Over the years, as Heisman Trophy campaigns came to resemble political campaigns, universities took a more active role in extolling the virtues of their contenders. Tactics included mailing neckties to voters (Brigham Young for Ty Detmer), paying for a towering billboard in New York’s Times Square (Oregon for Joey Harrington) and sending binoculars (Rutgers for Ray Rice) that urged voters to “See Ray Run."
This season, Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel took a subtler approach, in part because Manziel surged only recently into contention. A&M’s method lacks what would seem to be an essential element: an actual campaign.
In this era of advertisement, where universities build platforms and solicit votes for players, this is a rare strategy. Less “look at me." More “look at me — if you feel like it."
Manziel’s Heisman noncampaign also lacks what would seem to be an essential voice: Manziel’s. Because he is a freshman, Texas A&M does not allow him to speak to the media. He speaks to the public only in person or on Twitter. No interviews. Only mystery, wrapped in a homespun narrative.
“There’s a tremendous appetite among this fan base to see billboards and blimps," said Jason Cook, Texas A&M’s vice president of marketing and communications. “But if you watch ESPN, if you look at Twitter, if you read what the media is writing about, the buzz is already there."
After Manziel, a quarterback, led the Aggies to an upset of top-ranked Alabama last weekend, and his popularity skyrocketed, Texas A&M faced a decision it never expected to confront this season. It could carry out the wishes of coach Kevin Sumlin and largely protect Manziel from an adoring football public. Or it could go with the more typical late push.
Ultimately, A&M decided the best campaign was no formal campaign at all.
Cook described the situation as uncharted territory.
“Part of it is the exposure that college athletics has these days," he said. “It’s wall-to-wall, 24/7. Our approach is somewhat old-school."
Heisman promotions have become more prevalent, more over-the-top and more creative in recent years. This week, Southern California launched a campaign for its electric receiver, Marqise Lee, that included a highlight video with music from the Beatles and clips from opposing coaches extolling Lee’s talents.
A&M took the opposite approach. In most cases, Cook said, the more gimmicky promotions came from smaller universities, or bigger universities in conferences that received less exposure, like those on the West Coast.
The Aggies are banking on the visibility of the Southeastern Conference, college football’s pre-eminent conference, which Texas A&M joined this season. The Aggies’ win over Alabama garnered a 6.6 overnight TV rating, the second-highest this season, behind only Alabama’s last-minute triumph over Louisiana State on Nov. 3.
In addition to that built-in exposure, university officials planned to note other points to voters, like the number of blowout victories during which Manziel played only part of the game. But nothing beyond that.
Manziel spent last summer in competition for the starting job, in part because of an offseason arrest. Since jersey orders are placed in January and February, the university and retailers did not order any of Manziel’s now famous No. 2.
Adidas stepped in to help meet demand, once there was some. By the time A&M played LSU on Oct. 20, there were 504 No. 2 jersey-T-shirt hybrids available. The initial order sold out in roughly two weeks.
The first replica jerseys arrived on campus Friday afternoon. All 50 of them were sold by noon Monday. More than 700 orders are expected to be filled in the next two weeks.
None of this is lost on John David Crow, Texas A&M’s only Heisman recipient, who won it in 1957.
“I didn’t know before that season that the Heisman even existed," Crow, 77, said. “I was just trying to get to school, get my blessings and live through practice."
History says Manziel will not win. History says the Heisman rarely goes to defensive players, almost never goes to sophomores and never goes to freshmen. Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson finished second as a freshman in 2004. No freshman has come as close.
A&M will re-evaluate its approach this offseason, since Manziel, a redshirt freshman, could play three more years. Cook said the university’s approach would likely be similar to what Florida did with Tim Tebow, who won the Heisman in 2007, his sophomore year.
That would, of course, include an actual campaign, a departure from this season’s approach. But if Manziel has proved anything so far this season, it is that he has not needed one.