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December 15, 2008

An Interview with the Heisman Pundit

In the interminable stretch in between the conference-championship games and big-bowl season, there's only one truly exciting event for college-football fans. Sure, various coaching carousel machinations are fun to watch—Gene Chizik back to Auburn? Seriously?—but for sheer hype and politicking, nothing beats the run-up to the Heisman Trophy presentation. This year produced one of the closest votes in history, so we asked Chris Huston, who runs the meticulous and often prescient blog HeismanPundit, to give us his thoughts on the race and its aftermath.

Heisman Trophy Presentation
As a former assistant sports information director at Southern Cal, Huston directed the Heisman campaigns for eventual winners Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart. He gained such an intimate knowledge of the process that he came up with the Heismandments—10 rules that unofficially govern the thinking of the Heisman voters and effectively reduce the field to about a dozen players before the season even begins. On Saturday, Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford narrowly beat Texas quarterback Colt McCoy and Florida quarterback (and previous Heisman winner) Tim Tebow. Gelf spoke to Huston about this year's historically close race.

Gelf Magazine: Your Heismandment about sophomores not being able to win the award went down again this year, and the Heismandment about no more two-time winners almost did. Is college football changing such that your Heismandments are becoming weaker in general? If so, why?

Chris Huston: The Heismandments exist to try to reflect the current reality of the Heisman race. I think that the rule on no-more two-time winners was strengthened (if Tebow can't do it, who will?), but the one about no underclassmen will obviously have to be revised. We just saw two sophomores win it in consecutive years, although both did it mainly because they broke NCAA records (Tebow for his 29 passing touchdowns/22 rushing touchdowns year, Bradford in surpassing the all-time efficiency mark). In other words, I don't think any ol' sophomore will win it over an upperclassman from here on out, all things being equal, but perhaps the caveat should be that a sophomore can win if he has a crazy year a la Bradford and Tebow. I will have to figure out the new parameters for that one.

GM: Do you think there's anything meaningful about how Heisman winners tend not to do well in bowl games? Does that bode poorly for Bradford?

CH: I don't think there's anything karmic about it. But I do think that a lot of Heisman winners have to go through the banquet circuit in December and, as a result, can miss practice time and gain some weight if they are not careful. I thought that Troy Smith looked about 15 pounds heavier when he played in his bowl. Winning the Heisman can also serve as a bit of a distraction, as the media attention increases. But, really, most of the time the Heisman winners lose that game because their team just isn't as good. So, if Bradford's team loses, I don't think it will be the Heisman curse, but just that Florida is better.

GM: How important was regional bias in the vote? Do you think that some backers of McCoy and Bradford deliberately left Tebow off their ballots and vice versa?

CH: Regional bias wasn't that important and it's usually an overstated factor. The ballots aren't "winner take all." There are three spots to vote for, so regionalism tends to be mitigated as a result in the actual vote. Sure, native sons garner more support, but there were four regions without a dog in the hunt this time around. Bradford got a lot of votes from all around the country and that's what you have to do to win. I do think some people with a partisan angle left those guys off at times, but Bradford was on 90% of ballots, McCoy on 87%, and Tebow on 83%.

GM: You come from a PR background at USC. Who could have helped his campaign this year with a better PR push? How much do the PR efforts of a school matter?

CH: I think both Bradford and McCoy could have benefited from stronger PR pushes. Bradford won despite a very late start to his PR campaign, but maybe the vote wouldn't have been as close if OU had made the case more consistently as the season progressed. I think Texas probably could've done more to remind voters that McCoy beat Bradford head-to-head. Maybe McCoy would have won with more of a push. Tebow is such a known quantity with a huge college-football Q rating, so there wasn't much to do there. I think PR efforts help, but it's hard to quantify. My philosophy is, you always err on the side of doing as much as possible, rather than less. I know doing nothing does not help at all.
There are two sides to being a sports information director—the information side and the PR side—and some in the profession have excellent PR instincts while others are bureaucrats who have no clue how to push a player.







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