Heisman History: Alabama Crimson Tide

Alabama Crimson TideYou don’t have to go back too far to find the Alabama Crimson Tide’s first Heisman Trophy winner.

Prior to Nick Saban’s arrival in 2007, no Tide player had ever won college football’s top individual honor, but since 2009, the Tide have had two winners from among five finalists. Mark Ingram was the first Crimson Tide player to hoist the Heisman that year when he edged Stanford’s Toby Gerhart by a mere 28 points (1,304 to 1,276) to win the trophy. Colt McCoy of Texas was also in the running that year with 1,145 points in one of the more entertaining Heisman contests in recent memory.

Of course, in December 2015, Derrick Henry picked up the Tide’s second Heisman Trophy – again, over a Stanford running back, Christian McCaffrey – and in the short span in between the two winners, Alabama has had three additional finalists including second-place finisher AJ McCarron in 2013. Amari Cooper (2014) and Trent Richardson (2011) both finished third in the Heisman voting.

While Alabama’s odds of winning Heisman Trophies have greatly improved during Saban’s reign, Tide players have long been in the conversation for the prize even if it proved elusive. Prior to Saban’s arrival, Alabama players finished in the Heisman’s Top 10 on 17 different occasions dating back to Joe Kilgrow’s fifth-place finish in 1937. The following is a look at Alabama’s complete Heisman history starting with that first run by Kilgrow.

1937: Joe Kilgrow, halfback

Alabama’s first Heisman run came in just the trophy’s third year and its second as an award with a national scope. Senior back Joe Kilgrow embarked upon an All-America campaign that fall earning first-team honors from the International News Service and various Second- and Third Team honors from other selectors.

Along the way, he helped lead the Crimson Tide to a 9-0 start earning a bid to play in the Rose Bowl after posting six shutouts. Against the California Golden Bears in Pasadena, however, the tables were turned as Cal shut out Alabama 13-0. Kilgrow scored in a variety of ways for the Tide that season including passing for touchdowns as well as running for scores, and at the conclusion of the season, he finished fifth in the voting for the Heisman Trophy which went to Yale halfback Clint Frank.

1945, 1947: Harry Gilmer, halfback

Alabama has had some great quarterbacks – names like Bart Starr of the Green Bay Packers, “Broadway Joe” Namath of the New York Jets and Ken Stabler of the Oakland Raiders immediately come to mind now even decades after their careers ended. Between them, they have four Super Bowl titles and three Super Bowl MVP trophies. What they don’t have is a Heisman Trophy or even a single Heisman Top 10 finish.

But there are at least nine Alabama players who spent at least part of their time at quarterback who do have a history with the Heisman, and the first to be among the nation’s leading passers was a kid named Harry Gilmer. Gilmer played for the Crimson Tide from 1944-1947, and in the Heisman votes he is credited as a halfback. But from the moment Gilmer stepped on the Tuscaloosa campus, it was clear he was more than that. As a freshman, he helped lead Alabama to a 5-1-2 finish and a spot in the Sugar Bowl against Duke. Underscoring his contributions in leading the Alabama offense, Gilmer went 8-of-8 passing in the Crimson Tide’s 29-26 loss to the Blue Devils.

That set up a sophomore season in 1945 during which Gilmer’s full array of talents were on display. Gilmer was the undeniable leader for the Tide leading the nation in touchdown passes (13), and in an era when sub-.500 completion percentages were common even among some of the nation’s best quarterbacks, Gilmer connected on 64.8 percent of his attempts. He surged into the Heisman conversation on the strength of performances like his November 3 outing against Kentucky where he completed two 50-yard passes and carried the ball just six times for 216 yards and two touchdowns including a 95-yarder. As if that wasn’t enough, Gilmer also served as the team’s punter and No. 1 kick returner as Alabama finished 10-0 with a 34-14 win over the USC Trojans in the Rose Bowl on the first day of 1946. Gilmer was the game’s MVP that day, and it was Alabama’s last visit to the Rose Bowl until the 2009 season when the Tide won their first national championship under Saban with Ingram, the school’s first Heisman Trophy winner, in the backfield.

Ultimately, Gilmer’s 1945 performance was not enough to win the trophy which went to Army’s Doc Blanchard. But Gilmer’s strong fifth-place showing raised his own profile while also helping to shine a light on the rising Tide program. His sophomore season was his best by far, but he also made a run at the Heisman prize during his 1947 senior season in which he again finished fifth in a competition that included such legendary names as SMU’s Doak Walker, Ole Miss’s Charley Conerly, Texas’ Bobby Layne, Pennsylvania’s Chuck Bednarik and the eventual winner, Notre Dame’s Johnny Lujack.

