Heisman History

Nearly a century ago, college football established that it was here to stay. As fanfare increased around the sport and its popularity spread, the Downtown Athletic Club (DAC), renowned for its devotion to sports, decided that it was time to honor outstanding college football players. The DAC appointed a Club Trophy Committee to present the first annual award at the end of the 1935 football season in the Clubs headquarters in southern Manhattan. That first award—initially named the DAC Trophy—was presented on December 9, 1935 to Jay Berwanger, a triple-threat cyclone and legendary one-man-gang” in the University of Chicagos backfield. With the creation of the trophy, the DAC recognized the promise and enormous legacy of college football, and had the foresight to institute one of the first, and now most sought-after, awards in American sports. 

In 1936, following the death of legendary player and coach John W. Heisman, the trophy was renamed in appreciation of his inventiveness and contribution to football strategy. Recognizing the role a school plays in a players success, the Heisman Trophy Committee voted to award two trophies each year—one presented to the college football player, and the second awarded to his school. In the decades since it was created, the Heisman Memorial Trophy has become more than an award: its bestowal is a defining moment in the career of a college football player, when he is invited to join the ranks of the elite fraternity of Heisman Trophy winners. To this day, the Trophy remains a national symbol of collegiate football experience, prowess, and competitiveness, awarded annually to an athlete designated as the Outstanding College Football Player in the United States.

The Design of The Heisman Trophy

Before the now-famous stiff-arm design, the Club Trophy Committee agreed that the traditional cup or bowl seemed too commonplace, lacking in distinction, and not emblematic of the athletic talent that was to be celebrated. It was decided instead that the trophy should be the bronze embodiment of a muscular footballer driving for yardage. To create the trophy, the DAC commissioned Frank Eliscu, a well-known sculptor and National Academy of Design Prize winner. Eliscu chose Ed Smith, a leading player on the 1934 New York University football team as his primary model. He prepared a rough clay study that was sanctioned by the DAC Committee, and sent it uptown for approval by the head football coach at Fordham University, Jim Crowley, one of the legendary Four Horsemen of Notre Dame. The prototype was set up on a field, and Crowleys players were asked to assume various positions to illustrate and verify the sidestep, the forward drive, and a strong right-arm thrust. Eliscu closely observed these actions and modified his clay prototype. The result was a truly lifelike simulation of a player in action, which was then duplicated in plaster—a preliminary step towards its ultimate production in bronze. 

A final inspection of the cast was made after dinner at the McAlpin Hotel on November 16, 1935. The dinner was attended by Coach Elmer Layden (another member of the Four Horsemen) and the Notre Dame football team who had just played in a memorable 6-6 tie game with Army in front of 78,114 fans. Layden and the Fighting Irish squad were impressed by the animated realism of Eliscus model—especially noted by Wally Fromhart, Don Elser, and Wayne Millner—and that evening the team put its seal of approval on the new trophy. 

Heisman Balloting—How It Works

While the task of designating the Outstanding College Football Player of the year was daunting, a more crucial decision was choosing the group who would select him. A panel of electors was chosen, consisting of informed, capable, and impartial sports journalists from all across the country. 

The Heisman Trophy Trust governs the policies and procedures of the balloting process. A multitiered system was established, and still serves as the framework that distributes the group of electors proportionally across the United States. Six Sectional Representatives are responsible for the appointment of the State Representatives. State Representatives select the voters within their particular state, with the number of votes dependent on the population and the number of media outlets within the state. The 2021 Sectional and State Representatives are listed on the following page. Each section has 145 media votes, for a total of 870 media votes across the country. Additionally, every former Heisman winner has a vote and, in 1999, a program was introduced allowing the public to become part of the balloting process by making one fan vote eligible in the overall tabulation. This program continues in part thanks to the Heismans partnership with Nissan.

The ballot includes space for an elector to nominate three individuals for the Heisman Trophy; a first, second, and third choice must be indicated on each ballot. The first choice on a ballot receives three points in the overall tabulation; the second choice receives two points; and the third choice receives one point. The Heisman Committee created this point system in an effort to eliminate sectional favoritism. The ballots state that in order that there will be no misunderstanding regarding the eligibility of a candidate, the recipient of the award MUST be a bona fide student of an accredited college or university, including the United States Academies. The recipients must be in compliance with the bylaws defining an NCAA student athlete.” 

Independent accounting firm Deloitte is responsible for distributing the ballots and voting instructions, and tabulating the results. Since 2002, electors have been able to securely submit their ballots to Deloitte online. Deloitte tallies the votes according to the point system outlined above and the individual with the most overall points receives the Heisman Trophy. The 2021 Heisman ballots were distributed on November 29 and were due back to Deloitte by December 6 at 5:00pm EST. There were 928 votes for 2021.

What makes a finalist?

A Heisman finalist is an active college football player who receives an invitation to attend the annual Heisman ceremony held in New York City each December. The finalists are announced on the Monday before the televised Heisman Trophy Ceremony. Prior to 1982, only the winner of the Heisman was invited to New York, so there were no Heisman finalists. Beginning in 1982, multiple candidates were invited to take part in the live television show that accompanied the announcement of the winner. Herschel Walker, John Elway and Eric Dickerson were the first Heisman finalists, though Elway did not attend that years event.

