The Climb: Part XII: The GOAT

Submitted by Dr. Sap on December 13th, 2017 at 10:32 AM

[Ed-Seth: This being the 20th anniversary of the 1997 National Championship, Michigan historian Dr. Sap is taking us game-by-game through it. Previously: Those Who Stayed (Colorado); The Hit (Baylor); The Stop (Notre Dame); The Captain’s Down(Indiana); Vengeance (Northwestern), Gut Check (Iowa), Six Picks (Michigan State), The Trap (Minnesota), Judgment (Penn State), The Crucible (Wisconsin) No Flags (Ohio State)]



UM Bentley Library

December 13, 1997: Heisman Voting

Rk Name Team Yr P 1st 2nd 3rd Total
1 Charles Woodson Michigan Jr CB 433 209 98 1815
2 Peyton Manning Tennessee Sr QB 281 263 174 1543
3 Ryan Leaf Washington State Jr QB 70 203 241 861
4 Randy Moss Marshall So WR 17 56 90 253
5 Ricky Williams Texas Jr RB 3 18 20 65
6 Curtis Enis Penn State Jr RB 3 18 20 65
7 Tim Dwight Iowa Sr WR 5 3 11 32
8 Cade McNown UCLA Jr QB 0 7 12 26
9 Tim Couch Kentucky So QB 0 5 12 22
10 Amos Zereoué West Virginia So RB 3 1 10 21

It was perhaps the greatest Heisman field in the history of that award. It included a generational quarterback and a guy everyone thought would be. It had the most talented receiver the game had ever seen. It had the most productive rusher college football had ever seen. And Twenty years ago today the award for the “most outstanding player in college football” finally went to a primarily defensive player. He was just that good.

In 1997, two-way stars like Tom Harmon were a thing of the past or it was something “cute” that guys like Gordie Lockbaum did in D2 football. As Warren Sapp correctly pointed out a few years earlier, the bronzed Heisman statue has a player carrying the ball, not swatting it down.

Charles Woodson challenged that paradigm. You didn’t need to be a senior anymore to win the award. You didn’t need to be a quarterback or a running back, either. The trophy is engraved thusly: “The outstanding College Football Player In The United States.” The instructions given to voters are to choose…

The outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity. Winners epitomize great ability combined with diligence, perseverance, and hard work.

It doesn’t say anything about being an offensive MVP; but that was the paradigm. Paradigms had changed before in the history of this award—it used to be so Domer biased that QB Paul Hornung won it in 1956 while going 2-8 and throwing 13 INTs to 3 TDs (Jim Brown finished third). It says outstanding.

Woodson was. Leave aside the highlight reel and look at the effect he had on that defense. Michigan’s D spent most of that season in a Cover 1 with the free safety either shaded over the side opposite Woodson, or running around in a robber. Students made a shirt (now available on the MGoBlogStore) that noted “75% of the Earth is covered by water, the rest is covered by Woodson.” They weren’t far off. Ask any coach if he thinks he could get away with this:


Back in 1997, few in America believed the 1,000 voters had finally figured out what that truly meant, especially when they had a nice, easy senior career candidate who “deserved” it for turning down the NFL and virtually repeating his 1996 performance.



The 1997 season didn’t start out with Woodson as the Heisman frontrunner. Sure he was the Big Ten’s returning Defensive Player of the Year and a first team All-American, but back in September, Tennessee’s Peyton Manning already had his name on the trophy. All you had to do was ask anybody down south and they’d tell you. It wasn’t Peyton’s to lose, he already had it wrapped up when he decided to return for his senior season.

To the Volunteer fans it was a forgone conclusion, and as soon as he would defeat Florida, the engraver could start etching Manning’s name on the award.

Ah yes – defeating Florida. Well, while Peyton’s Heisman dreams were being derailed in a 33-20 drubbing in The Swamp (again), Charles’ stock was on the rise.

Woodson’s highlight-reel plays on both sides of the ball were getting noticed and Michigan’s #1 ranking in the country only served to shine the spotlight a little brighter on Woodson’s talent.

The finalists for the trophy twenty years ago may have been the most impressive assemblance of talent in the award’s long history. You had arguably the best wide receiver in College Football history in sophomore, Randy Moss. You had the best defensive player in the game in junior, Woodson. You had probably the best quarterback in the history of the game (up to that point in time) in senior, Manning. And then you had this mountain of a QB that looked like he was carved out of an old oak tree in junior, Ryan Leaf.


