When the 54th annual Heisman Trophy is awarded on Dec. 8 at Manhattan's Downtown Athletic Club, it will go to a deserving player. Why? Because it always does. This is not to say that the Heisman voters have never made a mistake or that factors other than a player's feats on the gridiron don't come into play, but simply that the trophy is not nearly as tarnished as its critics would have us believe.
Never mind that sniping at the Heisman is a popular pastime for football fans. Its prestige easily surpasses that of the Cy Young, the NFL MVP and the Eclipse awards. Says NBC sportscaster Don Criqui, "It's the single most important individual award in sports."
Why has the Heisman been such a lightning rod for criticism? First, there is the widespread perception that it often goes to the wrong player for the wrong reasons. John D. O'Keefe, chairman of the Heisman committee at the Downtown Athletic Club, which oversees the balloting, says the award is assailed because "it is popular to attack the establishment, and this is a symbol of the establishment. We've been indicted many times but never convicted."
Indeed, a fair-minded inspection of the roster of previous winners yields a persuasive argument for each one. Most particularly, it validates the selection of John Huarte in 1964 and Gary Beban in '67, the two most frequently maligned winners. For decades they have served as punch lines to derisive jokes about the Heisman's flawed selection process. The jokesters are wrong and Beban is right when he says, "I don't think anybody has won it who shouldn't have. I hold my head high."
Huarte's selection has been the more criticized of the two. As a sophomore and junior at Notre Dame, he was a virtual nonentity—he played for a total of just 50 minutes and failed to letter in either season. But after the Irish finished 2-7 in 1963, Ara Parseghian took over as coach and anointed Huarte as his starting quarterback. With Huarte at the helm in '64, Notre Dame blazed to a 9-1 record, losing only to Southern Cal in the final game. Huarte completed 114 of 205 passes for 2,062 yards and 16 touchdowns and threw only 11 interceptions. Notre Dame outscored its opponents 287-77. Says Huarte, "Notre Dame had a genuine return to power, and I was the leader."
Huarte is quick to credit Parseghian, assistant coach Tom Pagna, halfback Nick Eddy and sure-handed receiver Jack Snow, who grabbed 60 passes for nine scores in '64. "Without each of those guys," says Huarte, "I don't win the Heisman."
Huarte bristles at the suggestion that he won only because he played for Notre Dame. Logic supports him. Although the Irish have collected more Heismans than any other school—seven, followed by Ohio State with five and USC with four—no Irish player won the award between Huarte's year and Tim Brown in '87, a gap of 23 seasons. For one shining year, Huarte was the best college player in America.
Even Jerry Rhome, who finished second to Huarte in the balloting as a quarterback at Tulsa and is now offensive coordinator for the San Diego Chargers, says, "I'm not asking for a recount." Rhome had far starrier numbers than Huarte did, setting 17 NCAA records, including single-season marks for passing yardage (2,870) and touchdown passes (32) in his senior year. But as he says, "The Missouri Valley Conference was nothing to talk about."
Finishing third in the controversial '64 vote was Illinois linebacker Dick Butkus. Many believe that if a defensive player ever deserved to win—none has—Butkus was the one. He was brilliant for the Illini. The American Football Coaches Association, The Sporting News and Sport magazine all chose him as Player of the Year, six other organizations picked him Lineman of the Year and 11 named him to their All-America teams. However, the Illini were a mediocre 6-3 and only 4-3 in the Big 10. Asked if he deserved to win, Butkus says, "I don't know. I guess not. I didn't."
The notion that Huarte was an unworthy winner is furthered by the fact that Joe Namath finished 11th in the voting and Gale Sayers 12th. But Namath completed 64 of 100 passes for only 756 yards for his 10-1 national championship Alabama team and Sayers rushed for only 633 yards on a 6-4 Kansas team.