Behind The Scenes Of A Heisman Campaign

The keys to keeping a candidate in the minds of voters

Dec. 8, 2007

By Mike Beacom

Special to CSTV.com

 

A Heisman winner is the product of so much more than game-changing plays and eye-popping statistics. Behind each candidate is a team of university support staff that helps to mold a favorable image of that player for prospective voters.

 

Consider it Heisman Public Relations 101.

 

Perhaps no Heisman think tank in the country has worked as feverishly these past few months as Kevin Trainor's team at the University of Arkansas. Trainor, the school's associate athletic director for external affairs, was gifted with 2006 Heisman runner-up Darren McFadden -- a player virtually every preseason college football publication had atop its Heisman rankings this past summer. But that distinction only made Trainor and his team work harder to promote McFadden's qualities on and off the field.


 

 

 

"(McFadden) was late entering last year's race," said Trainor. "We tried to take advantage of having a head start."

 

To begin, Trainor sat down with McFadden's family to explain the outline for the 2007 campaign.

 

"We wanted then to be involved and to know that the Heisman race is a marathon, not a sprint."

 

Of course, Arkansas has little experience in guiding such a campaign; McFadden is the Razorbacks' first legitimate Heisman candidate. While Trainor did re-visit what the school did to promote offensive lineman Shawn Andrews for other awards several seasons ago, he wanted more input on managing a Heisman campaign, so he sought outside help.

 

Trainor tapped the athletic communication staffs at USC and Texas to compare notes -- "You reach out and see what they've done" - and obtained valuable feedback from members of local and national media -- "We wanted to know whether promotional items would have an effect."

 

By the end of it all, what Trainor and his team understood most about running a successful Heisman campaign was that accessibility is valued most by voters.

 

"We did a lot of magazine feature and photo shoots," said Trainor, "and we encouraged people to get to know Darren as a person."

 

Since the start of the regular season, potential voters - for a number of year-end awards - have been sent an email blast with bits of information and are regularly invited to sit in on McFadden press conferences.

 

"We feel like the email updates are important because they're convenient," said Trainor. "(Reporters) can read the email on their schedules."

 

The efforts of the campaign run by Trainor have kept McFadden in front of voters this season.

 

Said Trainor, "We've just presented the case the best we can. In the end, the player is going to win it on the field and not through a series of gimmicks."

 

Six hundreds miles southeast of Fayetteville, another Heisman campaign headquarters has worked hard to present a case for its candidate.

 

Roger Dunaway, who once served as a student assistant in the Arkansas athletics communication office, now serves as the assistant athletic director and the football contact at Tulane. Dunaway faced a much different challenge than Trainor this season. Dunaway's candidate, Matt Forte, was fresh off an injury that ended his 2006 season prematurely. On top of that, Tulane revamped its coaching staff in the offseason.

 

"Nobody knew what was going to happen," admitted Dunaway.

 

But by the third game, Forte took flight gaining 303 yards and scoring five touchdowns against Southeastern Louisiana. That sent Dunaway's team into full campaign mode.

 

"Once he started doing well we sent a postcard out to more than 1,100 voters. Then we came up with a one-page flier called `Football is his Forte' that was emailed to local and national media."

 

Much of the Forte campaign was based on what the school had done to promote former running back Mewelde Moore in 2003. The biggest ingredient was a Web site (MattForte25.com) that Tulane produced through CSTV to help promote the school's outstanding running back. It became a destination where potential voters could find a blizzard of information.

 

"The Web site gives you a vehicle to promote your student-athlete," said Dunaway. "There was a lot of information that we went out and acquired - we requested quotes from opposing coaches, we updated stats, records and news articles, we did a Q&A with Matt - and all of that was updated on the site weekly.

 

"We didn't have the budget to do all of the bells and whistles or gimmicks," said Dunaway. "The Web site was our best asset."

 

Still, to make voters aware of Forte, Dunaway needed more than a sharp-looking Web site and a few mailers. He received plenty of help from Richie Weaver, assistant director of athletic communications and secondary football contact, and Debbie Grant, the vice president for university communications. He also was able to get assistance from the University's public relations department, which helped with the design and mailing of the fliers.

 

"Football campaigns involve a lot of time and energy," said Dunaway. "The more help you get, the more effective your campaign will be."

 

Most Heisman analysts do not project Forte to finish among the top five in this year's vote. The nation's second-leading rusher did, however, earn a spot as a finalist for the Maxwell and Doak Walker Awards. Considering the obstacles faced in getting his name out to the public, Dunaway is happy with how everything turned out this fall.

 

"Everybody knows who (Darren McFadden) is and what he did last year. Matt was the opposite. And so we feel we did the best we could with a short amount of time. We achieved our goal of making him a Heisman Trophy candidate and a candidate for many other awards. He did all of the work ... we got his name out there."

 

Trainor and Dunaway agree that the campaign is not only about the individual candidate; in many ways it is an opportunity for the school to showcase its football program, facilities, and all else the campus has to offer.

 

"When Darren is no longer a Razorback there will still be residuals from his time here," said Trainor.

 

For Dunaway and Tulane, Forte's campaign is that and more. The years that have followed since Hurricane Katrina have lessened the presence of Tulane football on a national scale. Dunaway believes that the work invested into Forte's Heisman campaign has also helped to re-establish the football program's identity.

 

"(So far) it's been huge," said Dunaway, "and hopefully it will pay off in recruiting."

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