By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
On Monday evening, coach Dana Holgorsen pulled Stedman Bailey aside and told him that he was one of three finalists for the Biletnikoff Award given annually to the nation’s best receiver.
Considering that he has coached two previous Biletnikoff winners in Justin Blackmon and Michael Crabtree, it is something he is getting quite used to, but during this season there was a time when it appeared he would go a step beyond that and coach the Heisman Trophy winner.
In truth, he has three players for whom a Heisman case can be made in Bailey, a 1,000-yard receiver who leads the nation with 20 touchdown receptions despite being slowed two weeks by an ankle injury; in receiver/return specialist/running back Tavon Austin, who has surpassed 100 catches and 1,000 yards while also turning in a 344-yard rushing game that included 572 all-purpose yards; and early-season favorite to win the award in quarterback Geno Smith, who has broken virtually every passing record at WVU.
Five semifinalists are announced for the Heisman, which probably is sports’ most famous individual trophy and perhaps the most revered, and there would be no argument if any of the three — or all of them — were among the finalists.
At the same time, it is highly likely that none of them will win it and maybe not even reach the stage of finalist because the definition of the Heisman winner is unclear.
Is it the best player in America? Is it the best offensive player in America? Is it the best player on a winning team in America? Is it the best or the most valuable player?
Certainly, it is pretty tough to win it if you are a defensive player, only cornerback Charles Woodson of Michigan having taken the award as such in 1997, and it’s equally as hard if you are from a losing team, Notre Dame’s Paul Hornung having won in 1958 off a 2-8 Irish team.
Beyond that, linemen need not apply and receivers stand almost no chance at all.
The last receiver to win the award was Desmond Howard of Michigan in 1991. Howard, Tim Brown of Notre Dame, Leon Hart of Notre Dame and Larry Kelly of Yale, who won the second Heisman, are the only receivers to win it in its 77-year history.
Is this fair?
That was what Holgorsen was asked, being the coach of this West Virginia University team that now is fighting to finish with just a winning record despite the presence of three of the greatest offensive players in school history.
“There is nothing you can do about it. You have to win games,” he answered. “We had some guys that could have been up for the discussion if you win games. That is why I refuse to talk about it and refuse to do anything about it until later in the year.”
Take the case of Texas A&M’s quarterback Johnny Manziel, who is now the favorite.
Is he best? Probably not, but he quarterbacked an upset of No. 1 Alabama on national television and came on late in the year, drawing exposure and headlines for a team with a high profile and winning record.
“Texas A&M’s approach with (Johnny) Manziel was quite appropriate,” Holgorsen said. “There weren’t any talks of that, and then he plays well this time of the year and you get the word out there. Last year with (Baylor’s) Robert Griffin III, it was the same way. He played well late, and they were on national television and a lot of people were watching him.
“It is the best player in the country. With that said, a lot has to do with timing, and a lot has to do with playing well at the right time. You have to win games, and that is just reality.”
The reality, yes, but again, is it fair? Should Geno Smith miss out on a chance to win the Heisman because his defense can’t keep an opponent to fewer than 50 points?
“I think that’s fair,” Smith surprisingly said. “Obviously the game is about winning and losing and not so much statistics because if you look at it that way there’s guys all over the country putting up great stats. It’s really about how you lead your team and how you win games. It’s about making big plays in big games, being a game changer.”
All that is true, but didn’t Smith, Bailey and Austin make big plays in a big game against Oklahoma and be game changers, only to have something they could not control let the game slip away by a point?
Bailey, on the other hand, thinks the player’s skills and accomplishments should be what’s considered by the Heisman voters.
“I do think it should be the best player. Sometimes the best player may not be on the best team. It shouldn’t matter what school you go to or what your team’s record is,” he said, but added the obvious by saying it was out of his control.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.