Another college football season is nigh, with training camps starting up this week at schools all around the country. Before we know it, the first kickoff will come and the race for the 2015 Heisman Trophy will be underway.
We’ve done a considerable amount of research on the history of the Heisman this offseason, with close attention being paid to the details of each winner’s statistical production — details that have for too long been obfuscated by hazy memories and poor record keeping. So in addition to our coverage of the 2015 Heisman race, we’ll have a season-long conversation that we hope will place current events into proper historical context. Anyone who appreciates the history of the Heisman, as well as college football, should find some value in this.
Before we begin this conversation, it’s important to start with an understanding of the various eras in the trophy’s history. Most of these eras correlate closely with rules changes in college football over the years and the evolution of offensive systems. Some eras overlap, with no clear beginning and end points. There are micro-eras within larger eras, too. But being aware of all of them helps us better understand Heisman history.
Here are the most imporant eras to take into account:
Pre-1941: The Single Platoon Era, Part I
It’s easy to dismiss the offensive production of Heisman winners from this time until you realize that, before 1941, virtually all players saw action on both sides of the ball. Furthermore, strict subsitution rules were in force. Players withdrawn during the first half could not return until the second half and players withdrawn during the second half could not return to the game. As you could imagine, this encouraged the best players to stay in the game and take on multiple roles, which is why 1935 Heisman winner Jay Berwanger‘s stat line included rushing, passing, punting, kickoffs, PATs and punts. A player who never leaves the field is going to get tired, which explains why the production of this era pales in comparison to modern times.
1934 – 1945: The Passing Game in Flux
Ever wonder why the passing statistics from the early era of college football are so, well, lousy? Keep in mind that the rules governing the forward pass were significantly different back then. For instance, passes had to be made from at least five yards behind the line of scrimmage and to either the right or the left of center. The ball went to the opponent if it failed to touch a player of either side before touching the ground. Either team could recover a pass touched by an opponent. As you can imagine, these rules slowed the development of the modern passing game. In 1934, several changes went into effect, which helped it along a bit:
1. The first forward pass in a series of downs could be incomplete in the end zone without losing possession (except on fourth down).
2. The circumference of the ball was reduced, making it easier to throw.
3. The previous 5-yard penalty for throwing more than one forward pass in a series of downs was eliminated.
This era came to a close in 1945, when the forward pass was allowed to be thrown from anywhere behind the line — which encouraged the use of the modern T formation. Despite these liberalizations, the passing game had a lot of catching up to do and it should come as no surprise that the first 2,000-yard passer in Heisman history didn’t come around until the early 1960s.
1941-1952: Unlimited Substitution
This was a bit of an evolving process. In 1941, players were allowed to subsitute at any time, but could not be withdrawn, or the outgoing player returned, until at least one play had intervened. This made a two platoon system possible, though not all teams went in that direction. The first known use of the two-platoon system wasn’t until 1945 by Michigan against Army, though the term ‘platoon’ was not yet used. The system so impressed Army coach Earl Blaik, he adopted it himself starting in 1946, the year Glenn Davis won the Heisman. Soldier that he was, Blaik coined his special offensive, defensive and special teams units ‘platoons’ and it’s been used ever since. In 1948, unlimited substitution was also allowed on a team’s change of possession. The two platoon system started to allow for more specialization and had an effect on the Heisman during this stretch. Georgia’s Frank Sinkwich rushed for over 1,000 yards in 1941 — a rare feat in those days — and produced 27 touchdowns running and passing the next year when he won the trophy. That’s one more touchdown than Eric Crouch produced when he won the trophy in 2001. Billy Vessels rushed for 1,072 yards on his way to winning the 1952 Heisman, the most rushing yards gained in any Heisman-winning season between 1935 and 1965.
