Shortly after he won this year's Heisman Trophy, I saw Alabama running back Mark Ingram on Good Morning America , Today (or one of those morning shows), and thought to myself, "Here we go again. It has already started; another year, another month-long, whirlwind tour for the Heisman winner."
For a number of years now, the annual Heisman recipient experiences a ceremonial circuit for nearly the entire month of December leading up to his respective bowl game. It's in the bowls where a long-standing trend has been the Heisman winners, particularly quarterbacks, and their teams do not perform particularly well.
Call it, if you will, a Heisman "letdown." Some go as far as regarding the worst of these Heisman bowl performances as victims of a "Heisman Curse" or "Heisman Jinx."
Georgia's own Frank Sinkwich, who had set a major bowl record of 382 total offensive yards in the 1942 Orange Bowl and was averaging nearly 200 yards per game during his Heisman season of '42, was held to 33 rushing yards on 11 carries and 38 yards passing in the Rose Bowl against UCLA.
Sinkwich's letdown was partly explainable because he was suffering from two sprained ankles and saw only spot playing time the entire game. Sophomore sensation Charley Trippi spelled the injured Sinkwich rushing for 115 yards on 27 carries in Georgia's 9-0 victory.
Although Trippi was primarily responsible for the Bulldogs' success of moving the ball up and down the field, it was the Heisman-winning Sinkwich who scored the game's lone touchdown on a one-yard rush with approximately eight minutes remaining in the contest.
Whereas only three of the first 22 Heisman awardees (1935-1956), including Sinkwich, played in bowl games the year they won the trophy, all but one (Houston's Andre Ware in 1989—Houston was on probation and could not compete in the postseason) of the past 40 Heisman recipients since 1970 have gone bowling.
Teams of the Heisman beneficiaries have an overall record of only 22-27 in bowl games, including 10-18 since 1980; eleven of the 18 losses have cost the Heisman winner's team the national title.
One assumption why the trophy winners' teams have not fared well in bowls is the teams were simply not as good as the opposition. This belief is not entirely accurate. The bowl record is even worse when the point spread is considered: Since 1974, the Heisman winners' teams won just 13 of 34 bowl games and are remarkably only 8-26 (less than 24 percent) against the spread .
Possible reasons why the trophy's recipient and his team are usually disappointing in a bowl include the winner of the trophy usually misses bowl practices, can get himself out of playing shape, and, perhaps above all, the Heisman can serve as a distraction.
Ohio State's Troy Smith, the 2006 Heisman winner, reportedly gained approximately 15 pounds after winning the award and leading up to the Buckeye's BCS title game against Florida. Smith completed just four of 14 passes for 35 yards and one interception and rushed 10 times for minus-29 yards and lost a fumble against the Gators—a total of a mere six offensive yards in 24 plays, no touchdowns, and two turnovers. Ohio State, who was a seven-point favorite over Florida, was trounced, 41-14.
Herschel Walker, in becoming Georgia's second and last Heisman Trophy winner, rushed for 1,752 yards, averaged 5.2 yards per carry, and scored 17 touchdowns in 1982. However, in the Sugar Bowl against Penn State for the national championship, Walker was limited to 103 yards, a 3.7 average, and a single touchdown in the Bulldogs' 27-23 defeat.
In addition, Herschel was out-performed by two opposing players—an absolute rarity indeed. Penn State's Todd Blackledge completed 13 of 23 passes for 228 yards, one touchdown, and no interceptions against a Georgia defense that intercepted 35 passes during the regular season. Teammate Kurt Warner rushed for 117 yards, averaged 6.5 yards per rush, and scored two touchdowns.
"Herschel's a great running back, but I don't rate myself any lower than him," said Warner following the game.
For the first time all season, Walker was forced by an opposing defensive line to run gingerly. In keeping him from getting his shoulders squared and headed up field, Penn State pressured Herschel to run towards the corners and sidelines. There, the Heisman winner was shadowed by safety Mark Robinson, who made repeated tackles on Walker for short gains.
