Caleb Williams and Carson Palmer share similar Heisman paths

Halfway through the season, as Caleb Williams’ candidacy for the Heisman Trophy continued to simmer behind hotter names, the USC football program remained quiet — at least publicly.

Around that time, Lincoln Riley and USC director of football communications Katie Ryan had their first conversation about what an ideal schedule to push their star quarterback would be. They agreed that with this special award in mind, it’s best to strategically wait for the right time to strike.

But Ryan went to work anyway, scheduling weekly “Heisman meetings” with about seven other USC employees, all with their eyes on the UCLA game, the first of two nationally televised high-stakes rivalry showdowns.

“We had said if the UCLA game goes our way and Caleb plays well, that would be our window of opportunity,” Ryan said this week as she prepared to land in New York City with Williams, who is expected to win School record eighth Heisman on Saturday. “Everything was fine.”

2022 was Ryan’s first season as the Trojans’ executive sports information director, taking over from Tim Tessalone, who retired after more than 40 years with the department.

That fall, Tessalone watched from the sidelines as Williams took the nation by storm in the final two weeks of the regular season. He conjured up a simple analogy to a similar scenario from 20 years ago when he was directing the late promotion for Carson Palmer.

Well, there were certainly a few differences. First, in 2002 there was no social media to efficiently spread the message across the country. Second, while Williams has been among the favorites this season as a much-hyped transfer from Oklahoma, Palmer came into his fifth-year senior season rather as an afterthought.

In his first four years, Palmer hadn’t lived up to his prep billing, throwing the same number of touchdowns as interceptions (39). USC had gone 25-24 in that period, trading Paul Hackett for Pete Carroll a year earlier.

USC quarterback Carson Palmer speaks after winning the Heisman Trophy December 14, 2002.

USC quarterback Carson Palmer speaks after winning the Heisman Trophy December 14, 2002.

(Mark Lennihan / Associated Press)

“He wasn’t on the front line as a Heisman candidate,” Tessalone said. “In fact, he wasn’t on the cover of our media guide. Troy Polamalu was and Carson was at the back. If you’re going to be pushing someone for the Heisman, you probably don’t want to be doing that. But Carson got off to a great start, and by the middle of the year we were all kind of looking at each other and saying, ‘Shall we push him to Heisman?’ ”

As Ryan would do two decades later, Tessalone got to work. Only he was about producing creative mailings that Heisman constituents and the sport’s custodians could hold in their hands.

They made a big ticket that read “The Carson Show Ticket,” a clever nod to “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”

“It looked like one of those oversized tickets that you get into a TV show or movie premiere,” Tessalone said.

Not long after, in mid-November, Times sports columnist Bill Plaschke wrote a column suggesting that Palmer was the West Coast’s newest star to be hit by the East Coast’s Heisman-voted bias. It was hard not to agree with Plaschke as Marcus Allen was the last winner down that path, 21 years earlier in 1981.

“The Heisman Trophy has become the most one-sided and unfair regional award in sport,” wrote Plaschke.

Palmer told reporters this week, feeding Plaschke’s frustration, “My chance of winning a Heisman trophy is so slim I don’t even think about it. It’s very, very rare that I’ve had a chance. That’s exactly how it works.”

Tessalone promptly emailed — he says he just learned, like he did back then — Plaschke’s column to national college football reporters and votes with the subject line “Hmmmm….” a candidate along with Brad Banks from Iowa and Ken Dorsey from Miami.

Tessalone recalls USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow assuring him, “I know how to pull this off.” Indeed, in a 52-21 dominance of No. 25 UCLA with 254 yards and four touchdowns. Over the next week, Palmer put up 425 yards and four touchdowns in a 44-13 blowout of No. 7 Notre Dame.

“Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?” said Tessalone, referring to Williams. “Big performances with iconic pieces at the end of the season. Both Carson and Caleb, along with their teammates and coaches, evidently dramatically changed the fortunes of USC almost overnight.”

Palmer led the Trojans from 6-6 to 10-2 in Carroll’s sophomore season, laying the groundwork for the next year’s AP National Championship. Williams led USC 4-8 to 11-2. The seven-win improvement equaled the biggest single-season turnaround in school history.

But Williams also got help from forces in the East. Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud, the favorite at the start of the year to stay on top all season, struggled against Michigan with a shocking home loss. Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker, who became a favorite after beating Alabama, stalled in a humiliating loss at Georgia No. 1 and tore his cruciate ligament in an ugly loss at South Carolina. Michigan running back Blake Corum injured his knee against Illinois and barely played against Ohio State over the next week.

Williams’ double threat accuracy ripped apart the Bruins and Fighting Irish and seemingly secured the prize ahead of the championship weekend.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams (left) celebrates after USC defeated UCLA November 19 at the Rose Bowl.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams (left) celebrates after USC defeated UCLA November 19 at the Rose Bowl.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

His candidacy also felt fresh, which was no coincidence. The first USC promotional videos for Williams on social media came after the UCLA win, and Ryan set up a feature with Fox that put Williams in the same room with previous winners Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush to talk shop and the young man to show his personality.

“Like Coach Riley, I definitely believe that if you act too early or preemptively rush into a campaign, you can oversaturate the market,” Ryan said. “The timing has to be perfect – and I think we hit the mark.

“[But] At the end of the day, if Caleb wins the Heisman, it will be because of his performance on the field and because he is the most outstanding college football player in the nation.”

Still, Tessalone was also very impressed with USC’s promotional efforts around Williams — particularly the foresight to show a little restraint in a world that rarely rewards it.

“As we saw with Carson, you don’t win a Heisman in September or October,” Tessalone said. “They win it at the end of November.” Caleb Williams and Carson Palmer share similar Heisman paths

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