Peyton Manning, Michigan’s split title and the enduring conspiracies of 1997

Sports

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — On the back wall of Gus’ Good Times Deli, an iconic eatery on the University of Tennessee campus, hangs an oversized banner that has been in place for at least two decades and serves as a stark reminder to the rest of the college football world.

And while the distinct Tennessee orange shade of the banner might have faded slightly over time, the anger behind the sentiment has not.

Don’t Blame Us. We Voted For Manning.

In these parts, they don’t refer to the award for the top player in college football as the Heisman Trophy. They refer to it, if they refer to it at all, as the “Heistman.”

The Vols faithful — from message-board posters to Hall of Fame coaches — remain angry and bewildered that favorite son Peyton Manning lost out on the 1997 Heisman to Michigan’s Charles Woodson, the first and only primarily defensive player to win the award.

But beyond that, they are convinced of foul play. They believe the national media engineered a campaign to promote Woodson at the expense of Manning.

To make their case, Tennessee partisans point out that Manning was completely left off 110 ballots, meaning 110 voters didn’t place the future No. 1 draft pick and NFL Hall of Famer first, second or third. (Woodson was left off 88 ballots.) Woodson won the vote by 272 points and won every region but the South.

“How does that happen unless you’re trying to make sure that one guy wins it and another guy doesn’t?” said former Tennessee offensive tackle Trey Teague, who roomed with Manning in college and played nine seasons in the NFL.

“I haven’t paid attention to [the Heisman] or really cared about it since that night in New York City,” then-Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer told ESPN this fall. “It’s nothing against [Woodson], either. He was a great player. But as you look back, there were all kinds of dynamics that went into it. ABC and ESPN weren’t carrying the SEC back then. They were carrying the Big Ten.

“The bottom line is the best player in college football didn’t win it that year, and nobody in Tennessee has forgotten or ever will forget.”

Five hundred miles north, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a different conspiracy surrounding Tennessee and 1997 lingers.

After Woodson won the Heisman, the Wolverines entered the postseason unbeaten and No. 1 in both the Associated Press and USA Today Coaches polls. Michigan beat No. 8 Washington State 20-16 in the Rose Bowl to finish 12-0. The next day, No. 2 Nebraska — also unbeaten — throttled No. 3 Tennessee 42-17.

In the last year of a pre-BCS world, when polls determined the national title, Michigan remained No. 1 in the AP poll. But Nebraska leapfrogged the Wolverines to finish No. 1 in the coaches poll and claimed a split championship.

The way the 62-person balloting broke down, the Cornhuskers earned 32 first-place votes (up from 8½ in the pre-bowl poll) and 30 seconds. Michigan received 30 firsts but not 32 seconds. Based on the final tally of points, the Wolverines either fell to third on two ballots or all the way to fourth on one. One extra first-place vote would have meant at least a tie for No. 1 in the coaches poll.

The suspicions of many Michigan fans turned to Fulmer. It’s a claim the coach, who said at the time he was voting Nebraska No. 1, has repeatedly called “ridiculous” over the years.

“Yes, I’ve heard that once or twice,” Fulmer said sarcastically. “But that’s not true, none of it is. I can’t remember exactly where I did vote them, but I voted like I thought it should be, right near the top because they were one of the top teams that year.”

But even some Michigan players have wondered.

“Because he was so vocal about Peyton Manning not winning the Heisman, you didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure it out,” said Chris Howard, the leading rusher on Michigan’s 1997 team. “It just seemed like he was the most obvious person that changed their vote.”

Is there any evidence to support either side’s claims? No.

Will that stop the rampant speculation? Also no.

This year’s Heisman Trophy ceremony is Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN) and neither Tennessee nor Michigan has a finalist to the dismay of both fan bases. The old wound was reopened for Volunteers fans — including Teague, who tweeted “Heisman Trophy is a joke. Since 1997” when quarterback Hendon Hooker didn’t make the cut. Wolverines running back Blake Corum won’t be in New York, either.

But in a season in which both schools made a run at the College Football Playoff and flirted with the Heisman, the wild year of 1997 and its aftermath was never far from the surface.


EACH YEAR WHEN the Heisman ceremony rolls around, Mike McMahan’s blood pressure rises. McMahan, a UT graduate, is the son of the late Ron McMahan, a longtime editor of the Knoxville Journal newspaper. The elder McMahan was also a teammate of Johnny Majors, who was a Heisman runner-up to Notre Dame’s Paul Hornung in 1956. Majors was a star single-wing tailback for the Vols and later became their coach.

