For lifelong Tennessee football fans, the 1997 Heisman Trophy race isn’t easily forgotten.
After quarterback Peyton Manning was denied the Heisman, finishing second in the balloting to Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson, the UT football fanbase was incensed. The resulting fallout included bumper stickers throughout East Tennessee that read, “Heisman Heist,” and ESPN football analyst referred to UT fans as “trailer trash,” a remark for which he later apologized.
In summer’s dog days, when it seems like the college football season is never going to get here, it’s always fun to speculate about who the biggest snub was in the history of the Heisman Trophy. Manning’s name will forever come up in those discussions.
But as long-time Tennessee football fans will be quick to tell you, Manning might not even be the biggest Heisman snub in Tennessee’s history, let alone all of college football.
To debate Tennessee’s biggest Heisman snub, you first have to consider the UT players who have come closest to winning the Heisman Trophy. There have been four Vols who finished runner-up to the Heisman: Hank Lauricella in 1951, Johnny Majors in 1956, Heath Shuler in 1993, and Manning in 1997.
Let’s examine each of them.
Heath Shuler was an impressive quarterback at the University of Tennessee, even if he wasn’t as much so for the NFL’s Washington Redskins, but he wasn’t a Heisman snub, even though he finished second in the balloting.
Although dual-threat quarterbacks have become a major part of the college game in the 21st century, it has been an evolution. In 1993, Shuler was unique as a dual-threat QB.
In his junior season, 1993, Shuler completed 184 of 285 passes, for a 65% completion ratio. He passed for 2,354 yards and 25 touchdowns, with 8 interceptions. Notably, he was used as a runner much less in ’93 than as a sophomore in 1992, when he rushed for 286 yards and 11 touchdowns, setting a record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback. In 1993, he rushed for only 73 yards and three touchdowns.
Winning the Heisman Trophy in 1993 was Florida State’s Charlie Ward, who was an excellent dual-threat quarterback in his own right. He completed 264 of 380 passes (70%) for 3,032 yards and 27 touchdowns with just 4 interceptions. He had a QB rating of 157.8, which was only slightly better than Shuler’s, but that’s proof that QB ratings can be deceiving.
Ward was much more prolific as a rusher in 1993 than Shuler was, rushing for 339 yards and 4 touchdowns, after rushing for 504 yards and 6 touchdowns as a junior.
The bottom line was that Ward was simply the better player. The balloting reflected that, as Ward received 740 first place votes to just 10 for Shuler. Even though Shuler finished second in the balloting, he actually had 6 fewer first place votes than Alabama’s David Palmer, who received 16 first place votes and finished third. (For the record, Marshall Faulk received 7 first place votes.)
In addition to Ward’s individual statistics, Florida State finished 12-1, with the only loss coming to then-No. 1 Notre Dame in South Bend, and was the consensus national champion. Tennessee finished 10-2-1, with losses to Florida and to Penn State in the Citrus Bowl, and a 17-17 tie against Palmer’s Crimson Tide team that was later ruled an Alabama forfeit.
Prior to the age of cable television, the news media played an even greater role in who won the Heisman Trophy than it does in the modern era (though Manning fans might disagree). With fans not having the ability to watch most games, they relied on newspaper writers to tell the story of what was happening with teams and players. And because most of the nation’s largest and most widely-read newspapers were in the northeast, players from the northeast had a decided advantage when it came to name recognition.
That was the case in 1951, when Princeton’s Dick Kazmaier won the Heisman Trophy over Tennessee’s Hank Lauricella.
To be fair, both Kazmaier and Lauricella were fine players. Kazmaier rushed for 861 yards on 149 attempts, averaging 5.8 yards per carry and scoring 9 touchdowns.
But Lauricella was even better. He rushed for 881 yards on only 111 carries, averaging 7.9 yards per carry and scoring 8 touchdowns.