With the trophy being awarded on 13 December, the ballots were due by the 11th and most of the voters waited until after the conference championship games were played to send in their ballots.

Sensing that perhaps his QB was losing his lead in the race, Volunteer Coach Phillip Fulmer showed everyone his true colors when he said this about Woodson potentially winning the award: "To me, there's no question in my mind that Peyton's the best player in the country," Fulmer said. "I think he's the best player and the best representative. I keep hearing this about Woodson. I don't know. Maybe they're trying to create competition there to create interest. That's what I hope. All I know is that it would be a travesty."


To his credit, Michigan Lloyd Carr responded much more professionally: "I read the quote from Fulmer, which if it's accurate is extremely tasteless," Carr said. "I just think I have respect for the people who have been given a vote, and it's their choice. For someone to try to influence them, who has something personal to gain, is absolutely in poor taste."

Carr said he did not attempt to speak to Fulmer about the comment, which was made during the Southeastern Conference coaches teleconference.

"No desire to," he said.

Even the night before the award was being handed out, Woodson, Moss and Leaf all felt that Manning was going to be up on the stage the next night holding the statue. So what did they do? They all went out and took in everything that downtown New York had to offer. It was a late night by all accounts!


The Heisman Presentation show was being broadcast on ESPN, and the intro looked like this:

Even though he never coached Woodson, Bo Schembechler felt some responsibility for #2 coming to Michigan and being in NYC that second weekend of December. The same school (Ross) that produced future Wolverines Rob Lytle in the ‘70s and Tony Gant in the ‘80s for Bo now delivered its greatest product to Ann Arbor in the ‘90s. Don’t ever think those relationships and talent pipelines are not important to a football program’s continued success.

In the way only Bo could say it, he told the world that no one would ever need to apologize for voting for Woodson:

The made for TV Special interviewed all the players individually as well as one of either their parents or coaches. Here is the Woodson segment:

Even though Woodson had won the Walter Camp Football Foundation Player of the Year Trophy earlier in December by a reported 3-to-1 margin over Manning, the “Best Player In The Country Standing Before You” did not have a speech prepared for the Downtown Athletic Club of New York. He knew and recognized what kind of traditional thinking he was up against.


You can tell from their body language that Woodson and Moss believed they were there as merely bunting to the kind of guy they always give it to. When his name was called that night, Woodson had to be nudged by Moss to realize that he wasn’t dreaming!

After hugging his mother, Mrs. Moss, and his father, the gravity of the situation finally started to sink in. As he took a knee by the podium, that’s when Woodson realized how big the moment was. To quote the man himself after the Ohio State Game, he “Did it baby! Other people do the talking, I do the walking!”

With his brother and teammate Marcus Ray on the stage behind him, Woodson tried to convey to everyone in the DAC Ballroom and everyone on TV what he felt. It truly was “BIG!”

The voting was not as close as most expected. Woodson won five of the six regions, with Manning finishing second, Leaf third and Moss fourth. The Heisman electorate had spoken and College Football would never be the same again. Woodson’s superior talent made coaches realize that if you were good enough, could make plays, contribute on the other side of the line of scrimmage, and on special teams, you should be given a look and opportunity to show what you can do.

The entire College Football world finally knew what we in the Midwest had known all along – Charles Woodson was indeed, “The Best Player In The Country, Standing Before You!”


Woodson’s breakthrough could have opened the door for defensive guys, but instead the backlash from furious Tennessee fans reinforced the old barriers. The year after Woodson’s victory, five quarterbacks finished between winner Ricky Williams and the Woodson-like Champ Bailey. The following year Ron Dayne took it as a career achievement, with Penn State’s LaVarr Arrington receiving just three 1st place votes. In 2001 six quarterbacks led all voting despite Oklahoma’s Roy Williams, and DLs Dwight Freeney and Julius Peppers dominating offenses (not to mention Miami OT Bryant McKinney—it’s not just defensive guys who get the shaft). After that defensive players all but disappeared—the next to earn a first place vote was LSU’s Glenn Dorsey, who finished 9th in 2007. Most notoriously, in 2009, they gave the award to Alabama RB Mark Ingram for running over a bunch of defensive backs his offensive line escorted him to; Ndamukong Suh, far and away the best player that year, finished fourth.

