This week, the marketing campaigns for the Heisman Trophy--college football's most prestigious award--began with a promotional pop.
Colorado State University made 500 packages of microwave popcorn to promote star wide receiver Rashard "Hollywood" Higgins. You might think a campaign like this is over the top. In reality, almost any college athletics department would think of creative ways to promote a player of Higgins's caliber. A six-foot-two junior, Higgins led the nation in receiving yards (1,750) and touchdown catches (17) last year.
In fact, CSU's popcorn campaign is just a piece of the Higgins marketing equation. The school has also built a HollywoodHiggins.com site to increase the player's visibility. And if you think all of this individualism might bother a head coach hoping to foster a team-first culture, think again. "I think it's great," new coach Mike Bobo tells The Coloradoan. "He's put himself in position to be on a number of watch lists, he's a preseason All-American."
What CSU is doing with Higgins actually belongs to an historical subtradition of the college football season: athletic departments showcasing their creativity in an effort to promote athletes for trophies like the Heisman. With CSU kicking off its campaign yesterday, it's a timely cue to examine which schools, through the years, have earned the best grades for their Heisman hyping.
It's an inexact science, but my main criterion was the innovation or novelty of the campaign, followed by how the player fared in Heisman voting.
1. Roger Staubach, quarterback, Navy, 1963.
Campaign: Imagine a world before social media, YouTube, and ESPN. Now imagine you have to promote your star to the national press in an era predating email. Faced with this challenge, Navy sports information director L. Budd Thalman mailed 1,000 four-page pamphlets called "Meet Roger Staubach" to the sports media.
Result: Staubach won the Heisman. Moreover, he made the cover of Sports Illustrated and Time. Beyond that, Thalman's campaign demonstrated that a school's marketing efforts could actually pay off.
Roger Staubach became a national star while he was at Navy.
2. Terry Baker, quarterback, Oregon State, 1962.
Campaign: Baker's campaign set the tone for Staubach's one year later. Before player statistics were as ubiquitous and real-time as they are today, Oregon State publicist John Eggers mailed updated stats about Baker to the media every week.
Result: Baker won the Heisman. His victory underscores how this was still a pre-Super Bowl era in which both pro and college football were more like regional sports than nationally televised events. Baker "became the first player west of the Mississippi to win the award," notes Scott Allen on Mental Floss, in his superb list of gimmicky Heisman campaigns. Baker didn't become as famous as Staubach would, one year later. But he established a template for how a school could promote a player.
3. Paul Palmer, running back, Temple University, 1985.
Campaign: The school created a 16-page comic book about Palmer and mailed it to the sports media. In addition, Temple mailed out photographs of the running back with immortal golfer Arnold Palmer, labeling them "Pennsylvania has two Palmers."
Result: Palmer came in second and became a first-round pick in the NFL draft the following season.
4. Joe Theismann, quarterback, Notre Dame, 1967.
Campaign: Theismann changed the pronunciation of his name so it would rhyme with Heisman. The story, recounted in the Los Angeles Times, goes that South Bend Tribune sports editor Joe Doyle was watching the quarterback at practice one day and said, "There goes Theismann." When he said it, he pronounced the name as "Thees-mann," which at the time was correct.
Roger Valdiserri, Notre Dame's sports information director, replied: "No, There goes Theismann, as in Heisman." He subsequently convinced the quarterback to alter how his name was pronounced.
Result: Theismann came in second. And Valdiserri proved you don't have to spend a ton of money on a campaign if you find the proper catch phrase.
5. Joey Harrington, quarterback, University of Oregon, 2001.
Campaign: The school spent $250,000 to put Harrington on a 10-story billboard in midtown Manhattan. In the billboard, he was dubbed "Joey Heisman."
Result: Harrington came in fourth. But he became a first-round pick in the subsequent NFL draft, and the University of Oregon increased its profile.
6. DeAngelo Williams, running back, University of Memphis, 2005.
Campaign: The school mailed 2,500 model race cars emblazoned with Williams's No. 20 to the sports media, symbolizing the beginning of Williams "race" for the Heisman. The cost? About $8 per car.
Result: Williams finished seventh. But like Harrington and Palmer, he became a first-round pick in the subsequent NFL draft. What's more, the school more than recouped the expense by selling 1,500 more cars on the school website for $30 each.
7. Chase Daniel, quarterback, University of Missouri, 2008.
Campaign: The school ordered 2,500 View-master-style slide-viewer toys--loading them with photos of Daniel on the field--and mailing them to the sports media. Image3D, a company based in Beaver Creek, Oregon, made them. The cost to the school? $25,000.
Result: Daniel didn't get any Heisman votes, despite a strong season. He's now entering his seventh year in the NFL. As in Williams's campaign, the results ultimately weren't there. But just like the Williams model cars, the ingenuity of the View-master idea deserves praise--especially in an era super-saturated with promotional giveaways.