In an era where the passing game wasn’t nearly as evolved as it is today, Lauricella also completed 24 of 51 passes for 352 yards and 5 touchdowns, with 5 interceptions. Passing is where Kazmaier had an edge over Lauricella. He completed 77 of 123 passes for 966 yards and 13 touchdowns, with 5 interceptions.
Tennessee was the consensus national champion that year, going undefeated in the regular season before losing to No. 3 Maryland in the Sugar Bowl. The Vols were the consensus national champion; the national champion in those days was crowned before the bowl season began. Princeton was a pretty good team in its own right, going undefeated against an admittedly much easier schedule.
On paper, Lauricella and Kazmaier were pretty even. But the Heisman balloting wasn’t. Kazmaier received 506 first place votes, while Lauricella received just 45. Kentucky’s Babe Parilli finished third with 32 first place votes.
Snub? You can decide for yourself, but it’s probably hard to say it was a snub. Kazmaier had a legitimate claim to the Heisman Trophy, even though Lauricella’s Vols won the national championship.
No, Heath Shuler wasn’t snubbed. And Hank Lauricella probably wasn’t either.
But Johnny Majors was snubbed. It’s not even an argument — unless you’re trying to debate with a Notre Dame fan.
While the 1956 Vols would lose to Baylor in the Sugar Bowl, they were undefeated when the Heisman Trophy winner was crowned, and were ranked No. 2 in the nation. They finished the regular season 10-0. Their closest game was a 6-0 win over then-No. 2 Georgia Tech in early November.
Johnny Majors was a do-it-all for the Vols. Listed as quarterback, after being a running back his first two years of varsity football, he carried the ball 108 times for 549 yards and 7 touchdowns, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. He completed 36 of 59 passes for 552 yards and 5 touchdowns and 3 interceptions.
The problem? Notre Dame was a media darling in 1956 — especially the Fighting Irish’s quarterback, Paul Hornung.
Hornung was no better than Majors. He completed 59 of 111 passes for 917 yards, but he only had 3 touchdowns against 13 interceptions. He ran the ball 94 times for 420 yards and 6 touchdowns.
The biggest difference, though, was the two players’ team accomplishments. While the Vols were going undefeated, Notre Dame was just 2-8. The Irish’s only wins came against Indiana and North Carolina. They began the year ranked No. 3 in the nation, but quickly fell out of the polls after 5 straight losses between their 2 wins.
Yet, Hornung won the Heisman Trophy. He had 197 first place votes, while Majors had 172 first place votes. The final tally was 1,066-994. Interestingly, Oklahoma’s Tommy MacDonald actually received the most first place votes that year (205), but finished third overall in the balloting. He had 853 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns, and had 3 more touchdowns through the air, but remember the role of the media before cable television. There are no major newspapers in Oklahoma.
Can you imagine a player today winning the Heisman Trophy from a 2-8 team, while throwing for 3 touchdowns and 13 interceptions? Needless to say, there would be an outcry. And deservedly so.
You could make an argument that MacDonald was snubbed even harder than Majors was in 1956. Because here’s the thing: Not only were his statistics more impressive than Majors’ or Hornung’s, but the Sooners finished the season undefeated, and were consensus national champions.
Still, there’s no doubt that Majors was snubbed, big-time. Hornung remains, to this day, the most undeserving recipient in the history of the Heisman Trophy, and he’s the only recipient from a team with a losing record to ever win the award.
Peyton Manning returned for his senior season for two reasons: Beating Florida was one of them. Winning the Heisman Trophy was the other. He accomplished neither.
The loss to Florida — Tennessee’s fifth in a row against the Gators — was hard enough, even though the Vols won the SEC championship for the first time since the conference split into divisions in 1992 as a nice consolation prize.
But losing the Heisman Trophy to Michigan’s Charles Woodson was even harder to take.
It’s hard to say that Manning’s senior season was his best, at least from a statistical standpoint. He was fantastic all four years. But he completed 287 of 477 passes (60%) as a senior, finishing with 3,819 yards and 36 touchdowns, with just 11 interceptions. It was by far his highest touchdown total of his four-year career, besting the 22 touchdown passes he threw as a sophomore.
