The guys at Heisman Pundit -- one of the premier college football blogs on the Internet -- recently had an article regarding college football mysteries. Their number one mystery revolved around the fact that Alabama has never had a Heisman Trophy winner, and never had a player even finish second in Heisman voting. Long story short, Heisman Pundit predicts that an Alabama player will never win the Heisman "at least not until I'm dead or you're old."
So, will Alabama ever have a Heisman Trophy winner?
It's a very valid question, honestly.
To begin with, let's look at why Alabama does not have a Heisman Trophy winner. Heisman Pundit classifies us as an all-time top three program, yet no Heisman Trophy winner. Why is that?
Well, I think there are a variety of reasons.
One, the Heisman Trophy was not awarded until the 1935 season. By 1935, the Tide had already racked up four national championships, and had several great players who could have legitimately won the Heisman. Don Hutson, for example, is arguably the greatest receiver in the history of organized football -- and almost no one would argue that a single receiver had more of an impact on the development of the modern passing game -- yet he had no chance at winning the Heisman because it didn't come into existence until a year after he graduated from Alabama.
So that's part of it.
Beyond that, regional bias, I believe, harmed our player's efforts in attempts to win the Heisman, mainly in the early years of the award. For example, of the first thirty-one Heisman Trophy winners, only two came from the Southeast -- and by that I mean the "Southeast" consists of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, South Carolina, Arkansas, Kentucky, and North Carolina, i.e. no Texas. The only two Southeast players who won the Heisman in that stretch was Frank Sinkwich (Georgia, 1942) and Billy Cannon (LSU, 1959). Yale literally had as many Heisman Trophy winners as did the entire Southeast combined in the first thirty-one years of the award. In that past thirty-one years, however, eight different Heisman winners have come from the Southeast. Obviously, something is greatly amiss there.
Also, as a whole, the SEC simply doesn't produce that many Heisman Trophy winners. I really don't know why that is, honestly. Perhaps it's regional bias, perhaps its something else altogether, but nevertheless that's the truth. Of the seventy-two times the Heisman has been awarded, only seven times has it gone to an SEC player. Auburn, Florida, and Georgia have all done quite well in terms of the Heisman, with each school having two each. Aside from those three schools, however, it's non-existent. Of all of the other teams that have competed in the SEC through the years -- Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia Tech, LSU, Ole Miss, MSU, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Tulane, etc. -- combined they have only turned out one Heisman Trophy winner: Billy Cannon (LSU 1959). Technically, South Carolina does have a Heisman Trophy winner -- George Rogers, 1980 -- but it came twelve years before the Gamecocks joined the SEC in 1992, and at the time South Carolina was an independent. And it's not for a lack of team success, either. Since 1992, the SEC has produced five national champions (1992 Alabama, 1996 Florida, 1998 Tennessee, 2003 LSU, and 2006 Florida) -- and one other team that went undefeated but was burned at the ballot box (2004 Auburn) -- but nevertheless in that time the SEC has only produced one Heisman Trophy winner, Danny Wuerffel (1996 Florida).
Moreover, the Bryant era simply was not conducive to a Heisman Trophy winner, end of story. Though Bryant was with little doubt the greatest coach of all time, and though we were the dominant team of the 1960's and the 1970's, we never had a player finish higher than fourth in Heisman voting. Again, the Bryant era was simply not conducive to a Heisman Trophy winner. He would often suspend his best players (see Namath, circa 1963), and was always one for team accomplishments. He never particularly cared for individual awards, and rarely doled out praise to individual players. The wishbone, in particular, was never good for the Heisman chances, considering playing time (i.e. mainly rushing attempts) was also divvied up greatly.
The Bryant era, however, did have a couple of players who could have won the award -- namely Joe Namath and Ken Stabler -- but for a variety of reasons that never came to fruition.
Heisman Pundit specifically pondered aloud as to why Broadway Joe didn't win it, and the reason was simple: injuries. We played North Carolina State in Bryant-Denny Stadium on October 16th, 1964, and in the second quarter Namath carried the ball on an option left. He tried to cut, but his right foot dug into the turf at Bryant-Denny, and he sustained the first of many, many serious knee injuries that would plague his career. The simple reality was that Namath didn't play most of the year due to injury (Steve Sloan came in), and thus he didn't win it. Considering we were 11-0 and already declared national champions by the time the award was handed out, Namath would have probably won it had he stayed healthy, but the fates did not allow that.
Kenny Stabler may well have won it. In 1966, he probably deserved it more than the actual winner -- Steve Spurrier -- but we couldn't catch a break. The national media had a vendetta against us, and we couldn't even get a share of the national championship despite the fact that we went undefeated and were coming off of back-to-back national championships. Sufficed to say, Stabler had no chance of winning the Heisman that year. In 1967, it possibly could have happened, but we weren't very good that year, and 8-3 teams just don't produce Heisman Trophy winners. Bottom line in 1967 was this: Stabler was good enough, Alabama wasn't.
After the Bryant era, we had a couple of guys who could have won it, but it never happened mainly to injuries and foregone senior seasons. Bobby Humphrey was considered by many to be the Heisman front runner in the 1988, but broke his foot and was lost for the season in an early season game against Vanderbilt. David Palmer may well have won it in 1994 -- he finished 3rd in Heisman voting in 1993, and we went 11-0 in the regular season of 1994 -- but alas he chose to go early to the NFL Draft. Shaun Alexander, too, could have done it, but an early season loss to Louisiana Tech and a mid-season high ankle sprain ended his chances despite a late season resurgence that yielded an SEC championship.
Moreover, the Heisman is an offensive award -- awarded almost wholly to tailbacks and quarterbacks -- and we are a defensive school. We've had some great offensive players over the years, but we've always been a team that has mainly won by great defensive units. And that's fine for winning games, championships, etc., but that's all meaningless when it comes to Heisman voting. The Heisman is looking for quarterbacks, tailbacks, and the occasional once-a-decade receiver / defensive back / returner phenom. Sackmaster defensive ends (Derrick Thomas, Eric Curry, John Copeland), bone-crushing linebackers (Lee Roy Jordan, Woodrow Lowe, Cornelius Bennett), and stud pure defensive backs (Don McNeal, Jeremiah Castille, Antonio Langham) simply need not apply.
All in all, it's just never worked out, for a variety of reasons. So, what about the future?
I honestly don't know. We could have one, but at the moment I doubt it.
To begin with, a potential winner almost certainly has to be either a quarterback or a tailback. I don't care if we get the greatest defensive end to play the game, it doesn't matter in terms of the Heisman. Considering that Saban is one who builds his teams around great defense, that doesn't help in terms of Heisman hopes.
Moreover, Saban -- much like Bryant -- is generally not one for doling out individual praise. He's more oriented toward team goals, and not as big of a fan of individual accomplishments.
Tailbacks, too, are likely out of the question. Though many people wrongly declare that Saban uses a tailback-by-committee approach (in reality Saban has split carries almost solely between two backs, whereas a true tailback-by-committee approach generally has three backs or more getting the carries), nonetheless the truth remains that it is unlikely that any tailback under Saban sees the number of carries needed to win it. Basically, it's the same phenomenon that cost guys like Tony Nathan, Johnny Musso, and others a shot at the Heisman under Bryant in the wishbone.
I could, however, see it possible with him if we get a big-time tailback quarterback (like JaMarcus Russell, who Saban brought to LSU), and then we went onto a great season with a great chance at the BCS championship game, it may very well happen then.
But there are simply so many question marks between now and then, until something like that gets closer, the odds seem very low.