When Ohio State offensive tackle Orlando Pace emerged as a candidate for the Heisman Trophy in 1996, the school took considerable steps toward promoting him.
In an effort led by Steve Snapp, then the sports information director, it launched an elaborate campaign. It involved statistical-keeping of Pace’s knockdown blocks, dubbing them pancakes, and Snapp mailed hundreds of refrigerator magnets to voters. The magnets featured Pace’s name atop a stack of syrupy pancakes. Ohio State also filmed a minute-long video in which Pace flipped pancakes.
Pace finished fourth in the voting and attended the awards ceremony as a finalist, spurred by the pizzazz.
“I don't think there's any question it helped him,” said John Cooper, who coached the Buckeyes in 1996. “It got him some publicity. A lot of these All-American teams, even the Heisman, it's a popularity contest. Your name has got to be out there and spread around the country.”
Ohio State has no shortage of Heisman Trophy contenders to champion this season: quarterback Justin Fields, pass rusher Chase Young and running back J.K. Dobbins. But its push for the candidates is far more subdued, as it was last season for quarterback Dwayne Haskins Jr., a finalist.
The school has not orchestrated an official campaign as it did on Pace’s behalf. The biggest promotional effort came this week when the football team’s official Twitter account posted a graphic featuring Fields flanked by Dobbins and Young.
The tweet called the attention of Heisman Trophy voters and listed the players’ stats.
Attention @ voters... @Jkdobbins22 @justnfields & @youngchase907 are #HeisMEN#GoBucks #ToughLove pic.twitter.com/AOFabqP1IB— Ohio State Football (@OhioStateFB) December 3, 2019
The three are considered to be well behind LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, a transfer from Ohio State who is a heavy favorite. But the modest promotion is reflective of campaigning by the college football establishment.
“You don’t normally see the Ohio States, the Oklahomas and the Floridas being the ones that do it, because they know they’re an elevated brand anyway,” said Cory McCartney, author of The Heisman Trophy: The Story of an American Icon and Its Winners.
“So what reason do they have to go out and further elevate this guy when their school and their place in the TV market is going to do it for them?”
Heisman Trophy campaigning began as early as 1962, when Oregon State promoted quarterback Terry Baker, the eventual winner, with mimeographed copies of Baker’s statistics sent to voters outside the Pacific Northwest. Most didn't see Baker play.
But coverage of the sport has increased into this century, lessening the need for promotional material. Almost every game is nationally televised, and voters have a wide range of statistics on their screens.
McCartney thought only two reasons remained for schools to engineer a formal campaign amid the media saturation.
“If you are a smaller school or you have a nontraditional candidate,” McCartney said.
Young presents a case as a nontraditional candidate, much like Pace. No purely defensive player has ever won and neither has an offensive lineman, falling behind quarterbacks and running backs with flashier statistics and touchdowns.
But when Young had to serve a two-game suspension last month for an NCAA rules violation, it limited the possibilities of a campaign.
Buckeyes coach Ryan Day has stumped for the three at news conferences in recent weeks, telling reporters all deserve consideration. Most often, he has said they should be finalists and “deserve” to be at the ceremony.
Day framed campaigns as largely unnecessary because most voters watch their games, such as Saturday’s rout of Michigan.
“When you're at Ohio State, such a high-profile place, it kind of speaks for itself,” Day said. “I don't think you have to go out there and do a lot of campaigning when you're playing in a rivalry game with tens of millions of people watching. You get the chance to have an unbelievable platform here.”
Despite Ohio State’s stature in the sport, Cooper said he had no hesitation about creating publicity for Pace or other stars on the team.
“I did everything I can to promote my players,” Cooper said. “They did everything they could to help me win. It was my job as the head coach to help my players.”