|Carson Palmer won the Heisman Trophy in 2002. (Photo courtesy: USC Sports Information)|
USC returned to national prominence in 2002, going 11-2 with an Orange Bowl win over Iowa. The Trojans finished fourth in the polls with the toughest schedule in college football, and many observers considered them the best team in the country at season's end.
Senior quarterback Carson Palmer was the catalyst for USC's "return to glory." He had only nine touchdown passes six games into the season, and the 4-2 Trojans weren't getting much attention. But he threw 23 touchdown passes during the final six games, and USC averaged 44 points per outing on its way to claiming a BCS berth.
Palmer's late-season surge propelled him to the Heisman Trophy, USC's first since 1981. Ten years later, we caught up with Palmer (now with the Oakland Raiders), who reflected on that season and what the trophy means to him now:
It has been 10 years since you've won the Heisman ... do you ever think back to that year? What was that experience like?
I can't believe it's been 10 years already. I have such great memories of it, and it was such an awesome experience. I'm so thankful I got to go through it. The way you are treated and everything about it is first class ... the trip to New York ... the people you get to meet ... the functions you get to attend. It's such an amazing weekend; it seems like it was yesterday. I have such vivid memories, I can't believe it's already been 10 years.
At what point in season did you think you had a chance to win?
I didn't really think I had a chance to win it, because I remember there was such an East Coast bias that I had heard so much about. I didn't really know what it was or understand it. I was told that I wouldn't be able to win it, so I didn't really think I would. I just wanted to go to New York. I wanted the opportunity to go to the Heisman event. I remember we put together a string of really big wins. We beat UCLA at UCLA, and I had pretty good numbers. As the year went on, the offense really started to click. And then we played Notre Dame. They had had a great year, and we just really crushed and stomped on them. I was hoping I'd get a chance to go ... but I still didn't think I'd win it until, literally, I heard the guy call my name at the event.
USC plays Oregon this week, almost 10 years to the day when your USC team beat Oregon in Eugene. What do you remember about that one?
Oregon was really good then, like now. We hadn't beaten them in a few years. There was a ton riding on that game. It was probably for the Pac-10 title. They had put up a billboard in downtown Los Angeles, not far from USC, that highlighted their players and it really riled us up. We went out and had a great game and beat them pretty good, and that was probably when a lot of the Heisman talk started to happen.
So you made it to New York with four other players -- Brad Banks of Iowa, Larry Johnson of Penn State and Willis McGahee and Ken Dorsey of Miami. Did your competitive juices come out once you got to New York? How much did you want to win the trophy?
It was very competitive. I was there with four other guys, and we all wanted to win it. It wasn't like recent years where you knew who was going to win. We all thought we had a chance. We went to all the functions and got to know each other and had fun, but we all thought we deserved it. We all wanted it bad.
Did you have a prepared speech, or did you just wing it when your name was finally called?
I had a few things written down, mostly names of people I wanted to thank, but I wanted to speak from the heart instead of reading from a script. I wanted to keep it brief because I know people don't like it when you spend a lot of time giving a speech after winning something like that. It was an incredible moment, and it took a long time to sink in.
What do you remember the most from that weekend?
I just was amazed at how first-class the whole thing was. I had never worn a tux or stayed in a fancy hotel before. I had never been to New York. As the winner, you stay for a couple extra days and you go to the Heisman dinner and meet all the former winners. That was really special.
How much attention do you pay to the Heisman now, and what do you look for when trying to figure out who to vote for?
I've paid a lot of attention to it, especially in those years when a USC player is involved. With the way the Internet is now, it's easy to find information on a player. You can just check an app on your phone and get the latest Heisman Watch, so that's what I do. As far as what I look for, I think the main thing is how they play in big games. I look for how a player performs in those big matchups against ranked teams, or how they do against their rival.
Was there anyone you voted for in the past who didn't win it who you thought should've won it?
I voted for Eli Manning in 2003. I thought he should've won considering what he was able to do at Mississippi. They had a really good year, and it was because of him. I don't even remember who actually won it that year [Oklahoma junior Jason White], but I do know I voted for Eli because that was my first year with a vote.
Offenses have changed since you won the Heisman. There are all these spread attacks now. Do you prefer to vote for players who are more in your style as a quarterback, or does that matter?
It doesn't matter. I don't care what system a guy plays in. If you are a great player, you are a great player. It doesn't matter whether you do it running or passing. Tim Tebow was a great player at Florida and had an incredible year, and that's why I voted for him. He deserved it.
What players are sticking out to you the most in this year's race? Who are you leaning toward?
I think it's too early to decide just yet. You have to wait until the end of the season. All the games count, and a lot can happen between now and then. That said, I know Geno Smith has put up some pretty sick numbers. I want Matt Barkley to win, being an SC guy, but I know that's going to be tough with how things have played out.
Nissan has those "Heisman House" commercials ... any chance we'll see you in any of those soon?
They've reached out to me and I'd love to do it, but there has always been scheduling issues that have prevented it. Nissan has done an amazing job with the Heisman. I know because of the bad economy the Heisman was having some hard times recently, but Nissan's sponsorship has really helped them out.
What does the Heisman mean to you?
It's an amazing award. It's by far the best award in sports. There's a select fraternity of guys, this long tradition. It changes your life forever. You are always known as the guy who won the Heisman. It's something I cherish more and more as I get older. I look forward to getting involved with the Heisman in the future and all the charities it is involved with. I hope to be one of those guys who goes back to the ceremony and stands on the stage when the winner is announced.