Manning added three more touchdowns on the ground, for a total of 39 TDs.
The only problem was that Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel had won the Heisman the year before. The media — and, as it turned out, the voters — wanted a winner who wasn’t a southern quarterback.
They found that in Charles Woodson. Not only was Woodson from “up north” and not a quarterback, but even better: He was a defensive player. The big media — notably, ESPN and the ABC network — decided it was time for a defensive player to win the award. And, so, they pushed Woodson hard. Then, as now, it’s usually up to the schools to put together Heisman campaigns for stand-out players. But Michigan benefited from the Disney company’s internal Heisman campaign.
A defensive player had never won the Heisman Trophy in 1997 (and hasn’t since). Woodson, as the anti-Manning, was the logical choice to push. He was not only a standout defensive back, but he was also a multi-purpose player.
In 1997, Woodson had 11 catches for 231 yards and scored 2 touchdowns. He scored another touchdown on the ground. And he had 7 interceptions. He also returned 33 punts for an 8.6 yards per return average, scoring a touchdown on one return.
Nothing about Woodson’s statistics were awe-inspiring, but the fact that he played multiple positions awed the voters. And the media hype machine paid off. Manning began the year as the heir apparent to the Heisman Trophy. By the eve of the award’s presentation, Michigan fans were so convinced that Woodson deserved the award that they threatened to boycott the Heisman if he didn’t win it.
The balloting wasn’t even really that close. Woodson finished with 433 first place votes to just 281 for Manning. The final vote tally was 1,815-1,543.
It wasn’t hard to understand why Tennessee fans were incensed. To hear Fowler and others whose paychecks were signed by the ESPN hype machine tell it, Tennessee fans were just sore losers with a feeling of entitlement. Interestingly, though, there hadn’t been a peep out of East Tennessee when Shuler finished second to Ward just four years earlier.
But Shuler didn’t deserve the Heisman. Manning did. The fact that Woodson was a multi-position standout not withstanding, and giving credit where credit is due to the fact that Michigan won the national championship in 1997, Woodson’s stats were merely average.
Woodson’s 7 interceptions led the Big Ten. But his punt return yards weren’t even close to the top of the list in the Big Ten, let alone the nation. Manning, on the other hand, led the SEC in every major passing category.
The only statistical category Woodson really excelled in was interceptions. But Brian Lee of Wyoming, Tevell Jones of Ohio, Samari Rolle of Florida State, Omarr Smith of San Jose State, John Noel of Louisiana Tech, Donovin Darius of Syracuse and Cedric Donaldson of LSU all had as many or more interceptions as Woodson that season. Tennessee’s Terry Fair had 5 interceptions, while also averaging 14.3 yards per punt return and 15 yards per kick return.
If multi-purpose players were suddenly so deserving of winning the Heisman, where was the recognition for Tennessee’s own Carl Pickens in 1989? As a sophomore, Pickens had four interceptions on the defensive side of the ball, one of which he returned for a touchdown, while averaging 23 yards per kick return with a touchdown and 11.5 yards per punt return. As a receiver, he scored two touchdowns, though it would be the next two years that he would really shine as a wide receiver.
The Final Verdict
The most deserving Tennessee player who didn’t win the Heisman Trophy was undoubtedly Peyton Manning. And it’s unfortunate that the media’s determination to not see another southern quarterback win the award played such a big role in the 1997 Heisman balloting. But at least Woodson was a great player from a great team.
The most undeserving player to beat a Tennessee Heisman finalist was Paul Hornung in 1956. He was a good player who had an average season on a very bad team. And he beat out a great player on a really good team that had an undefeated regular season.
The biggest Heisman snub in Tennessee’s football history? I have to go with John Majors. But it’s very interesting that two of the biggest Heisman snubs in history — if not the two biggest Heisman snubs in history — are both from Tennessee. No wonder Vols fans are raw.