I’m sure that by now you guys have figured out that there are certain elements of the college football mainstream that I have little use for. There are a few things that the team and the program can control; winning the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy, having a winning season, and earning a bowl berth among them. Maintaining this standard is what should drive the program. Yet for whatever reason, fans tend to get spun up about all kinds of ancillary nonsense. Recruiting rankings are a joke, but there are people who not only swear by them, but defer to them rather than trust what they see on the field. Some people hold out hope for amorphic “signature wins,” although there’s no criteria for what constitutes a “signature win,” and no extra credit towards bowl eligibility should this mythical milestone be achieved. Media attention and top 25 polls can be fun, but validation from people that are largely unconcerned and/or unfamiliar with Navy football should hardly be a goal of the program. With the unique restrictions placed on service academies, Navy football operates under a different set of rules than the world of college football at large. Sure, a good enough season might yield a top 25 ranking, and the team is capable of beating everyone on the schedule. But to set these kinds of things as program standards in the name of “progress” makes little sense, and can only lead to frustration– or worse.
The Heisman Trophy seems like one more thing to add to the “don’t really care” list. As someone who had a poster of Marshall Faulk hanging in his high school locker, my disenchantment with the Heisman began in 1992, when Gino Torretta claimed the prize over my Aztec hero. It’s certainly possible that I’m just biased, and that Torretta should have won. Still, while the award is supposed to go to the most outstanding player in college football, it has evolved into something different– something for which Faulk wouldn’t qualify. Today’s Heisman voters have a tendency to assign certain prerequisites for candidates to meet in order to be considered. If you aren’t a quarterback or a running back from a national championship contender, don’t bother. Eight of the twelve Heisman winners since the BCS began in 1998 have been either a quarterback or a running back that played in the championship game. Before a single ball is snapped in a season, the media has already ordained its frontrunners. There are a lot of players in college football. The best player doesn’t have to be on one of the very best teams. To not consider anyone outside of that scope is a bit of a cop-out on the part of the voters, but it’s the way things are. Navy fans have little reason to give the Heisman a second thought. Given all of this, you might think that I rolled my eyes when Bill Wagner revealed on his blog that Navy will indeed promote quarterback Ricky Dobbs for the Heisman Trophy next fall. You would be wrong. I am 100% in favor of the effort.
Let’s get one thing out of the way up front; Ricky Dobbs is not going to win the Heisman Trophy. We all know that. The same prejudice that hamstrung Faulk’s chances still applies. No service academy player has won the award since Roger Staubach brought it back to Annapolis in 1963. Air Force quarterback Beau Morgan is the last service academy player to even finish in the top 10, back in 1996. Forget winning; simply getting votes would be an accomplishment. To be invited to the ceremony is almost beyond consideration. But if the campaign is doomed from the beginning, then why bother? Because Heisman campaigns, especially at smaller and/or non-BCS schools, are about more than just the player. They’re a chance to sell the school.
The most visible components of most Division I institutions are their football teams. That’s certainly the case with BCS conference schools, where millions of viewers tune in for games each week and highlights are shown on Sportscenter each night. No, football games don’t show off your college’s sweet chemistry department, but they do help schools introduce themselves to potential applicants; or, as the usual metaphor goes, they’re the school’s “front porch.” BCS porches are already the largest in the neighborhood; I don’t think anyone ever looked at Alabama, Texas, Stanford, Nebraska, and Florida and asked, “Who the hell are these guys?” On the other hand, if you aren’t in the posh, gated, golf course community of the BCS, then nobody knows who you are, and nobody cares about your tiny porch or the ’77 Mustang II you have up on cinder blocks in front of it. Nobody knows who you are, that is, until December. That’s when you put up the most ampere-sucking, traffic-stopping, totally kickass Christmas light display your zip code has ever seen (man, I really beat that analogy to death). That’s what a Heisman campaign can do; it can compel people to look when they otherwise would not. Former Purdue SID Jim Vruggink reflected on this phenomenon when promoting Drew Brees for the Heisman Trophy in 2000:
As Vruggink says, “you can’t pay for the exposure” that comes with having a Heisman candidate. Suddenly your player, and your program, are rolling off the tongues of even the casual sports fan.
“Our football program is trying to get back to the level of excellence we had in the late ’60s and ’70s,” Vruggink says of the Boilermakers. “We really had about 20 years of football we weren’t terribly pleased with. So to have a person in our program now who is in the running for the Heisman Trophy … it’s a level of recognition that hasn’t yet been achieved.”
Change “late ’60s and ’70s” to “late ’50s and ’60s,” and that last bit could’ve easily been said by someone at the Naval Academy. Given the role that the football team plays in fulfilling USNA’s mission– to increase awareness of the school among potential candidates– the appeal of promoting a Navy player for the Heisman Trophy is obvious. It gets even better when that player is Ricky Dobbs. Thoughtful, gregarious, balancing ambition with humility, Dobbs is a leader on the field as a quarterback, and off the field as class vice president. The character and determination instilled in Ricky by his uncle helped him rise above a complicated childhood, and pushed him to play the second half of the season with a cracked kneecap. He is active in the community, and upon graduation will serve as an officer in the Naval Service. It’s hard to imagine a better representative of the Brigade of Midshipmen. By promoting Dobbs for the Heisman Trophy, the Naval Academy can achieve everything that West Point claims they got out of Caleb Campbell, but without betraying the trust of the taxpayers and cheating the mission of the school. “I’m a Heisman Trophy candidate, and I choose to serve” is a far, far more powerful message to candidates than, “I’m a 7th-round draft pick, and I’d rather not.”
