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When the 54th annual Heisman Trophy is awarded on Dec. 8 at Manhattan's Downtown Athletic Club, it will go to a deserving player. Why? Because it always does. This is not to say that the Heisman voters have never made a mistake or that factors other than a player's feats on the gridiron don't come into play, but simply that the trophy is not nearly as tarnished as its critics would have us believe.

Never mind that sniping at the Heisman is a popular pastime for football fans. Its prestige easily surpasses that of the Cy Young, the NFL MVP and the Eclipse awards. Says NBC sportscaster Don Criqui, "It's the single most important individual award in sports."

Why has the Heisman been such a lightning rod for criticism? First, there is the widespread perception that it often goes to the wrong player for the wrong reasons. John D. O'Keefe, chairman of the Heisman committee at the Downtown Athletic Club, which oversees the balloting, says the award is assailed because "it is popular to attack the establishment, and this is a symbol of the establishment. We've been indicted many times but never convicted."

Indeed, a fair-minded inspection of the roster of previous winners yields a persuasive argument for each one. Most particularly, it validates the selection of John Huarte in 1964 and Gary Beban in '67, the two most frequently maligned winners. For decades they have served as punch lines to derisive jokes about the Heisman's flawed selection process. The jokesters are wrong and Beban is right when he says, "I don't think anybody has won it who shouldn't have. I hold my head high."

Huarte's selection has been the more criticized of the two. As a sophomore and junior at Notre Dame, he was a virtual nonentity—he played for a total of just 50 minutes and failed to letter in either season. But after the Irish finished 2-7 in 1963, Ara Parseghian took over as coach and anointed Huarte as his starting quarterback. With Huarte at the helm in '64, Notre Dame blazed to a 9-1 record, losing only to Southern Cal in the final game. Huarte completed 114 of 205 passes for 2,062 yards and 16 touchdowns and threw only 11 interceptions. Notre Dame outscored its opponents 287-77. Says Huarte, "Notre Dame had a genuine return to power, and I was the leader."

Huarte is quick to credit Parseghian, assistant coach Tom Pagna, halfback Nick Eddy and sure-handed receiver Jack Snow, who grabbed 60 passes for nine scores in '64. "Without each of those guys," says Huarte, "I don't win the Heisman."

Huarte bristles at the suggestion that he won only because he played for Notre Dame. Logic supports him. Although the Irish have collected more Heismans than any other school—seven, followed by Ohio State with five and USC with four—no Irish player won the award between Huarte's year and Tim Brown in '87, a gap of 23 seasons. For one shining year, Huarte was the best college player in America.

Even Jerry Rhome, who finished second to Huarte in the balloting as a quarterback at Tulsa and is now offensive coordinator for the San Diego Chargers, says, "I'm not asking for a recount." Rhome had far starrier numbers than Huarte did, setting 17 NCAA records, including single-season marks for passing yardage (2,870) and touchdown passes (32) in his senior year. But as he says, "The Missouri Valley Conference was nothing to talk about."

Finishing third in the controversial '64 vote was Illinois linebacker Dick Butkus. Many believe that if a defensive player ever deserved to win—none has—Butkus was the one. He was brilliant for the Illini. The American Football Coaches Association, The Sporting News and Sport magazine all chose him as Player of the Year, six other organizations picked him Lineman of the Year and 11 named him to their All-America teams. However, the Illini were a mediocre 6-3 and only 4-3 in the Big 10. Asked if he deserved to win, Butkus says, "I don't know. I guess not. I didn't."

The notion that Huarte was an unworthy winner is furthered by the fact that Joe Namath finished 11th in the voting and Gale Sayers 12th. But Namath completed 64 of 100 passes for only 756 yards for his 10-1 national championship Alabama team and Sayers rushed for only 633 yards on a 6-4 Kansas team.

Huarte, now president of the Arizona Tile Co., in Tempe, jokes about his supposedly "lackluster" career. The contest for the Heisman, he says, "is like the real world in that odd things happen. But you have to remember that football is also fantasy, fool's gold. It's simply entertainment."