"I think that frustrated Georgia's offense when we stopped Herschel," said Robinson after the Sugar Bowl victory. "I could see in his eyes that he was discouraged."
A rumor surfaced later that, besides Penn State's defensive scheme, the upstart United States Football League (USFL) may have also contributed in Herschel's Heisman letdown.
Although Walker had stated he would return to Georgia for his senior season of 1983, the USFL had apparently been in his ear leading up to the Sugar Bowl, attempting to get him to turn pro early. This would have been a major distraction. Nearly two months following the loss to Penn State, Herschel decided to retract his commitment to Georgia and turn professional.
Herschel's bowl performance after receiving the Heisman might have been disappointing but it doesn't even compare to some of recent winners' bowl failures. One recent recipient, who remained anonymous, said he would have turned down the award if he had known the extent to which the trophy would ruin his life.
I'm not indicating Alabama's Ingram will have a Heisman letdown against Texas and certainly not a jinx nor curse. In fact, most running backs who have won the award since the mid-1980s have performed quite well in bowl games. However, if a Heisman letdown could happen to Herschel, in my opinion, the greatest college football player in history, it could happen to anybody.
The five most disappointing Heisman bowl performances of all time in order along with an honorable mention:
- Troy Smith , Ohio State
- Billy Cannon , LSU (1960 Sugar Bowl vs. Ole Miss, 21-0 loss): Rushed for just eight yards on six carries.
- Jason White , Oklahoma (2004 Sugar Bowl vs. LSU, 21-14 loss): Completed only 13 of 37 passes for 102 yards and two interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown.
- Desmond Howard , Michigan (1992 Rose Bowl vs. Washington, 34-14 loss): Limited to one catch for 35 yards and 15 yards rushing after averaging 159 all-purpose yards per game during the '91 season.
- Vinny Testaverde , Miami (1987 Fiesta Bowl vs. Penn State, 14-10 loss): Completed 26 of 50 passes for just 285 yards, no touchdowns and five interceptions. Also rushed for minus-10 yards.
- John Cappeletti , Penn State (1974 Orange Bowl vs. LSU, 16-9 win): Averaged less than two yards per rush, gaining only 50 yards on 26 carries. He did score a touchdown and his team won.
The five best Heisman bowl performances and an honorable mention:
- B arry Sanders , Oklahoma State (1988 Holiday Bowl vs. Wyoming, 62-14 win): Rushed for 222 yards on 29 carries, caught two passes for 36 yards, and scored five touchdowns.
- Matt Leinart , USC (2005 Orange Bowl vs. Oklahoma, 55-19 win): Completed 18 of 35 passes for 332 yards and five touchdowns.
- Charles White , USC (1980 Rose Bowl vs. Ohio State, 17-16 win): Rushed for 247 yards on 39 carries and scored the game-winning touchdown; 71 of his yards came on winning drive.
- Danny Wuerffel , Florida (1997 Sugar Bowl vs. Florida State, 52-20 win): Completed 18 of 34 passes for 306 yards and was responsible for four touchdowns (three passing, one rushing).
- Johnny Rodgers , Nebraska (1973 Orange Bowl vs. Notre Dame, 40-6 win): Rushed for 81 yards on 15 carries, caught three passes for 71 yards, and passed for a 52-yard touchdown. In all, responsible for five touchdowns (three rushing, one receiving, one passing).
- Jim Plunkett , Stanford (1971 Rose Bowl vs. Ohio State, 27-17 win): Completed 20 of 30 passes for 265 yards, one touchdown, and also rushed for 26 yards.
An interesting Heisman fact:
- Of the five Heisman winners who played in bowls from 1985-1990, three (1985: Bo Jackson, 1987: Tim Brown, 1990: Ty Detmer) faced Texas A&M in their respective bowl game. The Aggies were underdogs in all three games but won each convincingly by an average scoring margin of 32 points, covering the spread by an average of nearly 36 points.