With the presentation of the 2009 Heisman Trophy only days away, I am reminded of how ridiculous it is that the trophy is awarded prior to the end of the entire season. Nearly 30 years ago, the Heisman’s early voting affected one of our very own.
Many Georgia football fans who were fortunate enough to be around during the Bulldogs’ national title run in 1980 feel Herschel Walker should’ve won the Heisman.
The opinion that Herschel undoubtedly should’ve won the Heisman in ’80 as a freshman is one of misconception.
Walker finished third in the Heisman balloting in 1980, not even coming close to winning. He had 683 total points (107 first-place votes), finishing behind winner George Rogers of South Carolina (1,128 points, 216 first-place votes) and Pittsburgh’s Hugh Green (861, 179).
Common belief is Walker did not win the award solely because he was a freshman whereas Rogers was a senior.
Also accepted is Rogers, in winning the Heisman, earned to some extent, a lifetime-achievement award. The Gamecock back rushed for over 1,000 yards in 1978 and nearly 1,700 as a junior, finishing seventh in the 1979 Heisman voting.
These assumptions, although partly accurate, do not fully disclose why Herschel was not honored.
The fact is Herschel Walker not necessarily should’ve, but possibly would’ve, won the Heisman Trophy in 1980 if Georgia’s entire regular season was considered by voters.
Heisman ballots were due on Friday, November 28. They were counted during that weekend and Rogers was announced the winner on Monday, December 1.
Unfortunately for Walker, Georgia had one regular-season game remaining on its schedule after the ballots were due—November 29 versus Georgia Tech. Some teams played as many as two regular-season games after voters mailed in their ballots.
Against the Yellow Jackets in the Bulldogs’ season finale, Herschel rushed for 205 yards on 25 carries and three touchdowns in a 38-20 Georgia victory.
With 9:30 remaining in the game, Walker broke off a 65-yard touchdown run—his seventh run of 48 yards or more that season—and in the process, became the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher for freshmen, breaking Tony Dorsett’s record of 1,586 yards set seven years prior.
The outstanding effort was Walker’s third 200-yard rushing performance in Georgia’s last four games—a Heisman-like performance that, fortunately for George Rogers, voters could not take into account because of the absurd due date to submit ballots.
“If [the Georgia Tech] game had counted in the Heisman Trophy balloting [Walker] would have won it as a freshman,” said Coach Vince Dooley after Rogers won the Heisman. “It’s a shame the Heisman voting is done so early. Here’s a back who has gained over 1,600 yards, set all kinds of records, and has played on an undefeated, No. 1-ranked team.
“If that’s not deserving of a Heisman Trophy, I don’t know what is.”
This is what Heisman voters had to consider in 1980: South Carolina and Rogers’ regular season was completed on November 22. In 11 games, Rogers rushed for 1,781 yards and was instrumental in the Gamecocks achieving an 8-3 record.
Although head-to-head, Georgia had defeated South Carolina 13-10 on November 1, Walker outgaining Rogers 219 to 168, Herschel had 1,411 yards and just 12 touchdowns in 10 games entering the contest with Georgia Tech.
The last impression of the freshman phenom for Heisman voters was an un-Herschel-like performance against Auburn on November 15. Walker gained just 77 yards on 27 carries (2.9 average) against the Tigers and did not even lead his own team in rushing.
Honestly, if I had a Heisman vote, I too probably would’ve voted for Rogers.
Following the Heisman’s presentation to Rogers, John Farrell, the chairman of the Downtown Athletic Club said that if Walker’s performance against Tech had been considered, it probably would have made a difference in the voting but added “we have to stick to our [ballot] deadlines.”
In addition, there were several newspaper articles within a few days of the trophy’s ceremony proclaiming Herschel should have won considering his final performance. Some voters even indicated later if the voting was held after the regular season had ended for all teams, they would have voted differently.
On December 18, 1980, Walker was honored as the UPI’s NCAA Back of the Year. The freshman had 47 votes to the second-place Rogers’ 39 votes—voting that had been administered after the regular season had ended.
Herschel would eventually win the Heisman as a junior in 1982 after finishing second in 1981. However, many Georgia fans who remember “The Goal-line Stalker” say Walker was the best in college football as only a true freshman in 1980.
He was, that is, if the entire 1980 season is recognized, especially Georgia’s bowl game—a 17-10 win over Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl, clinching the national championship for the Bulldogs.
While playing with a separated shoulder, Herschel rushed for 150 yards on 36 carries and two touchdowns against the Fighting Irish. The rest of the Georgia team had minus-23 yards in total offense.
Rogers was held to 113 yards in a 37-9 loss to Pittsburgh in the Gator Bowl.
Fortunately, unlike 1980 and many other seasons, Heisman ballots are now not due until after all regular season games and conference championships are played (except for Army-Navy this year, which meet this Saturday).
However, the trophy is still given prior to the bowl games.
Last season, Sam Bradford barely won the Heisman over Colt McCoy and Tim Tebow. Bradford of Oklahoma and Tebow of Florida would meet in the BCS title game.
Tebow, named the game’s Offensive MVP, outplayed Bradford in guiding the Gators to a national championship. It was reported Tebow’s performance was enough to where several Heisman voters, who had voted for Bradford or McCoy, would have chosen Tebow instead if the voting had taken place following the BCS championship.
What if Texas’ Colt McCoy narrowly wins the Heisman this Saturday and then is outshined in the BCS Championship Game by Alabama’s Mark Ingram, another Heisman candidate, in a Crimson Tide victory, or vice versa?
This type of injustice is nothing new when it comes to the Heisman Trophy.
History has shown repeatedly that one game can make or break an individual’s season. Evidently, in Tebow’s case last year and certainly Herschel’s in 1980, one disallowed game kept these players from winning the most recognizable and prestigious individual award in sports.