a poor year. Someone like a Barry Sanders can come out of nowhere to win it. You don't stick around just to win the Heisman Trophy."

The early exodus has left an open field in this year's Heisman race. All of the candidates have their pluses. And most have minuses, as well, some glaring for serious Heisman contenders.

The consensus leading contenders:

--Major Harris, the West Virginia quarterback who led the Mountaineers to a national championship game in the Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame last season, is the top returning vote-getter. Fifth in last year's balloting, Harris is an exciting player, a threat to pass or run. He gained 2,525 yards in total offense last year.

But his chances might be lessened by a West Virginia team that is not expected to measure up to last season's. And he is a junior. Only seven juniors have won the award in its 54 years.

--Tony Rice, the Notre Dame quarterback, might have the most compelling factors on his side. He is a senior. He is a quarterback and 50 of the 54 winners have been quarterbacks or running backs. He led his team to the national championship last year, and the Irish are the United Press International's preseason No. 1 choice. And he is from Notre Dame, home to seven Heisman winners, more than any other school.

But he also is an option quarterback whose passing statistics have not kept him among the national leaders.

--Emmitt Smith, the Florida tailback whose sensational freshman season--1,341 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns--gave way to the sophomore jinx, is considered back in the running. Smith missed two games because of a knee injury last season and gained 988 yards. And like Harris, he is a junior.

--Blair Thomas, a Penn State tailback, gained 1,414 yards as a junior, the third-highest total in school history behind Lydell Mitchell and 1973 Heisman winner John Cappelletti. But that was two years ago. Thomas sat out last season after reconstructive knee surgery.

That Thomas is considered a serious candidate is as much a testament to the suddenly changed prospects for this year's Heisman race as it is to his skills. Were it not for the early departure of the six first-round draft choices--especially visible players such as Sanders, Walsh and Rosenbach--none of the above might have even been mentioned as a solid contender.

But money and opportunity intervened. Fittingly, it was the Heisman winner himself who started the trend.

Sanders bucked the NFL system that discourages drafting players before their original classes graduate when he applied and was accepted into the draft after only three seasons at Oklahoma State.

The NFL said that it had made an exception for Sanders because his university was being put on probation by the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. But because Sanders had hired an agent and raised the possibility of a legal challenge to the NFL draft system, the decision might have been made to head off a fight the NFL did not want.

Once Sanders chose to turn pro, the others followed.

It was not the first time a Heisman favorite had left before his senior season to try the NFL draft--Craig (Ironhead) Heyward of Pittsburgh had done just that the year before, helping to open the way for Sanders--but never had so many done so in the same year.

Whether this year will prove an aberration or the wave of the future is open to debate, but the early guesses are that it is only the start.

"If these players do well that left early, then more players will follow," said Beano Cook, the ESPN college football analyst and long-time observer of the sport. "I don't think it is like 30 years ago, when players would stick around to win the Heisman."

But Cook said that does not mean he believes the Heisman is any less important today, nor is it destined to be de-emphasized.

"It still is the biggest award in sports," Cook said. "The player can always get the big contract, but the Heisman he has for life."

Maybe so. But although the Heisman may be the most recognizable trophy in American sports, money is becoming a more universal symbol.

Players are deciding that the risks involved in chancing a lucrative future as a professional football player for another season in college are too great.

"The dollars were the biggest factor," Walsh said. "I know if I stayed in school, I would have improved on what I did last year, but whether that would have made my market value go up or whether a Heisman Trophy would have helped, I don't know. Timing has a lot to do with it.

"It would have been great to win a Heisman Trophy. That is history, and to be part of it something special."

Sanders had a chance to add to an exclusive chapter of Heisman history. But he gave up his opportunity to join Archie Griffin of Ohio State, who won both in 1974 and '75, as the only repeat winner.

His choice to turn pro was the same as made by the last underclassman to win the award. Running back Herschel Walker, the 1982 winner, left Georgia before his senior season to sign a lucrative contract with the New Jersey Generals in their inaugural season in the now-defunct U.S. Football League.