Alabama - Pat Trammell1961: Pat Trammell, quarterback

Under fourth-year head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, Alabama football was in the midst of a resurgence when quarterback Pat Trammell helped author one of the best seasons of Bryant’s long career as head coach. Trammell, a senior, who was a member of Bryant’s first Alabama squad dating back to 1958, helped direct the Crimson Tide to an unbeaten 11-0 season including a 10-3 win over Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl on January 1, 1962. Just as importantly, he helped mentor a young freshman quarterback named Joe Namath who kept Alabama on top for the next three years culminating with another national championship in 1964. Namath would go on to great acclaim as an NFL quarterback, but it’s Trammell who made a run at the Heisman in 1961 finishing in fifth place behind Syracuse’s Ernie Davis who became the first African-American player to win the trophy that year.

Tragically, both Davis and Trammell would die before the end of the decade. Davis’s story is well-known as he was stricken with leukemia and passed away on May 18, 1963, at the age of only 23. Trammell’s story was equally tragic, however, as he passed away on December 10, 1968, after being diagnosed with metastatic testicular cancer. He was just 28 years old.

1962: Lee Roy Jordan, linebacker

Also a member of Alabama’s 1961 national champion squad, Lee Roy Jordan made his own Heisman run the following year as the Crimson Tide jumped out to an 8-0 start in defense of their national title. A 7-6 upset loss at Georgia Tech in the ninth week of the season ultimately cost the Tide a shot at a second consecutive national title, but the team finished strong to win its final two games including a 17-0 win over Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl on January 1, 1963. Jordan recorded 31 tackles in the game to earn MVP honors – his second bowl MVP award after being named the MVP of the 1960 Bluebonnet Bowl. Following the season, Jordan was named a unanimous All-American and finished a respectable fourth in the Heisman voting which was won by Oregon State quarterback Terry Baker.

Jordan went on to enjoy a long career (1963-1976) with the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys eventually earning induction into the team’s legendary Ring of Honor.

1965: Steve Sloan, quarterback

Alabama’s next push for the Heisman came during the 1965 season when Namath’s former backup Steve Sloan finally moved into the starting quarterback role. Sloan led the Crimson Tide to a 9-1-1 finish and a 39-28 win over Nebraska in the Orange Bowl on January 1, 1966. Alabama was crowned the national champion once again, but USC’s Mike Garrett would ultimately claim the 1965 Heisman Trophy. Sloan, meanwhile, finished 10th in the Heisman voting one spot behind another quarterback named Steve who would go on to win the 1966 Heisman Trophy – Steve Spurrier of the Florida Gators.

The two men would cross paths again twenty years later. After just two seasons in the NFL as a player, Sloan embarked on a college coaching career eventually serving as the head coach at Vanderbilt (1973-1974), Texas Tech (1975-1977) and Ole Miss (1978-1982) before spending four seasons leading the Duke Blue Devils (1983-1986). But after having early success at Vanderbilt and Texas Tech, Sloan endured a combined nine straight losing seasons at Ole Miss and Duke before leaving the coaching profession for good after the 1986 season.

Spurrier, meanwhile, had a much longer career as an NFL player which delayed the start of his own coaching career. Following his retirement in 1976, however, he quickly moved up to the offensive coordinator position at Duke for three years (1980-1982) just prior to Sloan’s arrival in Durham. When Sloan stepped down at the end of the 1986 season, the Blue Devil administration moved quickly to bring Spurrier back to Durham as Sloan’s replacement. It would prove to be a great move for both as Spurrier would turn the Blue Devils into winners by his second season before parlaying the success into his own triumphant return to Florida – this time as the program’s head coach.

1971: Johnny Musso, running back

In 1971, Alabama put together another strong run at the national championship finishing the regular season undefeated at 11-0. In the backfield leading the way was a tough running back named Johnny Musso who finished the season with 1,088 yards rushing earning All-America honors in the process. At the time he graduated, he was Alabama’s all-time leading rusher with 2,741 yards in three seasons, and his 221-yard outburst against Auburn in the 1970 Iron Bowl marked him as a Tide legend before he ever left campus.

