Commentary

"Theismann as in Heisman"

However it's pronounced, the name still spells quarterbacking excellence at Notre Dame

Updated: October 28, 2011, 10:59 AM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

Some 45 years later, Joe Theismann and Roger Valdiserri still hear references to the story. Sometimes, they're even factually accurate.

In truth, Valdiserri didn't think he was hatching any big public relations campaign on the sideline of a Notre Dame practice in the spring of Theismann's freshman year.

[+] EnlargeJoe Theismann
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite"Theismann for Heisman" became a popular catchphrase in South Bend and around college football during Joe Theismann's senior year at Notre Dame.
It was, at the time, a casual crack, he said, and maybe even a bit of a sarcastic one at that. Because while Theismann had a good reputation as a quarterback out of New Jersey's South River High School, he looked like a runt as he ran into the stadium with his Fighting Irish teammates that afternoon. Theismann (then pronounced Theesman) was all of 162 pounds, according to Joe Doyle, then the sports editor of the South Bend Tribune who "threw him on a scale" not long before and weighed the QB himself.

"Someone said, 'There's Joe Theismann,'" recalled Valdiserri, a longtime sports information director for Notre Dame. "I said, 'No, it's Thighsman, as in Heisman.'"

"Joe Doyle put it in his column that I said that," Valdiserri said. "Then Sports Illustrated came in a year later doing a story on the football team and they went through the clippings and files on Joe, saw that comment and put it in the story they were doing. All of a sudden, 'Theismann for Heisman' took on a life of its own."

The details change slightly depending on who is telling the story. But what Theismann remembers is Valdiserri calling him into his office and asking him to pronounce his last name.

"I said, 'Theesman,' and Roger said, 'No, it's not, it's Thighsman,'" Theismann recalled. "I said, 'Give me the phone,' and I called my dad back home. I said, 'Dad, it's Joey, how do you pronounce our last name?'

"There was a pregnant pause, and he said, 'Son, what have you been doing that last 20 years?' I said, 'Don't worry, I'll explain later.'"

The quarterback hung up with a satisfied look, but Valdiserri sat him down and explained his reasoning.

"Joe," Theismann recollected Valdiserri as saying, "let me tell you something. The Heisman Trophy is given to the best college football player in the country, and we think you have a chance to win the trophy. And we think by simply changing the pronunciation of your name we can create an opportunity to win it."

"It's a good story, very true," said Doyle, now 91 and a year removed from writing twice-weekly columns for the Tribune. "But we didn't get him the Heisman."

Instead, Theismann -- who became a starter his sophomore season, led the Irish to a No. 5 ranking the following year and quarterbacked the team to a 10-1 record and No. 2 ranking while breaking most of Notre Dame's passing and total offense records as a senior -- finished second in the 1970 Heisman voting to Stanford's Jim Plunkett. In that "Year of the Quarterback," as it was commonly referred, Mississippi's Archie Manning -- sidelined late in the season with a broken arm -- finished third.

Though Notre Dame is best remembered for promoting its candidate, Mississippi distributed bumper stickers, dolls and pamphlets pushing Manning for the honor, a campaign that also included a recording of "The Ballad of Archie Who."

I said, 'Theesman,' and Roger said, 'No, it's not, it's Thighsman.'

--Joe Theismann on how during a meeting with Roger Valdiserri, the Notre Dame sports information director changed the pronunciation of Theismann's name

Stanford went the other direction and avoided any overt lobbying for its candidate. But the university did put out an inexpensively produced brochure that detailed Plunkett's life, including the struggles of his parents, both of whom were blind. The story, which generated considerable media attention, combined with Plunkett's NCAA records for passing yards and total offense turned the Heisman race into something of a blowout, with Plunkett receiving twice as many first-place votes as Theismann.

Theismann says now that while it was exciting to be in the middle of a Heisman race and that he still opens speeches with the story, the attention attached to "Theismann as in Heisman" may have been a negative.

"I think the campaign to try to win the trophy probably hurt me from a balloting standpoint," he said. "Of course we didn't know that at the time. It created notoriety, but voters basically said, 'We're not going to have a campaign dictate who's going to win the Heisman Trophy.'

"The reason I say that is that I vividly remember [Oregon quarterback] Joey Harrington with a 12-foot high banner [in 2001] and I remember the promotion behind it, and I can't recall a campaign that has resulted in the Heisman Trophy."

Valdiserri says now he "didn't spend one cent" promoting Theismann. "But others spent five, six thousand dollars sending out posters and cereal boxes," he said. "I was never going to spend any money promoting it. I didn't believe in it. And budgets then are not what they are now."

But Valdiserri said he understood why some schools felt they had to promote their Heisman candidate. "Back then, you weren't able to see 10 to 12 different games on television every week, so they had to draw attention to the candidates somehow," he said.

[+] EnlargeJoe Theismann
Malcolm Emmons/US PresswireTheismann quarterbacked the Irish to a 10-1 record and No. 2 ranking in 1970, while breaking most of Notre Dame's passing and total offense records.
More often than not, Valdiserri said, such promotional efforts only created more pressure on the sports information departments.

"One SID had a candidate and the booster club gave him $10,000 to promote him," he said. "So he called and asked me about it and I said, 'Don't do it because if he doesn't win, you're beholden to that booster group.'"

Valdiserri told another story of a sports information director who eventually was fired when several top Heisman candidates from his school failed to win the coveted bronze.

"And he was a really good SID," Valdiserri said. "It gets out of hand."

Charlie Callahan, Notre Dame's SID before Valdiserri, relied on word of mouth, according to Doyle, who covered Notre Dame football for 61 years and was a Heisman voter for many of them.

"Charlie was kind of a traditionalist and he had a lot of influence on people picking the Heisman winner because he never pushed it," Doyle said. "He'd say, 'You know what [Paul] Hornung can do.' But there was never any big brochure or anything. He never said vote for so-and-so.

"Neither did Roger," he said. "Roger's biggest involvement was with Theismann. But it was more of a fun thing. A cute story. He was definitely pulling for Joe Theismann, but it wasn't his nature to have a big campaign."

Nevertheless, "Theismann as in Heisman" remains one of the most memorable slogans in the history of the trophy, which still amuses Valdiserri for one reason in particular.

"The funny thing about it," he said, "is that Joe went home and told his parents, who laughed and still go by my pronunciation of Thighsman."

Theismann, who recently found a "Theismann for Heisman" button buried in his office, remembers calling his paternal grandmother to break the news about the pronunciation change.

"I said, 'Granny, look, they want to change the pronunciation of our last name to Thighsman.'" he said. "And in her German accent she said, 'Actually, that's the correct pronunciation.'"

"Mom and dad didn't mind at all. And my children are Thighsman. But when I go back to New Jersey, I'm Joey Theesman," he said." To all my buddies and friends I grew up with, I'll always be Joe Theesman. And when we used to play the Giants, five or six rows behind our bench, they'd yell, 'You're still Theesman."

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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