Revisiting the best Heisman websites of the 2000s

Courtesy Northern Illinois University

He appears on the left side of the screen, eyes downfield, ball firmly secured in his left hand, racing toward the end zone while being chased by red and orange flames.

You don't see him? Make sure your web browser supports Adobe Flash Player. Otherwise, the homepage of TurnerTheBurner.com, the 17-year-old website that promoted Northern Illinois running back Michael Turner for the Heisman Trophy in 2003, can't fully be appreciated.

While Adobe Flash is set to end on Dec. 31, TurnerTheBurner.com and a small group of Heisman promotional websites will live on, having stood the test of digital time. Most Heisman websites disappear from public view shortly after they appear, much like many of the players they trumpet. Even some websites launched in the past season or two are no longer accessible.

Those that remain celebrate past college stars like West Virginia quarterback Will Grier, Missouri quarterback Drew Lock, Stanford running backs Christian McCaffrey and Bryce Love, and, naturally, Oklahoma State punter Zach Sinor. Johnny Manziel's site is still up, but from the year after he won the Heisman. Although TurnerTheBurner.com appears to be the oldest still-active site, Purdue's "Painting A Masterpiece," which promoted quarterback Curtis Painter in 2008, remains accessible, thanks to the digital fossilizing of Archive.org.

"The one that's accessible, I don't think anybody even truly realized it was," said Buddy Kimberlin, director of 12th Man Productions at Texas A&M, who helped work on Manziel's sites in 2012 and 2013. "It's not on purpose. Not that there's anything wrong with it. ... It just never got essentially turned off.

"I don't know if that's an exciting story, but it's more of, 'Yeah, that thing is still up and running.'"

And thank goodness it is.

Here's a look at the stories behind five still-preserved Heisman websites.


Turner The Burner, 2003

TurnerTheBurner.com's longer-than-normal lifespan is a nod to the people who created the site. Vinay Mullick and Dave Spoehr met as students at Northern Illinois and founded Monroestar Inc., a web design company, in 2001. They wanted to build websites for athletes, and after seeing some early Heisman sites pop up, approached their alma mater.

Their timing was perfect. Turner rushed for 1,915 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2002 and was named a semifinalist for the Doak Walker Award. NIU planned a full-fledged traditional Heisman campaign for his senior year, built around the "Turner The Burner" theme and complete with mailings, T-shirts, notebooks for reporters and even hot sauce bottles (confession: I kept my Turner The Burner hot sauce bottle for at least five years). Mullick and Spoehr were willing to do the work as a gift to their alma mater, and also saw it as a way to grow business.

"This is before any type of social media, before YouTube, before Facebook, before Twitter," Spoehr said. "Websites were the only vehicle, other than being broadcast on television, to get your name out there. We went all-in on it. It wasn't some sort of afterthought. NIU helped us with it, but it was kind of independent from them."

After meeting with NIU sports information and marketing staffers, Spoehr and Mullick bought the domain name and got to work. Spoehr created a logo and the flash animation for the homepage, and NIU began supplying statistics, quotes about Turner and other content.

"The opening with Michael coming from the left there, it's inspired," said Mike Korcek, NIU's longtime sports information director. "Those two guys, they could have run a picture of Michael Turner and put a couple stories out there, but they looked at the material and figured out where to put it."

The website immediately gained traction, as NIU opened the season with a home win over No. 14 Maryland in overtime. Two weeks later, the Huskies traveled to No. 21 Alabama as 14-point underdogs but stunned the Crimson Tide 19-16.

"So many of the Alabama fans knew about the website," said Mullick, who traveled to Tuscaloosa with a group of NIU friends. "We weren't saying, 'Hey, we designed the site.' But you're tailgating and it's a pretty festive environment, a lot of folks would talk about the running back and the website would come up and then our buddies would be like, 'These guys made the website,' which was pretty cool."

By midseason, the site approached 250,000 views, Korcek said. CNNSI.com, the precursor to SI.com, ranked the best Heisman Trophy websites and included TurnerTheBurner.com. NIU went 10-2 and while Turner didn't match his 2002 production, he finished second nationally in rushing.

Most Heisman websites are hosted by the schools or digital partners like CBS Sports or, back then, the FANSOnly network, so they disappeared after the season. But Monroestar managed TurnerTheBurner.com independently. The company didn't end up doing websites for athletes, but TurnerTheBurner.com remained "a centerpiece," Spoehr said, to promote their work.

"I get the GoDaddy renewals," Mullick said. "Years ago, Dave and I had a quick conversation. I was like, 'Hey, man, you cool with keeping the site up?' He was like, 'Yeah, let's do it.' It literally costs us less than $100 a year, if that. To me, it was a no-brainer."

