When it comes time to tally up his numbers and cast a vote for the Heisman Trophy, let the record show that Ed Oliver‘s case should include not just offensive linemen vanquished and quarterbacks devoured, but that the Houston defensive lineman was also responsible for a significant step forward in bobblehead engineering.
OK, so that nudge actually came from Houston’s sports-information director, David Bassity. He was looking for a good way to hype Oliver as a potential Heisman candidate — something of a long shot given that the trophy almost always goes to a quarterback or running back. But Oliver’s entire career is a unique case, so why not give it a whirl?
Bassity’s plan was to create a bobblehead of Oliver, the 290-pound tackle, riding his childhood horse, Oreo. It poked a bit of fun at the dark-horse campaign (Oreo is literally a dark horse). It helped tell Oliver’s story away from football, the kid who’d grown up riding and stayed close to home to play at Houston. And it was fun. The bobblehead went out to media and Heisman voters last week, and immediately images of bobbling Oliver and Oreo overwhelmed social media. Houston had a viral hit on its hands.
Before all that, however, there was a legitimate problem. Bassity had called around to a handful of bobblehead manufacturers, and he kept getting the same answer: Bobbling Oliver was fine, but getting Oreo to nod was going to be tough.
But hey, what’s a dark-horse Heisman campaign without a little adversity? Bassity pushed harder, and after a few days, he got a call back from one of the companies.
“They came back and said, ‘OK, we figured out a way to do it,'” Bassity recalled. “Oreo’s head doesn’t bobble quite as much as Ed’s, but it’ll move.”
And thus, the latest in the long and colorful history of Heisman hype campaigns was born — Oliver and Oreo, joining the likes of Joe Theismann’s name change, Ty Detmer’s neckties and Joey Harrington’s Manhattan billboard. Just this season, West Virginia put together a seven-part documentary highlighting quarterback Will Grier, and UCF sent out leis to promote quarterback and native Hawaiian McKenzie Milton‘s “HIsman” campaign.
Will it work? The history is a mixed bag, and the play on the field will be the ultimate arbiter. But in the often buttoned-up world of college football, the bobblehead and other Heisman campaigns provide a rare opportunity to just have a little fun.
“I was honored because bringing light to me brings a light to my team and everything around me, how I got here, what it took to get here, and let people start to find out more about me.”
“I was honored,” Oliver said, “because bringing light to me brings a light to my team and everything around me, how I got here, what it took to get here, and let people start to find out more about me.”
It’s an open debate about who came up with the first Heisman publicity stunt, but there’s a clear winner for the campaign that’s lasted the longest.
Theismann was the QB at Notre Dame from 1968-70, and the way Fighting Irish sports-information director Roger Valdiserri saw it, there was just one thing holding him back from being a natural fit for the Heisman Trophy in his final season — the pronunciation of his last name.
Back in those days, it was Thees-mann, but Valdiserri pointed out that a small tweak would allow the name to rhyme with Heisman.
Theismann’s first call was to his dad, who was confused by the whole thing. Then he called his grandmother, the family matriarch, who informed him that the old-world pronunciation was neither Thees-man nor Thighs-man, but Ties-man, and Valdiserri’s idea was close enough to run with it.
Now, nearly 50 years later, he’s still Theismann like Heisman.
“Unless I get back home to Jersey, and I’m still Joey Theesman,” he said.
The funny thing, however, is the campaign might have actually worked against Theismann. He finished second in the voting to Stanford’s Jim Plunkett, and in the intervening years, Theismann has talked with voters who said they were turned off by the publicity stunt — not that it’s prevented plenty of others from following suit.
Back in 1983, Georgia sports-information director Claude Felton took Terry Hoage out to an Air Force base in full uniform to snap a photo of the Bulldogs’ star defensive back in front of an F-4 fighter jet, then captioned it “America’s top two defenders.” Hoage finished fifth in the voting, a record for a defensive back at the time.
Detmer’s campaign in 1990 came with the tagline that the Heisman voting should “end in a Ty.” That one worked. Detmer edged out Notre Dame’s Rocket Ismail for the award.
