Robert Griffin III didn’t make it to the podium alone.

His journey last year to accept the Heisman Trophy in New York was aided by Baylor teammates in and out of uniform. Those donning helmets and jerseys opened up rushing lanes for him and caught the bombs he delivered. Those behind the scenes made sure that anyone covering college football, and anyone with a Heisman vote, felt like they knew him personally.

Heath Nielsen, assistant athletic director for communications at Baylor, ensured that Griffin’s Heisman campaign got under way before he even took a snap. Starting in the summer and continuing throughout the season, Nielsen and his team mailed five custom football trading cards that touted Griffin to influential media members and Heisman voters, hired a tech firm to create a website for the star quarterback and started Facebook, YouTube and Twitter accounts that drew attention to his dazzling highlights and sublime statistics. Several of the YouTube videos topped more than 100,000 hits and a “Join the Third” social media campaign went viral.

ON THE TROPHY TRAIL
Campaigns for award candidates are not as expansive as they used to be. With YouTube, Twitter and Facebook at their disposal, athletic communications departments are letting the statistics and videos drive the campaign buses toward the podium.
2012 Preseason Award Watch Lists
Looking Back: Griffin wins 2011 Heisman Trophy

Baylor spent nearly $10,000 to promote Griffin. But Nielsen said he’s heard estimates that the exposure Griffin gained through his Heisman push was worth roughly $250,000 in free advertising for the school. More satisfying, Nielsen said, was mailing the sixth, and final, set of trading cards; the ones that featured Griffin proudly embracing the trophy.

“It was it a lot of extra work for me and my staff, absolutely,” Nielsen said. “But, without a doubt, it was worth it.”

He felt compelled to exert so much effort because Baylor football is a relative unknown in awards season compared to traditional Heisman factories. Though ultimately successful, Baylor’s approach likely won’t be emulated by major programs nationwide that are home to this year’s early Heisman favorites. 

“If Rob had Alabama or Michigan on his jersey, I don’t know if we would have done anything,” Nielsen said. 

Many renowned programs echo that sentiment.

Given the ubiquity of highlights and the prevalence of social media, flashy Heisman campaigns, very recently en vogue, have been largely scrapped. The days of Oregon spending $250,000 on a massive “Joey Heisman” (Joey Harrington) billboard in Times Square or Memphis sending out 2,500 miniature stock cars with DeAngelo Williams’ jersey number painted on, are vanishing quickly. Outside of smaller programs following unique paths like Baylor or Northwestern, which sent about 75 sets of dumbbells to media members last year to promote quarterback Dan Persa, splashy spending and unique preseason gifts are increasingly uncommon. 

“There’s a lot less work that the PR people have to do,” said Ted Gangi, founder of collegepressbox.com and former senior researcher with CBS sports. “The kids’ stats and highlights do the talking. The video doesn’t lie.” 

This year, many athletic departments are letting the buzz on ESPN and Twitter do the work for them rather than relying on preseason attention grabs. At West Virginia, for instance, where quarterback Geno Smith was among the preseason favorites and dazzled in the season opener against Marshall, there are no grand plans to promote his Heisman candidacy. Mike Montoro, West Virginia’s director of football communications, feels that if Smith and the Mountaineers are successful this year, the campaign will take care of itself. Assuming Smith lives up to his preseason billing, Montoro says the school will send a few materials to Heisman voters, but there won’t be a substantial push. In the information age, the thought is, excel on the field and the awards will come.

“We don’t need to do a gimmick,” Montoro said. “The days of that are over with. When you didn’t have the TV exposure or the internet exposure that you have today, then you had to get stuff out there to keep the name in front of people.”

Kansas State, home to quarterback Collin Klein – a preseason Heisman dark horse – is taking a similar approach. Its insistence on an understated campaign stems from head coach Bill Snyder’s aversion to placing emphasis on individual players. Still, Klein has been the “spokesman” on promotional videos meant to attract more season ticket holders. Though there will likely be little publicity, Kansas State plans to pepper media members and Heisman voters all season with highlights and other info, provided that Klein continues to impress.

“Publicly everything will continue to be about our team,” Kansas State assistant athletic director for communications Kenny Lannou said. “But we’ll make sure that, behind the scenes, we keep people informed.”

Though the understated approach has grown most common among large programs, a few are still taking extra steps to promote their athletes. USC quarterback Matt Barkley, generally considered the preseason Heisman frontrunner, will be the subject of a thorough push. Already, the Trojans have launched a mobile app dubbed “Project Tro7an” (Matt Barkley wears No. 7) that gives fans access to info on the team, players and videos of Barkley dubbed, “Matt vs.” where the quarterback competes against USC athletes in their sports – diving, volleyball, tennis, among others. A weekly video clip of Barkley breaking down a key play from the previous game is also included.

The school has bigger promotional plans, which will roll out as the season progresses. Though he won’t reveal specifics, USC sports information director Tim Tessalone says that the campaign’s mission will be to keep pace with volatile public and voter sentiment that now seems to sway with every quarter, every pass and every tweet.

“It’s way different than the old days. You used to be able to send out a big poster on somebody and have them kind of posed uniquely and that was your campaign and that was your story,” Tessalone said. “Now, it’s become a little bit of a weekly – sometimes daily – beauty contest, especially late in the year. While it’s very important how you start in the body of your work, what tends to stay in voters’ minds is, “What have you done for us lately?’ ”