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Jim Murray

Howls Over Heisman Vote Nothing New

December 13, 1987|Jim Murray

I am always amused when--as has happened this year--screams of protest go up over the selection of a Heisman Trophy winner. The football intelligentsia consider the recipient unworthy.

Tim Brown, goes the refrain, is not the best football player on the planet today. The Heisman has gone to an impostor.

So, what else is new?

In moments like these, I like to browse through the Heisman annals. That trophy has a long history of missing its point.

In the early days, back when the trophy went annually to the best player at Yale or Chicago (no player west of the Mississippi was eligible), there was no pro career yardstick to measure the validity of the choice against. No one was embarrassed, although a historical footnote was missed when a man who would go on to become a Supreme Court justice, Byron (Whizzer) White, finished second in the balloting.

But the Heisman pretended to honor the best football player in America, not the smartest.

It didn't always do that either:

--In 1938, the winner, Davey O'Brien of TCU, might have been the best player in the country, inch for inch. But touchdown for touchdown, Sid Luckman of Columbia, who finished third in the balloting, might have been.

He led the pros in touchdown passes three years, he was at the wheel in the most lopsided title game in pro history, steering the Chicago Bears to a 73-0 win over the Washington Redskins. Besides, there is no record of Davey O'Brien's predecessor at TCU ever getting a Heisman vote, much less a trophy. Fellow named Sammy Baugh.

--Nile Kinnick was a worthy winner in 1939 who never had a chance to go to the pros. He was killed during World War II.

But you might have expected to look down the list of those garnering votes and seen the name of Jackie Robinson somewhere on there. Or have seen his UCLA teammate, Kenny Washington, higher than sixth.

--I don't know how good a player Angelo Bertelli of Notre Dame was as a quarterback in 1943. But better than Otto Graham? Otto, who finished third, not only lost out to Bertelli, he finished behind someone named Bob Odell from Pennsylvania.

--Johnny Lujack of Notre Dame won in 1947. Nothing wrong with that, but Bobby Layne of Texas should have finished higher than sixth.

That was the highest Bobby ever did finish in the Heisman voting. But he had no trouble getting voted into the pro football Hall of Fame ahead of any of the guys who beat him in the Heisman balloting.

--Dick Kazmaier of Princeton was a fine Ivy League football player when he won in 1951 but couldn't Hugh McElhenny and Ollie Matson have gotten higher than eighth and ninth?

--Howard (Hopalong) Cassady and Paul Hornung were household names when they won in 1955 and 1956, respectively, but wasn't anybody noticing that running back in Syracuse? Hey, there were 10 better backs than Jim Brown in 1955? Or four in '56? Gimme a break!

--John Huarte of Notre Dame won in 1964. He was a quarterback, in case you've forgotten. So was Joe Namath at Alabama that year. He finished 11th. But that's nothing. Gale Sayers finished 12th.

--Steve Spurrier of Florida won in 1966. He beat Bob Griese. Also, Floyd Little.

--John Cappelletti won it in 1973 when Lynn Swann was 12th.

--Archie Griffin won it twice, back to back, but Walter Payton never got closer than 12th.

--George Rogers of South Carolina won it in 1980 and Jim McMahon of BYU finished fifth.

So, the runners-up to Tim Brown and their supporters can take heart. They're in good company. The gaudy boast of the trophy is open to challenge anyway--"The Outstanding College Football Player in the United States." A pure lineman has never won it. Leon Hart and Larry Kelley, the only non-backs ever to win it, were primarily offensive ends.

The closest non-backs were Alex Karras, who was second in 1957; Hugh Green, who was second in 1980; and Dick Butkus, who was third in 1964.

The scales were weighted in favor of the ballhandlers before even a ballot was marked. The trophy was posed for by a New York University halfback and shown for refinements to the Fordham backfield before it was ever cast.

Who knows how many better pure football players there were in the trenches all those years? Merlin Olsen made 10th in the voting one year. Deacon Jones never got a vote. Down linemen are non-persons.

Who knows whether Tim Brown is better than a Don McPherson, Lorenzo White, Craig Heyward or Gaston Green? Who knows whether he's even better than the behemoths laying blocks for him on the line of scrimmage? We find out somewhere around Super Bowl XXV or XXX.

But if he isn't, it's hardly man-bites-dog. It won't be the first time Heisman came out Wrong man.

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