Heismanology with Joe Tessitore

Ask Joe Tessitore to name all the Heisman Memorial Trophy winners — in order– a colleague suggests.

The versatile Tessitore apparently can rattle off all of the Heisman winners since 1935 — from Jay Berwanger to Cameron Newton — without error.

Tessitore also owns the same mnemonic mastery of other sports facts, which comes in handy given his hectic schedule. Besides being a play-by-play announcer for ESPN college football, Tessitore is preparing for coverage of horse racing’s Breeders’ Cup next week.

He’s also producing Roll Tide/War Eagle, an ESPN Films documentary about the Alabama-Auburn rivalry that debuts Nov. 8. When the college football season ends, he resumes his role as host of ESPN’s Friday Night Fights boxing series.

Even with all of that on his plate, Tessitore finds time to produce “Heismanology.” The segment airs on ESPN’s College Football Live, SportsCenter and other shows. The poll reveals what ESPN’s numerous Heisman Trophy voters are thinking about who’s most worthy of college football’s signature individual award, which will be presented Dec. 10.

Tessitore told Front Row what’s behind the Heismanology concept.

FR: How did the concept for Heismanology come about?

Tessitore: I have always had a love for the Heisman, especially the history of the award and the unique role it plays in sports. I thought we had always done an exceptional job in presenting the actual Heisman Award show in NYC, however as a longtime Heisman voter myself I felt we fell short in covering the Heisman race during the year. For years, I had kept a running log of my weekly ballot for the Heisman. I pitched the idea that at ESPN we have many official voters among our broadcasters and writers who could do the same. We could come up with weekly poll results to help fans follow the Heisman race rather than being poorly informed and left in the dark waiting for an envelope to be opened in December. This is now our second season of releasing the results of our weekly Heisman Poll. As someone who also had a passion for the stories of past Heisman races and winners, I thought we could also weave in some historical perspective to better frame the Heisman race.

FR: What separates Heismanology from other prognostication on the Heisman voting?

Tessitore: First and foremost, those being polled are actual Heisman voters. To be able to track the decision makers for this award all year long is fascinating. The group we have at ESPN taking part in our weekly poll not only gives viewers a very accurate sense of where the race is, but it gives you a glimpse of what will be influencing other Heisman voters.
Keep in mind, those of us at ESPN taking part in the poll are the top writers in the sport, or hosts and analysts on our biggest college football studio platforms, we are the play-by-play and color analysts on our biggest game broadcasts, so our views on specific players greatly impact the masses. There are hundreds of other voters out there who depend on ESPN CFB coverage as their source of information and analysis. Our Heisman poll reveals which players benefit from that.
The other thing we do with Heismanology that separates us from generic “who do you like for the Heisman” producing, is we attach some historical perspective to it. We will compare current candidates to other Heisman campaigns from the past. We will project point totals and compare them to past winners or also-rans.

FR: Is this race Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck’s to lose?

Tessitore: Well he’s the leader, so yes, but he also can be passed. Luck is not near being the lock for the trophy Cam Newton was a year ago. Luck is the best player in college football. That does not mean he will win the Heisman. Our polling shows that he is in line with this eras recent clear-cut winners like Troy Smith, Reggie Bush, Ricky Williams. However, Luck can be topped by a Heisman candidate on BCS title contending team who has a big stage big moment. That is undoubtedly Trent Richardson at Alabama.
If Alabama beats LSU and Richardson has one of his typical multiple TD games, with a tremendous highlight wowing run, then you will see a lot of support for him. There’s a very good chance he would leapfrog Luck. Luck will strengthen his lead if he defeats USC. Yet his season will be determined by the Nov. 12 game versus Oregon. One thing the we have found out in tracking this year’s Heisman race is that voters have gotten away from simply rewarding big stats – that’s why Houston’s Case Keenum gets little support — and instead they simply reward being the best player on an unbeaten team highly ranked in the BCS standings.
When you lose you drop big — as Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson found out after Michigan State’s Hail Mary pass. Andrew Luck is the favorite. But if Stanford does not go to the Pac-12 title game or if they lose the title game, the door will be open for many of these potential stars from BCS contending teams to get in. Don’t be surprised to see Tajh Boyd from Clemson or Brandon Weeden from Oklahoma State making a late run.

FR: You’re producing the ESPN Films project Roll Tide/War Eagle on the Alabama-Auburn rivalry. How did you get involved in that project?

Tessitore We have many talented people at ESPN Films who have worked on it, especially director Martin Khodabakhshian, I just happen to be the guy who planted the seed. Having covered the two teams during their back-to-back BCS title and Heisman winning years, I was in awe of what took place. To have the most venomous rivalry American sports has ever known take all these twists and turns. It included outrageous controversy off the field. For about two weeks last winter, I started typing up timelines and scripts, treatments and outlines. I would stay up late in my home office, then wake up early and craft a story of how the last 18 months saw this rivalry go off the rails –all this after 100 years of a shared history. At one point I reached out to Bruce Feldman who had had such success with his college football books. Bruce and I tweaked what I had done, re-wrote, brainstormed, envisioned who could play a role in a film, how it would be presented. We pitched it to ESPN Films and we are still pinching ourselves over the fact it became a reality. To work at a place with the kind of leadership that allows you to even dream that way — let alone have it all come to life — is rewarding. The past half-year since then has been a wild ride of production, and great appreciation for all of those at ESPN Films who work so very hard.

FR: Most people know you as the face and voice of ESPN’s Friday Night Fights and horse racing coverage. How do you keep tabs on boxing and balance your football season duties? Can you give us an example of your itinerary during a week in the football season?

Tessitore: Boxing and horse racing are always a part of my daily life, but college football consumes me. I don’t want to bore you with the details but between the nonstop phone calls, coaches meetings, watching tape, reading everything, preparing all the Heisman stuff — there just aren’t enough hours in the day. That is true for all of us who work on CFB. It’s what the sport demands and deserves. I still watch every major fight during the fall. I still stay in touch with all my boxing contacts and read the websites. Truth be told, horse racing occupies far more of my attention in the fall. The Breeders’ Cup is a massive undertaking. Hosting the week of coverage starts with the Monday draw at Churchill Downs and knowing the detailed background of 14 horses for 14 championship races. That task is about the most challenging preparation I do in the course of my year. I have a passion for that sport that runs deep. But yes, balancing it all demands a lot of time. I often broadcast two football games a week, so add in travel and memorizing a two-deep depth chart and yes my iCal does not have enough space on it.