Ron Bliss guest col: When ESPN (possibly) sabotaged Manning’s Heisman hopes
For the Nevada Appeal
I have been a full-time insurance agent for the last six years, but in my other life I was a sports writer/editor and had a chance to meet and cover a lot of people.
One of the most famous is Peyton Manning, the future Hall of Fame quarterback for the Denver Broncos who’s likely be playing his final game this Sunday in Super Bowl 50.
I didn’t just meet Peyton, but covered him all four years of his career at the University of Tennessee when I was the Executive Sports Editor of the Kingsport Times-News. I was president of the state sportswriters’ association his junior and senior seasons (1996 and 1997).
So I will use this opportunity to relay some facts about Peyton you may not have known.
I was involved in writing about recruiting back in the 1990s when Peyton surprisingly signed with the University of Tennessee.
Many thought Manning would follow his famous father, Archie Manning, to Ole Miss. But at that time, the NCAA was investigating the Rebels for recruiting violations and the hierarchy at Mississippi let Archie know that, as a courtesy.
So, before national signing day, Archie and Peyton went behind closed doors to decide young Peyton’s future. He had played high school ball in New Orleans, where Archie was a color commentator for the New Orleans Saints.
Their choice was Tennessee, due in large part to the recruiting efforts of David Cutcliffe, Phillip Fulmer’s offensive coordinator. Cutcliffe, it should be noted, went on to be named head coach at Ole Miss and coached another Manning, Eli. Cutcliffe is now the successful head coach at Duke.
Peyton was part of an outstanding 1994 recruiting class that also included Brandon Stewart, a running quarterback from Texas in the mold of Heath Shuler, who had just earned All-American honors at Tennessee and was runnerup for the Heisman Trophy.
Tom Lemming, a recruiting guru who’s now a TV personality, scoffed at the notion that Stewart would give Manning a run for his money at Tennessee.
“It’s apples and oranges,’’ Lemming told me. “One is likely going to be the first pick in the draft when he comes out and the other may never play NFL football.’’
Lemming was right on both counts. Manning took over when Todd Helton — who went on to be an outstanding first baseman for the Colorado Rockies — tried to hurdle a Georgia linebacker and hurt his knee four games into Manning’s freshman season. Peyton took over and the rest is history.
Peyton, in fact, went on to be selected No. 1 in the NFL draft by the Indianapolis Colts after a four-year career at Tennessee when he won virtually every honor except the Heisman Trophy.
And he likely would have won that had ABC/ESPN not been competing with CBS for ratings on their respective bowl games. CBS had the first BCS Championship game in the Orange Bowl and the Big Ten and Pac-10 were not part of the BCS that first year. ABC had the Rose Bowl. Word on the street was ABC/ESPN hired a consultant to accomplish two things — bring either the Big Ten or Pac-10 the Heisman winner and the No. 1 ranking in the Associated Press poll going into the bowl season.
I could never confirm the network had a consultant, but there was plenty of evidence to suggest it.
After Peyton passed for 355 yards and 5 TDs at Kentucky his senior year, we were driving back to Kingsport when the ESPN commentators on their scoreboard radio show made the statement: “I’m not sure Peyton is even the second-best quarterback in the nation.’’
The inference was Ryan Leaf of Washington State and Michigan quarterback Brian Griese (Tom Brady was his backup) were better.
The next morning, when I turned on “The Sports Reporters” on ESPN, the same phrase was repeated: “I’m not sure Peyton Manning is even the second-best quarterback in the nation.” Talking point?
That’s when I really became suspicious and started writing about the efforts being made to downgrade Peyton in the eyes of Heisman voters.
For the final three weeks of the season, Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit touted Charles Woodson, Michigan’s outstanding cornerback who was having a stellar season, while Lee Corso said Manning should be the Heisman pick.
For those of us covering college football on a weekly basis, it was difficult to follow what was happening, so Heisman voters (I was one for 29 years) tuned in on Sunday mornings to catch highlights from the previous day.
The real evidence something was going on came out the Sunday before our Heisman votes had to go in. With our ballots due to go out on Monday, the ESPN Heisman Highlight Show was a chance to see the case for each candidate and make our decision.
When they showed highlights of Woodson, they showed him returning one of his eight interceptions for a TD, scoring on a punt return, a pass interception and doing the Heisman pose in the end zone.
There was one highlight of Manning – throwing a pick-Six against Florida with the reminder “Peyton was never able to beat the Gators in his four years at Tennessee.’’
Never mind that one of the losses was by 42-37.
Scott Frost, quarterback for unbeaten and No. 2-ranked Nebraska, had no highlights on the show. Nor did any other Nebraska player. Hmmmm.
Then came the Heisman vote. Woodson was an upset winner.
At the Orange Bowl, Lee Corso came and sat next to me in the press box for the entire second half of the game. I had been making a lot of noise about what was going on and didn’t think it was an accident Corso sat where he did.
I asked him what he thought of Peyton and the Heisman and his reaction was. “Peyton got screwed!’’
I didn’t ask him to elaborate, but instead did a feature story on Corso I wrote the week after I got back to Kingsport.
Fast forward to this Sunday. Peyton has been named MVP of the NFL five times and holds most of the NFL passing records and is a sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famer. Woodson has had a great career and, like Peyton, should be a Hall of Famer. He just retired from the Oakland Raiders.
But we can’t go back and change history. What happened, happened and maybe when Peyton retires, he will address it. At the time, he was mum and so was Archie Manning.
If Peyton wins Sunday and does retire, it would be a fitting end to one of the best careers by a quarterback ever in the NFL. The chances will be against him winning, but at least one person in Carson City will be cheering for him.
Ron Bliss, a Carson City resident, was executive sports editor of the Kingsport Times-News for more than 30 years and spent one year as sports editor of the Montgomery, Ala., Advertiser in between his Times-News tenure. He later started TriCitiesSports.com, which is still in existence. He came to Nevada in 2011 and currently works for Affordable Healthcare Pros in Carson City and writes a weekly health blog for the Nevada Appeal.