In Hindsight: 10 Seasons When The Best Football Player in America Did NOT Win The Heisman Trophy

It’s that time of year; time to start talking about the Heisman race.

We’ve now seen well over half of a season from all the NCAA football players in the nation, and we have some kind of idea who will be in the conversation between now and next month when the award is handed out.

Kansas State’s Collin Klein, Oregon’s Kenjon Barner, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, Alabama’s A.J. McCarron, Ohio State’s Braxton Miller, Notre Dame’s Manti T’eo, West Virginia’s Geno Smith – all of these guys are in the running right now, as well as a few more.

Image Credit: US Presswire via cbssports.com

As much fun as it is to debate during the season who deserves college football’s most prestigious individual award, it’s even more interesting to look back at Heisman races from years past and see what winners fizzled out after college and what runners-up went on to have fantastic careers in the pro game.

I’m not saying the guys who won these awards didn’t deserve them. Most did.

I’m also not saying that guys who have had great success in the pros should have been considered in the Heisman race when they were in college unless they had seasons in college that were worthy.

For example, Tom Brady is a great NFL quarterback, but I’m not going to argue that he should have been included in the Heisman discussion when he was at Michigan, because he simply wasn’t one of the best college football players in the country.

I’m also not saying that professional success should have anything to do with awarding the best collegiate football player in the country. It’s just a fun exercise to see who ended up beating out some future NFL superstars for college football’s most prestigious award.

Here’s a countdown of some of the Heisman races that voters might wish they could do over, given the benefit of years of hindsight.

Think I missed one or take exception with one of these? Let me know in the comments.

10. 1964 – John Huarte over Jerry Rhome and Dick Butkus

In 1964, Notre Dame’s John Huarte won the Heisman over Tulsa’s Jerry Rhome by a slim margin (216 votes to 186), despite throwing for more than 800 fewer yards, throwing half as many touchdowns, and throwing almost three times as many interceptions in 121 fewer attempts.

Of course, a two-way star from Illinois named Dick Butkus was in the running as well, but he finished a distant third (77 votes). Almost unbelievably, Butkus played center and linebacker for the Illini, and he excelled at both.

Images: Huarte: AP Photo via espn.com, Rhome: Tulsa Sports Information via espn.com, Butkus: fightingillini.com

Huarte was certainly good, and Rhome’s numbers were somewhat inflated by the style of offense Tulsa ran, but it’s still tough to imagine voters not wanting to reassign their votes on this one.

Huarte and Rhome had somewhat insignificant NFL careers, with their 1964 college seasons being their most impressive moments as players.

Butkus, as we know, went on to a Hall of Fame NFL career for the Chicago Bears and has an annual award named after him for the most outstanding linebacker in high school, college, and professional football. Not too shabby for the third-place finisher in the 1964 Heisman race.

Even with the benefit of hindsight, I can’t fault the voters too much, for it could be argued that Rhome was merely a product of the pass-happy Tulsa system and Butkus, an offensive lineman and defensive player, didn’t have the stats to support his candidacy.

9. 2000 – Chris Weinke over Drew Brees and LaDainian Tomlinson

To be sure, Florida State’s Chris Weinke had a fantastic college career, one that started late due to Weinke’s minor league baseball career.

At age 25, Weinke enrolled at Florida State, and in 2000, as a senior, Weinke delivered to the tune of 4,167 passing yards and 33 touchdowns and won the Heisman.

In West Lafayette, Indiana, another quarterback was throwing the ball all over the yard in the Big Ten.

Drew Brees threw for 3,393 yards and 24 touchdowns, capping off a collegiate career that saw him set Big Ten records for passing yards, touchdowns, completions and attempts. Brees also led the Boilermakers to their first Rose Bowl in 33 years (they lost to Washington). Brees finished third in the Heisman voting (Oklahoma’s Josh Heupel was second).

In Texas, TCU’s LaDainian Tomlinson had his second consecutive NCAA-leading rushing season, piling up 2,158 yards and 22 touchdowns. At the time, Tomlinson ranked sixth in NCAA history with 5,263 rushing yards. The future Chargers star was fourth in the vote for the Heisman.

Image credits: timesfreepress.com, espn.com

Weinke surely deserved the Heisman trophy due to his gaudy stats and the Seminoles’ dominance, but it’s hard to look back and see the seasons that Brees and Tomlinson had and not think that they should have had a legitimate gripe about their places (Heupel over both of them?).

It wasn’t like either of them came out of nowhere with one great season and then went to NFL stardom; these were players who clearly had immense talent and were going to succeed in the pros.

I’d say things worked out pretty well, though. Brees is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, set the NFL record for completion percentage and passing yards last year, has an enormous contract and a Super Bowl ring.

Tomlinson is a former NFL MVP, made boatloads of money in his playing career, and holds the NFL single-season record for touchdowns.

8. 2003 – Jason White over Larry Fitzgerald and Eli Manning

Oklahoma’s Jason White threw for 3,846 yards and 40 touchdowns (versus only 10 interceptions) in 2003, which is pretty miraculous for someone coming off consecutive seasons ended by ACL tears (one in each knee).

The Heisman race was close that year, with Pittsburgh wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald (92 receptions, 1,672 yards, 22 touchdowns) coming in second and Ole Miss quarterback Eli Manning (3,600 yards, 29 touchdowns, 10 interceptions) third.

