2003 Heisman Trophy: No Love for Larry Fitzgerald

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Our last Heisman Trophy retrospective noted an oft-neglected position that deserved to win the award, and a pair of outstanding all-purpose players denied invites.

Consider the 2003 Heisman Trophy race a prequel. Oklahoma quarterback Jason White won the program’s first Heisman since Billy Sims 25 years prior, and the first of three for the Sooners in a 14-year span. The Open Man isn’t exactly venturing into uncharted territory suggesting Pittsburgh wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald should have claimed the trophy in 2003, though.

Had he done so, Larry Fitzgerald would have joined 1987 winner Tim Brown of Notre Dame, and 1991 winner Desmond Howard of Michigan as the only wide receivers to claim the award. However, like Ndamukong Suh’s thwarted candidacy to join Charles Woodsen as the Heisman’s sole defensive winners, Fitzgerald would have been the only one to do so without the benefit of all-purpose production.

Brown returned a remarkable three punts for touchdowns in ’87 — which matched his total number of receiving touchdowns. Howard was far more productive at wide receiver, scoring 19 receiving touchdowns. However, his landmark win is associated with an electric, special teams plays.

Maybe Larry Fitzgerald failed to win because his highlight reel lacked an iconic return. He finished second in the balloting in 2003 for whatever reason, despite putting together what can fairly be argued is the single greatest campaign from a wide receiver ever in college football.

Some of those that share the conversation with Fitzgerald’s 2003 include fellow Heisman finalist Michael Crabtree in 2008, and in the same season as Fitzgerald, USC’s Mike Williams. Though he would not have won, Williams’ 1,226 yards and 16 touchdowns in the regular season perhaps warranted better than an eighth-place finish.

Williams was hamstrung by both playing a non-traditional Heisman-winning position, and splitting votes with his quarterback, Matt Leinart. Now, that didn’t hurt USC contenders the next two years, including Leinart in 2004. But USC had not yet dominated the national conversation in 2003 the same way it did in 2004 and 2005.

But as good as Williams was in 2003, Fitzgerald was transcendent. He scored 22 touchdowns in the regular season; two per game on average, but also never went without a scoring grab in any of Pitt’s 11 contests. He also exceeded 100 yards in all but two contests: The first was a two-touchdown performance against Notre Dame, the other against a Top 5-ranked Miami Hurricanes bunch.

The Miami game was the last of Pitt’s regular season, and Fitzgerald’s pedestrian output may have hindered him in the vote. However, recency bias didn’t factor that prominently into the final tally. Had it, Kansas State’s do-everything running back Darren Sproles would have been in New York City.

Sproles finished fifth in 2003 Heisman balloting, and as noted last time, I vehemently believe five is the perfect number of Heisman finalists. By the Trust’s bylaws, however, Sproles stayed in Manhattan rather than go to Manhattan.

His is one of the more frustrating omissions from the ceremony. Including the Big 12 Championship, in which Sproles’ Wildcats blasted White’s Sooners, the K-State all-purpose back scored 15 rushing touchdowns and a pair of receiving touchdowns. He fell just 52 yards shy of the 2,000-yard mark on the ground, which was still a golden ticket to New York in those days, and broke 200 yards rushing in each of the Wildcats’ final two games — which included a 235-yard rushing, 88-yard receiving performance in the Big 12 Championship.

Sproles hit the trifecta in 2003 with a punt return for a touchdown, as well. His 2003 ranks among the very best among all-purpose players ever, almost providing a template for future Heisman finalists Reggie Bush and Christian McCaffrey, and fellow confounding omission, C.J. Spiller.

Jason White was excellent in 2003 until the end of the season. He went into the Heisman ceremony with 40 touchdowns against just eight interceptions. But no one would argue White was one of the best ever at his position in 2003, as one can argue for Larry Fitzgerald at wide receiver, or Darren Sproles as an all-purpose back.

Oh, one last thing: Eli Manning should have been nowhere near the top four.