The Heisman Trophy is timeless — easily the most recognizable symbol of individual success in American sports. But as the bronze embodiment of that achievement remains frozen in time, the process of carrying it home is evolving.
The very makeup of the five finalists heading to New York for the Saturday night ceremony shows how much times have changed. And like most transformations these days, technology plays both primary and secondary roles.
Votes have been cast by email the past three seasons, thus allowing the 900-plus with ballots to watch every snap of every game before submitting their choice. No longer is there a fear of the post office losing the envelope before votes are tallied the Monday before the ceremony.
Three of the five finalists played the final Saturday of the season, while Alabama’s Trent Richardson and Stanford’s Andrew Luck sat idle. In the course of a few hours, Wisconsin’s Montee Ball scored four touchdowns and LSU’s Tyrann Mathieu gashed Georgia’s punt defense twice. Both were fringe contenders before winning conference title games and finalists after.
Then there’s current front-runner Robert Griffin III. His Baylor team (9-3) likely wouldn’t have played in a Big 12 title game if it still existed, but his 4-touchdown performance in a regular-season game with Texas vaulted him to the top of most projections.
A week earlier, he trailed Richardson, who led nearly every poll of voters after running for a career-high 203 yards at Auburn.
Kari Chisholm, an Oregon political media analyst who runs StiffArmTrophy.com, said it’s impossible to ignore the impact of the final impression.
“It’s troubling to me that this is basically a player of the week award as opposed to a season-long award.” Chisholm said. “That said, Robert Griffin performed well all season, it’s just interesting to me that Andrew Luck led the entire season, then lost in the end.”
Richardson trailed in the StiffArmTrophy poll after the Iron Bowl, but led on HeismanPundit.com while Griffin was third. Site publisher Chris Huston sees both sides of the last-minute voting trend.
“It’s a good thing in the sense that everyone is watching the games,” he said. “It conceivably can be problematic that it really makes for volatile voting. Someone might forget Trent Richardson had 200 yards the week before because what they just saw is the most recent thing in their mind. It makes for more of the flavor of the moment kinda thing.”
Interestingly, Richardson’s former teammate Mark Ingram benefited from a Week 14 surge. He trailed in the polls after running for just 30 yards at Auburn in 2009, but exploded for 189 all-purpose yards in the SEC championship win over Florida.
A week later, Ingram won the closest vote in Heisman history (1,304-1,276 over Stanford’s Toby Gerhart) in the first year ballots were submitted electronically.
Late season surges made an impact even before computers played a factor.
Chisholm remembers the first season of StiffArmTrophy.com tracked Carson Palmer’s successful campaign in 2002. The USC quarterback completed 32 of 46 passes for 425 yards and four touchdowns in a season-ending win over Notre Dame.
That came two weeks after runner-up Brad Banks finished his season as the Iowa quarterback in a final voting Palmer won by a margin of 1,328-1,095. Only fourth-place finisher Willis McGahee played a game after Palmer’s regular-season finale.
That race was similar to the current battle, Chisholm said.
“It’s also true that Andrew Luck and Trent Richardson both had really good seasons,” he said, “But neither really had that Heisman moment that everybody can point to as being a turning point for their team in the season, whereas Robert Griffin had a whole lot of can-you-believe-that-just-happened moments. Certainly Robert Griffin would be a very legitimate Heisman Trophy winner. Certainly without him, Baylor would be nowhere.”
“It’s just fascinating to watch it shift so dramatically over the course of the final weekend.”
The expanded use of electronic media also made an impact this season, Huston said.
Baylor’s sports information department was proactive from the beginning of the season in the effort to keep its quarterback in the spotlight. It mailed playing cards to voters, held teleconferences for national media and set up an interactive website complete with video, stats and facts about the candidate.
Stanford coach David Shaw did a power point presentation for reporters and voters to make his case for Luck.
Wisconsin compared Ball to Richardson, though it wouldn’t refer to the Alabama running back by name. The Badger program sent an email to reporters comparing Ball’s résumé to “the other guy.”
Alabama took a more indirect route to Richardson’s campaign. Coach Nick Saban regularly dismissed any talk of individual awards and a midseason question about the Heisman drew an angry response. Richardson, who made weekly appearances on the Palmer & Pollack show on ESPNU for most of the season, liked to defer all Heisman hype to his offensive line.
The school also launched a website for Richardson and seven other award candidates featuring a highlight video and listed the candidates’ accolades and stats.
“Alabama probably was probably the least interesting of the bunch,” Huston said. “Of the five, Baylor and Stanford had probably the best campaigns.”
It’s all part of the modern era for the 76-year old Heisman Trophy.
Jay Berwagner didn’t have much of a campaign when he became the first to strike the pose in 1935. The running back didn’t gain 1,000 yards and his University of Chicago team didn’t even have a winning season.
But by Saturday night, he’ll share a legacy with a 20-something who navigated the 21st-century route to winning the same ageless bronze statue.
Michael Casagrande covers University of Alabama sports for The Star. Follow him on Twitter @UARollTide_Star