Sights set high

By Allison Deitch

Jeff George was Illinois’ first No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. But he didn’t win the Heisman.

Dick Butkus might be football’s best-ever linebacker. But he finished third in Heisman voting in 1964.

Neither had a promotional billboard in New York, like Oregon’s Joey Harrington. And no 1960s Heisman voters would have used computer mouse pads like those sent out on behalf Indiana’s Antwaan Randle El.

Illinois isn’t missing the boat this year, though. Heisman Trophy hype has made its way to Champaign for Illinois quarterback Kurt Kittner, whether or not the senior buys into the buzz.

“It’s no big deal,” said Kittner at Big Ten media day in Chicago in August, where he sat at a table sprinkled with “Kurt Kittner, Heisman Trophy Candidate” notebooks.

“If we go out and we work hard and we win games every week, and we do a great job then this (Heisman candidacy) will happen.”

The campaign to make Kittner Illinois’ first-ever Heisman Trophy winner began in mid-July, when the athletic public relations department packaged press clips with a 7-minute video to send to media voters and TV announcers.

The campaign is trying to reclaim the attention directed elsewhere following a 5-6 finish in 2000, according to Illinois sports information director Cassie Arner.

Kittner’s 2000 numbers weren’t as impressive as in the previous year, when he led the Illini to eight wins and a bowl appearance, while setting an Illinois record for most touchdown passes in a season with 24.

Kittner was hindered last year by the absence of deep threat wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, who missed the entire season with a broken femur. Kittner ranked fourth in the Big Ten in passing average per game but seventh in total offense.

Nonetheless, he entered this year as perhaps the premier quarterback in the Big Ten, a conference that lost Purdue’s Drew Brees to the NFL, Michigan’s Drew Henson to pro baseball

and Indiana’s Randle El to the “senior athlete” category.

But Kittner’s invitation to the Downtown Athletic Club in December could depend on his team’s performance more than his individual stats.

“If we had a chance to win something like that, that means that you had a hell of a year,” said Illinois head coach Ron Turner. “You won’t do it during a losing season. Your team has had a hell of a year and the player has had a hell of a year.”

Last season’s winner, Florida State’s Chris Weinke, went to the national championship game and led the nation in passing yards. Danny Wuerfel, Florida’s 1996 quarterback, took the trophy in an 11-1 season for the Gators.

“You never see a middle-of-the-pack guy win the Heisman,” said Kittner.

And history shows a middle-of-the-Big-Ten guy won’t win either. The Big Ten produced four Heisman winners in the 1990s: Ron Dayne, Charles Woodson, Eddie George and Desmond Howard. Their teams never had more than two losses; Illinois had at least two losses every year in the 1990s, and twice had two or fewer wins, hurting the chances of the last

Illinois player promoted for the Heisman, current St. Louis Rams running back Robert Holcombe.

If Kittner intends to let his play do the talking, he’s off to a good start.

The 6-foot-4 signal caller was in complete control last Saturday in Illinois’ 44-17 rout of California. Against a Golden Bear defense designed to stop the run, Illinois’ offense used Kittner’s arm to score. With a little help from the now-healthy Lloyd (8 receptions for a career-high 178 yards), Kittner threw for 297 yards and 2 touchdowns — and no interceptions — to embarrass a highly touted Cal secondary.

Turner insisted Illinois’ win-loss record is of primary importance to Kittner, anyway.

“With Kurt Kittner, he really doesn’t care. He wants to win,” said Turner. “He doesn’t care how many passes he throws.”

But those pesky voters do.