May 24, 2011
There's never been any shortage of obscure, one-sided feuds in sports that continue to baffle outsiders — except for the "one-sided" part, this pretty much describes the whole of international soccer — but nowhere do they come more baffling or more one-sided than the grudge Tennessee fans carry to this day against ex-Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson, the unworthy interloper who "stole" Peyton Manning's Heisman Trophy more than 13 years ago. The wound has only festered with time: As Vol villains go, Woodson remains even more despised by Tennessee fans than their old Florida nemesis, Danny Wuerffel, whose head-to-head ownership of Manning in the Gator routs of 1995 and 1996 planted the seed of Manning's fate as the consummate runner-up in the first place.
But Woodson is only one half of the equation. The other half, of course, is the media that — in collective Vol memory, anyway — relentlessly stumped for a sexier candidate to add some spice to a one-man race featuring a boring, clean-cut Southern quarterback. In college football in 1997, "the media" meant "ESPN." Opinion-making on ESPN meant College GameDay, and GameDay meant Chris Fowler — the guy who personally emceed Woodson's triumph in New York that December.
Which is why, in "Those Guys Have All the Fun," James Andrew Miller's new 784-page exploration of the "World of ESPN," Fowler wants to make it very clear, for the record, that he is not responsible for costing Peyton Manning the Heisman Trophy:
In the weeks leading up to the Heisman announcement, when we talked about it on GameDay, I would just point out that if you read the tea leaves, it was not going to be a slam dunk for Peyton Manning, which you were hearing a lot ahead of time. People assumed Peyton Manning had the Heisman won. All I said was that this wasn't a done deal. I wasn't trying to hype Charles Woodson or the show for that matter. The show was going to rate what it rated. I was just doing my job. But there were people at Tennessee who were frustrated and took it very personally. ESPN didn't have the SEC games at that point, didn't have as much of a relationship with the conference as we do now. We were seen as "the Big Ten Conference" by some people in that part of the world, and we were perceived to have an agenda...
...Immediately, the story wasn't that Charles Woodson won the Heisman; the story was that Peyton Manning didn't win it. And I was the guy that was seen giving it to Woodson. I got a lot of negative feedback. The phone was rining off the hook that night. Then I got a lot of letters, and a lot of other hateful stuff directed at me personally. I was across a chain-link fence at the Orange Bowl from Tennessee fans a month later, and it was really, really edgy; very difficult and uncomfortable. And it stayed that way for a while. We didn't go back to Knoxville with GameDay for a few years, and when we did, we paid attention to security.
By the way, I had voted for Peyton Manning to win the Heisman Trophy.
See? It was nothing personal, you guys.Just a man with very well-manicured hair trying to keep things in perspective.
And even if Fowler is conveniently skipping the part where he described the reaction of Tennessee fans to Woodson's win as a "trailer-park frenzy" on a national radio show, he's also being diplomatic by not stating the obvious: Peyton Manning didn't win the Heisman Trophy because he tanked the biggest game of the season for the third year in a row. Woodson's defining moment was a spectacular play against a highly-ranked, hated rival that helped propel his team on to a national championship; Manning's was an ugly pick-six against a highly-ranked, hated rival that helped cost his team a national championship. Cold case closed.
Manning didn't do anything to bolster his case against Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, either, which is probably as close as Tennessee has come to exacting revenge for the Heisman vote. But we don't have time to wake up every sleeping dog, do we?