If this is Thursday, Gaston Green must be in my mailbox. He's always there by Thursday, smiling at me from the front of the full-color post card mailed by the UCLA sports information machine. Good old reliable Gaston Green wearing his baby blue and gold uniform, standing behind the Heisman Trophy, emulating the Heisman pose -- left arm cradling a football, right arm outstretched and stiff to ward off would-be tacklers. And in case your head is made of wood and you don't get the hint, there's printing in the top left corner of the post card: "GASTON GREEN. Heisman Trophy Candidate."
Handwritten on the back are Green's key statistics. On the latest post card, for example, under the headline "This Week Versus," we learn that last Saturday against Arizona, Green gained 149 yards on a UCLA record-tying 39 carries, and that his long run was 20 yards. Under the headline "Season Totals," we're told that Green has 445 yards and five touchdowns in 99 rushes, and 16 career 100-yard games.
I get similarly invaluable information every week. (Those of you who aren't on the Gaston Green mailing list, perhaps you feel the same way about the Carol Wright coupons.) Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but I was wondering why UCLA was sending it to me.
"We thought you were an important-type person. We picked out the people we think are key people," UCLA's sports information director Marc Dellins said, flattering me no end.
Speaking as an acknowledged important-type and key person, I asked Dellins what he was looking for from his mailings.
"The first preference is to reach Heisman voters so they see what Gaston's doing. The second preference is that somebody will write about him and mention his statistics." (Although what's so great about 149 yards in 39 rushes -- not to mention 46 yards in 19 tries against Nebraska? That's 3.4 yards a carry. A 3.4 gets you Dean's List, not the Heisman.)
UCLA printed 6,000 post cards at a cost of $2,500, and sends them weekly to 450 important-type and key people like me. Using 22 cents postage, that's $99 more a week. The labor is free, volunteered by students, but over 11 games the cost of publicizing Gaston Green could have bought Southern Methodist a center.
"I really love the post cards," I said. "But I don't have a Heisman vote."
Oops. Dellins hadn't known. I detected a nervous giggle.
"So maybe you won't get any more post cards."
Last year, Vinny Testaverde won the Heisman in the fourth game of the season, when he was 21 for 28 and four touchdowns against No. 1 Oklahoma. Testaverde put the Heisman on ice with one play: turning a 15-yard loss into a first down on a breathtaking scramble that demonstrated his strength and maneuverability. It made all the highlight packages. You saw it 10,000 times.
We opened this season without a Heisman front- runner, but the top flight of contenders was generally perceived to include Green, Notre Dame's Tim Brown and Lorenzo White of Michigan State. (Willie Teal, Earnest Gray, Joe Rose and Eddie Lee Ivery used up their eligibility.) On the second tier were Florida's Kerwin Bell, Oklahoma State's Thurman Thomas and Holy Cross' indefatigable Gordie Lockbaum.
The Heisman is college sports' big kahuna. It can make or break a career in sports promotion. In 1966, Purdue's Bob Griese finished second in Heisman voting to Steve Spurrier; in 1968, Purdue's Leroy Keyes was second to O.J. Simpson; in 1969, Purdue's Mike Phipps was second to Steve Owens. Close, but definitely no cigar. The incumbent Purdue SID took the interstate out of West Lafayette, Ind., and never looked back.
UCLA started planning for the Gastoning of America ("But I would not feel so all alone, everybody must get Gas-stoned") at the close of last season after Green went for 224 yards and four touchdowns against USC, then 266 yards and three scores against Brigham Young. Dellins said, "He demonstrated he's the kind of back who could win the Heisman." The post cards were ready by August.
According to Beano Cook, who knows more about college football than anyone else, until the middle 1960s nobody thought about the Heisman until late October or early November. Now, with TV stoking the trophy weekly, the campaigns for the Heisman are as aggressive as for the Oscars, and nearly as long as for the New Hampshire primary. Innovative advertising -- such as when Clemson publicized Terry Kinard by mailing boxes of Special K cereal with a slide of Kinard inside -- can't hurt.
But all the post cards and key chains and pens in the world can't overcome a phenomenal performance on national TV -- like the one flanker Brown gave against Michigan State, going 71 and 66 yards in back-to-back touchdown punt returns. There's no better highlight in football than a great return. With the built-in advantage a Notre Dame star has in any season, let alone the kind of "Wake The Echoes" season this portends, Brown's the sensible bet now. Not a week goes by when Notre Dame isn't on TV. If the fruit Brown wanted to pick was any riper, it'd grow in a can. Beano's pronounced the Heisman race already won: "Tim Brown. Boom! Boom! He did the impossible."
So we shift focus from UCLA's 32-year-old Dellins to the ageless wonder of sports information, Notre Dame's Roger Valdiserri. You'll recall it was Valdiserri who told the young Joe THEES-mann, "From now on it's THIGHS-man, as in Heisman."
"Before this season's over," Beano predicted, "you'll see at least three photos of Tim Brown, wearing a sweater, carrying his books in his hand -- that's books, plural -- posing in front of the Golden Dome. That's Notre Dame's standard Heisman promotion shot. I promise you'll see it."
Chortling at how true that was, Valdiserri gleefully admitted, "You will if I have anything to do with it."