Gators legend Norm Carlson pioneered the modern-day Heisman campaign (2024)

His fingerprints can be found on every Heisman Trophy campaign of the last two generations.

Norm Carlson didn’t possess the technological luxuries — social media, sleek digital billboards and splashy email blasts — employed to hype the Baker Mayfields and Bryce Youngs of our time. But the intent behind them — conveying a candidate’s feats to the masses week after week — was his brainchild.

Steve Spurrier has the bust to prove it. Ask anyone well-versed in the history of University of Florida football, and they’ll concur: Spurrier doesn’t win the 1966 Heisman Trophy without the legwork of former Gators sports information director Norman Gilbert Carlson.

“There’s no doubt about that,” former longtime Gainesville Sun sports columnist Pat Dooley said.

Arguably the most beloved behind-the-scenes figure in Gator athletics history, Carlson passed away Friday in Palm Coast at age 90. His passing came only a couple of months after daughter Kerri Beeson — one of his eight children — succumbed to breast cancer.

“I think that really kind of probably took the wind out of his sails,” Carlson’s son, Doug, said Monday.

Raised in St. Louis, Carlson graduated from UF and, after brief stints as an Atlanta Journal reporter and Auburn’s sports information director, returned to his alma mater in 1963. Over time, he built the Gators’ sprawling sports publicity machine from a one-man outfit to an 11-person department with two full-time interns and a seven-figure budget.

He formally retired in 2002 but kept an office inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium for roughly another decade. During that time, he became known as the planet’s foremost Gators football historian and a trustworthy liaison between reporters and coaches in an era when those relationships gravitated more toward the fraternal than the frigid.

But in a sense, his Gators legacy was cemented the same day as Spurrier’s: Oct. 29, 1966.

Prior to that Saturday, when the 6-0 Gators hosted Auburn at Florida Field, Carlson had been working feverishly to thrust Spurrier into the collective consciousness of Heisman voters, who didn’t have the benefit of seeing the quarterback live. Florida had no regular-season games televised in 1966.

Gators legend Norm Carlson pioneered the modern-day Heisman campaign (1)

First, Carlson assembled a brief highlight film of Spurrier’s best plays at various positions — quarterback, punter and kicker — from previous years and mailed them to roughly 500 TV stations all over the country. After games, he phoned influential Heisman voters to inform them of Spurrier’s exploits that day.

He also launched a push for Heisman voter registration in the South, where precious few voters resided. “I had always wanted to know why (Tennessee’s) Johnny Majors in 1958 didn’t win — and he had a phenomenal year that year,” Carlson said in 2002. “And Paul Hornung on a 2-8 Notre Dame team wins the Heisman.”

Gators legend Norm Carlson pioneered the modern-day Heisman campaign (2)

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A taxpayer-supported stroke of luck ensued. Midway through the season, Florida Gov. Haydon Burns — himself a Gator booster — asked Carlson what he could do to help Spurrier’s cause. Carlson suggested distributing another film clip, with plays from ‘66.

“So he just called the Tourism Department and said, “I want these Spurrier clips sent to all these places,’” Carlson recalled. “So the state of Florida, through the Tourism Department, sent out another 500 film clips in the middle of the year.”

The day of the Auburn game, Carlson had crammed the Florida Field press box with reporters from all over the nation, including the first New York Times staff writer (Joe Durso) to cover a UF contest.

Spurrier threw for 259 yards and a touchdown that afternoon. Then, in his most legendary audible ever, he waved off normal UF kicker Wayne Barfield and converted a 40-yard field goal with just over two minutes to play in a 30-27 Gator win.

“The Heisman ballots had gone out that week,” Carlson said.

Spurrier won the Heisman in a landslide over runnerup Bob Griese of Purdue (1,679 points to 816).

“Norm went at all the big writers like the New York Times, Atlanta Journal Constitution, and invited them to the game. And they normally wouldn’t have come to the game,” Dooley said. “It was kind of like, ‘I’m betting on this guy.’ He was basically betting on Steve. And of course, he kicks a 40-yard field goal and they win the game. And they were all, like, casting their Heisman votes as the game ended.”

Gators legend Norm Carlson pioneered the modern-day Heisman campaign (3)

Carlson and Spurrier remained close friends the remainder of Carlson’s life. During Spurrier’s 12-year tenure as Gators coach, Carlson served as his right hand, coordinating all of his public appearances and even co-authoring a book with Spurrier.

The two owned Crescent Beach condominiums three doors from each other, and shortly after Carlson’s retirement Spurrier held a fundraiser at UF to pay off the mortgage to Carlson’s condo.

“We had so many wonderful memories with Norm,” Spurrier told floridagators.com, the school’s official athletics department website.

“As a player, he was the sports information director that everyone loved. We had tremendous respect for him. Somebody said, ‘If anybody helped you with the Heisman, Norm would be first, right?’ Yep, I would say Norm would be first, because he was so well-respected across the country. He got me a bunch of votes.”

Yet Carlson’s influence transcended one program-altering quarterback. To the contrary, he advocated tirelessly for every accomplished athlete bedecked in orange and blue. Only two Gators football players had earned first- or second-team Associated Press All-America status upon Carlson’s arrival at UF. In his first two decades on the job, that number more than quadrupled.

He also endeared himself to generations of sports reporters and media relations aspirants, liberally conveying story ideas, deftly arbitrating disputes that arose between coaches and reporters, and helping further the careers of those in his own profession.

“I know social media and the internet and texting changes how we all communicate, but he was such a people person,” said Jeff Kamis, a former sports information intern at UF who ultimately worked for the Bucs and now serves as vice president of media and public relations for PDQ Chicken.

“And the relationships that he had were because he fostered that and spent time with the media and got to know them — not just for their jobs, but their families. He knew their kids and their wives and their husbands and families, and spent time with them, not just at work but outside of it. I think that’s a big part of what he did.”

A member of the UF Athletic Hall of Fame and Florida Sports Hall of Fame, Carlson had five children from his first marriage, then adopted the three children of his second wife, Sylvia, upon their marriage in 1976. He is survived by Sylvia, seven of his kids and 11 grandchildren.

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

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Gators legend Norm Carlson pioneered the modern-day Heisman campaign (2024)

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