“I was told all those stories as a kid, that Notre Dame finished 2-8 that year and Majors still didn’t win it,” McMahan recounted. “So the Peyton one hit hard.”

Manning was impressive in 1997, passing for 3,819 yards (fourth nationally) with 36 touchdowns (third) to just 11 interceptions for the one-loss Vols. He threw four touchdown passes, including a 73-yarder to Marcus Nash in the fourth quarter, during a comeback win over Auburn in the SEC championship game. He set a school record with 523 yards and tied a school mark with five touchdown passes in a win over Kentucky and Tim Couch, the nation’s second-leading passer that season. He added 304 yards and three scores in the Vols’ third consecutive win over Alabama.

James Kirkland roomed with Manning during their senior year at Tennessee. Kirkland, the student body president that year, felt it was obvious ESPN was, in his words, propping up Woodson to make the race interesting and create some drama because Manning seemed like such a shoo-in at the start of the season. Manning returned for his senior season despite being the likely No. 1 overall pick in the 1997 NFL draft.

“It just started to snowball,” Kirkland said. “I remember we’d come back to the fraternity house, and it would be the same two or three highlights of Charles Woodson over and over again on ESPN. They made him look like Superman.

“I don’t think Tennessee fans are mad at Charles Woodson. Look at what an accomplished player he was. We’re mad because of what Peyton had meant to the entire Tennessee family, the way he went out there as a senior and did everything he needed to do on the field to win it — and they found a way to take it from him.”


THE WOLVERINES ENTERED 1997 coming off four consecutive four-loss seasons. They had not won a national title since 1948 and expectations were relatively low, starting the season ranked No. 14 in the AP poll.

“Quite honestly, we had the feeling that we were letting everybody down,” said Mark Campbell, a starting tight end in ’97. But Michigan started hot, stifling No. 8 Colorado 27-3 in the season opener, and never looked back.

Woodson showed a knack for making his biggest plays — whether on offense, defense or special teams — in the biggest games.

And fairly or not, that created a contrast to Manning’s struggles against Florida. Tennessee failed to beat the rival Gators in his three years as starting quarterback, including in 1997, when the Vols’ 33-20 defeat in Gainesville was their only regular-season loss that year.

There was Woodson’s soaring one-handed interception against No. 15 Michigan State (a 23-7 win) and a 37-yard catch-and-run touchdown against No. 3 Penn State (a 34-8 rout).

“That catapulted us even more into the spotlight and Charles even more as well,” Howard said.

Then came the game against No. 4 Ohio State two weeks later. Woodson delivered in the game of the year with a 78-yard punt return score and an interception in a 20-14 triumph.

The following Monday, Michigan found itself with a decisive lead as the No. 1 team in the nation in both the Associated Press and USA Today Coaches polls. Woodson had finished the year with seven interceptions and 43 tackles for the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense (9.5 points per game), while adding three offensive scores.

He was on to New York for the Heisman ceremony.


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Michigan’s Charles Woodson is named the winner of the 1997 Heisman Trophy, the first primary defensive player to ever win the award.

STILL, WOODSON WAS an underdog.

Defensive back Marcus Ray accompanied his roommate to the ceremony. He remembers Woodson asking him, while they were getting ready: “Do you think I can win?”

“Probably not,” Ray replied. “I hope you do. But nobody has ever won on defense.”

So imagine the collective maize-and-blue euphoria when Peter Junge, president of the Downtown Athletic Club, said, “And the winner, from Michigan, Charles Woodson.”

“I screamed, and some strange energy went through my body,” Ray said. “I think you can hear me on the broadcast.”

“We lost our s—,” Howard said. “We were screaming, running out into the streets, popping champagne bottles.”

Things were decidedly more subdued on the other side.

“I was there at the [Heisman] event, and as I look back, when they announced Charles Woodson, and this isn’t to diminish Charles, but there were more media to go see the reaction of Peyton than to see the reaction of Charles,” said David Cutcliffe, who was Tennessee’s offensive coordinator at the time and remains one of Manning’s closest confidants. “I was sick to my stomach about it and still get sick about it.”

Greg Johnson, a former U.S. Marine who did seven deployments in the Middle East, was in Argentina when Woodson was announced as the winner. Johnson played football at Tennessee and was a year ahead of Manning. They were roommates during Manning’s sophomore and junior seasons. Johnson, who didn’t have a TV, sought out an internet café in Argentina to hear the “grim” news.

