Heisman History: Inside College Football's Most Prestigious Award

Paul FulwilerCorrespondent INovember 9, 2008

Say what you want about the Heisman Trophy: "It's all about the hype."  "The best player never wins." "The winner never makes it in the NFL."  Whatever.  The truth is, since its inception in 1935, the race for the Heisman Trophy is the most watched, most scrutinized, and most talked about in all of college football, and perhaps in all of sports.

When Jay Berwanger took home the first "bronzed stiff arm" for Chicago back in 1935, the award (known then as the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy) was intended to go to the "best college player east of the Mississippi."  Some might say that nothing much has changed in that regard.

Despite USC's recent success, the western part of the United States has received very little love from Heisman voters.  Terry Baker of Oregon State became the first West Coast winner in 1962.  He was the 28th recipient of the award.

And after USC great Marcus Allen ran away with it in 1981, the West Coast would have to wait another 21 years.  USC quarterback Carson Palmer won in 2002, the first of three in just four seasons for the Trojans.

After that first year, the Heisman folks (at least according to their website) began considering players coast-to-coast in an attempt to find the nation's "most outstanding college football player."

After taking a close look at the 72 selections since Berwanger, you'll find 40 running backs (tail, half, full, etc.), 26 quarterbacks, five receivers (ends, flankers, etc.), and just one defensive player—Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson in 1997.

Although several early winners played both ways (Iowa's Nile Kinnick did just about everything, including lead the nation with eight picks), perhaps that should read "most outstanding offensive player (who is not an offensive lineman)."

Despite the recent run on quarterbacks winning (seven in the last eight seasons, and 12 out of the last 18) a distinct pattern took form in the '70s and early '80s, when it went primarily to whomever led the nation in rushing and/or scoring.

Even with some of the greatest QBs in history putting up huge numbers (Dan Marino, John Elway, Joe Montana, Jim McMahon, Steve Young, and so on) not one of them would take home the hardware.

Boston College great Doug Flutie would put an end to that run (11 straight seasons), taking it home in 1984. 

What is the real criteria for selection into this elite fraternity?  There is no code or qualifications.  However, there are some other similarities among these 72.  Most have some sort of combination of winning team, huge stats, and a great career.  How they're weighted is entirely up to the voters.

Save for one glaring exception (Paul Hornung in 1956), every Heisman winner has played on a winning team, and often very highly ranked.  In fact, there have only been six winners on teams with four losses or more.

1. Paul Hornung, 1956, Notre Dame (2-8)

I realize that the hype that exists today probably doesn't compare to the attention Notre Dame players received in the '40s and '50s, but 2-8?  There were plenty of other worthy candidates: Tommy McDonald, Johnny Majors, and Jim Brown.  Can you imagine Jimmy Clausen getting the invite to last year's festivities?


2. Steve Owens, 1964, Oklahoma (6-4)

Led the nation in rushing and scoring.


3. Tim Brown, 1987, Notre Dame (8-4)

Don't get me wrong: Much like Hornung, Brown was an amazing athlete and could do so much, but man, Heisman voters sure love the Irish.  I don't think Syracuse's Don McPherson cares for them much, however.  He led the Orangemen to an 11-0-1 record and led the nation in QB efficiency rating.  He finished second, and it wasn't even close.


4. Bo Jackson, 1985, Auburn (8-4)

Among the nation's leaders in rushing and scoring and won a nail-biter with Iowa QB Chuck Long, 1509-1464


5. George Rogers, 1980, South Carolina (8-4)

Led the nation in rushing.


6. Tim Tebow, 2007, Florida (9-4)

The first sophomore to ever win put up huge numbers but was given an even larger gift when the clear front-runner, Oregon QB Dennis Dixon, succumbed to a knee injury in Week 10 that would end his season, and thus, his Heisman campaign.


Somewhat surprisingly, only 11 Heisman winners have combined their trophy with a National Title.  There were five that did it of the first 15 winners, followed by an incredible stretch from 1950-1992, 43 seasons, where just two completed the feat.

After a run of three in five years, there has been only one winner in the last 10 years to nab both: USC QB Matt Leinart in 2004.

The career award (is that how Hornung got his?) has gone most recently to Nebraska QB Eric Crouch in 2001, Wisconsin RB Ron Dayne in 1999, and Texas RB Ricky Williams in 1998.  Both Williams and Dayne had huge numbers.  In fact, Dayne broke the all-time rushing mark that Williams had set the previous year. 

Eric Crouch?  I'm still not sure about that one.  It was a close vote among Crouch, Florida QB Rex Grossman, Miami QB Ken Dorsey, and Oregon QB Joey Harrington.

Grossman's problem, despite leading the nation in QB efficiency rating, was that he was a sophomore.  Dorsey?  Not enough flash?  Perhaps just lucky to be the QB on a great team?  And Harrington?  Well, you might want to look into that West Coast bias again.

The bottom line: If you're looking to see who might be the one fortunate player to take home the trophy this season, start on offense, look at the QBs, see who's at least winning most of their games, who might be closing in on some career marks, who has sprinkled in a few highlights, perhaps a game winner or two, and make sure he's not a freshman.

Then you just might have it.