As Heisman finalist and sophomore sensation Christian McCaffrey heads to New York for the award ceremony, he joins a short list of Stanford football legends who were also named finalists for college football’s most prestigious award.
Although McCaffrey’s journey marks the sixth time a Stanford football player has been named a Heisman finalist, quarterback Jim Plunkett ’71 remains the only Stanford player to ever have won the award. The other finalists have all fallen just short, establishing a trend of Cardinal Heisman runner-ups.
Plunkett took home the Heisman as a senior in 1970 after coming in eighth place in the previous year’s voting. Although he was not considered to be a legitimate contender at the start of his senior year, Plunkett threw for 2,715 yards and 19 touchdowns — an outstanding season at the time — leading Stanford to a Pac-8 championship along the way.
It was the “Year of the Quarterback,” and Plunkett beat out Joe Theismann and Archie Manning to become the first, and at this point only, Stanford player to win the Heisman Trophy. His stellar senior season ended on a high note, as Plunkett led the then-Stanford Indians to a Rose Bowl upset victory over No. 1 Ohio State.
Other star Stanford quarterbacks have not been so lucky.
In 1982, John Elway ’83 was voted the runner-up to Georgia’s Herschel Walker, and more recently, Andrew Luck ’12 came in second two years in a row in 2010 and 2011.
Elway’s terrific quarterbacking was hampered by four years of otherwise mediocre Stanford performances: Despite his best efforts, he never took the Cardinal to a bowl game.
Even when a win seemed all but guaranteed, Elway’s final chance to go bowling was spoiled by the now-infamous “Play” at the end of the 1982 Big Game. With four seconds left on the clock and a one-point lead, Stanford kicked off, and, with a series of laterals, the Golden Bears managed to return it for a touchdown while dodging members of the LSJUMB who had prematurely taken the field.
In more recent years, Andrew Luck became Stanford’s first two-time Heisman runner-up and the fourth in Heisman history, losing first to Auburn’s Cam Newton in 2010 and then to Baylor’s Robert Griffin III in 2011. To many Cardinal fans, these perceived snubs were examples of a pervasive “East Coast bias” that discounted the strength and difficulty of the Pac-10/Pac-12 Conference.
McCaffrey joins Toby Gerhart ’10 as the second Stanford running back to be named a Heisman finalist. In 2009, Gerhart fell just short of Alabama’s Mark Ingram, losing by a mere 28 votes — the smallest margin of victory in Heisman history. That year, Gerhart led the FBS in rushing yards and touchdowns, set Stanford records in several rushing categories and took home the Doak Walker Award, which honors the nation’s best collegiate running back.
With a Stanford running back once again finding himself facing off against Alabama’s finest this year, look for a healthy sense of deja vu on Saturday. In a splendid sophomore season, McCaffrey has shattered Gerhart’s records and broken the FBS all-purpose yards record in fewer touches than Barry Sanders, whose mark stood for 27 years. McCaffrey is the only player in the country to lead his team in both rushing and receiving.
The Heisman Trophy Ceremony will take place at 5 p.m. and will be aired on ESPN.
Contact Olivia Hummer at ohummer ‘at’ stanford.edu.