7-Pound Purple Dumbbells and 14 More Gimmicky Heisman Campaigns

Last month, the Northwestern athletic department garnered national attention when it shipped two 7-pound purple dumbbells to about 80 college football writers across the country. A subtle hint that the recipients should spend a little more time in the gym? No, just part of the school’s preseason Heisman Trophy campaign for quarterback Dan Persa, who wears No. 7 and was named the Wildcats’ strongest player. Here’s a short history of the Heisman campaigning tradition and some of the more interesting gimmicks through the years.

1. Vote Terry Baker

The Heisman Trophy was first awarded in 1935, but schools didn’t do much campaigning for players until nearly 30 years later. In 1962, Oregon State publicist John Eggers helped Beavers quarterback Terry Baker become the first player west of the Mississippi to win college football’s most prestigious award by mailing updated stats and notes about Baker to voters every week. In 2010, Eggers was elected into the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA) Hall of Fame.

2. Meet Roger Staubach

Trumpeting your star player’s exploits on a national level would soon become the norm for college athletic departments.

In the summer of 1963, Navy sports information director L. Budd Thalman mailed 1,000, four-page pamphlets titled “Meet Roger Staubach” to media members near and far. Thalman also helped land the Navy quarterback on the covers of Sports Illustrated and Time. Staubach was scheduled to appear on the cover of the November issue of Life, but he was bumped after the assassination of President Kennedy.

Staubach won the Heisman by a landslide, but Thalman, like Eggers one year before, refused to take any of the credit. “Roger would have won if Elmer Fudd was his publicity man,” Thalman told ESPN’s Darren Rovell in 2000.

3. Joey Heisman

In 2001, University of Oregon boosters spent $250,000 to erect a 10-story billboard of Ducks quarterback Joey Harrington across from Madison Square Garden in New York City. Harrington led Oregon to an 11-1 season and a victory in the Fiesta Bowl, but he finished fourth in the Heisman voting. In 2003, while playing in the NFL, Harrington sold pieces of the 80-foot by 100-foot billboard to help fund scholarships for Oregon’s Lundquist College of Business.

4. A Little Something for Jason Gesser

Not to be outdone by its neighbor and conference foe to the southwest, Washington State promoted quarterback Jason Gesser for the Heisman in 2002 with a 25-foot by 15-foot vinyl poster on a 10-story grain elevator in tiny Dusty, Washington, which is on the road to Pullman from Seattle. “We did it for fun, for a spoof,” Washington State head coach Mike Price said. “Jason is a bit embarrassed by it.” The poster was about 100 times cheaper than Harrington’s billboard.

5. Bobble Byron Leftwich

The Marshall sports information department distributed approximately 1,000 Byron Leftwich bobblehead dolls to Heisman voters across the country to promote the Thundering Herd’s quarterback in 2002. “I think it’s a good idea,” Leftwich said. “My head’s already too big in real life. People will see the doll and think my head’s not so big.” Big head or not, Leftwich wasn’t a finalist for the award.

6. Air Ware

With Houston banned from appearing on television in 1989 as part of the NCAA sanctions levied against the school, the Cougars’ sports information department needed a creative way to promote quarterback Andre “Air” Ware for the Heisman. The result was a weekly flier designed to look like an airline timetable, which included updated stats and notes about the prolific passer. Ware won the award and would go on to become the seventh pick in the 1990 NFL Draft. By that point, his best football days were behind him.

7. Theismann as in Heisman

 After Joe Theismann arrived at Notre Dame in 1967, sports information director Roger Valdiserri convinced him to change the pronunciation of his name from Thees-man to Thighs-man. You know, like in Heisman. Theismann enjoyed a successful career in South Bend, but finished runner-up to Stanford quarterback Jim Plunkett in the Heisman voting in 1970.

Six years later, Pittsburgh running back Tony Dorsett changed the pronunciation of his name (from DOR-set to Dor-SET) around the time that he was awarded the Heisman. “Lots of guys change their names,” Dorsett told a reporter in 1977. “Muhammad Ali. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I wanted to see the type of feedback I’d get.”

8. Fit to Be Tied

In 1990, BYU mailed cardboard ties that opened to reveal stats to Heisman voters as part of the campaign for quarterback Ty Detmer. The junior threw for 5,188 yards and 41 touchdowns in 12 regular season games and won the Heisman. Detmer would finish third in the voting in 1991.

9. Oats for Votes

Touting a center for the Heisman Trophy is a tough sell, but that’s exactly what BYU did in 1981 when it sprinkled rolled oats in envelopes along with notes about Bart Oates that it mailed to voters. Oates didn’t come close to winning the award, but he went on to a successful NFL career that included five Pro Bowls and later starred as himself in a 2005 episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force.

