Can the Pac-12 wake up Heisman voters to Christian McCaffrey's awesomeness?

ByAdam Rittenberg ESPN logo
Friday, May 20, 2016

The last time America saw Christian McCaffrey, he was being video-bombed by a Stanford fan during a postgame interview at the Rose Bowl.

As McCaffrey was interviewed before a national television audience after delivering the greatest performance in Rose Bowl history, the fan interrupted with chants of "Heisman!" and "revote!"

Obnoxious as the intrusion might have been, the guy had a point. In fact, he created his own pulpit with his repeated reminders about McCaffrey and the Heisman, one the Stanford star rarely enjoyed during his record-setting 2015 season.

The Heisman isn't just about stats and highlights. If so, McCaffrey would have won easily. It's also about television windows, exposure and storytelling. Those factors are uniquely challenging for Pac-12 candidates like McCaffrey, who will make another run at the Heisman this fall.

In 2015, he was a star player on a nationally ranked team with record-setting numbers. But how much of the country actually heard his story?

"I bump into people throughout the offseason who say, 'Man, I recorded your game because I can't stay up to 2 o'clock in the morning,'" Stanford coach David Shaw said. "That's what I get a lot of, even from our alums who love us. Prime time for us on the West Coast is not prime time on the East Coast. It's bedtime."

Not everyone slept on McCaffrey. He finished second in the Heisman voting behind Alabama's Derrick Henry, becoming the fourth runner-up from Stanford in the past seven seasons. But McCaffrey's starring role in the Late Late Show -- Stanford had seven games kick off after 10 p.m. ET, and only three during the East Coast's prime-time window -- seemingly hurt him, while Henry performed before larger audiences in the stands and on TV.

"There's always been some frustration with that," Cal coach Sonny Dykes said. "In order to judge something, you have to see it, you have to know about it, you have to be familiar with it."

The Pac-12 faces what commissioner Larry Scott calls "demographic realities," with its programs located far from the concentration of media organizations and dense population centers on the East Coast. Nationalizing the Pac-12 brand has been Scott's top priority as commissioner, but even potential gains, like a television contract with an exclusive national window, have drawbacks -- most fans have tuned out or passed out. There are also local challenges, with markets dominated by professional teams and fickle fan bases, which contribute to the Pac-12 Network's ongoing distribution struggles.

But Heisman snubs like McCaffrey's serve as a concrete example of the long-held belief in Pac-12 circles that East Coast bias stiff-arms the league from the stiff-arm trophy. Shaw, perhaps more than anyone, could build a case for such a bias after serving as Stanford's coach or offensive coordinator for all four Cardinal Heisman bridesmaids (McCaffrey, Andrew Luck in 2010 and 2011, and Toby Gerhart in 2009).

But he views the notion differently.

"I don't think it's a myth, but there's no man behind the curtain, no organized East Coast bias that's keeping the West Coast down," Shaw said. "There are some built-in hurdles that we have to fight on the West Coast. I do think individuals have bias. We all come with certain prejudices, pro and con.

"But it's hard for me to say that someone's behind it."

Scott knew that in moving from a largely regionalized TV deal to a national one, the Pac-12 would need to play more night games. The final Saturday TV window, with kickoffs at 10 p.m. or 10:30 p.m. ET, allows the Pac-12 to showcase its games nationally and, in essence, exclusively.

"While there may be less television viewers in total at that hour," Scott said, "we get a much higher share because we're not up against SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 games. When we have a game that kicks off at 12:30 or 3:30 [Pacific time], there are more people watching, but we get a smaller share."

Shaw thinks kickoff times between 2-5 p.m. PT are ideal. "Everybody on the West Coast sees you, everybody on the East Coast sees you," he said. However, he also recognizes TV partners want the best ratings, even if they come from a mostly regionalized audience.

Scott is working with ESPN and Fox to possibly broker a slight reduction in later start times without overhauling the agreements. He doesn't expect significant changes before the deals expire in 2024 but wants to ensure teams are playing in varied TV windows. Scott points to Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota's Heisman win in 2014 as evidence that the Pac-12's deal provides enough national exposure.

"That stood in stark contrast," Scott said, "to some very deserving candidates I thought we had under our old TV agreements. I'm talking about Andrew Luck, Toby Gerhart."