“I just felt wronged, that a wrong had been committed,” Johnson said. “I still say we have a recount.”

Manning rarely talks about the Heisman flap and said a few years ago he has chosen “not to go down that road.”

“My disappointment was for the University of Tennessee,” Manning told ESPN in 2017. “That’s who I hurt for, all of the great fans and all of the great people there. Tennessee has never had a Heisman winner, but four second-place finishers — Hank Lauricella, Johnny Majors, Heath Shuler and myself. I really wanted to win it for my school, so I was disappointed for that.”

Even former Florida coach Steve Spurrier, who reveled in going 3-0 against the Vols with Manning as the starter, suggests Manning might have been held to a different standard.

“Everybody knows Peyton should have won the Heisman that year. I don’t blame those Tennessee fans for being mad. I voted for him,” said Spurrier, who won the Heisman in 1966. “Yep, we beat ’em a bunch, but it wasn’t just Peyton out there playing by himself. I think some of those Midwest boys in the media just wanted a defensive player, or somebody else, to win it that year. You’d have to ask them.”

The aftermath in Knoxville hit swiftly. A radio station sold T-shirts to benefit a local charity that featured a picture of the Heisman Trophy on the front and said “Keep your stupid trophy” on the back. For several days in a row, fans lined up around the building to get them, and the station sold every shirt it had.

And a year later, as the Vols were making a run to a national championship, center Spencer Riley wore a CBS hat to Fiesta Bowl media days. Asked if he was boycotting ESPN, he snapped, “Damn right. Look at what they did to Peyton and look at the way they talk about us.”

But back in New York at the time of the Heisman announcement, Ray said that on the Vols side, “It felt like a funeral. So we knew after the Heisman, Tennessee wasn’t going to do us any favors with their football team’s game or with their coach in that Orange Bowl.”


MICHIGAN AND NEBRASKA were the lone unbeatens heading into bowl season. Since the Wolverines won the Big Ten, they were contractually obligated to play the Pac-12 champ in the Rose Bowl. The Cornhuskers, meanwhile, had an Orange Bowl date with Manning and Tennessee.

Legendary Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, now 85, told ESPN last month he called the Big Ten to ask whether there was any way Michigan and Nebraska could play each other instead.

“The answer came back they had the Rose Bowl contract, and that couldn’t be changed, and so I understood that, but it’s really a shame when you had two undefeated teams at the end that you couldn’t settle it on the field,” Osborne said.

Then-Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said that was the first he had heard of that phone call.

“I think Coach Osborne’s lucky because if we had played, I think we would have beat Nebraska and then he’d be sorry he didn’t at least get a half,” Carr said with a laugh earlier this month.

Though Michigan had a commanding lead over Nebraska in both the AP and coaches polls headed into their respective bowl games, the Cornhuskers believed there was a chance at a split championship if they played well against the Vols. Osborne was retiring after the season, and the Huskers players made it their mission to finish on top.

“I remember telling the players the door wasn’t wide open, but at least we had a crack,” Osborne said. “I think they seized on that idea.”

Michigan played first, beating Washington State on Jan. 1. In the waning seconds, Washington State quarterback Ryan Leaf — the nation’s leading passer in 1997 — spiked the ball with what appeared to be two seconds on the clock, but the referee ruled no time remained and Michigan held on to win 21-16.

In the jubilant postgame locker room, Carr told his team:

“You have left a wonderful legacy for every team that ever follows you. You … just won the national championship.”

“We celebrated like we had won the national championship,” Michigan offensive tackle Jon Jansen said.

But the polls would not come out until after Nebraska and Tennessee played in Miami the following night. Michigan players recall not paying much attention to what Nebraska did. In their minds, it hardly mattered — they were No. 1 and would stay that way.

On Jan. 2, Nebraska put on a defensive clinic against Tennessee, flustering Manning into his worst game of the season, as he went 21-of-31 for 134 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Manning had been hospitalized weeks earlier after injuring his knee in the SEC championship game. He contracted an infection in his knee and was questionable to play leading up to the game.

Nebraska rolled to a dominant 42-17 victory in the final game of Osborne’s 25-year Nebraska career. Quarterback Scott Frost seized the opportunity in his postgame remarks, talking directly at the 62 coaches who had a vote in the coaches poll. He said, in part:

“I’m so proud of this team and Coach Osborne, I don’t want to see him go out without a championship. … if you can look yourself in the mirror and say if your job depended on playing either Michigan or Nebraska to keep your job, who would you rather play? You watched the Rose Bowl and the Orange Bowl. Michigan won with a controversial play at the end. We took apart the third-ranked team in the country.

