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College football’s Heisman Trophy campaigns can be a crass act

The first 1935 Downtown Athletic Club trophy. Following the death of John Heisman in 1936, the award was renamed the Heisman Memorial Trophy.
(Charles Rex Arbogast / AP)

Old timers might remember when the Heisman Trophy was just an award.

Terry Baker, the 1962 Heisman winner as Oregon State’s quarterback, found out he won after being called out of engineering class.

“Then I went back to class,” Baker recently recalled.

No matter who wins this year — USC is aiming for a Matt Barkley conquest — there’s no doubt that today’s Heisman is shinier and louder. It is a combination election, beauty contest and high school musical — moderated by an Arkansas hog caller.

The trophy mirrors the sport’s open-ended ridiculousness.

“It’s as silly as college football itself,” said Chris Huston, who runs Heismanpundit.com. “College football is all about arguing. It’s a never-ending constitutional convention.”

The Heisman playing field is as level as the Himalayas. Offensive linemen, for example, need not apply. And it’s clear that USC and Notre Dame have certain inalienable rights over Slippery Rock and Vanderbilt.

Like a national title run, a Heisman campaign is a snapshot taken by a myopic. Each season is a snowflake. Peyton Manning’s 1997 defeat to Charles Woodson has no correlation to Andre Ware’s 1989 victory over Anthony Thompson.

The sport that allowed Brigham Young to win the national title 1984 also permitted Gino Torretta to win the Heisman in 1992.

Catchphrases help — Sports Illustrated led a hopeless 1985 Heisman charge for a Plymouth (N.H.) State player: “What the Heck, Why Not [Joe] Dudek?” — but ingenious sloganeering gets you only so far.

In the 1960s, a skinny Notre Dame freshman quarterback at practice raced past South Bend Tribune sports editor Joe Doyle.

“There goes Theismann,” Doyle said, pronouncing it correctly as “Thees-mann.”

Roger Valdiserri, Notre Dame’s legendary sports information director, had an epiphany. Reflecting on the moment recently, he recalled, “No, I said, ‘There goes Theismann, as in Heisman.’”

Valdiserri convinced Joe Theismann to change the pronunciation of his name, although the quarterback’s best finish in the voting was second in 1970 to Stanford quarterback Jim Plunkett.

“It became big deal,” Valdiserri said, “but I didn’t spend one cent promoting Joe Theismann. And Joe said, ‘Yeah, well, I didn’t win it.’”

In 1997, Washington State Coach Mike Price promoted Ryan Leaf by taking foliage advantage of his quarterback’s name.

Sports information man Rod Commons, now retired, remembers dispatching office staff to rake leaves around campus.

“They came back with sacks,” he said.

A single leaf, nothing else, was mailed to voting members of the media in nondescript envelopes.

Leaf finished third behind Michigan defensive back Woodson and Tennessee quarterback Manning, but the campaign was almost universally praised.

Commons mulled another promotion that involved munitions. “I had a great one,” he said. “His name was Barry Rifle. But it didn’t work out. He was an offensive lineman.”

Heisman campaigns, like college football, have grown exponentially and hyperactively. And, like a lot of things, the launch of ESPN in 1979 seems to be the pivot point.

“It’s like the Oscars,” Valdiserri says of today’s Heisman.

The 24/7 promotion and increase in television revenue have resulted in a heavy burden on SIDs and postal workers.

Brigham Young, in 1990, mailed cardboard ties to promote quarterback Ty Detmer. That, and Detmer’s throwing for 5,188 yards and 41 touchdowns, earned him the Heisman over Notre Dame’s Raghib Ismail.

Schools with lesser traditions have to work harder.

Marshall’s bobblehead doll campaign for quarterback Byron Leftwich in 2002, while clever, wasn’t nearly enough to crack the Heisman top five. Memphis in 2005 mailed replica No. 20 stock cars in a campaign of poll positioning for running back DeAngelo Williams, but he got lapped and finished seventh in the Heisman 500. Missouri in 2008 opted for “view finders” to bring optimal optical attention to quarterback Chase Daniel, while binoculars were the media focal point in Rutgers’ SeeRayRun.com for running back Ray Rice in 2007.

“It’s like a presidential campaign,” says Huston of Heismanpundit.com. “The governor of California, or New York, or Texas has advantages built in. It’s the same for USC, Notre Dame and Texas.”

Campaigns are necessary no matter the pain, pedigree or cost.

In 2001, Oregon spent $250,000 to plaster a King Kong-sized billboard of quarterback Joey Harrington on a New York skyscraper. The audacious move, greenlighted by then-Oregon athletic director Bill Moos, was ridiculed by some.

Moos, now at Washington State, said a New York Times reporter called essentially to ask what he was smoking. “My response was, ‘How else would I ever be getting a call from the New York Times?’” Moos said.

The Ducks finished ranked No. 2, Harrington ended up fourth in Heisman balloting, and the “Joey Heisman” campaign, Huston says, marked the launch point for Oregon football as a national brand.

The next year, Washington State parodied Oregon’s campaign by putting an image of quarterback Jason Gesser on the side of a grain silo. Gesser finished seventh in Heisman voting.

Even the “dumbbell” campaigns are worth it, Huston claims.

Last year, Northwestern mailed out a pair of seven-pound weights to promote quarterback Dan Persa, who wore uniform No. 7. An injury took Persa out of the running early, but his dumbbells still keep doors stopped across America.

“You’re not going to throw those away,” Huston said. “They’re too cool.”

USC, with its Heisman heritage, probably won’t need to send out Barkley bobblehead dolls this year. But Huston warns that traditional powers should not be complacent.

Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck entered last season as the prohibitive Heisman favorite and did nothing to diminish his status as the NFL’s future No.1 pick.

Yet, an aggressive, proactive campaign by underdog Baylor, which sent out trading cards for its star quarterback, helped Robert Griffin III edge out Luck for the Heisman.

“It’s all about controlling the narrative,” Huston said. “Stanford lost control until it was too late.”

These aren’t your grandfather’s Heisman campaigns.

Valdiserri said when Notre Dame’s Paul Hornung was informed he had won the 1956 Heisman his response was, “What’s that?”

Oregon State SID John Eggers is credited with mounting the first Heisman campaign in 1962 when he sent out weekly mailers promoting “Touchdown Terry Baker.”

Baker, who is the only athlete to win the Heisman and play in the NCAA basketball Final Four in the same school year, said he was “not aware of anything you’d call a campaign.” He didn’t even know his nickname was “Touchdown” until five years ago.

Promotions, sent to letter box then, come by Twitter post now.

Strike the pose, then forward the link.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com


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