NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 10: A detailed view of the Heisman Memorial Trophy after a press conference at The New York Marriott Marquis on December 10, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
Utah's football history has seen a great deal of accomplishment. There were undefeated teams under Ike Armstrong, an innovated offense under 'Cactus Jack' Curtice and two BCS bustin' seasons between Urban Meyer & Kyle Whittingham.
The history of our program is pretty solid, even if pockets of it aren't very good. Yet there is one thing we've lacked all these years and it's a Heisman Trophy winner. No player, however good, has ever been able to bring the hardware home as a Ute. Lee Grosscup and Alex Smith came the closest, but could only finish tenth and fourth respectively.
Because of that, it kind of feels like something is lacking from the program. Maybe it's because of Ty Detmer, who managed to win the Heisman in 1990 as a Cougar, and the fact BYU fans love to lord that thing over us at every chance they get (you know what? I probably would too). Whatever the reason, Utah's trophy case is lacking arguably the most prestigious college football award out there - and this includes national championships.
For every decent season the Utes have produced over the years, no single player has been able to grab that trophy and then subsequently do college football's most iconic pose.
Who knows if that'll ever happen. It's not easy providing a Heisman Trophy winner and nowadays, you've got to produce a pretty spectacular team to even enter the conversation.
But that's not the point of this post. We all realize the odds are stacked against a current Ute, or a future Ute, winning the Heisman Trophy in the upcoming years. What I want to talk about is a what if of sorts that deals directly with a player who managed to win the Heisman Trophy.
From the headline, I'm sure you already know I'm talking about O.J. Simpson.
I'm not sure how widely known this story is, but if you've read through Patrick Sheltra's 100 Things Utes Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die, you probably already know a great deal about it. The gist of the story is pretty much this:
Former Utah head coach MIke Giddings was the USC Trojans' defensive coordinator before coming to Salt Lake City prior to the start of the 1966 season. With the help of Giddings' defense, the Trojans won their first national championship under legendary head coach John McKay in 1962. Giddings, understanding the ins and outs of recruiting in California, went hard after Simpson when it became apparent he would not return to the City College of San Francisco. Since he lacked the necessary math credits to enroll at USC, who had stricter requirements than the U at the time, Utah seemed like a perfect fit.
Simpson flew out to Salt Lake, visited with Giddings and, so Giddings says, verbally committed to the program before returning back to San Francisco. The verbal commit was as close as Simpson ever came to playing for Utah. After he returned home, USC convinced him to return to CCSF for another year and the rest is history.
I know O.J. is a bit of a taboo subject since his murder trial in 1995 and it certainly can set off a wide range of emotions. But looking at this purely from the football point of view, it's harder to imagine Utah losing out on a bigger player than Simpson. He was a fantastic player, even if his private life diminished a great deal of his overall legacy. What we know is that USC won the national championship in '67, Simpson's junior year, and he personally went on to win the Heisman a year later and then went on to become the number one player selected in the 1969 AFL-NFL Common Draft.
At Utah, would Simpson have experienced such personal heights? Probably not. In the 60s, the Utes weren't a very good program and certainly not at the national level of USC - whose name and success certainly benefited Simpson.
But you can't deny just how great of a football force he was back then. Certainly while it's hard to imagine he would have lifted the program to national dominance, they could have performed better those two years than they inevitably did.
Giddings, who was about as big of a named coach as Utah could ever hope to land back then, struggled in his brief two years here and was eventually fired after a 4-7 season in 1967. Who knows, maybe Simpson doesn't change that dramatically. But then again, when you're dealing with a player who's good enough to win a Heisman and then produce a legendary pro career, that might be all it takes.
While Giddings definitely had a resume of a winner, he was also young when he took the program over and that youth played against him during his tenure here. The program really got away from him quickly and he wasn't allowed to turn things around. But what if Simpson masked those growing pains? What if, in two years here, Giddings and Utah finished toward the top of the WAC instead of the bottom? I doubt Simpson is good enough to turn Utah into a football power in a short amount of time, but he could have definitely put them closer to Wyoming, who, around this time, was dominating the conference.
If Giddings makes it through those two years, if he overcomes his inexperience and grows into the role, maybe the Utes actually establish something in the 70s. Instead, what we got was a decade that saw some of the worst football in program history - from a string of average seasons under Bill Meek to the bottoming out of the program under Tom Lovat. By the time the 80s rolled around, the program had cratered so badly that Wayne Howard producing sporadic eight win seasons that rarely amounted to victories over BYU and definitely didn't lead to any bowl berths, were seen as unquestionable progress.
Instead, the program slipped and BYU surged on by, producing Heisman trophy candidates of their own. The first of the LaVell Edwards Quarterback Machine was Gary Sheide in 1974. He finished sixth in the balloting, the best placement of any player from a Utah school at that point.
Had Simpson made it back to Salt Lake and kept his verbal commitment, '74 would have been six years after his time at Utah ended.
It doesn't sound like a lot, right? But in that six-year stretch, Edwards was already building something special and the Utes were capping off a 1-10 season.
Simpson might not have changed any of it and, in the long scheme of things, I guess things eventually worked themselves out. But boy, what could have been. Had Giddings made it, had the Utes strung together a cluster of successful seasons and contended for WAC Championships, who really knows what level the program would be at today. Maybe it's more successful, maybe it's not, but it does make for a fun what if.
Of all the past Heisman Trophy winners, who would you have liked to see on the Utes?
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