Beginning this year, 2021, the Heisman Trophy Trust will officially invite four finalists to New York City for the Heisman Trophy Weekend. In years prior, the number of finalists varied. There were always at least three finalists invited in a given year and the total rose to as high as eight in 1989 (though only four actually attended). Since 1982, the most common total to have been invited was five (11 times), followed by four (10 times) and three (nine times). In 1994 and 2013, there were six finalists invited to the ceremony and there has never been more than six finalists to actually attend a ceremony.

As of 2021, the four invited Heisman finalists are determined as the four individuals that receive the most votes. Prior to 2021, the determination of the finalists were one of the most misunderstood parts of the Heisman process. One might hear media or fans complain that a certain player was snubbed by not being invited to the Heisman ceremony, but the finalists were not determined arbitrarily.

Starting from the understanding that there was always a minimum of three finalists, the invitation of more finalists was determined by how close the succeeding points totals were to each other. A large gap in points would trigger a cutoff. For instance, in the 2008 Heisman vote, Floridas Tim Tebow finished third with 1,575 points. In fourth place, Graham Harrell of Texas Tech totaled only 213 points and, because of the huge gap between those totals, he was not invited to the ceremony. In 2010, Kellen Moores fourth place finish of 635 points brought him much closer to LaMichael Jamesthird-place finish of 916, so Moore was included as one of the four finalists. The fifth-place finisher, Justin Blackmon of Oklahoma State, had just 105 points. There was a clear demarcation of support between him and Moore, so the 2010 finalists were capped at four.


The Ceremony—Past and Present

From 1935 through 1976, early each December, the winning player was brought to New York City, along with his coach and dignitaries from his university. There, in a special convocation of past and current football luminaries, and with press, radio, and TV coverage, the player was crowned as the Heisman Trophy winner. A week or so later the winner was further honored at a large, formal dinner in New York to which all former Heisman winners were invited. At this gala banquet, replete with renowned personalities in sports, entertainment, and politics, the actual award was presented, with appropriate remarks from the winner and his coach. 

Until 1973, this gala dinner was held at the Downtown Athletic Club. By 1973, the events popularity outgrew the DAC facilities, and it was moved to the Grand Ballroom of the New York Hilton, where it remained until 1986. But even the Grand Ballroom of the New York Hilton was unable to accommodate the many fans that regarded the Heisman Trophy as the most prestigious and coveted individual collegiate athletic award in America. A Heisman winner instantly becomes a hero to millions of football devotees. 

Until 1976, the Heisman Trophy had been a local New York affair that was only modestly publicized. In response to hundreds of letters and strong urging by the DAC members, the Officers and Governors of the Downtown Athletic Club, together with the Trophy Committee, decided that the Heisman Award was indeed an event of great interest to many people outside the Club. They decided the ceremony deserved a far wider audience and in 1977, the President of the DAC and the Heisman Committee decided to present the award as part of an hour-long, primetime television spectacular. The program was designed to enhance the prestige of the Downtown Athletic Club and the Heisman Trophy, while bringing an exciting new sports television special to viewers. The Heisman Trophy winner was announced at the dinner, along with six other outstanding players meriting special DAC Awards that recognized the vital importance of linemen and defensive units. These winners received a distinctive, modern crystal sculpture created for the DAC by Tiffany & Co. 

The following year, the DAC returned to the traditional format of announcing and presenting the Heisman winner. At that time, Pannell Kerr Forster tallied the balloting for the awards. The DAC was notified of the Heisman results on November 28, and the media was informed of the winner at a press conference that day. In order to maintain some element of suspense, the winners of the other six DAC Awards were revealed at the Heisman Dinner and Presentation that was held on December 7. They would be the last group so honored; in 1979 the Heisman Committee decided to discontinue the six special DAC Awards and only give out the Heisman Memorial Trophy. 

Since 1980, the winner of the Heisman Trophy has traditionally been announced on the second Saturday in December, with the Presentation Dinner Gala being held the following Monday evening. The award was announced annually through 2000 at the Downtown Athletic Club. Following the tragic events of September 11, 2001, the presentation was moved to the New York Marriott Marquis in 2001, and then to the Yale Club of NYC in 2002–03. In 2004, the announcement was held at the New York Hilton and in 2005 it was moved to the Nokia Theatre in the center of the Broadway Theater district in Times Square. The Theater was renamed from the Nokia Theatre, to the Best Buy Theater and ultimately to the PlayStation Theater, during the Heismans tenure there until 2018. 

Due to the impact of COVID-19, there were no in-person events last year. Instead, the 2020 Heisman Memorial Trophy announcement was broadcast live on ESPN from the ESPN Studios in Bristol, Connecticut, with each of the finalists participating via Zoom from their respective schools. The Heisman Trophy announcement returned in-person for 2021, at an exciting new venue, Jazz at Lincoln Center.

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