Auburn quarterback Pat Sullivan, however, would ultimately claim the Heisman Trophy in 1971 while Musso finished fourth. To add insult to injury, the Tide was then demolished by the undefeated defending national champion Nebraska Cornhuskers in a 38-6 blowout on January 1, 1972, in the Orange Bowl.

1972: Terry Davis, quarterback

Alabama quarterback Terry Davis scored the Crimson Tide’s only points in that blowout loss, but the Tide entered the 1972 season with high hopes at making another national title run. At 10-0 heading into the Iron Bowl against Auburn on December 2, 1972, things were looking pretty good, and Davis’s dual-threat capabilities as a passer and a runner had a lot to do with it.

But it was also clear that Alabama relied heavily on a defense that had held all but two opponents under 21 points, and against Auburn, the Crimson Tide offense was stymied in a 17-16 loss. Three days after the game, Davis finished fifth in the vote for the Heisman Trophy that went to Nebraska’s Johnny Rogers who had scored on a 77-yard punt return against the Tide in that Orange Bowl blowout at the start of the year. Davis and the Alabama offense would then end the season on another sour note losing 17-13 to Texas in the Cotton Bowl on January 1, 1973.

1979: Steadman Shealy, quarterback

Several years passed before Alabama’s next Heisman run, and it would prove to be the final Heisman candidacy of the Bear Bryant era. Crimson Tide quarterback Steadman Shealy was another dual threat rushing for 791 yards and 11 touchdowns while passing for 717 more yards with four touchdown tosses. In the end, Shealy led the Tide to a perfect 12-0 finish delivering Bryant his sixth and final national championship. His Heisman run, however, ended with a 10th-place finish as USC’s Charles White collected the trophy.

1983: Walter Lewis, quarterback

Following the 1982 season, the legendary Bryant announced his retirement, and four weeks to the day after coaching Alabama to one final 21-15 victory over Illinois in the Liberty Bowl, Bryant died of a massive heart attack. The date was January 26, 1983, and Bryant was 69 years old.

He was replaced by one of his former players, Ray Perkins, who had played for Bryant from 1964-1966 as a teammate of Steve Sloan during the 1965 season when the latter finished 10th in the Heisman voting. Perkins was the coach of the New York Giants when he accepted the offer to coach Alabama, and in his first season back in Tuscaloosa, his starting quarterback Walter Lewis turned in another 10th-place finish in the Heisman vote that ultimately went to Nebraska’s Mike Rozier.

1986: Cornelius Bennett, linebacker

Perkins would only last four years in Tuscaloosa before heading back to the NFL to coach the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but in his final season at Alabama, he had another player attract attention from Heisman voters. Linebacker Cornelius Bennett was a three-time All-American during his college career (1983-1986), and he capped it with a senior season in which he also won the Lombardi Award. Alabama was 7-0 during his final campaign before stumbling to a 3-3 finish in the final six games, but Bennett finished seventh in the Heisman voting anyway. While Miami (FL) quarterback Vinny Testaverde took home the prize, it was college football’s year of the linebacker with three finishing in the top 10 of the Heisman voting including Oklahoma’s Brian Bosworth (4th) and Ohio State’s Chris Spielman (10th) in addition to Bennett. In the NFL Draft the following spring, Testaverde was selected first by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but Bennett was then chosen No. 2 by the Indianapolis Colts making him the highest selection of an Alabama defensive player in the draft’s history.

1987: Bobby Humphrey, running back

In 1987, Bill Curry took over as head coach of the Crimson Tide, and that fall he featured a heavy dose of junior running back Bobby Humphrey. Humphrey carried the ball 238 times for 1,255 yards and 11 touchdowns while adding another 22 receptions for 170 yards and two more scores. It was enough to attract some Heisman votes, and Humphrey ended the season by finishing 10th in the Heisman voting. The trophy, meanwhile, went to Notre Dame wide receiver Tim Brown.

Humphrey’s son, Marlon, is now a legacy cornerback for the Crimson Tide, and he will be a redshirt sophomore in the fall of 2016. (He is also a member of The Program, an annual feature in the College Football America Yearbook.)

Alabama - Derrick Thomas1988: Derrick Thomas, linebacker

For the third year in a row, the Alabama Crimson Tide had a player place in the final Heisman voting, and for the second time in three years, it was one of college football’s most dominant linebackers. Derrick Thomas’s 1988 season is still one of the most remarkable performances in college history as he set an NCAA record with 27 sacks.

