Kent State, NIU ramping up Heisman Trophy campaigns
The first problem with a campaign to help a Mid-American Conference player win college football’s most prestigious individual award is the simple fact that a MAC player really isn’t going to win the Heisman Trophy.
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But coming off a season in which MAC teams forced the rest of the country to at very least take notice, two MAC programs are running Heisman campaigns for the league’s highest-profile returning players. Considering that a year ago, Jordan Lynch had yet to start a game at Northern Illinois and Dri Archer hadn’t done much of anything — including play a down for a full year — at Kent State, maybe this whole thing is worth a shot.
Surprises happen, right?
Last season saw Northern Illinois become the first MAC team ever to play in a BCS bowl game, the first MAC player (Central Michigan offensive tackle Eric Fisher) become the NFL Draft’s No. 1 overall pick and a record seven teams land bowl bids. The work of Lynch and Archer, among others, gained national attention to the point that the league trademarked the #MACtion term that became an Internet buzzword associated with the league’s usually high-scoring mid-week showcase games.
On some level, anyway, the MAC has arrived. And so have formal Heisman campaigns for Lynch and Archer.
After a 6-touchdown game last October vs. Western Michigan, then-Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren stuck his head in the office of Donna Turner, the school’s associate athletic director for communications, and asked what NIU should be doing to promote Lynch’s Heisman chances.
A few hours after Northern Illinois won last year’s MAC Championship Game and clinched a trip to the Orange Bowl, Doeren took the job at North Carolina State. But Turner remembered their conversation, and before last winter was over meetings were being held and the wheels were in motion.
JordanLynchfor6.com launched earlier this summer. Not only did Lynch get six points for the Huskies 44 times last season, he also wears No. 6. Facebook and Twitter pages push fans — and Heisman voters — to the spruced up website and to his eye-popping numbers from last season, when he accounted for 75.3 percent of the offense for a team that went 12-2, averaged 353.8 yards of offense per game, had 12 100-plus yard rushing games and became the first player in NCAA history to pass for 3,000 yards and run for 1,500 in a season.
Turner’s NIU staff spent time collecting information on how to reach each of the 929 Heisman voters, sending specially made “Lynch for 6” notebooks and mini-coolers that have the coolest name going: The Lynch Box. Once the season starts, fans can submit questions for Lynch to answer during “Lunch with Lynch,” a web show that started late last season and has also been beefed up for this year.
“I think it’s great for Northern Illinois University, and that’s the most important thing,” Lynch said. “It’s humbling. I love it, but I think the biggest thing is that it’s bringing attention to the program. Hopefully it can help recruiting and get my teammates noticed.”
Kent State hadn’t been to a bowl game in 40 years before last year. It had never seen an individual season like the one Archer posted.
The 5’8, 175-pound dynamo scored 23 touchdowns — he also threw for one — to shatter the school’s single-season record. Teams quit kicking to him and started devoting heavy defensive attention to him wherever he went, but Archer kept going and the Flashes kept winning. He set another school record by producing more than 2,500 yards of total offense.
Archer put off the NFL Draft for one more season, and he’s now enjoying his time as Big Little Man on Campus. His Heisman campaign website can be found at Dri4Heisman.com and is highlighted by a digital comic strip, “The Archer,” illustrated by Kent State alum Chuck Ayers, illustrator of well-known comics Crankshaft and Funky Winkerbean.
A year after working his way back from an administrative academic issue that kept him out for all of the 2011 season, Archer has been soaking in the atmosphere of photo shoots, dozens of interview requests and an afternoon that included a stop by three different Cleveland television stations for interviews.
“I didn’t need any makeup,” Archer joked. “I just tried to smile real big.”
Said first-year Kent State coach Paul Haynes: “I think (the campaign is) great, and I think Dri is deserving. He’s an exceptional player. Whatever attention he gets, he’s earned. Our other players can feed off of that. Dri is not a me-first guy, nor does he have a big head. He wants to have another big year and help the team have another big year in the process.”
The Heisman is almost always won by a top player — almost always an offensive skill player and an upperclassman — on a top team from a power conference. There’s a food chain in college football, and right now it starts with the SEC and trickles down from there.
MAC teams make less than $100,000 annually off the league’s TV deal. So Northern Illinois running a Heisman campaign at an estimated cost of $3,000-5,000 — or probably about what Ohio State spends on Urban Meyer’s monthly text-messaging plan — is a pretty significant investment.
“We shuffled some things around in the budget,” Turner said. “If we have a good start, we have some more things that kick in.”
Kent State is spending very little on its campaign. Ayers is drawing the cartoons and asking for nothing in return.
The promotion, then, is the easy part. Actually getting a MAC player to the stage at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York is more challenging. Not since 1999 when Marshall quarterback Chad Pennington finished fifth has a MAC player been invited to the Heisman ceremony. Randy Moss also was invited in 1997 and finished fourth.
Twenty years ago, Northern Illinois running back LeShon Johnson finished sixth in the voting. The Huskies then played in the now-obsolete Big West Conference.
History says a MAC player doesn’t have a real shot at even getting to the stage, let alone raising the Heisman. Recent history says the MAC is worth a second look.
“We took a step last year,” Lynch said, “towards proving that anything is possible.”
Said Haynes: “The Heisman should go to the best player. It’s always going to an exciting player. We have no idea what’s going to happen (this season), but I know that Dri Archer has a chance to be one of the most exciting players in the country and one of the best. If he performs to his capabilities, he deserves to be in the discussion.”