>NU HOF Nominee Profile – Lee Gissendaner

>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
Otto Graham 1943 Yes
Art Murakowski 1948 Yes
Mike Adamle 1970 Yes
Lee Gissendaner 1992 No

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:

Season REC YDS TD PR KR APY
1990 11 129 0 0 0 129
1991 19 234 2 56 0 290
1992 68 846 6 327 231 1564
1993 58 669 5 223 369 1261
TOTALS 156 1878 13 606 750 3244
NU Rank th 4th 4th 2nd 7th 10th

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?

  • Look Good In Purple

    >I struggle with this one. I believe a truly great player makes the whole team perform better. At the same time that kinda defeats the purpose of individual awards like a HoF induction. He was hands down the second best NU receiver I ever saw (D’Wayne gets 1st in my book), and one of the best pure athletes (still behind D’Wayne).

  • George

    >First, I think our HOF should err on the side welcoming, particularly when it comes to revenue sports.

    Lee Gissendaner brought heaps of positive attention to the program thanks to his MVP year. His career stats may not be incredible, but anyone who was a Big Ten MVP — IN FOOTBALL — ought to get in.

    What current HOF inductee could possibly be offended/disappointed by Lee getting in? The A-As can have their own section in the HOF, if that makes them feel better.

  • Chaddogg

    >While I agree we should err on being welcoming, I think we have to put SOME priority on this. Gissendaner is not in D’Wayne Bates’ league, and I’d put Musso above him as well (Musso had pretty fantastic special teams stats, too — he was in a battle all year with Iowa’s Tim Dwight as best return man in the Big Ten, if not the nation, his senior year).

    I’d say if we want to get serious about the NU HOF expansion, LTP, we should focus on PRIORITIZING these in some way. Damien Anderson is a simply inexcusable oversight so far. I’d put Steve Tasker on the list too (I believe he was not included in your original list of NU HOFers). Kevin Bentley, Barry Gardner, Zak Kustok, Sam Simmons….all of these are guys I’d be tempted to put ahead of Gissendaner, who is not exactly a first ballot type of guy if you know what I mean.

  • Go Cats!

    >Stats cannot be the end all here – Gissendaner’s year in 1992 MADE 1995 and ’96 possible. It provided a glimmer of hope for what was possible with more talent – and the Silver Football was like a bolt of lightning that only presaged the Rose Bowl run…Buchannan(sp?) probably had better numbers and Bates was probably a better WR head to head – but Giss was the first sign that all of Barnett’s “pump priming” was working.

  • Lake The Posts

    >I’m with Go Cats! as it relates to Giss. If it were just about stats, we could set objective criteria to get in, but it is not. You can’t measure the heart of Jittim Young in hoops or the immeasurable impact Giss’ contributions towards 3 conference wins had on influencing Barnett’s recruiting class. Would love to hear from Fitz, Musso, and other 1995 Chicago area recruits on what the positive pub of 92 had on them. I agree on the prioritization, but we’ve got a long way to go in nominating before we start prioritizing. The ultimate goal is to start getting as many deserving guys in as soon as possible to generate more alumni goodwill, but also honor those that deserve to be honored.