“It’s been split before. Colorado and Georgia Tech split it. Washington and Miami split it. It’s OK to split it. It should be split and it’s up to the coaches.”

“To say that Scott didn’t sway some voters with his speech after the game, I think would be crazy,” defensive end Grant Wistrom said. “Scott was one step ahead, thinking, ‘All right, we won the game, now we have to start trying to sway some voters.’ He did a great job with the passionate speech that he gave. Without that, I don’t know that we get the votes.”

Michigan players soon found out what Frost had said.

“If you have to beg and plead, then you know that you’re not the best team,” Ray said. “We didn’t do that. Nobody from our team said, ‘Hey, we should be No. 1 in both polls even if Nebraska wins.'”

There was nothing more for either team to do but wait.

The AP poll came out first. As expected, Michigan finished No. 1.

Osborne was at the team hotel in Miami Beach when he heard a roar. Then came the pounding on his door.

“I figured we had gotten the coaches vote,” Osborne said.

It was just the second time in the history of the coaches poll a team that went into bowl season No. 1, won its bowl game and did not finish No. 1.

Cue the conspiracy theories.

Jim Welch, who served as deputy managing editor for sports at USA Today at the time, oversaw all the coaches’ ballots during weekly voting. He specifically remembers scrutinizing the final ballots that season because both Michigan and Nebraska finished undefeated.

Asked specifically whether he remembered anything off about Fulmer’s ballot, Welch said, “I don’t.”

“Most of the conspiracy theories, including the Phil Fulmer one, did not hold any water at all. Believe me, I looked at every ballot. Although I wasn’t actually involved in the direct tabulation, I would ask questions and review the ballots every week, and especially gave a lot of scrutiny, certainly to the final ones.”

But Welch also said he did not have access to the final ballots to confirm one way or another who voted Michigan either No. 3 or 4.

“I don’t think a coach is playing it around in their head thinking, ‘Wow, if I drop these guys to 3, maybe the other one will come out ahead,” Welch said. “The logic of that kind of argument always defied those of us who worked on this at the newspaper.”

Carr says the way the vote turned out still bothers him.

“I don’t think about it every day, but we deserved better,” he said. “That’s what I believe.”

“At this point, I don’t know whose vote it was and if it was Fulmer’s vote that split it, that’s about as bulls— of a thing that I can think of,” Michigan linebacker Rob Swett said. “If he did it out of spite, it makes me believe we earned that championship even more. I can’t imagine that anybody could have called and said give the Heisman to Charles because we need a defensive guy to win it for a change.”

Both Osborne and Wistrom, far removed from Michigan and Tennessee, said they had no idea the Fulmer conspiracy theory existed when asked about it.

Wistrom provides a counterpoint with respect to Fulmer: “Perhaps he just saw his team, who he thought was one of the better teams he’s ever had there, just get dismantled, and realized that he faced the true national champion on that night in Miami. There’s that, too.”

Michigan recently held a 25-year anniversary reunion for the 1997 team in Ann Arbor. Nobody on the team admits to caring anymore about the title being split, or giving any thought to a conspiracy theory that still lives on among its fan base.

“I never had animosity toward the coaches poll or toward Nebraska,” Jansen said. “I look at my national championship ring, and it doesn’t say co-champs, it just says national champion.”

But they do often discuss playing Nebraska.

Like now.

“If those guys would like to suit up at this point, we can still solve this debate between Michigan and Nebraska,” Jansen said. “Let’s do it on the field. I’ve got my helmet in the truck. I’ve got shoulder pads in the office. I’m ready to go.” So, 25 years later, the debates rage on.

“I guarantee you if everybody knew that we would have to have our ballots public, nobody would have voted us 3 or 4, when we were at least 2,” Carr said. “It’s a great unknown because Nebraska and Tennessee both had reason to benefit from the way they voted, and they got away with it.”

Said Osborne: “It is worth pointing out we had a playoff game in the Big 12 at that time and went down and beat Texas A&M in their home territory decisively and I don’t believe Michigan had to play that extra game, so we played one more game than they did and it was a challenging opponent. I’m not trying to pick a fight with anybody. There’s a lot of things that went into it.”

As for Fulmer and Carr, the dueling conspiracy theories have never come up when they’ve been together.

Fulmer says Carr never asked him about the voting conspiracy theory and, “I never asked him about Woodson winning the Heisman.”

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