By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
As February turned into March, thoughts of Valentine’s Day turned more to St. Patrick’s Day while spring football begins entering our consciousness again as spring practice begins anew, Dana Holgorsen’s first spring practice as head coach.
That alone makes this different than any other spring practice WVU has conducted, but there is another difference in that the team begins getting ready not for another Big East season but for its first venture into a conference that lies west of the Mississippi River – the Big 12.
Certainly, you are thinking, there can be no angle overlooked about the move to the Big 12 by now, considering the millions of words that have been written and analyses done on the Mountaineers step up in class.
Yet, there is one angle that has been mostly lurking in the shadows that we will bring to the forefront at this moment.
As rich as West Virginia University’s football history is, it is lacking one thing beyond a national championship and that is a winner of the Heisman Trophy.
If you think of all the great players who have run through the West Virginia program — Patrick White and Major Harris, Sam Huff and Jeff Hostetler, Amos Zereoue and Steve Slaton — and not a one of them finished any higher than third place in the voting.
That was Harris in 1989, a quarterback who was ahead of his time if not ahead of the pack.
The reason no one ever emerged the winner?
One could simply point the finger at West Virginia and the way it is viewed by the college football elitists, a group that makes up a good section of the Heisman voters, but that is only part of it and, quite frankly, a small part of it for WVU has over the years earned a great deal of respect.
More to the point is the fact that WVU has been a member of the Big East through its recent history, a conference that can put 10 teams into the NCAA basketball tournament but that has managed to have produced just one Heisman Trophy winner in its entire history, that being Gino Torretta of Miami.
But this year the Mountaineers move into the Big 12, a conference rich in Heisman lore, and do so with a pair of Heisman contenders.
Schools that make up the Big 12 as it currently is configured — that would be in the pre-Louisville era, we dare predict — have won 10 Heisman Trophies. And the conference itself, with Nebraska and Texas A&M included before their recent defections, bring the total up to 14.
And don’t for a minute believe that this is just Heisman winners from another era such as Oklahoma’s Billy Vessels or TCU’s Davey O’Brien or Texas’ Earl Campbell.
The Big 12 has produced two of the last four Heisman winners in the Sooners’ Sam Bradford and Baylor’s Robert Griffin III this year, three of the last five with Oklahoma’s Jason White and four of the last 10 with Nebraska’s Eric Couch.
For all the hollow talk that used to come forth from the Big East about its TV exposure, the truth is that the exposure only served to show the nation the inferior brand of football that was being played.
This year they move into the Big 12 and bring with them quarterback Geno Smith and slot receiver/kick returner Tavon Austin, either of whom could emerge as a Heisman Trophy winner off their production as juniors.
Smith moved comfortably in Holgorsen’s MountainAir Offense and broke every passing record imaginable short of interceptions, capping it off by leading WVU to an unprecedented Orange Bowl eruption of 70 points against Clemson.
Given Smith’s work ethic, his ability and his intelligence, he should slide easily into the pass-happy Big 12 Conference and use that junior season not as a standard but as a stepping stone toward greater things.
And in Austin he has a receiver with speed and quickness that will leave even the speed-laden Big 12 in awe, for no one who has come across him has been able to put the wraps on him.
Austin averaged nearly 200 total yards per game a year ago from receiving, rushing and kick returning by displaying moves no one had ever seen while watching WVU football, not from White or Slaton or Zereoue or anyone else to ever wear the gold and blue.
If there is a problem, it isn’t Holgorsen’s, it is football publicity director Mike Fragale’s, part of whom’s job is to promote Heisman Trophy candidates. One is tough enough to get elected, but when you have two splitting the West Virginia vote it can be nearly impossible.
So how will the publicity department approach this two-pronged quest for Heisman glory?
“We will make sure all the information is out there for the Heisman voters,” Fragale said,”but the stats on the field will be the deciding factor and they will take care of themselves.”
Over the years, a number of schools have run Heisman Trophy campaigns, going so far as sending out bobblehead dolls to the voters or even painting huge portraits on the sides of downtown buildings of their candidates.
Not West Virginia.
“There will be no kooky campaigns,” Fragale said. “They don’t work today, anyway. Look at RG III at Baylor this year. He had big stats on national TV games late in the season. That’s how he won.”
Rich Rodriguez, who coached a few pretty good players, didn’t believe in campaigns.
“He always felt team success will bring individual awards,” Fragale said, “and it worked. He had a Remington Award winner and a couple of players who were among the top vote getters.”
And what if both Austin and Smith light up the scoreboard week after week and emerge as legitimate candidates? How can they keep them from splitting the vote and letting a third party slip in?
“It’s not our job to pick sides,” Fragale said. “We just will get the information out and let the voters decide.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/bhertzel.