Woodson did open a smaller door for two-way players; if you’re the greatest player in the country AND you carry the ball a bunch on offense and special teams, you too can be in consideration, as Jabrill Peppers proved last year.

Perhaps the hurdle here isn’t just being a great defensive player. Perhaps they’re waiting for another player who affected the game in all facets as much as Woodson did. If so, they’ll be waiting another century.


L'Carpetron Do…

December 13th, 2017 at 10:49 AM ^

That's a ridiculous roster of Heisman runner-ups that Woodson beat out.  Arguably the best NFL QB (Manning)and best WR (Moss) of all-time, a future Heisman winner and NCAA career rushing record holder (Williams - also a great pro) and 3 of the best college players of the 90s (Leaf, Enis & Dwight, McNown also had some great years). Even Amos Zeroue, Long Island legend, was a great player. My cousin played against him in high school and said it was like tackling air.  Woodson ruled.

L'Carpetron Do…

December 13th, 2017 at 11:03 AM ^

for real - and I had no idea Woodson beat him so bad.  It wasn't really that close. I remember when we went down to play Tennessee in lacrosse  in Knoxville in like 2001 and the people were like 'oh you're from Michigan?' and were still giving us dirty looks and pissed off that Woodson took "Peyton's Heisman". Hahaha! 

Woodson knocked over Peyton's Sunsphere.


December 13th, 2017 at 11:23 AM ^

It was the start of Tennessee fans hating Michigan. Peyton is their God, and that Heisman would've cemented him as the greatest player in college football that year, and one of the greatest in history... except for some guy from Michigan. So he went on to a long and illustrious career in the NFL and would've easily been considered the greatest quarterback of his generation, if not all time... except for some other guy from Michigan. 


December 13th, 2017 at 11:36 AM ^

If only Tennessee fans handled this with the class that Peyton did.  While I'm sure he was disappointed, he never let on and seemed sincere offering his congratulations to Charles.  I've always been impressed with Manning... except for that time he hung his nutsack off a female trainer's head (allegedly).

L'Carpetron Do…

December 13th, 2017 at 2:23 PM ^

Ha - well we do live in the era of #MeToo, I believe his accuser - what he did was pretty shitty. The stories surrounding it are pretty bad too - the family really trashed the poor girl and it hurt her career.  Hopefully this will derail a possible political career for Manning. Something tells me he'd be an incredible shill for special interests and corporations. Don't need anymore of that, anyway.


December 13th, 2017 at 11:02 AM ^

and I've had 20 years to try to soak it in.

I've always and still quite a bit consider the Heisman a farce because its obsession with offense and distorted perspective of team/line success (QBs and RBs are invariably beneficiaries of good team play) which makes it such a disingenuous distinction.  Now, QB is certainly a key spot and thus I would expect at least a plurality of winners to be QBs.  But to this day, Woodson is the only defender to win the award and no offensive lineman has ever won it (excepting a couple tight ends).  And let's be honest, Woodson wasn't so much a defender as a bona fide three-way player and none of his roles were gimmicks.

But in 1997, at least, they got it right.  Behind him was a long list of outstanding offensive players, none of whom would've faced Michigan without their play being significantly impacted by Woodson's presence (Exhibit A: Ryan Leaf).

L'Carpetron Do…

December 13th, 2017 at 11:16 AM ^

I'm curious - which tight ends have won it? Were they real old school guys? Since I've been following college football (early 90s onwards) only Woodson and QBs/RBs have won it (and I was aware that Tim Brown and Desmond won it as WRs). But I'm pretty hazy on pre-80s winners (aside from the classic winners like OJ, Staubach, Marcus Allen, etc.)

 I'm shocked a WR hasn't won it in a while - since Desmond right?


December 13th, 2017 at 11:21 AM ^

Two ends have won the Heisman:  Larry Kelley of Yale in 1936 and Leon Hart of Notre Dame in 1949.  Calling them "tight ends" though would be making a distinction that didn't exist when they played.

They were Devin Funchess-type ends, and lined up "tight" or "split," as the situation required.  


December 13th, 2017 at 2:26 PM ^

In 1949, Hart set an NCAA career record for most touchdown receptions with... 15.  That's 1 every other game over the course of his 3 seasons.

Both Hart and Kelley seemed to specialize in receiving, but neither was a prolific receiver by today's standards.  I'm sure they both rushed the ball several times a game as well; the end-around wasn't the "trick" play that it is today, but was just one more page in the playbook.  Both, of course, also played defense (defensive end in both cases, where their team probably lined up with 6 down linemen).

