Archie Griffin, the only two-time Heisman winner, says another player will someday match his feat. (Walter Iooss Jr./SI)
Archie Griffin is best remembered for his ability to avoid defenders as a three-time All-America running back at Ohio State (1973-75). Now, instead of eluding tacklers, the Buckeyes great is bringing people together. As the President and CEO of the Ohio State Alumni Association, Griffin is the head of a network of more than 450,000 Buckeyes around the world. It’s a job that’s brought him closer to his alma mater, where he’s worked since 1984.
Griffin’s mind is never far from football. The only two-time winner of the Heisman Trophy (in 1974 and '75), he continues to monitor the landscape of college athletics, and he partners with the Wendy’s High School Heisman Program, which recognizes high school seniors who excel in athletics, academics and community service.
Griffin spoke with SI.com about the 2013 college football season, the Heisman race, the pay-for-play debate and the Wendy’s Heisman program.
SI.com: Through five weeks of the college football season, there haven’t been many seismic changes near the top of the polls. A handful of teams could make arguments for the No. 1 ranking. Which programs have stood out thus far to you?
Archie Griffin: The season’s still very young. That’s the key. As this season goes on, things will fall out, and the cream will rise to the top. But I certainly think Alabama, being the reigning champion, is the team to beat right now. They’ve got a powerful program. They’ve done some truly outstanding things, and Nick Saban has done a wonderful job.
I also like what we’ve done at Ohio state. Urban Meyer has done a terrific job with our guys. We’ve won 17 straight games. We’re fortunate in the sense that we have, really, two outstanding quarterbacks. That will help us in the long run when you go through the season. There are just plenty of great teams out there, and when you think of Oregon and what they’re doing, they’ve got another great quarterback in Marcus Mariota
It’s hard to say how this thing is going to shake out. That’s why it’s college football. That’s why you play games. You look forward to seeing how it’s going to happen.
SI: The quarterback situation at your alma mater is interesting. Thanks to Braxton Miller’s knee injury, backup Kenny Guiton had opportunities to show off his ability in two starts this season. Is having two talented passers a good or bad thing?
AG: I think it’s a plus. When you have a quarterback like Braxton Miller, that’s special. He’s really exciting. He makes things happen. Then you have a guy like Kenny Guiton who comes in, manages the game very well, really leads the team down the field very well. That’s a good situation to be in. I guarantee you any coach would love to have that. I think Kenny will get a chance to continue to get some playing time. But it’s great to have him because the way that Braxton plays ... can lend itself to getting injured.
SI: Who are your top contenders for the Heisman Trophy so far?
AG: Right now, if you look at it, you would say that it’s going to be a quarterback race. Certainly you have Johnny Manziel having an outstanding season, then AJ McCarron and Marcus Mariota having great seasons. [Tajh] Boyd at Clemson, I think, is very, very talented. One guy that’s also impressed me is Jameis Winston at Florida State. He’s really had a fabulous season and has been fun to watch. There are so many good quarterbacks out there, so it seems like it’s going to be a quarterback race. I forgot to mention Teddy Bridgewater. But shoot, these guys are terrific. So it’s going to be interesting to watch.
SI: Last season’s Heisman race was monumental in that Manziel was the first freshman to win the award. Did it surprise you that Manziel was able to stiff-arm history and claim the award?
AG: I think he had a fabulous season. He came out of nowhere. The game that really threw him in front of the entire world was against Alabama. That really catapulted him. He put up fabulous numbers, and he was exciting to watch, and he still is to this day.
SI: Manziel’s season sparked plenty of debate about freshmen winning the award. Many traditional voters hesitate to vote for first-year players, assuming that those players will have chances to win the Heisman later in their careers. As a voter, do you look for the best player overall, or the best upperclassman?
AG: The best player’s fine with me. You know, you don’t always have two or three good years. The award should be given to you if you’ve had the best year. That second and third year might not be your best year. Plus, by then, people will know who you are, and it gets tougher each and every year in college football.
