As we've been working through our Greatest Vol Villains bracket and featured Charles Woodson in a quarterfinal matchup today, an oral history of ESPN - Those Guys Have All the Fun - was just released by James Andrew Miller & Tom Shales. This thing is a 745 page beast that I'm very much looking forward to reading. In light of today's matchup and some of the conversation it's generated around the college football blogging world, it's interesting to note that Chris Fowler offers a few comments on the 1997 Heisman race in the book:
In the weeks leading up to the Heisman announcement, when we talked about it on GameDay, I would just point out that if you read the tea leaves, it was not going to be a slam dunk for Peyton Manning, which you were hearing a lot ahead of time. People assumed Peyton Manning had the Heisman won. All I said was that this wasn't a done deal. I wasn't trying to hype Charles Woodson or the show for that matter. The show was going to rate what it rated. I was just doing my job. But there were people at Tennessee who were frustrated and took it very personally. ESPN didn't have the SEC games at that point, didn't have as much of a relationship with the conference as we do now. We were seen as "the Big Ten Conference" by some people in that part of the world, and we were perceived to have an agenda...
...Immediately, the story wasn't that Charles Woodson won the Heisman; the story was that Peyton Manning didn't win it. And I was the guy that was seen giving it to Woodson. I got a lot of negative feedback. The phone was rining off the hook that night. Then I got a lot of letters, and a lot of other hateful stuff directed at me personally. I was across a chain-link fence at the Orange Bowl from Tennessee fans a month later, and it was really, really edgy; very difficult and uncomfortable. And it stayed that way for a while. We didn't go back to Knoxville with GameDay for a few years, and when we did, we paid attention to security.
By the way, I had voted for Peyton Manning to win the Heisman Trophy.
Fowler's comments capture the moment really well, and I've never heard him say who he voted for that year. My personal opinion is that the ire the majority of UT fans showed Fowler generally came after he made his "trailer park" comments, which were no doubt a reaction to what a minority of UT fans had said to Fowler personally.
The mood then and his comments on it now are both a fascinating case study in perception, reality, and who we're always quick to blame...right or wrong.
What made Fowler's later comments even worse was ESPN's refusal to come back to Knoxville...which was then made exponentially worse because the Vols won the National Championship the very next year. Not only did College GameDay duck the Tennessee-Florida game in September, it also skipped the undefeated November showdown between #1 Tennessee and Arkansas, which was by far the most important game of the season at that point. We knew why they were doing it at the time, and Fowler's comments offer validation to that belief.
I was in Tempe when the Vols won the National Championship, where ESPN had no choice but to be surrounded by Tennessee fans. I watched joyous and/or drunk Tennessee fans launch beverages at the GameDay set following UT's win over Florida State. They had a reason to feel uncomfortable.
I was a freshman at UT the next year, when GameDay finally came back to Knoxville in November when the Vols faced Notre Dame. And like many college students at football schools, having GameDay on your campus becomes one of the signature moments of your time at that university. We got up early, got on TV, then stayed after the show was over. To their credit, Fowler, Corso, and Herbstreit all came down and signed autographs. I shook Chris Fowler's hand and told him we were glad to see them. He said that he was glad to be here and that Knoxville was one of his favorite places to come. I have no idea if he was just giving the safe company line or if he meant it, but I have always believed him. Their autographs are still in the basement of my parents' house in Knoxville.
Chris Fowler was never personally to blame for what happened with Manning and Woodson, but it remains true that the media impacted the 1997 Heisman race like none before it...and in 1997, the media truly was ESPN. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, they created a story with Woodson in a Heisman race that didn't have one by October, because Manning was rightfully running away with it. We're plenty biased here, but there are also plenty of non-UT fans who will tell you the wrong man won in 1997.
Stuff like that will bring out the worst in the worst of us, and anyone who took it out on Fowler personally was wrong to do so. For whatever my opinion is worth, I really enjoy Fowler's work and haven't had a problem doing so since I shook his hand a dozen years ago. And I think many Tennessee fans would agree.
But I also think it's true that no one had more power over the tea leaves than ESPN. Foregone conclusions are not good stories, and it's ESPN's job to tell good stories. Even if there was no malicious intent - even if it was just, "We have to talk about the Heisman race, who else can we talk about?" - I remain a believer that they uniquely and significantly impacted the race and did so in Woodson's favor.
But whatever side of the Heisman argument you fall on, the '97 race remains an important moment for the way media can impact sport, and the way fans will perceive that impact.