The Lombardi Award had a nice thing going. Run by the Rotary Club of Houston, the award had chugged along since 1970, honoring college football’s best offensive lineman, defensive lineman or linebacker. Past winners include the likes of Lee Roy Selmon, Steve Emtman, Orlando Pace, Aaron Donald and Scooby Wright, to name a few current and future College Football Hall of Famers.
Essentially, the Lombardi Award was the Heisman Trophy for players who never had a snowball’s chance in Tempe to actually win the actual Heisman.
Except the Rotary Club this week announced it will open the Lombardi’s criteria to all players…. exactly like the Heisman, therein rendering itself totally irrelevant. And the reasoning makes even less sense after they explain it.
“If someone were to push me in a corner and ask me, ‘What’s the difference between this award and the Heisman Trophy award?’ I would tell you this. The difficult truth is a Tim Tebow could have won this award, but a Johnny Manziel could not have won this award. That’s the difference,” former Oklahoma running back and longtime college football television analyst Charles Tillman told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer.
Ignoring the brain-melter that Manziel himself wouldn’t have been eligible for the Lombardi Award’s stiffarm under the previous system, the character-based system presents a couple questions:
A) Where is the “character” line drawn, and who draws it? As the Plain-Dealer points out, all we knew of Manziel by the time he collected his Heisman in December 2012 were some viral photos of him (obviously) drinking underage in a Scooby Doo costume and a misdemeanor arrest for being involved in a fight and producing a fake ID. That doesn’t make him Tebow, but it doesn’t make him significantly worse than a lot of other talented players, either.
B) Hasn’t the Jerry Sandusky–Joe Paterno saga taught us anything? Sandusky and Paterno were exalted as saints among mere mortals until the passage of time exposed them as something far worse. The same could happen to Tebow. It probably won’t, but it could. And that’s the problem: we don’t know these guys. All we know is the image they project. On-field performance never changes, but our awareness of players’ supposed character could irrevocably flip at any moment.
There are dozens of college football awards, each elbowing for a glimmer of sunshine the Heisman doesn’t grab for itself. The Lombardi Award had some of that sunshine. It had history, it had a niche and it had credibility. To render itself irrelevant is already strange, but to do so for such a dubious reason is even more perplexing.