Spoehr notes that while technology has changed significantly since 2003, the website "holds up pretty well." The information scroll and rotating testimonials still work, along with most of the navigation.

The site's last news update occurred in April 2004 with the headline: Northern Illinois TB 'Turner The Burner' Becomes 'Turner The Charger' In 2004 NFL Draft.

"I have to laugh: Turner The Burner is Turner The Charger," Korcek said. "They maximized everything they got and really did a nice job with it. It is still pretty good. You look back 17 years ago and say, it's pretty slick for a mid-major."

Painting A Masterpiece, 2008

In 2004, Purdue launched a Heisman website for quarterback Kyle Orton, hooking it around his political interest and roots -- Orton's father was a longtime government official in Iowa -- and the election year. Four years later, Purdue took a similarly themed approach with another quarterback in Painter, who majored in computer graphics and liked to draw.

"It looks like it was done with a paintbrush, the website," said Wendy Mayer, a former Purdue sports information staff member who worked on the Painter site. "All the fonts are very artistic. We wanted that. All the names of the subsites are related to art. He was going to have a blog, and he had given us some of his art, paintings or drawings he had done, that we were going to include on there.

"Once we came up with the 'Painting a Masterpiece,' everything else just fell into place."

Purdue went all-in with the Painter/painting theme. Mayer put together a calendar in Photoshop that used different effects to make each image "more artsy." There also was a highlight video, set to the Rolling Stones song "Paint It Black," a nod to both Painter's name and Purdue's home jersey color.

CBS hosted Purdue's sites at the time and handled the design, so Mayer provided the header and fonts. Although only the homepage is still preserved, the other pages followed the theme. You could click on Painter's bio (Meet The Artist), browse his statistics (Paint By Numbers) or track his team records (Brushes With Greatness).

"What better way to make people aware of someone than to grab them with something unique," said Tom Schott, Purdue's longtime sports information director. "I was really big into promotion of student-athletes going back to [Drew] Brees in '99 and 2000, and how it changed over 10 years was phenomenal. We barely had a website back in 1999, let alone one devoted to a particular student-athlete."

Painter had generated huge numbers in 2006 and 2007 -- 7,831 passing yards and 51 touchdowns combined -- but his performance fell off in 2008, and the team went 4-8. Still, Mayer is proud of the website and the campaign. She still has the "Paint It Black" DVD and the Painter calendar.

"I'm sure there are people who look at it and go, 'Oh my gosh, who created this? This is so old-school.' Because it is," said Mayer, who now oversees communications for Purdue's department of forestry and natural resources. "It's when things were themed and everything. Nobody does that anymore. I was talking to my friends at Louisville and they were like, 'I think Lamar Jackson's site is still up,' and I was like, 'Yeah, but this is 2008.' It's a part of my life."

Johnny Football, 2013

After Texas A&M stunned No. 1 Alabama in November 2012, athletic director Eric Hyman and Jason Cook, then Texas A&M's vice president for marketing and communications, reached the same conclusion on a festive flight home.

"Johnny has a shot to win the Heisman Trophy," Cook recalled.

Two days later, Cook met with staff from media relations, social media, video production, graphics and other departments to fast-track a Heisman website for Manziel. The mission was twofold: promote Manziel and tell Texas A&M's story as a new SEC member.

Although Manziel would soon dominate college football headlines for an extended stretch, he needed a national introduction, especially since Aggies freshmen were not allowed to talk with the media.

"That helped with his legend, because his play was incredible, but nobody knew anything about him," Kimberlin said. "So the day before we put that website out, we started tweeting out a bunch of Chuck Norris jokes. That was a part of the plan, play off the mystery of Johnny Manziel, and just the magician he was on the field. That was part of his aura."

The site went heavy on visual elements, from highlight videos to an infographic that featured six kneeling Tim Tebows (Manziel became the first player since Tebow with six games of multiple touchdown passes and multiple touchdown runs) and a cat (Manziel tweeted about rescuing a kitten on the road outside Kyle Field).

"That was probably the first Heisman Trophy campaign in the social media age," Cook said. "Instagram wasn't around, but Twitter was really driving the dialogue around the candidate. We really started positioning everything in those websites through a visual lens, in knowing it was going to play in the digital formal, either via social media or website."

After Manziel's Heisman win in 2012, Texas A&M launched a new site in 2013. His story was known, so the site highlighted stats and testimonials. The main page still features a story from beloved ESPN.com colleague Edward Aschoff, who argued that Manziel actually improved during his Heisman encore.

Texas A&M opened the season ranked No. 7 but dropped four games. Manziel finished fifth in the Heisman voting.

"The 2013 strategy was a little bit different," said Cook, now a vice president at Baylor. "He was a returning Heisman winner. The strategy really shifted more toward a stat-based approach.