I don't see detailed stats for Kelley, but Hart had 18 rushes for 73 yards, plus 19 receptions for 257 yards and 5 touchdowns.  Hart had 3 fumble recoveries on defense (I don't see tackle or TFL totals anywhere).


December 13th, 2017 at 11:13 AM ^

I thought Tyrann Mathieu had a decent shot at it.  Of course, he wasn't nearly as dominant a defensive player as Woodson, but a guy who put up a lot of highlight-reel plays on special teams and the occasional fumble or INT return.  


December 13th, 2017 at 11:34 AM ^

1997 was the best college football season I've ever seen.

I've never enjoyed watching sports more before or since. It seemed like every game that year (not just ours) was a classic.

L'Carpetron Do…

December 13th, 2017 at 2:41 PM ^

97 may have been the year I became truly obsessed with college football. I loved it before but I think that really was a golden year and turned me into a true fanatic. After the HS football season was over me and my buddies would get together every week to watch games all day long every Saturday and throw the ball around in the street or yard. We loved it. I wasn't even a Michigan fan then but one of my best friends (a d-back/reciever/return man himself) really took a shine to Woodson that year and I really started to come around on them. I had grown up an ND fan to that point but really was impressed by Michigan. They were and still are one of the coolest teams of all time.

Also remember watching that Heisman ceremony while (I was supposed to be) decorating the Christmas tree, just waiting to hear Manning's name. The ESPN hype for Manning that year  was intolerable so I of course developed a healthy disdain for him.  And I was PSYCHED when Woodson won it. Three years later I was a freshman at Michigan. Awesome year for college football.

Powderd Toast

December 13th, 2017 at 11:41 AM ^

I'll never forget that yer. I was a sixth grader in Knoxville, TN and every week during social studies we would have an assignment to write about something in the paper. I couldn't tell you what I wrote about, but I can tell you I always checked the projected Heisman satndings. I remember telling my friends (vol fans) that Woodson was going to win early on when he only had like 2 projected votes. Nobody believed me. Man was it great to see him win.


December 13th, 2017 at 11:48 AM ^

My all time favorite player. He is such a classy person. A great family man, and he is the reason I am a Michigan fan. I always make my kid pick #2 in any of the sports he plays haha. Charles is the greatest of all time. A true Victor, and forever Valiant.


December 13th, 2017 at 12:10 PM ^

It doesn’t say anything about being an offensive MVP; but that was the paradigm. Paradigms had changed before in the history of this award—it used to be so Domer biased that QB Paul Hornung won it in 1956 while going 2-8 and throwing 13 INTs to 3 TDs (Jim Brown finished third).

Woodson was.

Woodson was what?


December 13th, 2017 at 1:52 PM ^

I still can't get over how awful the shirt is on the guy announcing the award.

Really remarkable field of finalists there. Three first-ballot HOF players that are unquestionably in the top five all-time in their respective positions in the NFL. And Leaf, who is a top five all-time bust at least.

And Woodson earned the thing. He wasn't just great, he made difference-making plays all season long, especially in the statement game against OSU.

That, btw, is part of the problem for defensive players now. It's not enough to be great as a defensive player (though with more advanced stats and player grades available, perhaps that will one day become enough). Right now you have to make huge plays as a defensive guy to get attention. Otherwise people won't know what they're voting for.

Woodson was the dominant player on the field, but people don't really notice that a team like Northwestern literally refused to throw to him all game until they were desperate, when he promptly picked them off. They do notice the catch against MSU, and the hit against Baylor, and everything against OSU.

A defenisve guy now needs to be both the best in the country AND make game-turning plays. Mathieu had that kind of potential. Ndamakong Suh, in my opinion, should have won the award and had a chance to earn it against Texas in the Big 12 championship game when Texas was backed up--if he had sacked them for a safety to win the game, he wins. 

But it hasn't come together. 


December 13th, 2017 at 2:39 PM ^

...Coordinator, Jim Hermann, said he was able to employ a defensive scheme that basically concentrated his other DBs and Safeties to the side of the field opposite Woodson.  Other teams had learned not to throw to Woodson's side, but when they threw to the other, there was nothing there either.  UofM had great defensive players, but this tactic made them even better, as a team.