Tracing the Evolution of the Heisman Trophy Award

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Tracing the Evolution of the Heisman Trophy Award
USA TODAY Sports
2012 Heisman winner Johnny Manziel kisses his award

Almost 70 years ago, Doc Blanchard (1945) and Glenn Davis (1946) won back-to-back Heisman Trophies for Army. Back in the day, the running game equaled power football. And it still does.

But since the emergence of the BCS era in 1997, only three running backs have won the Heisman (four if you count Reggie Bush)—Ricky Williams (Texas, 1998), Ron Dayne (Wisconsin, 1999) and Mark Ingram (Alabama, 2011).

Although the modern college football era is supposed to have started in 1906 with the introduction of the forward pass, 1950 is generally the jumping off point for the modern game. Like the game of football, the Heisman Trophy too has changed. And so has the voting process leading up to the Heisman Trophy's award presentation. 

The Heisman Trophy was first awarded in 1935, and if you peruse its winners through 1949, seven players from schools west of the Mississippi had won the Heisman: Davey O'Brien (TCU), Nile Kinnick (Iowa), Doak Walker (SMU), Billy Vessels (Oklahoma), Alan Ameche (Wisconsin), John David Crow (Texas A&M) and Billy Cannon (LSU).

Of particular note is that up until 1962, no player from a West Coast team had won the Heisman—Oregon State quarterback Terry Baker was the first to break that West Coast barrier.

The 1960s saw two schools claim two Heisman winners (Joe Bellino and Roger Staubach from Navy and Mike Garrett and O.J. Simpson from USC). It was also the decade in which five quarterbacks won the award. Evidently, Heisman voters were starting to better appreciate the quarterback position.

The 1970s saw two quarterbacks and eight running backs win the Heisman. In fact, from 1972 through 1983, a running back won the Heisman in 12 consecutive years. Not coincidentally, during that same time frame, schools with power running games such as Alabama, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh and USC were racking up national titles.

Archie Griffin poses with some fancy hardware// Photo courtesy of Dayton Most Metro

While it appears that the Heisman voters were continuing a trend of awarding their trophy to players from national title-contending schools, they did go off the beaten path with numerous players.

The following players all won the Heisman yet none played on an AP or UPI national title team the year they won their awards: Johnny Rodgers (Nebraska), John Cappelletti (Penn State), Archie Griffin (Ohio State), Earl Campbell (Texas), Billy Sims (Oklahoma), Charles White (USC), George Rogers (South Carolina), Marcus Allen (USC), Herschel Walker (Georgia), Mike Rozier (Nebraska) and Doug Flutie (Boston College). .

Heisman voters, it would appear, had not connected the dots of winning a national title (AP or UPI) to winning the Heisman. And they would continue that trend until the mid-1990s during the Bowl Coalition and Bowl Alliance eras—when the BCS became a new topic of conversation around the dinner table. 

Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel won the Heisman in 1996, the same year Florida won a consensus national title. The following year Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson became the first true defensive player to win the Heisman—Michigan also won the AP national championship. 

Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
Florida Heisman winners Danny Wuerffel and Tim Tebow

Heisman voters had begun to associate appearances in a title game with winning college football's most prestigious award, although that concept would marinate for a few years before firmly taking hold. It's also important to note that prior to the BCS Championship Series, there wasn't a designated game to determine a national champion—many fans still don't believe there is a legitimate championship game. 

The BCS era was born in the 1998 season, and in the ensuing 15 years, only six players have been awarded Heismans who weren't playing on a team playing for the BCS Championship. (That includes Reggie Bush's returned 2005 Heisman Trophy and USC's 2005 vacated title.) In other words, playing for the BCS Championship held a lot of weight in voters' minds.

That also makes sense when you consider that one Tulsa World reporter went on record to say that if a player's team is "winning," it weights his Heisman vote. More from the Tulsa World:

During an “Outside the Lines” segment, panelist Paul Finebaum—an Alabama sportswriter turned broadcaster who in January was named one of the most influential people in college football (one of two from the media)—admitted that he didn’t pay much attention to college football around the rest of the country and that he got most of his national Heisman lowdown from another “OTL” panelist, ESPN’s Joe Tessitore. Not trying to sound sanctimonious here, but I find that pretty appalling. One of the game’s most influential people who works within college football’s best conference gets his information from a four-minute ESPN segment on Sunday mornings? 

That sort of stuff can fuel fans' anger over what they perceive as a college football landscape rife with politics and corruption. Now Heisman voters don't even pay attention to the candidates' bodies of work? The voters are just sheep following the flock?

Jason O. Watson-USA TODAY Sports
Joe Tessitore is influential

As a Heisman voter, I've made similar observations myself. I was on a radio show with other Heisman voters discussing various candidates and two things struck me: One very prominent former coach admitted he had never seen Oregon's Kenjon Barner play and another said he tended to vote for players only from his geographical region (Midwest).

Regional bias does exist in Heisman voting. The 2012 breakdown of the six regions shows Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M receiving the most votes from every region except the Midwest—Notre Dame's Manti Te'o received the most votes from that region.

Secondly, there is an East Coast bias, but it may not be intentional. Four of Oregon's games were televised by the Pac-12 Network  last season—how many voters east of the Mississippi have the Pac-12 Network  available in their cable television bundles? More importantly, numerous Duck games were broadcast well into the East Coast's late evening hours. It's hard to vote for a player whose resume is showcased while a voter is asleep. 

Technology has made voting easier for the voter, but it also can elicit lazy habits as well—why watch a game when YouTube has highlight reels at a voter's disposal?

Johnny Manziel's Heisman highlight reel is closing in on one million views

Social media can shape opinions as well.

Heisman winner Manziel entertained us with his Halloween and New Year's Eve antics playing out on the Internet (and social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook), but they started to wear on fans. Manziel was considered the front-runner for the 2013 Heisman, but his youthful, devil-may-care attitude and party lifestyle may not sit well with voters this year. 

Twitter has also taken on a role in Heisman voting. Back in the 1970s, Heisman voters submitted their ballots and America found out the winner on a network broadcast. Flash forward 40 years and we have voters publicizing their ballots and several sites actually projecting the winner. Unfortunately, Twitter has also produced trolling and harassment directed at Heisman voters and has spawned fake accounts.

The Heisman is always evolving. Heisman voters who revealed their ballots before the 2012 presentation ceremony were recently admonished by the Heisman Trust and given a warning: either play by our rules or you lose your vote. One prominent columnist with a major media outlet decided to give up his vote. 

This year America may be completely in the dark in the week leading up to the Heisman Trophy's award presentation.

For many, it will be a welcome respite.

For others, pundits' predictions on Twitter will have to suffice.  

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