On top of that, he added an unheard of 44 quarterback hurries for a total of 71 times that he pressured a quarterback that fall. He wrapped up his final season with the NCAA’s career sack record as well with 52, and he took home the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker that fall.

Thomas ended up finishing 10th in a Heisman vote that was won by Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders, and the following spring he was selected fourth overall by the Kansas City Chiefs in the 1989 NFL Draft behind UCLA’s Troy Aikman, Michigan State’s Tony Mandarich and Sanders with another Sanders – Florida State’s Deion Sanders – going at No. 5. Of those top five, four would go on to Hall of Fame careers in the NFL including Thomas with only Mandarich falling short of expectations.

1992: Eric Curry, defensive end

By the time defensive end Eric Curry became Alabama’s next Heisman candidate in 1992, the Crimson Tide had changed coaches again with Gene Stallings taking over for Bill Curry in 1990. Eric Curry was an essential piece of Alabama’s top-ranked defense in the fall of 1992, and he became the latest Tide player to finish at the bottom of the Heisman’s Top 10 when he tied for 9th place with Stanford’s Glyn Milburn. Miami (FL) quarterback Gino Toretta, meanwhile, claimed the hardware, but more importantly for Curry, the Crimson Tide once again ascended college football’s throne winning the 1993 Sugar Bowl in a 34-13 rout of Toretta’s Hurricanes. The championship was the first arranged under the rules of the Bowl Coalition that eventually evolved into the Bowl Alliance and, finally, the Bowl Championship Series that preceded the College Football Playoff.

1993: David Palmer, wide receiver/running back/return specialist

Prior to 1993, the best finish by an Alabama player in the Heisman voting was fourth place – a feat first accomplished by linebacker Lee Roy Jordan in 1962 and matched by Johnny Musso in 1971. The Heisman ceremony wasn’t televised live, however, until Marcus Allen’s win in 1981, and it wasn’t until the following year in 1982 that the ceremony began inviting multiple finalists. While 13 Alabama players received votes for the Heisman from Joe Kilgrow in 1937 to Eric Curry in 1992, none of them were officially finalists at the Heisman ceremony. David Palmer became the first Crimson Tide player to become a Heisman finalist when he was invited to the ceremony on December 11, 1993, along with Florida State’s Charlie Ward and Tennessee’s Heath Shuler. Palmer was an all-purpose talent who led the Tide in receiving with 61 receptions for 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns while adding 278 yards on the ground on 42 carries. He was the team’s top kick returner (20-439) and punt returner (31-244), and he even took snaps at quarterback as one of the earliest players to star in what would become known as the “Wildcat” formation completing 15-of-30 passes for 260 yards and two more touchdowns.

In the end, Palmer finished third in the Heisman voting – Alabama’s highest finish at the time – while Florida State’s Charlie Ward took home the prize. On the field, Alabama finished 9-3-1, but in 1995 the team was forced to forfeit all but one game after an NCAA investigation determined that team captain Antonio Langham had signed with an agent prior to the 2013 season.

1994: Jay Barker, quarterback

One year after having its first Heisman finalist, the Alabama program had its second. Quarterback Jay Barker was one of six finalists invited to the Heisman ceremony that December after leading the Tide to the SEC Championship Game. Alabama was 11-0 heading into the December 3 matchup vs. the SEC East champion Florida Gators, but the Tide was unable to prevail in a hard-fought 24-23 loss at the Georgia Dome. The loss cost Alabama a shot at its second national championship in three years, but the Tide finished the season strong with a 24-17 win over Ohio State in the Citrus Bowl. In between the championship game and the bowl game, Barker finished fifth in the Heisman vote as the trophy went to Colorado’s Rashaan Salaam.

Alabama - Shaun Alexander1999: Shaun Alexander, running back

Gene Stallings announced his retirement at the conclusion of the 1996 regular season, and eventually, the Tide settled on the team’s defensive line coach, Mike DuBose, as his replacement.

DuBose had been on the staff since Stallings took over in 1990, and was also a former Tide player (1971-1974) who played with former Crimson Tide Heisman candidates Johnny Musso and Terry Davis. He knew the program well, but his tenure was hampered by sanctions dating back to Stallings’ regime. He ultimately lasted just four seasons, but his third season would prove special with a 10-3 finish led by running back Shaun Alexander who rushed for 1,383 yards and 19 touchdowns. Alexander also caught 25 passes for 323 yards and four more scores, and he also scored on one of his only two kickoff returns.