To Griffin, the actions of Sanders and Walker were understandable and representative of changing times. Opportunities are greater than when he won his first Heisman as a junior 15 years ago.

"I don't even think the NFL was an option back then," said Griffin, now an assistant athletic director at Ohio State. "Maybe I could have gone to the Canadian (Football) League, but it was never anything I considered. Turning pro early didn't enter my mind."

So Griffin waited, won his second Heisman in 1975 and joined the NFL when he was selected with the 24th pick of the first round by Cincinnati in the 1976 draft.

If the experiences of Sanders and Walker are the modern model, Griffin's place in Heisman history may be forever secure.

"What you see now is a reflection of the times," Griffin said. "Nowadays, with the millions of dollars out there, a lot of players will take their chances in the draft. Why stay in college another year? You can't pass up that amount of money. You have to think of your financial security."

The reality of the marketplace is recognized by all, from past winners to this year's hopefuls.

"You never know what will happen," Tony Rice said. "You might get injured. If you can make it big, go for it."

Rice figures his potential personal gain from the decisions of others to leave early was accidental. But when it comes to the Heisman race, his plan is to put that good luck to work. "It would have been a much harder road (to win the Heisman), but you can't put them down for leaving," Rice said. "The attention just moved to me. Now it's time for me to show everyone that I can play."

Rice will be afforded plenty of opportunities to impress the Heisman voters. Notre Dame is one of the most televised teams in college football. Every candidate can use that kind of exposure.

But television is not a requirement in winning the Heisman. Sanders not only overcame the difficulties facing an underclassman last year, he did it without his team appearing on a network telecast. His numbers, 2,553 yards rushing and 39 touchdowns, overwhelmed the opposition.

What's more, he did so without much preseason or in-season hype in a time when some schools are undertaking showy Heisman publicity campaigns. Whether the low-key Sanders approach becomes the norm is as open to as much debate as his potential role in shaping the future of the NFL draft.

Early signs are that approaches to publicity plans remain varied.

For every school such as Utah--promoting its little-known candidate, record-setting junior quarterback Scott Mitchell, with a video tape entitled, "Scott Mitchell: The Movie. A Short Story About a Quarterback Who Can Throw the Long Pass"--there is a West Virginia, which says it plans to let Harris be himself.

"We will do some mailings, some extra press conferences," said Shelly Poe, West Virginia's sports information director. "But Major sells himself with his personality and his performance."

In a year in which none of the early favorites enters the season with overpowering credentials, the potential is for a wide-open race. And the opportunity is there early for someone to make a lasting impression.

Rice gets the first shot when Notre Dame and Virginia open the season Thursday in the Kickoff Classic in East Rutherford, N.J.

Short of another national championship, he probably would like nothing better than a return trip to the New York area 12 weeks later for the Heisman award ceremonies Dec. 2. That will be a day when considerations of future NFL careers will be put aside, and the Heisman Trophy will be the focus.

Big-time NFL money might have lessened its allure but not its mystique. The 54-year-old statue modeled after Ed Smith, a little-known New York University halfback of the 1930s, ball cradled, stiff arming himself away from a tackler, will have its special network television moment.

"It is the most recognizable trophy in all of sports," said Ed Goren, who for the last three years has produced the CBS coverage of the award ceremony. "If you lined up the Super Bowl trophy, the World Series trophy, all the major trophies, the Heisman is the one.

"No matter what happens, one thing you can never take away is the tradition. The winners of the Heisman become part of the specialness that is the tradition of the trophy."

Or, as Cook of ESPN said: "No one knows who won the Cy Young Award 30 years ago, but they can tell you who the Heisman winner was."

For the record, the Cy Young winner in 1959 was Early Wynn of the Chicago White Sox, the Heisman winner Billy Cannon of Louisiana State.

Wynn eventually went into the baseball Hall of Fame. Cannon eventually went to federal prison for his part in a ring that printed and distributed $6 million dollars in counterfeit money.

That may be less than the 1988 Heisman winner, Barry Sanders, signs for with Detroit.

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