Tim Brown won the 1987 Heisman Trophy in a landslide, beating runner-up Don McPherson of Syracuse in every region but the Orange quarterback’s home Northeast, and claiming a 611-point overall lead in the ballots.
Given how difficult it is for players at a position other than quarterback or running back to garner much Heisman support in this era, Brown’s lopsided win suggests an open-and-shut case. And yet, 1987 deserves inclusion among the most controversial Heisman votes in the award’s history.
Brown had a standout season for Notre Dame, to be sure. He caught 39 passes at a whopping 21.7-yard per reception clip, rushed 34 times for 144 yards with a touchdown, and returned an impressive three punts for touchdowns. In many ways, Tim Brown was the prototype for Swiss Army Knife-type players like Reggie Bush, C.J. Spiller and Christian McCaffrey in more recent years.
Controversy surrounding Brown’s Heisman win stems from issues with the award still prevalent today.
Playing for a national powerhouse at Notre Dame, and coming off a stellar junior season in 1986, Brown benefited from a great deal of hype. Whether intentional or not, McPherson alluded to the hype when speaking to reporters in December 1987:
“I was sure that I was going to hear Tim Brown’s name called,” McPherson said. “It made it easier on me. I felt mostly relief for Tim Brown. He went through the whole season as ‘Heisman Trophy candidate’ and by mid-season, he was the ‘Heisman Trophy winner.’ That’s a great deal of pressure.”
Indeed, the 1987 campaign kicked off with Brown splashed across the cover of Sports Illustrated, and the words: “Tim Brown: Best Player in the Land.”
The season prior, Brown 45 passes for 910 yards, five touchdowns; rushed 59 times for two touchdowns; and returned two kickoffs for touchdowns. And oddly enough, every one of those statistics trumped his 1987 output.
So was the ’87 vote a mulligan after Heisman voters had somehow left him out of the Top 10 the season prior? Pitt Panthers legend Craig “Ironhead” Heyward left no room for ambiguity in his comments, as McPherson had.
Heyward told reporters Brown “won it in the offseason.”
The Pitt bulldozing-back took it even further.
“I thought the Heisman was supposed to go to someone who dominated his position, not someone who runs all over the field playing hide and seek.”
Still, Brown’s question couldn’t be questioned — not if he spent half the season playing injured, which may have contributed to two weak showings in his final two games.
Conventional Heisman wisdom suggests late-season struggles doom a Heisman contender, however. Brown and Mark Ingram’s win in 2009 are two of the more noteworthy exceptions, though both feed into a different conventional wisdom: team brand name helps.
No matter your stance on Tim Brown’s Heisman win, his importance in college football history is undeniable. He’s both a College and Pro Football Hall of Famer, and one of only three wide receivers ever to claim college football’s top individual honor.