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Heisman Voters Again Discount College Football’s Best Players

Photo: Gavin Baker/Icon Sportswire

Open letter to Heisman Trophy trustees James Corcoran and Brian D. Obergfell:

This letter is for both of you, but I hope you share it with fellow trustees.

Your 929 voters for the Heisman Trophy blew it. Again. Alabama running back Derrick Henry won based on a disturbing herd-voting trend fueled by ESPN highlights of a candidate playing for a highly ranked team. As a result, seven schools have produced 16 of the past 25 winners.

Worse, since Henry was a worthy finalist, you and your colleagues blew it by not inviting Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds to be part of the Heisman TV show as a finalist.

I noted your names after watching you take your turns before ESPN’s cameras in search of 15 minutes of fame on the Saturday night Heisman Trophy show. I wish instead we saw Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield and Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds–an NCAA-record holder–in the house, but you and your colleagues lacked the good sense to invite them to New York. Fans also would rather see past Heisman winners such as Archie Griffin, with his Heisman bookends, read announcements.

Reynolds, a young man committed to serve his country upon graduation as a Naval officer in a time of war, was an especially glaring absence. Imagine that scene on TV (instead of time spent with you two mugging for the camera) in his Navy dress blues uniform as an inspiration for these difficult times of fighting terrorism. What a contrast with the entitled athlete TV breeds in America.

But don’t take it from me. I noted such comments by CBS play-by-play man Verne Lundquist and analyst partner Gary Danielson during Saturday’s broadcast of the 116th Army-Navy Game. Navy won with Reynolds accounting for three touchdowns and 249 total yards.

Danielson: “Heisman voters and the committee should be ashamed of themselves for not getting him to New York.”

Lundquist: “If he’s anywhere near the Top 10, bring 10.” Danielson quickly added, “It’s not a sympathy vote. Navy wasn’t playing intramural football teams. We saw them against Notre Dame. We saw them against Ohio State (in 2014).”

Oh, and Danielson, a former Purdue and NFL quarterback, said this about comparing Reynolds and the 2007 Heisman winner, Tim Tebow of Florida: “He is a better pro prospect than Tim Tebow.”

Then he added, “One more and I’ll stop: There are seven SEC schools that would trade quarterbacks with Navy.”
Playing for a highly ranked SEC team might have been the only way for Reynolds to make it to New York. That’s how low Heisman herd voting has deteriorated. Reynolds had been winning a fan vote conducted by ESPN for Nissan until it removed Reynolds’ name. The Heisman Trust and ESPN must not want fans to know they were smarter than Heisman voters.

If Pat Dye was watching, he’d probably ask if you two ever had your hand in the dirt (not that I agree with the old coach about his criticism of Condoleezza Rice on the College Football Playoff committee).

Your explanation for leaving out Mayfield and Reynolds was they finished a distant fourth and fifth. Henry (1,832 votes), McCaffrey (1,539) and Watson (1,165) separated themselves from Mayfield’s 334 and Reynolds’ 180. We’ve already established your voters cast ballots in a herd, so use insight of your own.

This was your time to cover for Heisman herd voters. Navy was prepared to get Reynolds to New York on a helicopter after the Army-Navy Game. It was only a 30-minute flight following the finishes in Philadelphia. The plans were in place if he was invited.

A service academy player hasn’t finished in the Top 10 since Army’s Mike Mayhew in 1990 and Navy’s Napolean McCallum in 1985. You had a chance to give the service academies the special attention they deserve instead of just lip service that is so common once a year the day of the Army-Navy Game.

As for Henry winning, the problem is Heisman voters get stuck on a player for a highly ranked team. Then he gets entrenched by the ESPN highlights air time. Despite increasing information avenues, voters latch onto a player like a bulldog hanging onto a man’s shin and pant legs. They only let go after a bad game.

Case in point: Many wanted to give LSU running back Leonard Fournette the Heisman in September. Then he had a bad game and everybody jumped ship to Henry. It’s a pattern that has been in place since the omnipresence of ESPN highlights. Remember when Michigan’s Denard Robinson totaled 502 yards in the second game of the 2010 season to beat Notre Dame? ESPN’s Mark May led the charge, saying he should get the Heisman “now.” Later, Robinson had a bad game.

Of the seven schools with at least two winners among 16 of the last 25 since 1991 there are two with three: Florida State (Jameis Winston, 2013; Chris Wienke, 2000; and Charlie Ward,  1993) and USC (Reggie Bush, 2005; Matt Leinart, 2004; and Carson Palmer, 2002). Well, officially, USC has only two; Reggie Kardashian went Hollywood and had to give back his 2005 Heisman for taking money from an agent.

The exceptions of a player from a highly ranked brand-named school have been few: Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel in 2012, Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III in 2011, Wisconsin running back Ron Dayne in 1999 and Colorado running back Rashaan Salaam in 1994. Griffin, Dayne and Salaam were rare examples of thoughtful voting.

Voters switched to Griffin over Stanford QB Andrew Luck late in the year. Dayne and Salaam built momentum as the season progressed. Manziel, though, was a herd vote. He won based on replayed highlights from one game, the upset of Alabama.

Yes, Baylor, Texas A&M, Wisconsin and Colorado are Power 5 schools, but they lack the Q rating of Alabama, Florida, Florida State, Michigan, Ohio State, Oklahoma or USC — the seven schools with multiple winners since 1991. Also note that Alabama has had two winners in seven years after none previously.

The most egregious herd vote was Miami’s Gino Torretta over San Diego State’s Marshall Faulk in 1992. With ESPN’s Lee Corso campaigning weekly on ESPN’s Gameday set for Torretta, Faulk had no chance playing at a second-tier school. But back then there were enough thoughtful voters for him to finish second. Herd voting influenced by ESPN can be traced to Corso pounding the set’s desk.

In 1990, BYU quarterback Ty Detmer won despite the Cougars’ No. 13 ranking at the time of the vote (No. 22 after the bowl games). In 1989, Houston quarterback Andrew Ware won with the Cougars ranked No. 13 (No. 14 after bowl games). BYU and Houston are outside of what are now called Power 5 schools. Wake me up the next time a BYU or Houston player has a chance to win the Heisman.

In these cookie-cutter times, a guy like 1988 Heisman winner Barry Sanders of Oklahoma State likely couldn’t win today despite his NCAA records set in his magical season. Sanders was a runaway winner, although the Cowboys were ranked No. 12 at the time of the Heisman voting and scheduled to play in a second-tier bowl, the Holiday Bowl.

Voters did their homework back then.

In 2015, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson should have won the Heisman Trophy. He has carried his unbeaten and No. 1-ranked team further than any player in college football. Clemson has never had a Heisman winner, so it’s on the outside looking in.

I would have settled for Christian McCaffrey of No. 6 Stanford as a second choice. He broke the all-purpose records of Sanders. Stanford hasn’t had a Heisman winner since Jim Plunkett in 1970.

I also would have been satisfied with Reynolds of No. 21 Navy as a winner. The academies haven’t had a winner since Navy’s Roger Staubach in 1963.

Here are three suggested topics for your next board meeting: 1) no TV time for Corcoran and Obergfell; 2) educate voters to resist herd opinions; 3) more consideration to bring a rare player such as Keenan Reynolds to New York.

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