Friday, December 2, 1988
Los Angeles Times Sports
Setting the Record Straight
Years ago, when I first got involved in it, I always thought the Heisman Trophy was for a guy who combined good football with good citizenship and scholarship — a kind of Frank Merriwell in modern dress. He didn’t need a helmet, he had a halo.
Then, they gave it to some guy who went around robbing gas stations in the off-season and I was disabused of that notion.
My colleagues patiently explained to me that the award was to go to the guy who was certifiably the best football player in the land, that morals were beside the point and no sentiment attached.
So, I bought that.
We blew it, a lot of years. You all know how that goes. Jim Brown never won a Heisman. Otto Graham never won it. Hugh McElhenny finished eighth in the balloting. Sammy Baugh never got better than fourth. Gale Sayers never higher than 12th. Neither did Walter Payton — in fact, he got 14th. Lynn Swann never came close. Neither did Randy White. Eric Dickerson only finished third, John Elway second.
So, I thought I would pay very strict attention and not throw my ballot away anymore. If a guy didn’t have to be moral, he at least had to be mighty. To ensure this, you had to give some attention to how the candidate might do in the pros. Would he validate your faith in him, would he truly prove he was the best of the best when he got into a league where, so to speak, everyone was Heisman caliber?
It’s no good to say this shouldn’t count because almost all the disappointed candidates I have cited above were those who went in the pros and proved the voters made a mistake. To avoid embarrassment, you have to look over the field more like a pro scout than a journalist.
To do this, it seems to me, you don’t go by stats alone, you have to go by competition. Occasionally, very occasionally, a pro scout will find a genuine superstar playing in a league or conference that is several notches below his capabilities. But that was more true in the late, unlamented, days of segregation than it is now. Top college coaches know where the good players are, all right. They don’t miss many.
Which brings me to this year’s Heisman. The groundswell seems to indicate that it may very well go to a running back at Oklahoma State, Barry Sanders.
Now, I don’t know the young man. He may be a combination of Red Grange and O.J. Simpson. He may be all Four Horsemen.
But I’m a little disturbed to find he has done some of his fanciest running against Tulsa, Kansas State, Kansas, Iowa State. Oh, yes, he did have a good day rushing against Miami. That’s Miami of Ohio, however, not to be confused with the man-eaters of Miami of Florida.
Now, Miami of Ohio had an interesting season. Didn’t win a game. As a matter of fact, neither did another team on Sanders’ schedule, Kansas State. Kansas did better. It won one game. Missouri won three. Tulsa won four.
Now, I hate to be picky, but when you’re running against two teams that didn’t win a game and another that won only one, and two others that won only seven between them, rolling up 300 yards an afternoon doesn’t seem that big a deal. The ball’s not that heavy.
You have to wonder whether the guy’s good or the opposition isn’t. Can you win the Heisman ripping through a field of tackling dummies? Should you?
Pee Wee Reese, the baseball player, once gave me the best one-sentence description of the importance of competition I ever heard. When the Dodgers arrived in L.A. to open the season in 1958, they had never even seen their new home field, the Coliseum. A breathless reporter greeted Reese, the captain of the Dodgers, as he led the team down the gangplank at the airport.
“Mr. Reese,” he said, wide-eyed, “do you know a college team, the SC Trojans, played a game in the Coliseum yesterday and 11 home runs were hit?”
Reese was underwhelmed. “Just tell me one thing, son — who was pitching?”
The lesson was clear: It’s not what you do. It’s whom you do it against.
Now, Barry Sanders has run against Nebraska and Oklahoma this season. No day in the park. But my candidates beat Oklahoma and Nebraska.
Rodney Peete of USC, to pull the first name out of the hat, beat Oklahoma, 23-7. He played a schedule that included Oklahoma, Washington, UCLA and Notre Dame. Every team he played had won games and most of them had won more than they lost. Two of them were undefeated when he played them and one had lost only once.
Troy Aikman of UCLA beat Nebraska when the Cornhuskers were undefeated and faced Washington and USC when they were undefeated. Isn’t a Heisman about winning? Shouldn’t it be? Rodney Peete put his team in the Rose Bowl two years running. Troy Aikman came within a touchdown of it.
Barry Sanders has marvellous stats. Sometime this weekend, he will break the single-season rushing record of Marcus Allen (Heisman ’81). He has a record 35 touchdowns already. But he got an awful lot of those yards — and 17 of those touchdowns — against teams that won four or fewer games. (He also scored six against Nebraska and Oklahoma).
He may deserve his Heisman. But I seem to remember a player named Art Luppino who regularly made the news service overnights with stories of records he kept setting by the week in the middle ’50s. But he played for Arizona when the Wildcats were competing in the Border Conference. The Heisman voters were unimpressed. So were the pros.
A couple of years ago, there was a flurry of campaigning for a player at Holy Cross, Gordie Lockbaum. It was an audacious idea. But you can’t win the Heisman running wild against Rhode Island.
Can you against Kansas State (0-11)? Apparently.
Maybe Barry Sanders is the best college football player in the United States. Maybe he’s another Walter Payton. If he wins the Heisman, I sure hope so.
Reprinted with the permission of the Los Angeles Times
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