CHICAGO — Far away, on the opposite end of the room from Denard Robinson on Friday, sat Montee Ball, Robinson’s Heisman candidacy converse.
Ball and Robinson, the senior quarterback, represent the Big Ten’s best shots at claiming the Heisman Trophy, awarded by an assortment of media members and former Heisman winners to the year’s best player. The similarities end there.
On the list of Heisman candidates, there’s the shameless (Southern California recently put out a mobile application to promote its players, namely quarterback Matt Barkley); there’s the sanguine, like Ball; and there’s the ambivalent. Robinson is the latter.
“He can care less about the Heisman. Honestly,” said Jordan Kovacs, a fifth-year senior safety.
Robinson echoed that sentiment, and for the most part, the Michigan contingent at the conference downplayed his potential candidacy. None in attendance — Kovacs, Michigan coach Brady Hoke and redshirt tackle Taylor Lewan —expressed any plans to campaign for Robinson.
Last year, Northwestern sent seven-pound weights to members of the media as part of its “PersaStrong” campaign to promote quarterback Dan Persa’s candidacy. On Thursday, Wisconsin announced its own campaign for Ball, with the slogan “This fall belongs to Ball.”
Robinson, meanwhile, spoke at times during his keynote speech at the convention about the constant attention focused on him and other college athletes. He deflected any talk of his Heisman candidacy, emphasizing team goals instead.
There were no superman socks for Robinson, like the ones worn by Baylor’s Robert Griffin III when he was presented the Heisman Trophy last year, nor was there a bright metallic suit, like the one donned by Louisiana State’s Tyraan Matheu, last year’s second runner-up. Instead, Robinson’s garb matched his understated demeanor and reflected his discomfort being the center of attention.
“I want to be a part of the team, and don’t look at me no different from anybody else,” Robinson said. “Don’t give me more publicity than anybody else.”
At the other end of the room, Ball, wearing a black vest over an eye-catching red shirt, spoke with the confidence of a Heisman veteran. Last year, Ball finished third in the voting and relished the spotlight.
“I love it,” Ball said. “I love the attention and the hype and all that stuff. Because it’s not just for me, it’s for all the players who are working hard behind me at our university.”
The difference in approach between Robinson and Ball stems from a difference in demeanor.
Ball is well spoken and confident. Robinson admits talking to the media never came naturally to him, and he asked to give the keynote speech at the conference in part to improve his public speaking.
Both Lewan and Kovacs described Robinson as oblivious to his own fame (“He has no idea,” both said separately). Each also described one incident in the airport coming to Chicago, when they watched with delight as a clueless Robinson strolled past an obvious admirer.
“This guy is just absolutely eyeing Denard down,” Kovacs said. “And Denard’s just got the biggest smile on his face, just carrying his suitcase. And this guy’s just staring him down. He had no idea.”
The past provides mixed results regarding the effectiveness of campaigning. Schools have been plugging their Heisman hopefuls in the media for half a century, but more often than not, the winner did little campaigning.
Auburn did scant advertising for quarterback Cam Newton, yet he won easily in 2010. Griffin, though, benefitted from a website operated by Baylor complete with reviews from opposing coaches. (“Absolutely amazing,” Texas coach Mack Brown said).
Ultimately, Robinson’s main hurdle, of course, will be on the field. He burst out to early prominence two years ago but fell off the Heisman map in conference play. Last year, Robinson didn’t crack the top 10, and he has never been a finalist.
Wisconsin tackle Ricky Wagner, who helped clear the way for Ball last season, explained that production is what ultimately mattered in the voters eyes.
“I really don’t know if an iPhone app or anything is going to push (Ball) over the edge to win,” Wagner said. “I think the way he plays on the field is going to be the best judge.”
That’s good news for the reticent Robinson.
“When it comes down to saying, ‘Oh I want to campaign for myself’ — no,” Robinson said. “I want to go out there and be a football player, that’s it.”