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Richard Hoffer
December 10, 1990
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December 10, 1990

A Ty Vote For The Heisman


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On the whole, it was a different sort of Heisman Trophy weekend. The fellow from Notre Dame didn't get the prize, which went to a quarterback from a conference, the WAC, that had never before produced a Heisman winner. Then, after accepting the award last Saturday, Ty Detmer of Brigham Young went out and celebrated by having one of the worst games of his lustrous career, a 59-28 shellacking by Hawaii. In his first post-Heisman showing, Detmer, a 23-year-old junior, did little to vindicate the voters who had chosen him by a surprisingly wide margin, 1,482 points to 1,177, over the Fighting Irish's Raghib Ismail and Colorado running back Eric Bieniemy (798). He did throw for 319 yards against the Rainbows, thereby breaking the NCAA season record for passing yardage, with 5,188. But he also had four interceptions and was as instrumental in BYU's defeat as he normally is in a Cougar victory. "This is going to be a long flight home," said Detmer after his team's humiliating loss.

The journey from Honolulu to Brigham Young's campus in Provo, Utah, would be about the only yardage Detmer and BYU wouldn't enjoy this season. The critics who insisted that he didn't deserve the Heisman Trophy, that his gaudy numbers were accumulated in a second-rate conference, may have been smirking after the Hawaii game. But one game does not a season make, and this has been a fine one for Detmer, whose Heisman victory came in spite of some imposing obstacles.

Detmer benefited from a concerted campaign by Brigham Young publicists that included the distribution of 10,000 cloth neckties—dubbed Heisman "Tys"—but he did not have the network TV exposure that a candidate for the award is generally believed to need if he's going to win. The Cougars appeared only twice on network TV (and twice on national cable), but that would seem hardly enough exposure to overcome the secrecy that normally attends events in the WAC.

It's true that Detmer could be viewed nearly every weekend on the Church Satellite System, a network created to link Mormon church houses all around the country to the religion's semiannual general conferences in Salt Lake City. (Mormon joke: How can you recognize a Latter-day Saints church? By its satellite dish.) The system not-so-coincidentally also carries BYU games. But this exposure, permitted by the NCAA on the grounds that it is "narrowcasting," is largely preaching to the converted. "I don't know that we swung any votes in the church houses," says Brigham Young sports publicist Ralph Zobell.

Up to the moment Detmer won the prize (he received the news from New York's Downtown Athletic Club, which awards the Heisman, via a CBS hookup to a poolside camera at Honolulu's Princess Kaiulani Hotel before Saturday night's game) many thought it would be all but impossible to swing enough votes over to BYU's side of the Wasatch Mountains.

Cougar quarterbacks have attracted attention over the years, but not much support in college football's annual beauty contest. Robbie Bosco twice finished third (in 1984 and '85) in the Heisman voting. Jim McMahon ('81) and Marc Wilson ('79) each finished third once. And in '83, in the highest finish by a Brigham Young athlete, Steve Young came in second, behind Nebraska tailback Mike Rozier. The fact that only McMahon among those BYU quarterbacks advanced to NFL stardom seemed to confirm the wisdom of the voting.

Detmer was widely considered to be another Cougar automaton—a long-shot junior trailing another junior, Ismail, for sure. Ismail is a so-called all-purpose runner who produced more electricity than anything else. For all the fun Ismail has been to watch, he was only ninth in the nation in his most telling category, all-purpose yards. On the other hand, you could hardly work your way around the remote control on Saturday afternoons without coming upon some Irish Rocketry.

But in the end Detmer's numbers were simply too prodigious to ignore. If you had been a voter, you could have quibbled with BYU's schedule or taken issue with the Cougar offensive formula, which gives its quarterback a million throws a game. But those numbers just kept rising, finally breaking over the wall of skepticism. Going into the final game of this season—and with a full year of eligibility left—Detmer had set a total of 29 NCAA records, including consecutive games with a touchdown pass (23) and touchdown passes in a career (86). No sooner did Houston's David Klingler pass for 716 yards during a 62-45 defeat of Arizona State in Tokyo last weekend, thereby breaking the NCAA record for passing yardage in a season that Detmer had set in a 45-10 win over Utah State on Nov. 24, than Detmer went out and passed for 319 against Hawaii to reclaim the mark. The most compelling Detmer number may be that his performance against the Rainbows marked the 24th straight game in which he passed for more than 300 yards. That, too, is a record.

Detmer's Heisman candidacy was aided immeasurably by one of those 300-plus-yard games—he threw for 406, actually—which came on Sept. 8 against then-top-ranked Miami. That afternoon he completed 38 of 54 passes for three touchdowns in a 28-21 upset of the Hurricanes, and it was no longer possible to dismiss him as a mere regional phenomenon. Of course, it hurt that three weeks later, despite throwing for 442 yards with a sprained finger on his throwing hand, he had five interceptions against Oregon in the 10-2 Cougars' only loss before the Heisman ballots were mailed in. Without that defeat Detmer might have turned the race into a runaway. Nonetheless, enough voters remained faithful as BYU resumed winning and Detmer resumed throwing touchdown passes.

Oh, yes. About those touchdown passes, 41 in all: Why does Detmer, who is barely six feet tall and is said to weigh 175 pounds, immediately rush downfield after each one and deliver celebratory head butts to teammates? "Well, sir," explains Detmer in his Texas drawl, "you can knock 'em down if you hit 'em just right."

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