Image Credits: pittpanthersworld.com, olemisssports.com

White never played in an NFL game, however. He went undrafted the following year, and though he eventually signed with the Tennessee Titans in 2005, retired from football altogether soon thereafter.

Fitzgerald went on to star for the Arizona Cardinals as one of the most prominent receivers in the NFL. (Now if only Arizona could get him a reliable quarterback to allow him to continue his Hall of Fame career.) I thought then and I think now that Fitzgerald was the best player in college football that year.

Eli Manning, meanwhile, had a much publicized entry to the NFL, as he refused to sign with the San Diego Chargers, the team who held the first pick in the draft. The Chargers eventually traded the pick to the New York Giants, who drafted Manning. Since then, Eli has become one of the premier quarterbacks in the NFL and has led the Giants to two Super Bowl wins.

7. 1994 – Rashaan Salaam over Ki-Jana Carter, Steve McNair and Kerry Collins

Colorado had an incredible season in 1994: a Fiesta Bowl win over Notre Dame, a #3 ranking to finish the year, the “Miracle at Michigan,” Kordell Stewart’s play, and Rashaan Salaam’s Heisman-winning season.

Salaam ran an incredible 298 times in 12 games, piling up 2,055 yards and 24 touchdowns. The yardage and touchdown totals were more than he was able to muster in his entire NFL career. He won the Heisman going away, despite some performances that were just as – if not more – impressive.

Image Credits: cubuffs.com, spokeo.com, ten.scout.com, gopsusports.com

Penn State’s Ki-Jana Carter (198 carries, 1,539 yards, 23 touchdowns) finished second in the voting, barely garnering half the voter points that Salaam did. Unlike some of the previous runners-up I’ve listed, Carter didn’t go on to have a spectacular career. After being chosen with the top over pick, he tore his ACL in his very first preseason game for the Cincinnati Bengals, and his potential was never realized.

The argument then (and now) for Carter is that he played for Penn State, which had a (slightly) more balanced offense, which meant fewer carries for Carter than Salaam. The Big Ten was also notorious for stiff defense at the time, and Carter managed to rack up a 7.8 yards per carry average, almost a full yard better than Salaam.

Third place in the voting belonged to Alcorn State’s Steve “Air” McNair. It was nearly unheard of for a Division 1-AA player to be included on the Heisman ballot, but McNair’s exploits were such that he was invited to the party anyway. McNair threw for 4,863 yards and 44 touchdowns that year, numbers that were gaudy by the era’s standards.

Since we know how McNair’s NFL career turned out (31,304 passing yards, 174 touchdowns, an NFL MVP, 3 Pro Bowls), it’s easy to say that, despite his stats coming in Division 1-AA, he was a good enough player to win the Heisman.

Collins was Carter’s teammate at Penn State, and he led the Nittany Lions to an undefeated season while passing for 2,679 yards and 24 touchdowns. These days, it seems like the best quarterbacks on the best teams in the country have a huge advantage in the Heisman race, but Collins was left in a distant fourth place in 1994.

He went on to throw for almost 41,000 yards and 206 touchdowns in a 16-year NFL career, making two Pro Bowls in the process.

6. 2004 – Matt Leinart over Adrian Peterson

USC’s Matt Leinart had one of the best college careers anyone has ever had: 37-2 record as a starter, a national championship (two if you go by the AP rankings), a Heisman Trophy, two first-team All-American awards, and his #11 jersey retired by the school.

As a junior, Leinart threw for 3,322 yards, 33 touchdowns, and only 6 interceptions. USC won the national championship that year and Leinart was projected as being a high NFL draft pick, possibly number one overall.

Instead, he returned to school, had another stellar season, and was a Heisman finalist again (teammate Reggie Bush would win, only to have his award stripped due to an NCAA rules violation in 2010).

Leinart was drafted 10th overall by the Arizona Cardinals in the 2006 NFL draft. He has languished in backup duty for his 6 years in the league, currently sitting behind Carson Palmer for the Oakland Raiders.

Image Credits: sportsthenandnow.com

Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson was just a freshman in 2004, but he had arguably the best season any freshman running back has ever had. He set freshman records for rushing yards (1,925), carries (339), and 100-yard games in a season (11). His runner-up finish in the Heisman voting was the highest ever for a freshman.

Peterson’s Sooners would lose to Leinart’s Trojans in the BCS national championship game, 55-19.

Peterson would prove to be the better pro, though. As a Minnesota Viking, Peterson is considered one of the best running backs in the NFL. He earned a $96 million contract in 2011, and he has amassed almost 8,000 yards and 71 touchdowns in his young NFL career.

It would have been tough to vote against Leinart in 2004, but I remember watching Peterson and being floored by him. Leinart was more a product of an incredible system and incredible teammates, whereas Peterson was a true once-in-a-decade talent at running back.

*****

Now it’s time for the five biggest with-hindsight Heisman snubs in college football history. Continue reading to learn about:

  • The two-time Heisman winner who only should have won one.
  • The one-time Heisman winner who clearly should have won two.
  • The defensive stalwart who never should have beaten out one of the greatest QBs in football history.

And more!

About the Author

Keith Mullett

Keith is an Ohio-based sports and pop culture junkie who began writing for MSF in June 2011. His ramblings about sports, music, movies and books can be further enjoyed by following him on Twitter @keithmullett. In addition to his work for MSF, Keith operates a blog called Commercial Grade, in which he critiques television commercials from the perspective of the average viewer.