When Nebraska wingback Johnny Rodgers won the Heisman Trophy in 1972, he began a streak that lasted for 12 seasons where every winner was a running back. Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie broke the stranglehold in 1984.
From 1985 until 2000, there was a mixed bag of winners: seven quarterbacks, six running backs, two wide receivers and a cornerback.
Since 2000, however, there’s been a notable shift in favor of the signal callers, as twelve quarterbacks and one running back (Alabama sophomore Mark Ingram) have won the honor. That’s called “Quarterback Domination,” in my book. And yes, the 12th Man really was Johnny Manziel.
Knowing this, it’s easy to correlate the three modern-day eras of the Heisman with the type of football that was played on the field: the Run, the Transition, the Pass.
The voting in 1972 saw three players finish ahead of the first quarterback on the list, the great Bert Jones of LSU. They were Rodgers, running back Greg Pruitt, and D-Lineman Rich Glover. All were seniors, and so were the other six who received votes in ‘72.
Archie Griffin, who also played in the seventies, is the only repeat winner of the Heisman Trophy. When Archie went back-to-back he was a real junior in ‘74, a real senior in ‘75, and was playing for Ohio State and Coach Woody Hayes.
The following two Heisman Trophies, in 1976 and 1977, went to senior running backs Tony Dorsett and Earl Campbell, respectively; two certified legends in the state of Texas.
I begin with Johnny Rodgers’ win in 1972 for two reasons; first, 1972 was the year the longest-ever Heisman streak began for running backs, and second, it was also the year ‘real’ freshmen became eligible to play for their school’s “varsity.” This is when the words “varsity football” at the college level simply vanished (except in school songs.)
Before 1972, D-1 freshmen played only on “freshman” teams and had no eligibility to win anything except a starting position. They participated in five or six games a year and it cost them an automatic year of eligibility. Since this revolutionary infusion of youth was first introduced to major college football, forty-one seasons went by before a freshman football player finally became an honored recipient of the Heisman, and it went to a redshirt freshman at that; Jonathan Paul Manziel from Texas A&M.
To this day, real freshmen remain the only active participants in college football to whom the Heisman has never reached out, including the mid-1940s (freshmen were temporarily eligible from 1944-1947).
I was a 17 year-old real freshman QB running Texas A&M’s Wishbone offense in ‘73. Upon hearing the word “Wishbone,” your memory reflexes are triggered and you’re automatically transported back to the seventies and early-eighties. It was in the early seventies that the game suddenly moved fast-forward and black players began getting offered football scholarships from all the major universities.
With all the gears I was pushing and pulling while running our triple option, you’d have thought I was operating a ground-trembling tank, which was what our A&M offense frequently resembled. To have 80 carries and gain 500 yards rushing per game was the norm in the seventies.
“Three yards and a cloud of dust,” and “Three things happen when you pass and two are bad,” were popular mantras coming from the mouths of coaches during this time period. These dozen or so years when running backs dominated Heisman voting perfectly reflected the mindset of the country and its coaches.
Since ‘72 we have seen 23 seniors, 12 juniors, 3 sophomores and 1 redshirt freshman win the Heisman. Of the sixteen underclassmen, only Archie Griffin has won a second trophy, so one must ask, “What gives?”
Well, Archie’s Buckeyes went on to lose both of their bowl games. Did these unfortunate outcomes turn voters against repeat recipients? Was the bloom off the Rose Bowl, so to speak? It’s possible, but there were four other junior recipients before Griffin who also didn’t make a return trip to the podium. Among them were star quarterbacks Doak Walker of SMU, Roger Staubach of Navy, and Army’s great halfback, Doc Blanchard — who lost out the following season to his own backfield mate, Glenn Davis.
We’ve now had six modern-day shutouts in a row of a former winner who came back and played the following season. One was Florida’s lefty quarterback, Tim Tebow, who was turned away twice after winning in his real sophomore season. His is a Heisman record that may never be broken.
Nine Heisman winners didn’t bother sticking around to become “hopefuls,” and simply headed straight to the pros early.
Instead of having a leg up, the players who have returned hoping for a repeat have found just the opposite. Two of them, Ingram and Manziel, were forced to return because they were not yet eligible for the NFL draft.
All were outstanding the year after winning, and all failed to repeat (excluding Manziel, who’s still on the waiting list). Ty Detmer had a great senior season, as did Jason White and Matt Leinart. The aforementioned Tim Tebow won a national championship the season following his Heisman, and he played another outstanding season his senior year while leading the country in passing efficiency, but to no avail.
Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford, after winning as a redshirt sophomore, decided to forego the draft but had an injury-plagued season his junior year. He left for the NFL that spring after deciding not to return for a fifth year and a third shot at the Heisman.
Mark Ingram stayed for his real junior season before leaving Alabama for the pros. Heisman or no Heisman, redshirt sophomore Johnny Manziel may follow suit since he is NFL-eligible following this season.
In fact, the probability of another repeat winner may be zero at this point. We sports fans just don’t know what’s in the small print of voters’ by-laws or what’s in the voters’ minds come election day. Do the by-laws say somewhere, “Remember the Buckeyes?”The success record for all of our potential repeaters stands at a humbling one for eleven…and counting, perhaps. Time will tell, but why hold your breath for Johnny? It’s certainly a trend you can’t ignore. Win it once, good for you. Win it twice, you’ve gotta be joking!
It’s also very interesting how speculation runs rampant regarding the prospects of the trophy winners prior to their upcoming bowl games. Check out Oklahoma’s Billy Sims, who won his Heisman in 1978. Billy won his bowl game, then followed up by scoring even more touchdowns in ’79 than in ’78, and had almost 1700 yards rushing in a backfield comprised of four outstanding runners in the legendary OU wishbone. He broke the mold. Yet he got crushed in the voting by fellow senior Charles White of USC in ‘79.
Imagine coaches redshirting freshmen in those days like they do now. Billy would have been a great candidate. He only had three carries his real freshman season and played extensively only in his junior and senior years. But history still dictates that even if Billy had won the Heisman as a redshirt sophomore, it would have been his only win, even with two years remaining on his scholarship (see Tebow).
You seem to be beaten before you start in this game of “Heisman Repeats.” It’s a setup. Maybe you’re blackballed the moment your name is announced. Ninety-percent of those who’ve tried were rewarded by slipping a few notches when their ‘Déjà vu moment’ appeared, almost all through no fault of their own.
So maybe we can dispense with all the “reasons” Manziel won’t win another, because this issue isn’t about Manziel at all, and never has been. It’s about spreading the wealth, plain and simple, and nothing else. So now you know.
Apparently, all we can say as Heisman fans is, “Thanks for the memories, pal. Now, where’s the next phenom?” It’s a short-memory business…one and done.
Maybe someday the voters will prove otherwise. Maybe one day there will actually be a repeat winner, or even a real freshman, taking home the trophy.
I won’t be betting on it, though; too much history. And with the Heisman, history is the only thing that repeats.