"There was just so much more to the story in 2012."

WildCaff (2015) and Heisman Love (2016)

After McCaffrey's strong start to the 2015 season, Stanford began discussing a Heisman push for the versatile running back. "We talked about all the creative levers we could pull," said Chris Gray, the school's assistant athletics director for digital & video.

Before coming to Stanford, Gray had developed microsites at Miami, including one for a Duke Johnson Heisman push that never really got going. These heavily coded websites live on a central FTP server and are accessible as long as the source code exists.

The sharp-looking sites are heavy on design. Gray also had to make sure the site's coding would translate well for mobile devices. As Stanford prepared to launch McCaffrey's site, built around the #WildCaff theme, Gray's life resembled the coders grinding away miles from Stanford's campus in Silicon Valley.

"There was a three- or four-day stretch where I was pulling all-nighters, I was sleeping on the couch in the office, rummaging in the fridge for food," Gray said. "No one was holding me there, but it was definitely a sprint on the back end of the project, just fine-tuning a lot of stuff."

The homepage opens with clips of McCaffrey, rapidly tallying statistics (a feature throughout the site), several lists and charts, and a series of quotes from analysts and others. Below, users can click on individual game modules from 2015, showing McCaffrey's video highlights, several photos, statistics and a short summary of his performance.

Gray thinks the custom coding allows sites like McCaffrey's to stand out from more formulaic templates.

"Some of the blue bloods, regardless of what they create, you know you're going to get hundreds of thousands of eyeballs on something," Gray said, "where some other schools need to work a little bit harder, put a little bit more custom work into pieces for it to really grab the attention of a larger audience."

McCaffrey's site generated several hundred thousand page views within its first week. Although he put up incredible numbers, he finished second in Heisman voting, a familiar position for Stanford hopefuls.

Stanford's microsite for Love in 2017 has similarities -- a logo up top, followed by tallying statistics and a game-by-game section at the bottom. But there are also text blocks linking to Love's bio and highlighting his academic success and goal of becoming a pediatrician.

"We leaned more into the personalization of Bryce and who he was," said Gray, adding that many of the visuals that dominate McCaffrey's site were pushed out on social media for Love.

Gray hopes to put together other microsites for Stanford standouts, but knows Heisman promotion is ever-evolving.

"In my mind, they're just a piece. In the past, it was a primary source," he said. "When you're talking about the Heisman context, that feels like the best vehicle to put your best foot forward initially, and then you really build on top of that with daily, weekly content."

Sinor4Heisman, 2017

Stanford's microsites are models of digital advancement and coding. Zach Sinor's is not, but the Oklahoma State punter's 2017 Heisman website is just as glorious, if not more so.

Visitors are greeted by a spinning "Sinor4Heisman" banner with a Star Wars-like backdrop and the caption "Punters are people, too!"

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Oklahoma State punter goes above and beyond for Heisman vote

At Big 12 media day, OSU's Zach Sinor outlines his campaign to be the only punter to win the Heisman.

Like other Heisman websites, Sinor's features several statistical milestones, such as, "0.94 yards per punt return allowed, thanks to amazing hang times." Rather than impersonal links to bios, Sinor introduces himself and gets right to the point, writing: I want to be the first punter to ever win the Heisman Trophy. The numbers don't lie and they spell disaster for opposing offenses.

There's also a dancing baby and a picture of Sinor with a dolphin and the caption, "Animals love him!"

His site also features a series of videos from Zach TV, which show Sinor's tireless attempts to get his campaign -- wait for it -- off the ground.

Not bad for a project that took place during the plane trip to Big 12 media days in July 2017.

"They had this software on this laptop that I messed around with and put some things here and there and worked on the website," Sinor said. "Whenever we landed in Dallas, we tweeted it out, and that's how it kind of started. After that day, I really didn't mess with it or even look at it."

Sinor didn't know the site was still active until earlier this year, when his coworkers at a car sales company in Stillwater found it.

"Everybody's watching all these videos and embarrassing me and putting them everywhere," Sinor said. "People were saying, 'He was running for the Heisman, blah, blah, blah,' and then someone's said, 'Wasn't he the punter?' And they were like, 'Yeah, it's all a big joke.' People don't understand that punters don't get Heisman votes."

That may be true, but at least one punter's Heisman website lives on.

"When [my coworkers] pulled it up in like two minutes, I was like, 'Oh, jeez,'" Sinor said. "That was the first I had seen it since probably Big 12 media day. It loaded right in and it was just there. I was like, 'Wow, I guess it is.' And they clicked on all the YouTube videos under the links and they all popped up and went to the Heisman videos, and I went, 'Oh, jeez.'"