Memphis pushed DeAngelo Williams’ candidacy in 2005 by mailing out 2,500 model cars with his No. 20 on it, touting Williams’ “race” to the Heisman. (The car is currently available on eBay for $79.99). Washington State pushed Ryan Leaf in 1997 by mailing out envelopes with leaves inside. Marshall’s Byron Leftwich got the bobblehead treatment, too, back in 2002. He didn’t have a horse, however, so it was never really much of a case.
This wasn’t even Bassity’s first go-round with a Heisman campaign. As a student assistant, he helped Oklahoma send out cardboard fans with a photo of Sam Bradford striking the Heisman pose in 2008. (He won.) And there have been myriad websites developed over the years to push for a candidate, often more memorable for being a bit of early internet nostalgia than for the players they hyped.
A clever campaign is one thing. In terms of sheer magnitude, however, it’s tough to beat what Oregon did for Harrington in 2001.
The summer before Harrington’s senior season, Oregon spent $250,000 for a giant billboard outside Madison Square Garden that featured the Ducks’ quarterback, helmet tucked under his arm, with the word “Harrington” crossed out and “Heisman” written in green above it.
“It’s a double-edged sword for any coach, because you don’t want to put one player over the entire team,” said Mike Bellotti, Oregon’s coach at the time. “But it does help promote your school and your program. The visibility. We picked New York City because it’s sort of the heartbeat of America.”
The billboard didn’t get Harrington the trophy. He finished fourth. And at the time, more than a few media outlets took the opportunity to rail against the out-of-control spending in college sports. (If only they could see the expense accounts today!)
But the billboard did mark a significant step forward in Oregon’s national branding. The Ducks finished the season ranked second in the country, and the buzz from the billboard helped change the perception of the program from far-flung West Coast dark horse to a national contender.
That, Bellotti said, was the real point, and it’s a campaign that continues at virtually every major school today — from Heisman hype to recruiting materials to snazzy new uniforms.
“It’s the arms race,” Bellotti said. “It’s how do you influence the minds of 16-, 17-year-old young men and their families. I’m used to it. I was part of it.”
It’s easy to chalk all these campaigns up as simple publicity stunts, but even something as ostentatious as Harrington’s billboard said something about the player it promoted.
Bellotti remembered talking with Harrington’s family before the unveiling.
“Are you guys ready for the scrutiny that will come with this?” he asked.
Harrington was. Oregon wouldn’t have done it if Bellotti wasn’t sold on his quarterback’s ability to live up to the hype.
That’s true for Grier’s campaign at West Virginia, too. The school’s “Will to Win” campaign launched July 7 at 7:07 a.m. and will, eventually, include seven different installments of the documentary series. You don’t need a roster to guess Grier’s jersey number.
The plan, which was a group effort across West Virginia’s communications, multimedia and marketing teams, was to showcase all sides of Grier’s case, and it wouldn’t have come together if coach Dana Holgorsen wasn’t convinced Grier could handle the scrutiny. So there are installments focusing on his on-field success, but also on Grier’s work with charity and his time with his wife and child. It’s a behind-the-scenes that’s designed to hook voters on the quarterback’s story, not his stats.
“I think it is a great opportunity to spread the positive and good things that I want to spread to the community,” Grier said. “It’s an opportunity for me to share some things about me and my family and my teammates and coaches that are really good and positive. I think that through this process I have tried as best I can to spread the positivity and show people what I am all about, and I hope that message has gotten across.”
That was the hope with Oliver’s bobblehead, too. It was meant as a conversation-starter. The on-field performance will ultimately decide how far that talk goes, but Houston wanted to lay the groundwork before Oliver hit the field.
“It’s cute, but at the end of the day, what we’re trying to really do is make sure voters have the info about Ed,” Bassity said. “He’s got a unique story.”
So on the box the bobblehead arrived in, there’s a litany of impressive stats. Like, did you know Oliver has more tackles for loss (39.5) than any defensive tackle in history through his first two seasons? That’s the type of info that could be conveyed any number of ways, but it works nicely with a bobblehead.
And on the back of the box, there’s a portion of a story from the Omaha World Herald that explained Oliver’s relationship with his horse. Oreo was stubborn, and Oliver had to learn to wrestle the horse, to be aggressive and equally stubborn.
“I owe it to Oreo for making me the guy I am today,” Oliver told the paper.
Now that’s a hook. Not sure who to vote for? Why not the guy who was trained by a horse?
“The whole thing is just genius,” Oliver said.