10. Super “Boo Boo”

After Paul Palmer didn’t receive a single Heisman vote despite averaging 193.7 yards rushing per game in 1985, Temple’s sports information office pulled out all the stops to promote its start running back. Nicknamed by his grandmother after the sidekick in the Yogi Bear comic strip, Palmer was featured in a 16-page comic book that was mailed to more than 1,000 sportswriters. Temple also sent photos of Palmer posing with golfing legend Arnold Palmer with the tagline “Pennsylvania has two Palmers” and Paul Palmer-emblazoned pens with sample Heisman ballots. Palmer finished runner-up for the Heisman that year to Vinny Testaverde.

11. Raking in the Votes

In 1997, Rod Commons, who worked under John Eggers at Oregon State, mailed envelopes with a single leaf inside to Heisman voters to promote Cougars quarterback Ryan Leaf. The Pac-10’s Offensive Player of the Year in 1997, Leaf led the Cougars to the Rose Bowl, but finished third in the Heisman voting behind Charles Woodson and Peyton Manning.

12. See Ray Run

In addition to launching SeeRayRun.com, Rutgers mailed binoculars to Heisman voters so they could keep an eye on the Scarlet Knights’ diminutive running back in 2007. He wasn’t a finalist for the award, but he has enjoyed a solid NFL career with the Baltimore Ravens.

13. Stock in Williams

Memphis sports information director Jennifer Rodrigues made headlines with her campaign for running back DeAngelo Williams in 2005. Memphis mailed about 2,500 die-cast model stock cars featuring Williams’ No. 20 to media members and sold another 1,500 on the school website. Williams finished seventh in the Heisman voting that year and Memphis made $20,000 from the sale of the cars, which it put toward its general scholarship fund.

14. View-Master

 In 2008, the University of Missouri promoted quarterback Chase Daniel’s Heisman candidacy by issuing old-school View-master toys with slides featuring various images of Daniel. "I didn't want to do just a mouse pad or a coffee mug, other standard items or more basic items. I didn't want to do anything that people could just toss aside," Missouri sports information director Chad Moller told reporters. "We wanted to create a little splash and do it in a classy manner."

Bonus: Tom Garlick

OK, so it wasn’t for the Heisman, but Fordham deserves some credit for its three-week campaign to get wide receiver Tom Garlick some consideration for Division I-AA All-America honors in 1992. The school’s sports information office mailed fliers to sportswriters across the country. The top of the flier read “This Garlic Stinks” and included a piece of garlic. The middle section of the flier read “This One Doesn’t” and included Garlick’s stats. Garlick was an honorable mention All-America that season.

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EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images
EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images

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Bo Knows Everything: Remembering Nike's Legendary Bo Jackson Ad Campaign

Bo Jackson and the "Bo Knows" campaign helped Nike finally overtake Reebook in the early 1990s.
Bo Jackson and the "Bo Knows" campaign helped Nike finally overtake Reebook in the early 1990s.
Mike Powell, Allsport/Getty Images

It may have been difficult for Nike to conceive of any athlete being able to do more for its company than Michael Jordan. In the late 1980s and 1990s, the Chicago Bulls star was omnipresent, helping turn their Air Jordan line of sneakers into a squeaky chorus in school hallways and gyms around the country. Even better, the company had scored big with “Just Do It,” an advertising slogan introduced in 1988 that became part of the public lexicon.

There was just one issue. In spite of Jordan’s growing popularity and their innovative advertising, Nike was still in second place behind Reebok. No other athlete on their roster could seemingly bridge the gap. Not even their new cross-training shoe endorsed by tennis pro John McEnroe was igniting excitement in the way the company had hoped.

In 1989, two major events changed all of that: An advertising copywriter was struck with inspiration, and two-sport athlete Bo Jackson slammed a first-inning home run during the Major League Baseball All-Star Game. The ad man’s idea was to portray Jackson as being able to do just about anything. Jackson went ahead and proved him right.

 

Bo Jackson was an ideal spokesperson for Nike's new line of cross-training sneakers. The Auburn University graduate was making waves as a rare two-sport pro athlete; he was playing baseball for the Kansas City Royals and football for the Los Angeles Raiders. Early commercials featured Jackson sampling other sporting activities like riding a bike. “Now, when’s that Tour de France?” he asked. In another, he dunked a basketball and pondered the potential of “Air Bo.”

At a Portland bar near Nike’s headquarters one evening, Nike vice president of marketing Tom Clarke and Jim Riswold of ad agency Wieden + Kennedy were pondering how best to use Jackson going forward. Clarke wanted to devote the majority of their budget for the cross-trainers to an ad campaign featuring the athlete. The two started lobbing ideas about other people named Bo—Bo Derek, Beau Brummell, Little Bo Peep, and Bo Diddley, among others.

