Heisman campaigns may be fading, but small schools still find plenty of value
Earlier this week, Ben Cohen wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “R.I.P., Heisman Campaigns.” In it, he detailed how the build-up surrounding the award has changed, noting that the availability of highlights and statistics have virtually eliminated the existence of dark horse candidates. Fans can Google a given player and find out anything they want to know.
But while it’s easy to rattle off players like Johnny Manziel, Jadeveon Clowney, De’Anthony Thomas, Teddy Bridgewater, AJ McCarron, Braxton Miller and Tajh Boyd, among others, there is still a group of equally deserving players who aren’t getting any due. For them, Heisman campaigns still present an opportunity to bring more attention to their play and their schools.
Enter Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch, Kent State running back Dri Archer and Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton. All three are coming off big seasons in 2012, and all three have mounted minor Heisman campaigns, even if only to celebrate their contributions to their programs.
“We tossed around the idea of promoting Dri last year, especially with the year we had as a team,” Kent State assistant director of communications Aaron Chimenti said. “We reached a level of national attention we’d never had. When coach [Paul] Haynes came in, he was all for putting Dri front and center because he’s a human highlight reel, and because of the kind of kid he is. Knowing the Heisman is its own beast, we started pushing. We know it’s a long shot, but it gets Kent and Dri more attention. People may not know about him or the kind of year he had last year, but all you need is a couple highlights to know Dri belongs in that conversation.”
NIU, Kent State and Utah State don’t have the types of budgets that larger schools typically have to spend on promotional material. That’s why, on the surface, it may seem strange for those programs to be allocating those funds toward what amounts to a long shot in the first place. Yet, upon digging a little deeper, it makes sense. A little luck, a little innovation and a lot of promotion can go a long way.
Just look at Archer’s cartoon, drawn by Chuck Ayers of Crankshaft and Funky Winkerbean fame. Ayers is a Kent State graduate and a Northeast Ohio resident, and when Kent State was brainstorming ideas for how to give Archer his Heisman push, Ayers signed on.
The best part? He agreed to do it for free.
“That first comic that came out ended up in the AP and then everybody ran it,” Chimenti said. “It was even in [the U.S. Military publication] Stars and Stripes, so you had troops reading it all over the world. And we set up a social media presence as well, on the Dri4Heisman website, Twitter and Facebook. All those things cost next to nothing. We’ve lined up Kent State celebrities to hold up a Dri Archer jersey and post photos online. We’re getting more national media attention in the preseason than we’ve ever gotten. If this was something we were paying for, you’re talking millions of dollars worth of advertising we’d have to pay for. This isn’t just great for Dri; it’s great for our school.”
It might not work out that way for every school. For example, it’s hard to tell just how big of an impact Keeton’s trading card has made on the Utah State program.
— Kevin McGuire (@KevinOnCFB) August 8, 2013
Just like anything else when it comes to marketing in 2013, it’s impossible to completely predict what will gain positive traction and what won’t. People have to take the shots they can, then hope they take off. Keeton is fresh off a season that was nearly as impressive as Lynch’s. He deserves to have more eyes on him.
Zac Jackson of Fox Sports Ohio recently tackled the issue, and his general takeaway was that “surprises happen.” So why wouldn’t a program like Utah State take a chance? It might require restructuring an already tight budget, but if a school can ride a wave of good publicity like Archer’s comic or Lynch’s LynchFor6 campaign (including a lunchbox and notepad), the impressions make all the difference.
Heisman hype starts early: Just received my Jordan Lynch lunch box from Northern Illinois pic.twitter.com/msvrz3txZn
— Gene Sapakoff (@Sapakoff) August 12, 2013
Lynch finished seventh in the Heisman voting a year ago. A trip to New York isn’t out of the question if the Huskies can find lightning in a bottle and rattle off a bunch of wins again in 2013.
While it doesn’t take much to make a Heisman push for players who line up for teams like Alabama or Oregon, smaller schools need to do things differently. Mid-major conferences are always trying to make their voices heard, and yelling when everyone else is already yelling rarely works out. But if they can find a way to get noticed in creative ways, it’s a gamble worth taking.
“I’ve been in those schools,” Northern Illinois associate athletic director for communications Donna Turner said. “I was at Florida State in 1993 with Charlie Ward and we were on national television the first six games of the year, and I completely understand where folks are coming from when you’re on TV and you don’t have to get your player’s name out there. They’ll be able to judge off the bat what kind of player that is. But with Jordan and Northern Illinois and the MAC, we have to do preseason hype and make sure people are watching. From that standpoint, what we’ve done so far has definitely fulfilled that goal. Once you start playing games, it’s totally dependent on winning and playing well.”
Don’t outspend the bigger programs. Out-think them. If Heisman campaigns aren’t trendy (or necessary) for major conference schools, that could work out in Kent State’s (or Utah State’s or NIU’s) favor. There isn’t as much of a crowd to deal with.
Think of it like going to an amusement park and riding the wooden coaster instead of the new steel one. The lines are shorter, and people are still having fun. If Lynch or Archer or Keeton can make Heisman campaigns cool again in the process, even better. The Heisman campaign isn’t dead; it’s just waiting for the right means of resuscitation.