Work in Sports
Stanford's favorite son
In the summer of 1970, Bob Murphy, Stanford's sports publicity chief, felt compelled to issue an unusual release.
"Gentlemen of the Press," it read. "My title is Sports Information Director, not Campaign Manager! This is by way of saying that our great quarterback Jim Plunkett will win his awards on the field, and not in the publicity office."
The Heisman Trophy campaign had started to resemble a national election. As a glut of talented passers -- including Plunkett, Notre Dame's Joe Theismann, Mississippi's Archie Manning and Kansas State's Lynn Dickey -- vied for college football's most cherished prize, SIDs courted votes with elaborate public relations schemes. (The Mississippi precinct was well covered with Archie dolls and bumper stickers.)
But with a candidate like Plunkett, it was easy for Murphy to stay above the fray. Plunkett's numbers spoke volumes: He led Stanford to an 8-3 regular-season record, threw for 18 touchdowns and ran for three others, amassing 2,898 yards total offense in the process, and 7,887 in three years, then an NCAA standard. His strength was legendary, and he had the finesse to go with it.
"We worked every summer on our timing, and he was always right on the money," says Jack Lasater, one of Plunkett's receivers. "It made your job a lot easier. Plunk didn't miss much."
If Plunkett was a leading passer, he was also a sentimental favorite. The press made much of his personal story. His parents in San Jose were both blind, and his father died his junior year, so Plunkett and his sisters worked to support their mother. He could have graduated the previous June, skipped his remaining year of eligibility and let a pro contract ease the family's financial strain. But he and several other veterans made a vow in the summer before the '70 season: They would return to Stanford, beat USC and go to the Rose Bowl.
Easier said than done. Southern Cal had been to Pasadena each of the past four years, and conference rival UCLA was formidable as well. Stanford, on the other hand, had finished in the Top 20 only once since 1955.
The day before the USC game, Stanford Stadium was the target of a bomb threat. Police searched the stadium, found nothing, and the game proceeded under extra security. The only bombs were those thrown by Plunkett, who passed for 275 yards and one touchdown, a 50-yard pass to tight end Bob Moore. Stanford had overcome the frustrating losses of the two previous years and defeated the Trojans 24-14.
Meanwhile, the Heisman electioneering raged out of control. "Back then we all thought there was too much pressure," Lasater says. "We tried to stand between Jim and the rest of the world as much as we could."
Plunkett felt it, nonetheless. "I was, I guess you'd say, shy," he says. "But everywhere I'd turn, people would ask me what it was like. It was a tough situation. I just felt the weight of the world."
When the results were finally tabulated, Plunkett's victory was decisive. He won 510 first-place votes; Theismann was second with 242. Plunkett was actually in New York City appearing on television when the announcement was made. When he arrived back in San Francisco, a large contingent of Stanford fans was waiting at the airport to greet him.
"Up to that point, it was certainly the biggest thrill in my life," Plunkett says. "And Bob Murphy was very proud of the fact that while everybody else was spending X number of dollars to hype their candidate, he spent 179 bucks on fliers. That's true."
With the Heisman suspense lifted, Plunkett led his team to an upset win over second-ranked Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. The team had kept its vow-and finished eighth in the country in the process.
Plunkett's NFL career was much more difficult. The draft's No. 1 pick, he won AFC rookie honors with the Patriots in 1971, but he was traded to San Francisco five years later and eventually released. The Raiders then signed him in 1978 and won two Super Bowls behind Plunkett, who was the game's MVP in 1981.
These days, the once-reticent Plunkett does Raiders postgame radio interviews and a weekly TV highlights show and gives corporate speeches (as well as owning a beer distributorship).
"I'm much better [as a speaker] now, I can guarantee you," he says.
He keeps his Heisman in a trophy room at his home, a reminder of his Stanford career. And Plunkett's loyalty to the institution has never wavered. For 21 years he has hosted a golf tournament to raise money for athletic scholarships.
"Those were wonderful days for me," he says. "I played in the NFL for 17 years, went to college for four. And my best friends and associates are the people I went to Stanford with, to this day."