Stiff Arm Trophy

What the Heisman Trust thinks of Stiff Arm Trophy -- and what they should do about that

Posted by Kari Chisholm on December 13, 2013 in News.

You're not going to find anyone who combines a deeper knowledge of the Heisman Trophy with stronger insider connections to the Heisman Trust than ESPN "Heismanologist" Joe Tessitore.

On Thursday, Tessitore appeared on Ivan Maisel's podcast to preview the Heisman presentation. The whole conversation is just fantastic, loaded with insider detail, backstage color, and old-time trivia. Listen here. (Tessitore comes on at 14:30.)

But there's a great moment where Maisel raises the Heisman Trust's decision to demand that voters keep their personal votes secret, punishable with losing their status as voters. Here's an excerpt from that conversation and -- (spoiler alert) -- Tessitore reveals that the Heisman Trust hates Stiff Arm Trophy. (Sure, I've always known that, but no one's ever revealed that they've explicitly talked about our work.)

Maisel: This whole push by the Heisman Trust to demand secrecy from the very people that beat the drum and promote this award twelve months a year - the people who vote for it. I'm just gobsmacked. I think it's a terrible PR move by them. ...

Tessitore: I've had many conversations with them about it. They still want there to be the great reveal. I respect the decision and I follow the decision, but I feel it's just like a presidential election. And I think that any time you're polling, you're getting attention. The Heisman Trophy has always been a big deal. The Heisman Trophy in the last five years, I would tell you, has become an even bigger deal because of the constant weekly polling. We now follow the Heisman Trophy race as if it's its own sport unto itself...

Tessitore: We poll everybody everyday leading up to the presidential election. That doesn't seem to hurt the anticipation of the big reveal on every network on election night. Does it?

Maisel: I think it's silly, it's over-reaching, and it makes them look bad more than it achieves whatever it is they want to achieve.

Tessitore: Well, here's what they don't want. They don't want a website that's out there - that does exist - getting to all 929 of us and on Tuesday or Wednesday saying, "Alright, it's five o'clock on Tuesday. We've polled everybody and here's what it is." That's what they don't want. And that's what a few years ago, they were close to getting. ...

Tessitore: They still want Saturday to feel special. And I think there's an argument to be made for that. But I also think there's an argument to be made that all the exposure, all the discussion, all the polling, has made the Heisman more relevant, and talked about more than it ever was. Ever!

Here's what I think.

We're part of the Heisman hype machine. As Tessitore points out, we're not hurting the "big reveal". In fact, the best example comes from 2009 -- when the closest Heisman race ever resulted in the highest Heisman ratings ever. The only reason anybody knew that they should turn on ESPN on that Saturday night is that I was jumping up and down, telling anyone who would listen (I think I did 50 media interviews that week) that it was too close to call; that it might be the closest race ever. 3.78 million people watched the show. I had 1.27 million page views during the preceding 12 days. I helped build the monster hype that year.

It's just plain dumb, as Maisel points out, to muzzle all the voters. Many of those 870 people would typically write a column or go on-air to say, "Hey, I'm a Heisman voter, and here's how I decided to vote." That's huge media attention. This year, the coverage is way down. And if Google is to be believed, public interest in the Heisman is way down this year, too.

Sorry, Joe, but we've never come remotely close to all the voters. On average, we've found 212 voters. Our high water mark was in 2009 with 313 voters, and that was the Ingram/Gerhart too-close-to-call year.

College football suffers from too much secrecy. And the Heisman Trust is the worst offender.

As Tessitore noted on the podcast, the Heisman Trophy is the most prestigious award in all of sport - and one of the most prestigious awards, period. Along with the Nobel Prize, it's just about the only award that consistently gets mentioned in the very first sentence of an obituary.

Not only that but the fact that there are 928 voters for the Heisman, including 870 journalists across the country, makes it one of the most democratic and meritocratic awards. The Heisman has historically embodied the very best of American athletics (with, yes, a few blemishes along the way.)

I come at this from a deep sense of respect for the Heisman. I love the Heisman. It makes me crazy to see conspiracy theories swirling around out there.

There's a reason election monitors show up in third world countries to observe elections. Outside verification helps ensure that the vote is done legitimately. I'm not claiming that the Heisman Trust has their finger on the scale. But there are people out there that think they do. We already have enough conspiracy theories in college football. We should protect the status of the Heisman by making the process open and transparent.

What the Heisman Trust should do:

The Heisman Trust should release the full ballots - every vote, every voter, by name - after the ceremony. In other words, they should do the same thing that the AFCA/USA Today Coaches' Poll does. If they did that, there would be no reason for me to do what I do.

But that's extremely unlikely, given the track record. The level of secrecy from the Heisman Trust is stunning. Consider this:

  • The list of Heisman voters is a secret.

  • They won't even publicly list who the state chairs are in each state, responsible for picking the voters in each state.

  • They won't reveal even the number of voters there are in each state. (An aside: It's wildly unbalanced, with a tremendous built-in strucutural bias against the West Coast and in favor of the Northeast. The West has 22 FBS schools and twice the population of the Northeast, with just 6 FBS schools - but both regions get 145 votes. Even within states, it's unbalanced. I'm told Oregon has 10 votes and Oklahoma has 22 -- even though the states are the same exact size, 3.8m people each.)

  • There are six regional chairmen, but only four are known publicly. (Ever since Beano Cook died and Pat Haden went to USC, they've listed "TBD" on the website, even though they have surely replaced them.)

  • They don't release the vote totals below the top 10, or the regional breakdowns after the finalists.

  • They never release the full ballot-by-ballot data, not even anonymously. (This would make for awesome statistical and historical analysis -- is there regional bias? is there positional bias? what percentage of ballots went to linemen? etc. And wouldn't it be great for every player that gets a vote to learn that they were honored with a Heisman vote?)

I see my role as honoring the Heisman by helping bringing a little transparency to it; doing something that the Trust itself should -- but doesn't -- do.