Jason Gesser's Heisman Trophy campaign began in July with a 25-foot banner on a 10-story grain elevator in Dusty, Wash., a small gesture in a relatively low-key effort for the senior who plays 40 miles to the east for Washington State.
It was far removed from Oregon's high-profile promotion of Joey Harrington last season, which included a 10-story billboard in Manhattan. But after an 8-1 start, the fifth-ranked Cougars and their star quarterback are finding it easier to pull the limelight toward their Pullman, Wash., campus.
"That's kind of our style," Coach Mike Price said. "We're out here in the middle of nowhere. Instead of putting up a sign in New York, we'll go for Dusty, which has a population of 12, I think. It was kind of a gag, but it must have been a slow news day, because we got tons of coverage for that. I got e-mails from people in China who said they heard about it."
Gesser has done his part to live up to the hype, as limited as it has been. He has completed 61 percent of his passes for 2,169 yards and 17 touchdowns, with just five interceptions.
In the Cougars' two biggest victories of the season, he passed for 315 yards and two touchdowns in an overtime victory over No. 10 Southern California on Oct. 5 and 250 yards and two touchdowns in a 44-22 blowout of No. 25 Arizona State last weekend.
With a Pacific-10 Conference title and a major bowl bid inching closer, the next big test awaits Saturday, when Washington State hosts No. 15 Oregon.
Gesser ranks fifth in the nation in passing efficiency and has passed Ryan Leaf, Mark Rypien, Drew Bledsoe and Jack Thompson in the Washington State record books. On Saturday, he broke Thompson's career passing yards record and Leaf's career mark for touchdown passes.
"You look at the names that came through here, it's just phenomenal to be mentioned with them," Gesser said.
A standout at St. Louis High in Honolulu, Gesser went 24-0 as a starter. He picked Washington State because of its reputation as a quarterback school, and because the Cougars were coming off their 10-2 Rose Bowl season of 1997.
Perhaps the most casual of the Heisman hopefuls, Gesser wears shorts and sandals until there is snow on the ground. "That's probably because he doesn't have anything else clean," Price said.
Having gone from the middle of the Pacific to the middle of Washington farmland, Gesser finds the scaled-back life more his speed.
"The attitude in Pullman is a lot like Hawaii," Gesser said. "The people here are nice, they all are very friendly. And summer here is great, so laid-back. You go to the beach in Hawaii, you go to the river here. People just like spending time with each other."
He still hosts recruits on visits. Many of his teammates have crashed at his apartment, the "Gesser Hotel," at one point or another.
"He's really a company man," Price said. "Anything for the team. You know, I'm not certain if he is the best quarterback to play here, but he is without a doubt the most popular. I don't think I've ever heard anyone boo him."
Price said Gesser puts on competitiveness with his uniform. As a redshirt freshman in 1999, he played during most of the 0-3 start to the Cougars' 3-9 season, including a 28-17 loss to Idaho, after which he screamed, "I don't lose!" at his teammates.
"He's right, he didn't lose," Price said. "I had to teach him how to do that."
Price reined in his star's on-field competitiveness, teaching him how to slide and when to throw balls away. A thumb injury kept him out of half of his freshman season, and a broken leg forced him out of the final two games as a sophomore. This season he has played through bruised ribs for nearly a month.
"We had to get him to stop from going one-on-one with linebackers, from diving for first downs," Price said.
Gesser matured, becoming the complete player Price envisioned.
"It's been so great to have him this year," Price said. "There are times when I'm thinking, 'Look left, look left, it's there, it's there!' when he walks to the line of scrimmage, and sure enough, he'll look to his right the whole time and then snap the ball left at the last second. It's as if he's reading my mind sometimes.
"It's up to someone else to decide if he's the best pro prospect out there. But I would say he's the best college quarterback this year."