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Heisman's hyperbolic hype

Colleges already have started going out of their way to give their football stars exposure.

By BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 23, 1999


Somewhere, percolating in the brain of a college sports information director, is the germ of an idea that might someday wind up in hundreds of sports writers' and sportscasters' mailboxes ... and trash baskets.

If NASCAR has a silly season, when team owners swap drivers and crews, and golf has one when millionaire pros play made-for-TV matches, then this is college football's, when Heisman Trophy campaigns kick in before a player has made his first play.

The unofficial start probably was a couple weeks ago when a CD-ROM arrived at newspapers and TV and radio stations. It is entitled HAMILTON for HEISMAN and extols the virtues of Joe Hamilton, Georgia Tech's senior quarterback.

This preseason, so to speak, might not be as silly, or as clever, as it was when Pitt promoted linebacker Hugh Green by sending voters a life-size 6-foot-2 green poster of Green looking like the Jolly Green Giant; when Ohio State produced weekly statistics on a cardboard pancake to list the number of times 6-6, 330-pound left tackle Orlando Pace flattened opponents; when Brigham Young sent blue-and-white ties to hype quarterback Ty Detmer's candidacy; or when Washington State mailed leaves to promote quarterback Ryan Leaf.

And before you ask, no, Kentucky did not ship couches.

"The leaf, that's probably been the most innovative mailing in the last few years," said Rich Rosenblatt, Associated Press college football editor and one of 920 Heisman voters. "It was pure and simple. Open the envelope and a little leaf falls out. A really creative reminder that Ryan was out there. He didn't get that much national publicity at first, playing at night on the West Coast. Most of the East and Midwest guys didn't see him play. I think maybe the leaf woke up a few people."

Time was when the Heisman, emblematic of college football's premier player, wasn't that big a deal. Halfback Jay Berwanger, who won the first one in 1935, said years later that being named Big Ten Conference Player of the Year meant more to him.

And the story goes that the late Charlie Callahan, then Notre Dame's SID, called Paul Hornung into his office in 1956, thrust a telephone receiver into his hand and said, "Here, tell your mother you just won the Heisman."

Notre Dame also holds the unofficial title of most opportunistic -- maybe outrageous -- Heisman campaign, the brainchild of former SID Roger Valdiserri. In 1968 the Fighting Irish had a hot young freshman quarterback in Joe Theismann who, for the first 20 years of his life, pronounced his last name Theesman.

Valdiserri and a South Bend Tribune sports writer were watching spring practice. The writer mentioned Theesman, Valdiserri said years later, "and I said, "No, no. It's Joe Theismann, as in Heisman.' He wrote that the next day. A year or two later, Sports Illustrated saw it and wrote about it and so did a lot of other people, and we just capitalized on it."

Theismann, German by heritage, said the correct pronunciation of the family name used to be Ticeman. "But it got Americanized and we became Theesman," he said. "So when the trophy thing came up, I called my grandmother, the matriarch of the family -- she still is -- and said, "They're going to change our last name,' and I told her what it was. And she said, "Well, at least it's closer than what they call us now.' "

In 1970, Theismann finished second to Stanford's Jim Plunkett in the balloting. And he still goes by Theismann, as in Heisman.

There's no way to say for sure when the serious hype began. Beano Cook, ESPN's delightfully cranky football analyst, thinks it was around 1966, when Gators quarterback (now coach) Steve Spurrier won it. "Florida wasn't on national TV," Cook said. "Regional games only. But (UF) did a great job of promoting Spurrier."

Karl Klages, then the Purdue SID, subscribed to a slightly more sinister theory. "In certain areas like the Midwest, where (Bob) Griese was No. 1 (on the ballot), Spurrier was No. 2," he said, "but look at the Southeastern vote; Spurrier was No. 1 and Griese was a lot further down. Whether that was coincidence or good PR ... " He left the thought unfinished.

In 1966 Griese finished second to Spurrier.

In 1967 Purdue halfback Leroy Keyes finished third to UCLA quarterback Gary Beban.

In 1968 Keyes finished second to Southern Cal halfback O.J. Simpson.

In 1969 Purdue quarterback Mike Phipps finished second to Oklahoma halfback Steve Owens.

In 1970, Klages was out of a job.

There were other reasons, he said. But "football is a team sport and we told candidates at the start of the season that we weren't going to do anything special for them as far as brochures and film footage," he said. "We were going to let the season carry it."

And, yes, Klages said, Purdue's failure to land a Heisman hastened his departure.

Since a team's media guide is an essential tool for any writer or broadcaster, a Heisman candidate is almost certain to be on the cover. In 1995 Purdue's was senior Mike Alstott, and the cover asked: "Can a fullback win the Heisman Trophy?"

The answer was no. Alstott wasn't in the top 10. In the long run, it didn't hurt him. He was the Bucs' second-round draft choice, and the A-Train, the engine that drives their offense, is pulling down about $4-million a year.

Weekly postcards are the staple of most SIDs pushing a player for the Heisman, although notepads, color brochures and posters will show up, too. Last year, a Tim Couch poster featured him in a Top Gun theme with jet fighters behind him.

Virtually every school has a website, a portion devoted to football stories and stats. The Internet, e-mail, nationwide teleconference calls and the profusion of televised sports highlight programs also are spreading the word. Postcards likely have times and dates of teleconference calls and news conferences as well as weekly stats.

Wisconsin will send out a weekly postcard featuring running back Ron Dayne. "But we have a built-in advantage," SID Steve Malchow said, "with Ron's pursuit of Ricky Williams' (NCAA rushing) record. With all the national TV focusing on that and all the media outlets that do Heisman checklists each week, everybody's going to know what Ron's doing. If we're having a good season, it means Ron's having a good season."

Smaller schools with Heisman candidates might be more inclined to shower the voters with information. But Louisville, promoting quarterback Chris Redman, thinks otherwise. Said SID Ken Horn: "Everybody here feels the best Heisman campaign is not to have a Heisman campaign.

"We've been pretty successful getting Chris mentioned in preseason publications and he's talked to national writers. One thing we did: Before the Kentucky Derby we took Chris out to the backside where the horses have their morning workouts and introduced him to a number of national media people so they could put a face to a name. If we can leave them with an impression of who he is, that has more life to it than any gimmicks."

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