Griffin remains involved with Ohio State as president and CEO of its alumni association. (Greg Bartram/USA Today)
SI: You are the only player to win the Heisman twice in his career, and many followers of the award have said that no one will ever win twice again. Tim Tebow brought up that discussion a few years ago, and Manziel appears to have a shot to repeat this season. Do you envision another two-time winner on the horizon?
AG: I’ve said for a long time that there is going to be another two-time Heisman winner. Since they have started giving it to freshmen and sophomores, it’s possible there could be a few two-time winners. It’d be very difficult to do, but I know there will be another two-time winner. There’s no question about that. I won it twice, so I know there’s somebody else out there that can win it a second time.
The next question for me is usually, “Does it bother you?” No, it doesn’t, because I don’t mind company. I can always say I was the first one to do that, and that’s a compliment to the teams that I played on at Ohio State. I was lucky enough to play with some great athletes that made me look good enough to win two Heisman Trophies. I always felt like I was in the right place at the right time with the right team.
SI: Manziel created plenty of headlines this past offseason for his off-field behavior, and there’s debate between voters as to whether or not a player’s behavior off the field should impact his candidacy. How do you view that issue?
AG: It is an on-the-field award for me, mostly. But I do look at other things. I look at how the person represents the Heisman, or the character of the person and how he represents his school and his family and things of that sort. There’s no question that’s part of it. But the main part is certainly how they perform on the field of play.
SI: One of the most polarizing issues in college sports right now is the debate over whether student-athletes should be paid. Many agree with the principle that athletes deserve more, but others want to preserve the notion of amateurism. Where do you stand on that spectrum?
AG: Firstly, I work at Ohio State, but I’m not speaking on behalf of Ohio State. But personally, as a former player, I do think they should be paid a stipend of some sort. I think they should get at least [the full] cost of [going school].
I think this train’s already [in] the station. The NCAA and college athletics and universities need to recognize that these young people see what’s happening. They see the million-dollar contracts that coaches are receiving. They see the big sports contracts universities get because of their college programs and the athletes in these programs. They see these jerseys being sold with the number of the player on the back of them, and they know that the school is going to say, “Well, we own the numbers.” But the fact of the matter is, the player that wears the number is what sells the jersey. They see all that stuff, and they feel that they deserve more. Quite frankly, my personal opinion is that they do. When you see colleges charging as much to see a college football game as the pros charge for a game … [Players] see those types of things.
Let’s face it, college players are under the same risk as pro players are. They’re not getting the compensation pro players get for that risk, but they’re the same risks. You get those injuries -- knees, necks, concussions and things like that -- just like the pros. But it’s a new day. The universities and the NCAA need to recognize that.
SI: This season marks the final year of the BCS, and college football will finally implement a playoff system after the 2014 season. Do you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing for the sport?
AG: I look forward to it. I think it’s a great thing. It’s been a long time coming. People have, I think, been wanting this for quite some time. And it’ll be here. The next thing you’ll see is, we’ll want more teams involved. And it will get bigger and be more than four teams. It will be eight teams. It’s one of those things that will evolve.
SI: You’re involved with the Wendy’s High School Heisman program, which recognizes some of the top high school athletes in the country. What’s the background on the program?
AG: We’re in our 20th year with the Wendy’s High School Heisman program. It was started by Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s. Wendy’s headquarters is located right near Columbus, in Dublin, Ohio. I got to know Dave, and he knew [former Buckeyes coach] Woody Hayes pretty well. He asked if I’d be a part of the program, and I was delighted.
Dave wanted to recognize the accomplishments and academics of high school seniors. You have to have a B grade point average or better to be eligible for the award. He also wanted to recognize ... prowess on the athletic fields. You have to participate in at least one of 27 sports sponsored by the National Federation of State High School Associations. And you have to be doing community service. And what we’ve found is there are a lot of young people out there doing some outstanding things.
Each year you have 12 finalists for the award, six male and six female. In December, when they announce the award, there’s one male winner and one female winner, and it’s a terrific honor. Those 12 young people that go to New York have a fabulous time, and it’s a great experience. They have a chance to mix and mingle with former Heisman winners and current Heisman candidates. It’s truly a great program. The deadline is around the corner, Oct. 2, so I want to encourage all coaches and administrators with eligible students to go to wendysheisman.com and enter.