Wednesday, November 11, 2009

On Heisman Confusion

Years ago, back when I actually believed in things, I embarked on a pseudo-investigative story for my college newspaper that attempted to divine the definition of the Heisman Trophy. I'm not going to link it here, because that would be embarrassing--in fact, I'm afraid to even go back and find it, because I'm sure it's far worse than I even remember, and I believe the lead was built on the kind of ridiculously breathless descriptive prose that gives prose a bad name--but what I do recall is a somewhat contentious conversation I engaged in with the Heisman's public-relations man, who kept insisting that the trophy went to "the best college football player in America." So what does that mean, I asked him. Is it about numbers? About leadership? About winning? About alliterative surnames? About the number of circumcisions each candidate had performed on African children? And this PR dude, being a PR dude, gave me nothing. This PR dude just kept repeating the same phrase, that the Heisman is awarded to "the best college football player in America."

Back then, of course, I was too young and stupid to realize that the PR dude wasn't hiding anything; I was too naive to realize that the definition of the Heisman is deliberately oblique so as to render it more interesting. It's why people care about the Heisman more than they care about any other individual postseason award. The Heisman is not necessarily a Most Valuable Player award; the Heisman is not necessarily anything at all. The Heisman is a ghost. Its very definition is fluid, and is determined entirely by the popular consensus of that particular fall. In 1989, Andre Ware won the Heisman strictly because of elephantine numbers, even though none of his games were televised. in 1992, Gino Toretta won the Heisman as a sort of Lifetime Achievement Award, despite the fact that his numbers were nearly identical to what they were the year before (when he finished out of the Top Five, behind a defensive tackle from Washington named Steve Emtman). This is the inherent contradiction of a deliberately nebulous honor: Just when Carson Palmer wins and we think we've figured it out, along comes Jason White to confuse us once more.

Anyway, there are two things that make this perhaps the most unusual Heisman race in recent memory. One is that all the candidates who seemed like "sure things" have f---ed the chicken at some point; the other is that, because of those well-timed chokes, we now have a field in which virtually every historical Heisman archetype is represented. We have the fun-and-gun quarterback (Case Keenum, Houston); we have the oft-spectacular tailback on an elite team (Mark Ingram); we have the long-shot defender (Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska); and we have the Lifetime Achievement contenders (Tim Tebow, Colt McCoy). That they are all essentially neck-and-neck at this point in the season, along with another running back from Clemson and a thick-necked smart guy from Stanford and several others I'll never see play a single game. And so it should play out like a Rohrshach test. It is perhaps our best opportunity to define an award that refuses to accept definition.

My guess is that it will be McCoy or Tebow. My guess is that more people vote with sentiment than vote with numbers, and that even comparisons like this won't convince them:
Keenum vs. Miss State: 435 Yards, 4 TDs, 2 Ints
Tebow vs. Miss State: 127 Yards, 0 TD, 2 Ints (1 run for a TD)
Keenum vs. Texas Tech: 435 Yards, 1 TD, 1 Int, 1 Rush TD
McCoy vs. Texas Tech: 205 Yards, 1 TD, 1 Int
Keenum vs. Oklahoma State: 366 Yards, 3 TDs, 1 Int, 1 Rush TD
McCoy vs. Oklahoma State: 171 Yards, 1 TD, 0 Int
Keenum vs. UTEP: 536 Yards, 5 TDs, 0 Int
McCoy vs. UTEP: 286 Yards, 3 TDs, 1 Int

It seems that the Heisman's inherent subjectivity would reward sentiment. It seems that Tebow will win because he is chaste and pure and sacrificed himself for our sins, or that McCoy will win because he is the only one of the three elite quarterbacks in college football to yet win this award, and someone named Colt should win a Heisman Trophy sometime. It seems that Lifetime Achievement is the default Heisman pose. But I kind of hope I'm wrong. Because the more I think about it, the more I realize that the best thing about the Heisman Trophy is that it makes no sense at all.

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