The last one stuck with Riswold. He thought of a phrase—“Bo, you don’t know Diddley”—and went home to sleep on it. When he woke up the next morning, he was able to sketch out an entire commercial premise in minutes. Riswold envisioned a spot in which Jackson would try his hand at other sports, punctuating each with a “Bo Knows” proclamation. Jackson soon realizes the one thing he can’t do is play guitar with Bo Diddley, the legendary musician.

It took longer to shoot the commercial than to conceive of it. The spot was shot over the course of a month, with the crew going to California, Florida, and Kansas to film cameos with other athletes including Jordan, McEnroe, and Wayne Gretzky—all of whom Nike had under personal appearance contracts.

Fearing Jackson might hurt himself trying to skate, the production filmed him from the knees up sliding around in socks at a University of Kansas gymnasium rather than on ice. But not all attempts at caution were successful. When director Joe Pytka grew frustrated that Jackson kept running off-camera and implored him to move in a straight line, Jackson steamrolled both the equipment and Pytka, who had to tend to a bloody nose before continuing.

In portraying any other athlete this way, the campaign may have come off as stretching credulity. But Jackson had already been improving his game in all areas, hitting a 515-foot home run during a spring training win over the Boston Red Sox. In April, he hit .282 and tallied eight home runs. Even when he struck out, he still stood out: Jackson was prone to breaking his bat over his knee in frustration.

 

After Jackson was voted into the 1989 MLB All-Star Game in July, Nike decided the telecast would be the ideal place to debut their Bo Knows campaign. They handed out Bo Knows pennants for fans and even flew Bo Knows signs overhead. Bo Knows appeared in a full-page spot for USA Today. Even by Nike standards, this was big.

There was, of course, a chance Jackson would be in a bat-breaking mood, which might diminish the commercial’s impact. But in the very first inning, Jackson sent one into the stands off pitcher Rick Reuschel. With a little scrambling, Nike was able to get their ad moved up from the fourth inning, where it was originally scheduled to run. In the broadcast booth, announcer Vin Scully and special guest, former president Ronald Reagan, marveled at Jackson’s prowess. Scully reminded viewers that his pro football career was something Jackson once described as a “hobby.”

A Bo Jackson fan is pictured holding up a 'Bo Knows Baseball!' sign at the Major League Baseball All-Star Game at Anaheim Stadium in Anaheim, California on July 11, 1989
A Bo Jackson fan shows his support at the MLB All-Star Game in Anaheim, California on July 11, 1989.
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Jackson was named the Most Valuable Player of the game. That summer and into the fall, Bo Knows was quickly moving up the ranks of the most pervasive commercial spots in memory, second only to Jordan’s memorable ads for Nike and McDonald’s. Jackson turned up in sequels, trying his hand at everything from surfing to soccer to cricket. Special effects artists created multiple Bo Jacksons, a seemingly supernatural explanation for why he excelled at everything.

It was a myth, but one rooted in reality. After 92 wins with the Royals as a left-fielder in 1989, Jackson reported for the NFL season that fall as a running back for the Raiders. In one three-game stretch, he ran for over 100 yards each. Against the Cincinnati Bengals in November, Jackson ran 92 yards for a touchdown. He finished the season with 950 rushing yards. That winter, he was named to the Pro Bowl, making him the only athlete to appear in two all-star games for two major North American sports in consecutive seasons.

Nike was staggered by the results of Bo Knows, which helped them leap over Reebok to become the top athletic shoe company. They eventually secured 80 percent of the cross-training shoe market, going from $40 million in sales to $400 million, a feat that executives attributed in large part to Jackson. Bo Knows, bolstered by Jackson’s demonstrated versatility, was the perfect marriage of concept and talent. His stature as a spokesperson rose, and he appeared in spots for AT&T and Mountain Dew Sport, earning a reported $2 million a year for endorsements. A viewer survey named him the most persuasive athlete in advertising. If that weren’t enough, Jackson also appeared in the popular Nintendo Entertainment System game Tecmo Bowl and on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1989.

 

In 1991, Jackson suffered a serious hip injury during a Raiders game, one that permanently derailed his football career. He played three more seasons of baseball with the Chicago White Sox and California Angels before retiring from sports in 1994.

Jackson's relationship with Nike was dissolved soon after, though the company never totally abandoned the concept of athletes wading into new territory. In 2004, a campaign depicted big names sampling other activities. Tennis great Andre Agassi suited up for the Boston Red Sox; cyclist Lance Armstrong was seen boxing; Serena Williams played beach volleyball. The Bo Knows DNA ran throughout.

Jackson still makes periodic references to the campaign, including in advertisements for his Bo Jackson Signature Foods. (“Bo Knows Meat,” the website proclaims.) In 2019, Jackson also appeared in a Sprint commercial that aimed for surrealism, with Jackson holding a mermaid playing a keytar and having a robot intone that “Bo does know” something about cell phone carriers.

The other key Bo—Diddley—never quite understood why the campaign worked. After seeing the commercial, he reportedly said that he was confused because it had nothing to do with shoes.