Ultimately, he wasn’t one of the five finalists that vied for the trophy won by the NCAA’s all-time rushing leader Ron Dayne of Wisconsin, but he did finish seventh in the voting to add another chapter to Alabama’s Heisman history.

2009: Mark Ingram, running back

For much of the early 2000’s, Alabama’s football program was in disarray starting with Dennis Franchione replacing DuBose after the 2000 season only to bail on the team after just two seasons. His replacement, former Washington State coach Mike Price, only lasted through the following spring when he was dismissed after reports surfaced of him visiting a strip bar during a visit to Pensacola for a charity golf tournament. Mike Shula was then hired to replace Price before being terminated in 2006 with the program never having fully recovered from previous sanctions. Shula’s replacement, however, would prove to be one of the greatest hires in college football history, and to this date, it has yielded four national titles in nine years.

Not only has Nick Saban returned the Tide to national championship glory, he has also turned the Tide’s star players into perennial contenders for the Heisman Trophy. His first player to make a run at the trophy was Mark Ingram during what would also prove to be the Tide’s first national title run under Saban in 2009. The Tide were unstoppable that year rolling to a 14-0 finish, and Ingram was the engine that made it all work rushing for 1,658 yards and 17 touchdowns while adding 32 receptions for 334 yards and three more scores. In the end, Ingram held off four other finalists in an exciting finish to win Alabama’s first Heisman Trophy.

2011: Trent Richardson, running back

In 2011, the Tide won its second title of the Saban era with another running back making the wheels turn on offense. This time it was Trent Richardson’s turn to shine, and he ran 1,679 yards and 21 touchdowns as the Tide rebounded from a regular-season loss to LSU to beat the Tigers in a rematch for the national championship. Like Ingram before him, Richardson was also effective catching passes out of the backfield hauling in 29 receptions for 338 yards and three scores. While his overall numbers were slightly better than Ingram’s Heisman-winning numbers, his competition was also stronger, and in a field of five finalists, he finished third behind the winner from Baylor, Robert Griffin III, and Stanford’s Andrew Luck.

2013: AJ McCarron, quarterback

Alabama won its third national title under Saban in 2012, and the quarterback of that team, AJ McCarron, was a preseason favorite on many lists the next season to make a bid for the 2013 Heisman Trophy. Indeed, the redshirt senior made a nice run at the trophy completing 226-of-336 passes for 3,063 yards with 28 touchdowns and only seven interceptions.

Unfortunately for McCarron, a redshirt freshman named Jameis Winston was even better completing 257-of-384 attempts for 4,057 yards and 40 touchdowns with 10 interceptions. Even more importantly, Winston was the quarterback for the undefeated, national champion Florida State Seminoles who wrapped up a 14-0 season by defeating Alabama’s archrival Auburn 34-31 in the BCS National Championship Game. Winston ultimately would win the Heisman Trophy with McCarron settling for second among the six finalists invited to the ceremony.

2014: Amari Cooper, wide receiver

In 2014, Alabama had its fourth finalist of the Saban era when wide receiver Amari Cooper was named one of three finalists. Cooper was phenomenal in the first year of Alabama’s offense under new coordinator Lane Kiffin hauling in 124 passes for 1,727 yards and 16 touchdowns. Ultimately, it was good enough to win the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top receiver, but as is usually the case for receivers, it wasn’t good enough for the Heisman. Cooper ultimately settled for third behind the winner Marcus Mariota of Oregon and second-place Melvin Gordon of Wisconsin.

12/19/2015: Heisman winner Henry headlines RTS All-Americans

2015: Derrick Henry

Last season, for the fifth time in nine years under Saban’s direction, the Alabama Crimson Tide produced a Heisman finalist. This time it was junior running back Derrick Henry at the center of attention, but for the first eight games, Henry had to settle for playing second fiddle to LSU sophomore Leonard Fournette on the national scene. But while the award was considered Fournette’s to lose heading into the November 7 showdown between Henry’s Crimson Tide and Fournette’s Tigers, it was ultimately Henry who came away looking like the bigger star. It didn’t hurt that Alabama also won the game 30-16, and from that point on, Henry was considered the frontrunner.

He didn’t disappoint rolling up 2,219 yards and 28 touchdowns by season’s end while leading Alabama to a 45-41 win over Clemson in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game. There was little drama when Henry was selected as the 2015 winner of the Heisman Trophy over Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson.




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