Words are like leaves, some wither ev'ry year," wrote Wentworth Dillon, Earl of Roscommon, in 1680, anticipating the fate of college sports information directors who grind out releases boosting their candidates for the Heisman Trophy. Voted upon by 1,200 sportswriters and broadcasters the country over, bestowed the first week in December by the Downtown Athletic Club of New York and named for John W. Heisman, a college coach who served out his later years as the club director of athletics, the Heisman Memorial Trophy, to give it its proper name, is supposed to go—with no ifs, ands, or buts—to "the outstanding college football player in the United States" for a single season.
In past seasons the Heisman voting, for all its quirks, distractions and hoopla, usually offered either an obvious winner, such as O.J. Simpson in 1968, or a close race between a couple of candidates, such as Steve Owens and Mike Phipps in 1969 or Pat Sullivan and Ed Marinaro the year before last. Last week, however, as voters began to fill out their ballots, there was an evident sense of befuddlement. Dick Denny of The Indianapolis News, one of a number of voters sampled by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, summed it up for many by remarking, "This is probably the strangest year for Heisman possibilities I can remember."
The season is strange because some of the players who truly merit consideration are bucking the formula that has evolved in the minds of voters over the decades. In 38 years of picking a Heisman Trophy winner, seniors have won 34 times and juniors four. Freshmen and sophomores do not stand a chance. Similarly, interior linemen and defensive players are shut out. The winners include 35 backs, two ends and a flanker. Not one of the backs was chosen for defensive play. The award goes to a man who carries or throws the ball. There are further subtleties to the unofficial but rigid formula. Thirty-six of the Heisman recipients played on winning teams (of which 10 were unbeaten), one on a break-even team (Jay Berwanger of Chicago, the first Heisman winner in 1935) and only one on a losing team (Paul Hornung on the 2-8 Notre Dame team of 1956). It helps to play for Notre Dame (six Heismans, more than any other school) or in an important conference. The Big Ten leads with eight Heisman winners, the Pacific Eight has five, the Southeastern Conference four, and the Big Eight, Southwest Conference and Ivy League (before it was the Ivy League) three each. No other conference, and that includes the Atlantic Coast, has ever had a Heisman Trophy winner.
The discrepancy between the formula and who really deserves to win this year is apparent from the SI sampling. Correspondents who participate in the Heisman voting were asked to cast two imaginary ballots. In the first, they were asked to predict the top three finishers in the actual voting. In the other ballot they were asked to list the top three players for this season on sheer merit. On both ballots, as in the Heisman Trophy voting, the player named first was to get three points, the second player two points and the third one. Predictably, the tallies from the two different ballots do not match.
Ohio State's outstanding offensive tackle, John Hicks, was a narrow winner among the "shoulds" but a distant eighth among the "woulds." Penn State Tailback John Cappelletti overwhelmingly captured the most likely vote but he was second to Hicks among the most deserving players.
According to the sampling, the third best player in the U.S. this season, rated solely on his ability, is Tony Dorsett, the Pittsburgh tailback. His credentials are impressive. He has rushed for more than 1,500 yards (including 209 against Notre Dame) and helped turn a derelict squad (1-10 last season) into a bowl team (Fiesta). "Dorsett really exemplifies what the Heisman Trophy is all about," says Pat Livingston of The Pittsburgh Press in a not untypical accolade. "The great player who has the qualities which rally a team about him." Alas, Dorsett is a freshman, and therefore cannot win. There is no rule against freshmen, merely voter prejudice. In the balloting predicting the top three finishers, Dorsett received only one mention and that was for second place. As Dan Hardesty of the Baton Rouge State Times puts it, "I basically don't believe a freshman in less than one season can prove he is the best college football player in the country and deserving of such an honor." Smith Barrier of the Greensboro Daily News says, "I don't buy the 'senior only' qualification, but a freshman?"
Ohio State's Hicks was only one of three linemen who rated well in the imaginary, merit-only voting, but the others—Tackle Lucious Selmon of Oklahoma and Center Bill Wyman of Texas—like Hicks finished far out of the money in the Heisman prediction vote because linemen never win. Moreover, Hicks is competing for votes with fellow Buckeyes Randy Gradishar, a linebacker, and Archie Griffin, a running back.
If the formula says that freshmen or linemen cannot win, it also says who can. And the overwhelming winner here, going by the sampling, is Cappelletti. He fits the formula perfectly: a senior back who, in the words of a Midwestern sportswriter, "plays for a prestigious college with a winning record and a worthy and respected coach. He follows in the tradition of Penn State running backs like Lenny Moore, Lydell Mitchell and Franco Harris." Cappelletti is likely to get strong regional support. John Travers of The Harrisburg Patriot flat out calls Cappelletti the "choice of this area." Which is another way of saying forget Dorsett.
The selection of Cappelletti would not outrage purists. In his first 10 games this year (and he was in for only three plays against Syracuse without carrying), he gained 1,361 yards, half of the Lions' team total. The sole time that Penn State has suffered a shutout during his career there—the 14-0 loss to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl last New Year's Eve—Cappelletti was sidelined by illness and the offense could not get going without him in the backfield. As Travers says, "There is no doubt in my mind that Penn State would not be where it is today without Cappelletti—10-0 and bowl bound again."
The players likely to challenge Cappelletti are David Jaynes of Kansas and Tom Clements of Notre Dame, both senior quarterbacks, and Fullback Roosevelt Leaks of Texas. Leaks has two factors in his favor, both really unrelated to his true abilities, which are exceptional. One is his name, "easily remembered," a couple of voters point out, and the other is his single-game rushing total of 342 yards against Southern Methodist in a nationally televised game. Television impact counts for a lot; many Heisman voters, swamped in a sea of press releases, regard a strong TV game as a lifesaver. Hurting Leaks is the fact that he is a junior, his ineffectual showing against Oklahoma, and a split of regional votes for Wyman, who opens the holes for him, and for others such as Arizona State Quarterback Danny White, who leads the nation in total offense. White's chances in turn will be hurt by a further split of votes for teammate Woody Green, who is among the top 20 rushers.
As much as Leaks' name is memorable, so is Anthony Davis' feat of scoring six touchdowns for Southern California against Notre Dame last year. Unfair as it is, that game will persuade a number of voters to name Davis even though he has been a comparative bust this season.
Archie Griffin should finish third or fourth in the voting. He will be held back because he is a sophomore, and there also is the suspicion he is running behind a great line led by Hicks. Hicks, Selmon and Wyman are, judging from the Heisman sampling, the top candidates for the Outland Trophy given by the Football Writers' Association of America for the best lineman of the year. In many ways, it is a shame that linemen are even candidates for the Heisman because the formula is so stacked against them. No matter who wins the trophy this year, and Cappelletti must rank as the favorite, it is time the gentlemen of the Downtown Athletic Club took a realistic view of their venerable award, which is, not incidentally, an 18-inch bronze running back.