For Beban the path to the Heisman was somewhat different. His numbers at UCLA were good but not great. In 1967 he completed 87 of 156 passes for 1,359 yards and eight touchdowns. He thinks a big factor in his favor was the Bruins' national schedule, which included road games against Penn State, Pitt, Syracuse, Michigan State and Tennessee. In addition, UCLA finished fourth in the AP poll in '65 and fifth in '66 and began '67 by winning its first six games and climbing to No. 3 in the poll. Such lofty rankings burned into voters' minds the idea that Beban was a star on a starry team. He was also aided by the liabilities of the other top candidates. O.J. Simpson, who finished second to him, was a junior at USC in '67. (O.J. would win the next year.) Ditto halfback Leroy Keyes of Purdue. So could a good case be made for Beban? Yup.

Much of the controversy surrounding the Heisman is fueled by the fact that the winners tend to be judged later on the basis of their pro careers. But it's irrelevant that in a horrid 10-year pro career with six teams in three leagues, Huarte spent most of his time on taxi squads. The same goes for Beban's four undistinguished seasons with the Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos. Conversely, the fact that four of the Heisman winners—Simpson, Paul Hornung, Doak Walker and Roger Staubach—are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame does not add to the luster of their collegiate achievement.

The player whose reputation has perhaps suffered the most because of a less than sterling pro career is quarterback Terry Baker, who won in 1962. Baker spent three seasons with the Los Angeles Rams, who tried to turn him into a running back after giving up on his arm. People forget that in three years at Oregon State, Baker passed for 3,476 yards and 23 touchdowns. As a senior in '62, he led the nation in total offense and directed the often woeful Beavers to a 9-2 record. Baker won all manner of other player of the year awards as well and was SI's Sportsman of the Year. Just for good measure, he was also an academic All-America and a standout guard on Oregon State's basketball team, which reached the NCAA Final Four.

In years ahead, Doug Flutie of Boston College, the '84 winner, may become another alleged Heisman mistake, unless his recent success with the New England Patriots revives his flagging pro career. But Flutie was a wonderfully exciting college player, a textbook example of towering school spirit. So, too, were Auburn quarterback Pat Sullivan ('71) and Navy running back Joe Bellino ('60), both of whom often appear in sentences that contain the word flop. The bottom line is that a sound argument can be made that the Heisman has consistently gone to the nation's best collegiate player—with one possible exception.

Rarely does a player on an average or below-average team get the brass ring. A notable aberration was Hornung, who quarterbacked a 2-8 Notre Dame team in 1956. There's no disputing that Hornung was a marvelous, multitalented collegiate player. As a senior, he was undoubtedly a worthy Heisman candidate, finishing second to Stanford's John Brodie in total offense with 1,337 yards.

Still, even the most ardent defender of the Heisman selections would have to concede that the voters erred that year because '56 was also the senior season of Syracuse's Jim Brown, perhaps the finest running back in history. That year Brown broke the NCAA record for most points in a single game by scoring 43 against Colgate and averaged a nation-high 123 yards rushing per game. In spite of these accomplishments, he finished only fifth in the voting. Brown has no doubt as to why he didn't fare better. "Back then, black folks were not allowed to win," he says. "And I happened to be black. Plus there was the conception that Eastern schools didn't play tough football."

Five years later, in a move many saw as an attempt by the Heisman voters to make up for having snubbed Brown, Ernie Davis, another great running back from Syracuse, became the first black to receive the award. During his career Davis rushed for 2,386 yards and 35 touchdowns to surpass Brown's totals in both categories. In 1961, Davis averaged 5.49 yards per carry, nearly a yard more than Ohio State fullback Bob Ferguson, who came in second in the voting.

To say that a case can be made for most every selection does not mean that other choices would have been wrong. For example, John David Crow of Texas A & M won in '57, and Iowa defensive lineman Alex Karras was second. Crow is easily defended; Karras could have been. In 1980 Pitt defensive end Hugh Green finished second to South Carolina running back George Rogers. Anybody who saw Green play can understand what a strong candidate he was.

In 1982, Herschel Walker won and John Elway didn't; that was a coin toss. Just last year SI published a story (A Touch of Class, Dec. 14) saying Syracuse quarterback Don McPherson should have won instead of Notre Dame's Brown. In fact, either would have made an excellent choice. In Brown's defense, he dominated games from his wide receiver position—despite weak Irish passing arms—and was a threat to score on every kickoff and punt return. And Notre Dame's schedule was much more demanding than that of the Orange.