OK, then why not run a Heisman campaign every year if it’s such a great thing? Well for starters, it isn’t free. TCU spent $90,000 promoting LaDanian Tomlinson for the award. Clemson took out a full-page color ad in USA Today as part of their effort to promote C.J. Spiller, costing them $128,000. Considering how many schools are having a hard time even paying for media guides and flights to road games these days, I wouldn’t count on any Times Square billboards promoting Ricky Dobbs. In the internet age, there’s plenty of information already available. You can find everything you want to know about Ricky Dobbs. The trick is to steer the conversation; you have to make people want to look him up. I would expect something like posters, information packets, and other promotional materials to send to media members (and perhaps even a mediocre blogger) (just kidding) (not really) to help get the word out. That probably won’t break the bank, but it does require the time and effort of a sports information staff that already covers 30 teams. Someone would have to manage the ongoing effort during the season as well. Besides, it’s pretty hard to be taken seriously if you’re always promoting someone. You need to wait for that perfect storm. That’s what Navy appears to have in Ricky Dobbs.
So what do you need to consider promoting a player for the Heisman Trophy? First and foremost, you need a winning team. Whether it’s fair or not, Heisman candidates are expected to lead their team to victory. The trophy has gone to a player on a losing team only once, when Paul Hornung won it in 1956 despite Notre Dame’s 2-8 record. Winning gets people watching your games, and caring about the result. Navy, having won at least 8 games for 7 consecutive seasons and coming off of a 10-4 campaign, fits the bill.
You also need credibility. Every team has good players. It takes more than that to be a Heisman candidate. There are two elements to credibility that I think are necessary for the non-BCS candidate. One, that player needs to be the face of the team. I admit, this is pretty hard to define. It’s a bit of a Potter Stewart, “I know it when I see it” situation. I think that from 2003-2007, Paul Johnson was really the face of the Navy team. He was its dominant personality. He was the focus of the national conversation about Navy football. Since Johnson’s departure, though, Ricky seems to have filled that role. I look at it like an actor getting top billing in a movie. Before, we’d hear “Paul Johnson’s Navy team takes on Notre Dame on Saturday.” Now we see “Ricky Dobbs leads Navy against Notre Dame.” It’s sort of difficult to explain.
The second element of credibility is for the player to have some sort of statistical superlative. Ricky Dobbs rushed for 1,200 yards last season, and became only the third Navy player ever to run for 1,000 yards and throw for 1,000 yards in a season. That’s excellent production, but not necessarily enough to make him stand out from the crowd. What does stand out are the 27 rushing touchdowns, the best ever by a quarterback. Once upon a time, that record wasn’t all that noteworthy. It would get broken every few years by service academy and Nebraska quarterbacks, and nobody paid it much attention. That changed when Tim Tebow tied the record the year he won the Heisman. Nobody would care if Ricky broke a record owned by Chance Harridge. But once you can put Ricky’s name in front of St. Tim of The Swamp, patron saint of humidity… then people start to pay attention. Ironically, as Ricky becomes more comfortable in this offense, there’s a good chance his numbers could go down. Ricky tends to keep the ball a lot more than any of his predecessors. It’s the safe play for a young quarterback, and he’s strong enough to turn just about anything into a 2-3 yard gain. As he gets better at putting the ball where it’s supposed to go, other players will get more carries. The offense will improve, but Ricky’s individual stats probably won’t. That’s OK as long as Navy keeps winning; the touchdown record already puts Ricky in the conversation.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, an effective Heisman campaign needs a kid who can handle it. Not every player welcomes the hype, scrutiny, and added pressure of a Heisman Trophy push. That can be especially true at schools that aren’t already in the BCS spotlight. Imagine basically having your school’s hopes and dreams hitched to your back. It’s not an easy thing to ask of a player. Fortunately, Ricky seems to have a personality suited for this kind of thing. The man does want to run for President, after all. If you’re comfortable telling that to the world, then a Heisman campaign probably won’t rattle you.
The Mids’ convincing 35-13 Texas Bowl win over Missouri was probably the most perfect launching point for a Heisman campaign that one could ask for. Navy, the underdog, dominated an 8-4 team from the Big 12, led by Ricky Dobbs’ 296 total yards and 4 touchdowns. The image of Ricky wearing the cowboy hat and accepting the game’s MVP trophy is tailor-made for a promotional poster or handout. A campaign, even if it ultimately falls short, is good for the football program and supports the mission of the school. If there’s ever a time for the Naval Academy to promote someone, this is it.