The landscape has improved for Pac-12 Heisman hopefuls. After USC running back Marcus Allen claimed the Heisman in 1981, two decades passed without a Pac-10 winner. Between 1982 and 1995, the Pac-10 had only three players finish in the top 5 of Heisman voting.

"I came to the conclusion that no Pac-10 player could win the Heisman," said Tom Hansen, the Pac-10's commissioner from 1983 to 2009. "It was that onerous, the way the voting went. And then you add in the time factor and you didn't have the extensive television you now have."

In November 2002, USC began to promote quarterback Carson Palmer for the Heisman. Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke responded that Palmer should be the front-runner, but wrote in a column that "Eastern bias is shoving him to the sideline." Plaschke added: "The Heisman Trophy has become the most regionally biased and unfair award in sports."

USC responded by sending Plaschke's column in an email blast to national media members with the subject line: "Hmmm????" Weeks later, Palmer won the Heisman; two more Trojans would follow suit in the next three years.

"We had to work at it -- Joey Harrington in downtown Manhattan -- you had to play your way on television," said Washington State athletic director Bill Moos, who was AD at Oregon in 2001 when an 80-by-100-foot billboard of Ducks quarterback Joey Harrington (aka Joey Heisman) went up near Madison Square Garden. "Now, the public perception of our conference, it's the best I've ever seen, the lowest East Coast bias I've seen."

Heisman voting patterns show regions rally behind strong local candidates, but there's also a narrative component. Shaw saw it in 2011 when Baylor's Robert Griffin III surged past Luck.

"It was pretty much a consensus: Andrew was the best football player in America. Very few people didn't believe that," Shaw said. "Sometimes there's this national emotional swing. There was a lot of great play by Robert, but that big, sweeping end to the season ended up being a lot of great things for Robert, including the Heisman.

"That's the unknown that happens for these national awards. You cannot make it happen. It happens organically."

It happened for Henry on Nov. 7, when he rushed for 210 yards and three touchdowns against LSU, outshining previous Heisman front-runner Leonard Fournette during a CBS prime-time telecast that drew a 6.4 rating and 11.1 million viewers. McCaffrey had 220 all-purpose yards with a touchdown pass that day at Colorado, but the game was on Pac-12 Network and didn't make a dent nationally.

"McCaffrey lost the Heisman the day of the Alabama-LSU game," said Chris Dufresne, who covered college football for the Los Angeles Times from 1995 to 2015. "That was an exposure thing."

Scott has tried to increase the Pac-12's national reach through expansion, a conference championship game and East Coast media blitzes for coaches, who visited New York City and ESPN's Connecticut studios. Shaw sees greater internal efforts at Stanford to promote its stars, including a website for McCaffrey launched in November.

"We've tried to look at it strategically and say, 'OK, there are obviously going to be some challenges, but creatively, there are also some opportunities you can take advantage of, that others might not have,'" Scott said.

The Pac-12's biggest advantage is its schedule, consistently the most competitive among Power 5 leagues. September opponents this fall include Alabama (USC), Notre Dame (Stanford and USC), Texas A&M (UCLA), Michigan (Colorado), Nebraska (Oregon) and Texas (Cal).

Those who stay up to watch the late Pac-12 games have been treated to a wildly entertaining product, celebrated through the Twitter hashtag, #Pac12AfterDark.

"The remedy is to win consistently and emphatically against top competition, especially from the East Coast," Arizona State athletic director Ray Anderson said, "whereby we make ourselves must-watch TV."

McCaffrey already belongs under that heading. Like Luck in 2011, he shouldn't have to re-introduce himself to the country this fall.

If he delivers a duplicate performance and doesn't win the Heisman, suspicions of East Coast bias will further increase.

"That," Hansen said, "will be a very good test."

Shaw doesn't get too wrapped up in decoding the Heisman. He has reached out to many colleagues -- those who coached Heisman winners, those who coached players who came close -- and they all reach the same conclusion about the award.

"None of us knows," he said. "You put yourself in the best position to have your best players recognized and let the chips fall where they may. All I know is if Christian has the kind of year he had last year again, I'll have my arm around him on some bowl game stage somewhere.

"And I'll have a big smile on my face."