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Original Issue


What if they awarded the most prestigious trophy in college football and nobody came—including a group of former winners disenchanted with the people who give it out?

THERE IS, AS usual, plenty of drama surrounding the announcement of this year's Heisman Trophy winner on Saturday night in New York City: not in the identity of the recipient (Oklahoma senior quarterback Baker Mayfield is the runaway favorite) but in who is—and is not—in the audience at the presentation. A number of former winners will not be in attendance because of disagreements between the Heisman Trust (the board that controls the award). A growing group of winners past don't like the way the board does business and are concerned about the trophy's future.

"The Heisman's star is fading," says Gary Beban, the UCLA quarterback who won the trophy in 1967. "We've been trying to work with this board for years and we've really gotten nowhere."

In October the former UCLA quarterback told the board that he'd register his dissent by being a no-show this year, including skipping events marking his own 50th anniversary. "I'm sad it's come to this," Beban told me. "I've always envisioned this as sort of a peak moment in the highlight film of my life."

Making the decision to sit this one out has been a long and emotional one for Beban, something I know firsthand: Gary is my father. But my dad won't be the only former winner not showing up. Tim Brown, who took home the trophy in 1987 as a Notre Dame wide receiver, also won't be in New York City this weekend. "Unless there are changes, I have no plans to ever go again," Brown told me. "It's just too difficult and frustrating."

A universally held opinion among winners I spoke to—even ones planning on attending this weekend—is that there should be at least one winner on the board. "We want a seat at the table because the whole thing exists based on our images," said former Nebraska running back Johnny Rodgers, the 1972 recipient.

When I reached out to the Trust for comment about my dad, Brown and the broader question of winner-board relations, I heard back from executive director Rob Whalen, who is not a board member. Whalen said in an email that it's disappointing when one of the "Heisman family" is absent, adding that the Trust remains "steadfast in its commitment to protect the Trophy's integrity and not allow it to be improperly commercialized for any purpose."

The Heisman Trophy Trust is registered as a 501(c)(3) educational charity. According to the Trust's 2015 Federal Form 990 (the most recent available) the Trust distributed $1,731,494—not that much more than its operating expenses of $1,334,216—all while sitting on investments valued at more than $19 million.

That seeming stinginess just doesn't sit well with many winners. One who asked not to be named said, "We want to know what's going on. We'd like to have a say in how it's managed. We don't know how the board makes decisions."

Another complaint is that the board has fallen behind the fast-changing culture of college sports and modern media. "The trophy has grown tremendously in the 45 years since I won," Rodgers said. "It's a business in itself. We need to be making big gains every year, you know? This board doesn't have that kind of expertise. It was never set up to do that."

Signs abound that the Heisman's wattage has dimmed. Long gone are the days when sports legends like Yogi Berra and celebrities such as Ed Sullivan showed up at the ceremonies.

The television audience is shrinking too: The 2.64 million people who tuned in last year is believed to be the smallest Heisman audience ever for the trophy presentation on ESPN.

The way my dad and others see it is that the Heisman is the most famous award in college sports—perhaps all of sport—and the board isn't doing enough to make it a force for good. "They're mismanaging a unique legacy brand," my dad said. "Why, for example, isn't there a real Heisman House"—a reference to the long-running Nissan television ad—"on various college campuses, where student-athletes could get tutoring? Why aren't we doing things like raising millions for research into brain trauma?"

"The trophy and the winners are totally underutilized," another former winner lamented. "This thing could be doing so much more."

Out of 59 living recipients, just 22 were at last year's events. Whalen says the Trust expects a higher number this year, but Eric Crouch, 2001 Heisman winner, thinks attendance will keep falling and interest will keep fading. "We are at a stalemate with the board," the former Nebraska QB told me. "The way things are going, it's not hard to imagine an award ceremony with no winners and no sponsors someday soon."

Brown agrees. "The board says they don't need us," he said. "Well, if they keep losing guys, they're going to see how that works out."

Paul Beban is an Emmy Award--winning journalist.

"The way things are going," says 2001 Heisman winner Eric Crouch, "it's not hard to imagine an award ceremony with no [former] winners and no sponsors someday soon."



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$38 million

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