>I’m starting to measure the passing of a week by my new favorite feature – the LTP Northwestern Hall of Fame nomination process. Today’s nominee is a personal favorite, Lee Gissendaner. “Giss” was a year ahead of me in school so I’m admittedly biased about my want for him to get the NU HOF nod for several reasons. I saw every single game of his from his sophomore year on, but more importantly it was his Big Ten MVP junior season (1992) that led me to actually believe in Gary Barnett (his first season) and the fact he could actually lead us to a bowl game. Gissendaner’s improbable MVP season was on a 3-8 team, the worst record for a Big Ten MVP in the history of the award (1930). Quick context – those three wins were all Big Ten wins, the MOST the Cats had enjoyed since 1973 (4).
For me, I can pinpoint the exact moment when I “believed”. And, not surprisingly, it involved Giss. I suckered some of my friends to roadtrip to Champaign for the October 24, 1992 game at Illinois. We found ourselves down 26-6 in the 4th quarter. My buddies and I still feel responsible for the comeback win, but I’ll spare you the superstitious (if you want link here for my take on one of NU’s Alltime Greatest Games, simply known as “The Comeback”) and let you know the image of Lee Gissendaner making a fully-extended, fingertip catch is still crystal clear. The image was captured by a photographer and turned into an “Expect Victory” schedule calendar for the next season. Rob Grady, I believe was the marketing executive at NU responsible for this and -sidebar – let it be known I’d pay good money for said photo. OK, enough reminiscing and time to get down to business.
The strongest argument centers around the Big Ten MVP. Only four Wildcats have ever won the award. I’ll let you guess which player is not in the NU HOF. A classic counter-argument to this I hear is “the Big Ten must have been weak to have a guy on a 3-8 team win it”. As much as I hate to go to the Dark Ages, I must point out the 3-5 conference record in 1992 rattled the Big Ten media to stop and take notice. The subsequent 2-1 start to the 1993 season, including a huge win over top-25 ranked Boston College (the biggest win in my four years at NU, thank you very much Eric Scott) and then Wake Forest had not only me talking bowl, but even the likes of Sports Illustrated were taking notice – check out this article from September of 1993 (we went 0-8 the rest of the way). Despite what everyone will tell you, there were glimmers of promise prior to 1995. To be fair, the talent level of the 1992 Big Ten season was indeed down. A few of the standout players from Giss’ MVP season included Ohio State’s Robert Smith, Kirk Herbstreit, and Steve Tovar along with Michigan’s Derrick Alexander, Elvis Grbac and Steve Hutchison. Trent Green, Dana Howard and a young Mike Wells were also in the mix as stars of the conference. But, there was something so endearing about “Lenny and Lee”.
Northwestern Big Ten MVPs Since Inception of Award in 1930:
|Player||Big Ten MVP||NU HOF|
I have to admit if you look at simply Giss’ WR stats, he should not get in to the NU HOF. I have Giss behind D’Wayne Bates and Richard Buchanan for sure and more likely in the Brian Musso camp. But, you cannot evaluate Giss without taking his punt returning and kickoff returning into account as he was a gamechanging weapon for us. As Giss took the field to return a punt, it didn’t have the same buzz as Devin Hester does today, but that was simply because we had a less than half full stadium. Those of us “in the know” believed every punt was a possible score. As Gary Barnett said that year, “if we could only get the other team to punt more.”
Below you will find Lee’s career stats packaged to include the full picture along with his current rank in Northwestern history. It should be noted Gissendaner’s career kickoff return average of 22.1 ypr, which is not listed below, is 5th best in NU history. Every stat has him in the top ten:
Again, admirable and respectable, but NU HOF worthy? I decided to delve deeper into the punt return stats, of which Giss holds four NU records. The smoking gun statistic I present to represent my case is the fact that Lee is the only Wildcat of record to lead the NCAA in an individual offensive category – his punt return average of 21.8 in 1992. For those of you, like me, who remember the Stanford game, it was a mano-y-mano PR duel between Gissendaner and Stanford’s Glyn Milburn.
|NU Punt Return Records||Statistic|
|Career AVG||14.8 yds – 41 carries for 606 career yards|
|Single Season AVG||21.8 – Led NCAA – only Cat to ever lead NCAA in offensive stat (15 returns – 321 yds)|
|Game AVG||40.3 yds – 3 RET, 121 yds vs STAN 1992|
|Single Game Yards||121 yds – STAN 1992 – see above|
A Big Ten MVP, a first team All Big Ten honoree, an NU record holder in four categories, a glimmer of hope for the Cats and the future, and from all reports, a class act. Giss has been with the Green Bay Packers as a scout for the entire decade where he is in charge of the Northeast. Let’s bring him back to Chicago next spring to induct him into the NU HOF. What do you think?