OXFORD — Electing the winner of the Heisman Trophy, football’s highest individual honor, is really weird. First, you don’t even know who the voters are, nor do you know the exact number of voters (an educated guess is 920). Second, the person in charge of a candidate’s campaign has virtually no control over the major factors that will decide the winner.
Langston Rogers is the fiftyish harassed and haggard assistant athletic director for sports information at Ole Miss which means he publicizes all of the university’s sports activities — and also runs the “Deuce for Heisman” campaign. He’s been at Oxford since 1981, but never experienced a year like this.
Mike Nemeth, his counterpart at arch-rival Mississippi State can sympathize (and yes, they do talk). He ran the successful “George Rogers for Heisman” campaign at the University of South Carolina in 1980.
“Promoting Rogers was like having another whole sport,” he recalled. “I’m glad I was only 26 at the time because had I been 56, I might not have had that energy.”
The Deuce for Heisman campaign probably got its kick-start last fall when McAllister took Arkansas’s opening kickoff for a scintillating 100-yard touchdown run — it made highlight films nationwide.
According to Langston Rogers, the campaign got a big 2000 pre-season shove when two nationally recognized sources selected Deuce as the possible number one NFL draft pick. Another big push will come when McAllister is featured on ESPN’s “Game Day” (tentatively Sept. 9), which precedes the nation’s top game that Saturday.
The campaign is at pre-season full throttle and Rogers is fielding phone calls, dealing with a reporter and trying to line up an interview that evening for football coach David Cutcliffe.Notoriously hardworking and unpretentious, Rogers takes time out to recall that his first sports story by-line in the local Calhoun City Monitor-Herald, said he was a “Sports Riter.” That was at the tender age of eight.
He also remembers whetting his sports publicity skills as a student “aide-de-camp” to the legendary Bull Sullivan (renowned as “The Toughest Coach That Ever Was”) at East Mississippi Junior College. But now his task is far more daunting, and the payoff, both financially and in prestige for the University, can be enormous.
That financial payoff has already started with record-shattering season ticket sales of 36,000.
Ole Miss athletic director John Shafer said, “There’s added excitement this year because of the national recognition for Deuce, for our football program, for our athletic department, but more important than any of that is the national recognition for Ole Miss.”
And he cites the students — both scholars and athletes — who could possibly be attracted to the university due to the national publicity.
So now Rogers has to figure out who those Heisman voters are. Due to numerous contacts in his 19 years at Ole Miss — and with a bow to Heisman state chairman Stan Torgerson — Rogers believes he can identify about half of them. The rest he figures he’s covering with his basic mailing list of 2,000 which includes the country’s major news media and all 1,300 members of the Football Writers Association of America.
“Hopefully, I’ve built some lasting relationships with those people over the years and hopefully that’ll pay off for us,” Rogers said.
He sends them “snail mail” promotions at least weekly and saturates them with e-mail and other sophisticated electronic communications including a “Deuce is Loose” Web site.
Then come the factors Rogers can’t control, especially the final analysis refrain from all interested parties: “It’s got to be won on the field!”
Obviously that means weekly Superplayer statistics from McAllister, especially in crucial games, but as Shafer, Rogers and Nemeth all agree, the Rebel team must have a “killer” season (translation: at least a 9-2 record plus a major bowl victory) for a successful Heisman campaign. All three pointed out that only one Heisman winner has come from a team with a losing record — Paul Hornung from Notre Dame in 1956.
Subsidiary to all of that is how long coach Cutcliffe will leave Deuce in blow-out games to rack up “Wow!” type stats…and also subject his marquee player to — and here’s the big unspoken bugaboo — injury.
Another element beyond Rogers’ control is the TV exposure-preferably national. The first three Rebel games are on the tube, but currently the only scheduled national game is the Thanksgiving night donnybrook with Mississippi State on ESPN. Shafer expects TV cameras at four of the other five SEC games, Kentucky being the possible exception. How many of those will receive national attention is a good question.
And Rogers can’t do a thing about the other Heisman competitors.
Nemeth recalled that George Rogers was one of five pre-season candidates in 1980. Two of them were quarterbacks. One had a terrible game on national TV, and personal problems eliminated the other. That left Herschel Walker, who was a freshman, and Hugh Green, a defensive player. So lack of competition helped, but Rogers had 25 consecutive games in which he gained more than 100 yards, so he did win it on the field.
“There has to a certain amount of good fortune and there has to be production, particularly at the right time,” Nemeth said. “I know what Langston has done and I know what he’s got planned. He’s going to promote Deuce in the right way.”
Deuce, the object of all this attention, is hailed down as he starts for Morton, his hometown, following summer semester exams.
When asked about all the hoopla, the tall, husky and soft-spoken McAllister responded, “Yes, sir, a lot of people recognize me, and it’s a good feeling to have because it lets me know that they are paying attention to Ole Miss football, as well as what I’m doing, and it makes me proud.”
As for the difference personally between the upcoming season and previous seasons, he said, “The one thing I’ve done is to challenge myself a lot more in the weight room as far as conditioning and strength. There’s a lot more pressure and I want to be at my best since expectations have been raised.”
Everyone acknowledges that football is a team sport and the Heisman is an individual award. Cutcliffe, who went through the same turmoil with Peyton Manning at Tennessee, said, “I truly believe the Heisman is a team award.” But he also said, “I wouldn’t trade Deuce McAllister for any other player in the country.”
So a lot will be at stake when Stan Torgerson and the other 919 Heisman voters cast their ballots for three of the candidates at season’s end (points are allotted on a three, two, one basis) and send them to New York City’s Downtown Athletic Club, the Heisman sponsor.
In the final analysis, Rogers sums it up: “Our campaign is not all just about Deuce. It’s about this football program and this university and the good things that are happening here: the Campaign for Excellence, the Phi Beta Kappa hopes, the increase in our academic standards and higher ACT scores. This is about Ole Miss.”
As John Shafer said, “The benefits from a winning campaign would be immeasurable.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Bill Johnson Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 364-1018.