Clearly, a variety of factors can affect a player's chances of winning, not the least of which is how much attention he receives from the national media before the balloting. Huarte's experience notwithstanding, a player almost always needs to have a strong junior year, and it helps if he's on a very good team. Thirteen winners were on undefeated teams, while another 14 played for teams that lost only once. It pays to play at a major school—Walter Payton was the all-time NCAA point scorer at Jackson State but finished 14th in '74—and early and often on TV. Miami's Vinny Testaverde all but locked up the '86 Heisman with a lights-out effort against Oklahoma in the fourth game of that year.

Many Heisman critics maintain that these peripheral factors are often more important to the selection process than the candidates' accomplishments. Although that has rarely been the case, the danger exists that it could be in the future. To make the process fairer, several changes should be made:

•Reduce the number of voters from 870 sportscasters and sportswriters to, say, 450. In 1987, of 1,050 possible voters, only 781, or 74%, cast ballots. The current number, while somewhat smaller than last year's, is still too large to guarantee well-informed electors.

•Make the list of voters public. The Downtown Athletic Club is against this, saying that voters would be deluged with information from lobbyists for individual candidates. Phooey. At the start of each season, only a dozen or so players, tops, have a real chance to win, and as the season goes on, that number usually is reduced to two or three. Would it be so horrible if voters were given information about them? Even in metropolitan areas where voters can see eight or 10 college games a weekend, it's hard to know what's going on all over the country. Heisman voters, chafing at the criticism that they always vote for quarterbacks and running backs, would love to select a worthy center. How do they get to know one? Promotional material would help, and if a particular school goes nuts with glitz and flash, that would probably work to its disadvantage.

•Release a list of how the voters voted. There's nothing like the harsh light of day to keep some weird-thinking balloter honest.

•Restructure the ballot. The current one provides space to write in three players in order of preference. Because it is so hard to know all the players and to help do away with the bias toward quarterbacks (14 have won) and running backs (35), the ballot should list 10 to 12 names, each followed by a line or two of stats and achievements.

•Don't give the Heisman every year. Says Brown, "If someone doesn't dominate, why force it?" The Downtown Athletic Club can tinker with the numbers, but one way to guarantee a consensus would be to mandate that a candidate receive at least 75% of the first-place ballots to win the award.

•Give mini-Heismans, or supporting-cast awards, to those who helped a player win. After all, how effective would Texas's Earl Campbell, the winner in 1977, have been if he had had to run behind Rice's offensive line? When Huarte won, wasn't Snow deserving of a nod? Recognizing a winner's essential teammate or teammates make sense because of the obvious problem of awarding an individual award in a team game. This idea wouldn't dilute the Heisman, but would spread its glory.

While the Downtown Athletic Club is mulling over these proposals, it should immediately declare several other harebrained suggestions out of bounds:

•Having coaches vote. Coaches are even less qualified than sportscasters and writers to cast a ballot because they concentrate so single-mindedly on their teams and their opponents. Besides, as often happens with the weekly UPI coaches poll of the nation's Top 20 teams, many coaches seldom vote. They usually just turn the job over to their sports information directors.

•Making the Heisman a career award. If that had been the case, then heroes like Huarte would never have won. A career award would also discriminate against players who were forced to miss a season or two because of injury.

•Restricting the Heisman to offensive backs, because they almost always win anyway, and leaving it up to the Lombardi and Outland people to select the top interior linemen and defensive players. Let's hope we don't have to wait too many more years for a player at one of these positions to win.

•Stipulating that a player can only win once. That would stack the deck even more against underclassmen. One of the charms of the Heisman is that any of the nation's 30,000 college football players can win it. Let's keep it that way.



Even the maligned Huarte, who now owns a tile company, was a worthy winner in 1964.



[See caption above.]



UCLA's lofty rankings were a major factor in Beban's victory in 1967.



Baker was the right man in '62; his lackluster pro career is irrelevant.


Hornung wasn't a bad pick, but Brown would have been better.