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Originally published Saturday, August 28, 2010 at 10:02 PM

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Steve Kelley

It would be nice if the Heisman race were something other than a beauty contest

Let's face it, Heisman winner is usually best quarterback or running back who has been well promoted by his school.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Why should we care about the Heisman Trophy? I mean, is it really, as advertised, emblematic of the best player in college football? Or, more likely, is it a tribute to the marketing department of the winning player's university?

Instead of that classic running back pose that is the Heisman sculpture, maybe the trophy should have a player pointing to his personal billboard, while he's looking at a YouTube video of his Saturday afternoon highlights.

The Heisman Watch began months ago, long before September's opening-day kickoffs.

That's the Heisman Watch, which shouldn't be confused with the Chris Miller clock, which was a clear plastic timepiece with Miller's picture inside that the University of Oregon sent to sportswriters promoting its quarterback at the time.

And the Heisman Watch shouldn't be confused with the Joey Harrington billboard, which loomed over Times Square before Harrington's last season as a Duck, telling the hoards of Manhattan tourists that Harrington should be the next Heisman winner.

This is what the Heisman has become. It's as much about marketing as it is playmaking. It is about stage presence as much as it is about pocket presence.

"The Heisman Trophy is no longer won solely by on-the-field performance," one marketing firm says in its promotional literature. "To be considered a serious contender, your school's candidate must also be effective, well-spoken and comfortable doing interviews.

"It also takes an effective media and marketing campaign, designed to impact not only the sportswriters who vote, but also the broader college football audience."

I always pictured a visiting couple from Cairo looking at that Times Square billboard and wondering what a Heisman was, or for that matter, what a Harrington was.

I also didn't understand why Oregon thought that sportswriters would be swayed by a billboard in an area usually reserved for underwear ads.

Back in 1970, Notre Dame convinced a willing, young, talented quarterback named Joe Theismann (once pronounced Thees-man), an all-American and all-Academic All-American, to change his name so it rhymed with Heisman.

I say Thees-man; Notre Dame says Theismann; it didn't matter. Joe finished second to Jim Plunkett.

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Still, the hype continued in earnest.

Now, it's gotten to the point where universities act as if they believe the only way their player can win is if they have the Geico gecko appear on "College GameDay" touting their candidate.

Maybe if Washington ran an ad showing Jake Locker hitting the ultimate pitch-person, Betty White, on a perfectly thrown post pattern, he could win the hearts and minds of the approximately 900 sportswriters who vote for the Heisman.

"It takes courage and vision by the athletic department to be bold enough to win it off the field, too," one marketing firm says. "Only call us if you want to knock the socks off the college football world with our unique approach to stating your player's case for the Heisman."

Of course, more important than courage is money.

Temple has purchased five billboards, at a cost it says is between $10,000 and $14,000 each, to promote running back Bernard Pierce. The title of its campaign, which includes bus signs (about $5,000) and giveaway magnets (about $3,000) is "Hunt For The Heisman."

Every university with a candidate, including Washington, has a Web site and video and some marketing campaign to promote its player. A Heisman, like a Nobel Prize, adds prestige to universities.

But the truth is, the Heisman is the most bogus award in sports.

Even though it has its own television show, and even though every Sunday morning during the season, the Heisman hopefuls have their stats prominently displayed in newspapers and on Web sites, the Heisman misrepresents itself.

The award doesn't always go to the best player. It never is won by one of the "big hosses" on the line. It isn't awarded to a cornerback or a pulling guard or a defensive tackle or a blitzing linebacker.

The players doing the dirty work don't often get invited to New York in December for the award show.

Nebraska defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh was the best player last season, but the award went to Alabama running back Mark Ingram.

The Heisman is all about the glamour guys, the passers and the runners.

And it is voted on by people who rarely see the games of the players for whom they're voting. Sportswriters are covering games on the weekends, and rely on statistics and highlights to see all of the Heisman nominees.

Ultimately, it's harmless fun. And Washington's Locker, who is the early leader to be the first pick in the 2011 NFL draft (the real measure of excellence), certainly deserves to be one of the favorites.

But let's kill the billboards and cut out the clocks and stop turning the Heisman campaign into a beauty contest.

And once, just once, let's give the award to some snarling, 325-pound defensive lineman.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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