The best trophy in sports

At the apex of its influence, the Heisman has become a fixture of American culture

December 14, 2013 6:00AM ET
Then Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama strikes the "Heisman" pose while holding Earl Campbell's Heisman trophy, Thursday, Feb. 21, 2008, during a tour of the University of Texas in Austin, Texas.
2008 AP

"Golden-age thinking," a term coined by a character in Woody Allen's “Midnight in Paris,” is defined in the film as "the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one's living in."

This type of thinking is common among college football fans, especially when it comes to the Heisman Trophy. A casual glance at social media reveals a sentiment along the lines of "the trophy just isn't what it used to be."

The Heisman isn't what it used to be? You bet it isn't. 

It's better.

The 78-year-old trophy is arguably at the apex of its influence, a vital fixture not only in sports but, increasingly, pop culture as well.

A cultural phenomenon

The award was created in 1935 as the Downtown Athletic Club (of Manhattan) trophy and was renamed the following year after the death of the club's director, John Heisman, a legendary coach and propagator of such football innovations as the center hike, the shifting of linemen and the forward pass.

Each year since 1935, the trophy has been handed out to college football's most outstanding player as selected by a committee of voters made up mostly of members of the media from around the country. Former winners also have a vote. 

Over time, the trophy's prestige grew as such college football luminaries as Glenn Davis, Doak Walker, Howard "Hopalong" Cassady and Billy Cannon took home the award. Its influence on football and culture accelerated in the early 1960s, when Ernie Davis of Syracuse became the first African-American to win it and Terry Baker of Oregon State became the first West Coast player to do so, making it a truly inclusive and national award. 

But the whole Heisman process was much different back then. There was no one-hour ceremony on national television. Schools were simply notified by mail late in the season that their player had won the award, and just that player — no other finalists — was later honored in a humble ceremony in New York City.

Heisman voters from around the country didn't have a whole lot of solid information on which to base their votes back then. After all, there was no cable television or Internet. Perhaps one game each week was broadcast on TV. Instead, voters relied on newspaper accounts and box scores to inform their decisions. For the most part, they had to fly blind when filling their ballots.

Not until 1982 was the Heisman winner announced on live television in the presence of his fellow finalists. 

Twenty years from now, football fans won't remember who won the NFL’s MVP award, but they will remember who won the Heisman in 2013.

Two years later, the Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA could no longer control television rights for college football teams, and soon dozens of games were being broadcast every week. Finally, Heisman voters could get a good look at the players they were considering.

In 1984, Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie's Hail Mary pass to beat national powerhouse Miami with no time remaining became one of the iconic moments in sports — and millions of people watched it live. It's a myth that this play won him the Heisman — most ballots had already been mailed in — but it gave the trophy some cultural cachet. The idea of the diminutive Flutie (5 feet 10 inches tall, which is very short for a quarterback) overcoming all odds to win the trophy appealed to many who previously didn't pay much attention to the award.

But it was the advent of the Internet age that really pushed the Heisman into prominence. The volume of data available to voters has made them more informed than ever, and online voting for the Heisman has allowed them to hold off on sending in their ballots until they've seen every game (unlike in the past, when snail-mail deadlines required early mailing). A cottage industry of niche websites devoted to analyzing the annual race for the trophy, complete with polls and focus groups, has emerged. (Disclosure: I am one such online media analyst, as well as a Heisman voter.) Meanwhile, the television ratings for the ceremony itself have grown steadily. A record 6 million viewers tuned in to watch the 2009 event. 

The transformation of the Heisman from a quaint, East Coast–based award selected by ill-informed media and presented with little fanfare into a prestigious national trophy voted on by tuned-in observers and handed out on national television as the culmination of a dramatic, season-long process is nothing short of remarkable.

Along the way, it's become more than just a trophy. It's become a cultural phenomenon. Invocations of the iconic bronze statue with its stiff arm raised defiantly are everywhere, from the dance floor to the Oval Office.

A different sport

Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, of Baylor, is photographed with the award during a news conference, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2011, in New York.
Craig Ruttle/AP

Critics of the trophy point to the lack of success that some of its winners have had in the National Football League as evidence of its invalidity. But this viewpoint fails to recognize that the NFL and college football are, and always have been, very different — what works in college football does not always not work in the NFL, and vice versa.

For example, Tim Tebow, the star Florida quarterback who popularized “Tebowing” (his way of crouching in the end zone after a touchdown), won the Heisman by running an offense that emphasized, above all, his mobility. But in the NFL, Tebow was shoehorned into a different style of offense that did not take advantage of that mobility. So he was not nearly as effective in the NFL as he was in college. For this he has been pilloried. But if you asked Elvis to sing jazz, he wouldn't succeed either.

Despite the critics, the Heisman matters more than ever. The trophy has the power to change the course of an entire football program. Look at Baylor. Two years after quarterback Robert Griffin III took home the school's first Heisman, the Bears are the champions of their conference, the Big 12, and won 11 games for the first time in their history. In fact, Baylor ended up one victory shy of making the Bowl Championship Series title game — an idea that would have been almost inconceivable three or four years ago. 

It was the Heisman that lit that spark. When RG3 won the award, it was the start of something special in Waco. Even these Baylor fans knew it at the time.

On Saturday a new Heisman winner will be announced in New York. The "Heisman Trophy winner" tag will follow that player for the rest of his life. Twenty years from now, football fans won't remember who won the NFL’s MVP award, but they will remember who won the bronze statue in 2013.

Chris Huston, aka "The Heisman Pundit," is the creator and publisher of HeismanPundit.com, a site dedicated to analysis of the Heisman Trophy and college football. He also covers college football for NBCSports.com.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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