7-Pound Purple Dumbbells and 14 More Gimmicky Heisman Campaigns
Last month, the Northwestern athletic department garnered national attention when it shipped two 7-pound purple dumbbells to about 80 college football writers across the country. A subtle hint that the recipients should spend a little more time in the gym? No, just part of the school’s preseason Heisman Trophy campaign for quarterback Dan Persa, who wears No. 7 and was named the Wildcats’ strongest player. Here’s a short history of the Heisman campaigning tradition and some of the more interesting gimmicks through the years.
1. Vote Terry Baker
The Heisman Trophy was first awarded in 1935, but schools didn’t do much campaigning for players until nearly 30 years later. In 1962, Oregon State publicist John Eggers helped Beavers quarterback Terry Baker become the first player west of the Mississippi to win college football’s most prestigious award by mailing updated stats and notes about Baker to voters every week. In 2010, Eggers was elected into the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA) Hall of Fame.
2. Meet Roger Staubach
Trumpeting your star player’s exploits on a national level would soon become the norm for college athletic departments.
In the summer of 1963, Navy sports information director L. Budd Thalman mailed 1,000, four-page pamphlets titled “Meet Roger Staubach” to media members near and far. Thalman also helped land the Navy quarterback on the covers of Sports Illustrated and Time. Staubach was scheduled to appear on the cover of the November issue of Life, but he was bumped after the assassination of President Kennedy.
Staubach won the Heisman by a landslide, but Thalman, like Eggers one year before, refused to take any of the credit. “Roger would have won if Elmer Fudd was his publicity man,” Thalman told ESPN’s Darren Rovell in 2000.
3. Joey Heisman
In 2001, University of Oregon boosters spent $250,000 to erect a 10-story billboard of Ducks quarterback Joey Harrington across from Madison Square Garden in New York City. Harrington led Oregon to an 11-1 season and a victory in the Fiesta Bowl, but he finished fourth in the Heisman voting. In 2003, while playing in the NFL, Harrington sold pieces of the 80-foot by 100-foot billboard to help fund scholarships for Oregon’s Lundquist College of Business.
4. A Little Something for Jason Gesser
Not to be outdone by its neighbor and conference foe to the southwest, Washington State promoted quarterback Jason Gesser for the Heisman in 2002 with a 25-foot by 15-foot vinyl poster on a 10-story grain elevator in tiny Dusty, Washington, which is on the road to Pullman from Seattle. “We did it for fun, for a spoof,” Washington State head coach Mike Price said. “Jason is a bit embarrassed by it.” The poster was about 100 times cheaper than Harrington’s billboard.
5. Bobble Byron Leftwich
The Marshall sports information department distributed approximately 1,000 Byron Leftwich bobblehead dolls to Heisman voters across the country to promote the Thundering Herd’s quarterback in 2002. “I think it’s a good idea,” Leftwich said. “My head’s already too big in real life. People will see the doll and think my head’s not so big.” Big head or not, Leftwich wasn’t a finalist for the award.
6. Air Ware
With Houston banned from appearing on television in 1989 as part of the NCAA sanctions levied against the school, the Cougars’ sports information department needed a creative way to promote quarterback Andre “Air” Ware for the Heisman. The result was a weekly flier designed to look like an airline timetable, which included updated stats and notes about the prolific passer. Ware won the award and would go on to become the seventh pick in the 1990 NFL Draft. By that point, his best football days were behind him.
7. Theismann as in Heisman
After Joe Theismann arrived at Notre Dame in 1967, sports information director Roger Valdiserri convinced him to change the pronunciation of his name from Thees-man to Thighs-man. You know, like in Heisman. Theismann enjoyed a successful career in South Bend, but finished runner-up to Stanford quarterback Jim Plunkett in the Heisman voting in 1970.
Six years later, Pittsburgh running back Tony Dorsett changed the pronunciation of his name (from DOR-set to Dor-SET) around the time that he was awarded the Heisman. “Lots of guys change their names,” Dorsett told a reporter in 1977. “Muhammad Ali. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I wanted to see the type of feedback I’d get.”
8. Fit to Be Tied
In 1990, BYU mailed cardboard ties that opened to reveal stats to Heisman voters as part of the campaign for quarterback Ty Detmer. The junior threw for 5,188 yards and 41 touchdowns in 12 regular season games and won the Heisman. Detmer would finish third in the voting in 1991.
9. Oats for Votes
Touting a center for the Heisman Trophy is a tough sell, but that’s exactly what BYU did in 1981 when it sprinkled rolled oats in envelopes along with notes about Bart Oates that it mailed to voters. Oates didn’t come close to winning the award, but he went on to a successful NFL career that included five Pro Bowls and later starred as himself in a 2005 episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force.
10. Super “Boo Boo”
After Paul Palmer didn’t receive a single Heisman vote despite averaging 193.7 yards rushing per game in 1985, Temple’s sports information office pulled out all the stops to promote its start running back. Nicknamed by his grandmother after the sidekick in the Yogi Bear comic strip, Palmer was featured in a 16-page comic book that was mailed to more than 1,000 sportswriters. Temple also sent photos of Palmer posing with golfing legend Arnold Palmer with the tagline “Pennsylvania has two Palmers” and Paul Palmer-emblazoned pens with sample Heisman ballots. Palmer finished runner-up for the Heisman that year to Vinny Testaverde.
11. Raking in the Votes
In 1997, Rod Commons, who worked under John Eggers at Oregon State, mailed envelopes with a single leaf inside to Heisman voters to promote Cougars quarterback Ryan Leaf. The Pac-10’s Offensive Player of the Year in 1997, Leaf led the Cougars to the Rose Bowl, but finished third in the Heisman voting behind Charles Woodson and Peyton Manning.
12. See Ray Run
In addition to launching SeeRayRun.com, Rutgers mailed binoculars to Heisman voters so they could keep an eye on the Scarlet Knights’ diminutive running back in 2007. He wasn’t a finalist for the award, but he has enjoyed a solid NFL career with the Baltimore Ravens.
13. Stock in Williams
Memphis sports information director Jennifer Rodrigues made headlines with her campaign for running back DeAngelo Williams in 2005. Memphis mailed about 2,500 die-cast model stock cars featuring Williams’ No. 20 to media members and sold another 1,500 on the school website. Williams finished seventh in the Heisman voting that year and Memphis made $20,000 from the sale of the cars, which it put toward its general scholarship fund.
In 2008, the University of Missouri promoted quarterback Chase Daniel’s Heisman candidacy by issuing old-school View-master toys with slides featuring various images of Daniel. "I didn't want to do just a mouse pad or a coffee mug, other standard items or more basic items. I didn't want to do anything that people could just toss aside," Missouri sports information director Chad Moller told reporters. "We wanted to create a little splash and do it in a classy manner."
Bonus: Tom Garlick
OK, so it wasn’t for the Heisman, but Fordham deserves some credit for its three-week campaign to get wide receiver Tom Garlick some consideration for Division I-AA All-America honors in 1992. The school’s sports information office mailed fliers to sportswriters across the country. The top of the flier read “This Garlic Stinks” and included a piece of garlic. The middle section of the flier read “This One Doesn’t” and included Garlick’s stats. Garlick was an honorable mention All-America that season.