1953 – 1964: The Return of the One Platoon
In 1953, the two-platoon system was abolished and players were allowed to enter a game only once in each quarter. Over the next 12 seasons, there were various permutations added and taken away, which tended to increase confusion for coaches and players. This changed the game considerably, bringing more parity and allowing teams not normally seen as powers — like Maryland, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi and Syracuse — to compete for, and win, national titles. Once again, the Heisman was affected, as all-around players who could run, pass, block, kick and tackle were in high demand. Heisman winners such as Paul Hornung, Joe Bellino, John David Crow and Billy Cannon epitomized this era where consistent production was bound by ever-changing rules. As the 1960s dawned, substitution rules underwent an ongoing liberalization until the modern version of two-platoon football with unlimited substitution returned starting in 1965.
1972 – Present: Freshman Eligibility
Before 1972 — with the exception of the World War II and Korean War years — freshman played against freshmen from other schools but were not allowed on the varsity. One reason the Heisman went mostly to seniors for so long was the ineligibility of freshman prior to ’72. It takes time to build up the name recognition needed to win a Heisman and players before ’72 were at a clear disadvantage in that regard. Just four juniors won the award in the 36 years prior to 1972, but seven won in the 18-year span between between 1973 and 1991.
2009 – Present: The Internet Era
It wasn’t until 2009 that all Heisman ballots were required to be submitted electronically over the internet. This gave voters the flexibility to wait up until the voting deadline to cast their ballots — a luxury the Heisman electorate lacked during the era of snail mail. One thinks back to all the late-November or early-December games over the years that might have prompted ballot changes if a more immediate voting system been in place. The best example of how this change might have affected the vote came in 2009, when the online reaction to the performance of Nebraska’s Ndamukong Suh against Texas seemed to catapult the defensive tackle to New York as a Heisman finalist, while likely sinking the chances of Longhorns quarterback Colt McCoy.
But the most important effect the internet has had on the Heisman is how the race itself is covered. The internet provides information at lightning speed to voters, which enables them to weigh all the options and make a more informed choice than in the past. This has resulted in voting that is based less on regional affinities and more on objective and transparent criteria. The internet has also allowed voters to accelerate their familiarity with freshmen, sophomores and JC transfers — who have historically been at a disadvantage with voters — with the result being that six of the last eight Heisman winners have come from that group.
Single Wing Era
The first 20 years of the Heisman was dominated by the single-wing formation invented by the great Pop Warner. In the single wing, the snap usually went directly to the tailback or fullback. The tailback was expected to be able to run, pass and kick, while the fullback was bigger and expected to “buck” the line. But the quarterback was generally a blocker at the point of attack. You didn’t get great passing stats in the single wing, which tended to emphasize the run. Of the first 17 Heisman winners, 13 played in the single wing, with the last being Dick Kazmaier of Princeton in 1951.
The T-Formation Era
In 1943, Angelo Bertelli was the first T-formation player to win the Heisman and he was followed up by fellow Irish winners John Lujack, Leon Hart, John Lattner and Paul Hornung, who all operated out of the T. From 1952 until 1963, every Heisman winner with the exception of Army’s Pete Dawkins played in some variation of the T formation. It was under the T that the concept of the offense being run through an under-center quarterback became the norm and it contributed to improved statistics for Heisman quarterbacks compared to the single wing.
The I-Formation Era
The I-Formation has been the most dominant offensive system in Heisman history. Notre Dame’s John Huarte won the Heisman as an I-formation quarterback in 1964 and he was followed by the first I-formation tailback to win a Heisman in USC’s Mike Garrett. All but eight of the 42 Heisman winners between 1964 and 2006 operated from the I or a variant of the formation. The pinnacle of the I-formation running game came from 1964 to 1988, when 15 tailbacks rumbled their way to the Heisman.
The Spread Era
This is the current Heisman offensive era. The first spread quarterback to win the Heisman was Tim Tebow in 2007. He was followed by spread quarterbacks Sam Bradford, Cam Newton, Robert Griffin, Johnny Manziel and Marcus Mariota. Mark Ingram being is the main exception in this era while Jameis Winston operated in a scheme based in a pro-style formation that utilized some spread elements. The implementation of the spread offense has produced some of the gaudiest statistics in college football history and has, for better or worse, set the bar higher and higher for what is considered a quality season.