Joe Buettner, a 2017 Gaylord graduate and longtime OU Daily staffer, capped off his college career with what he described as his most time-consuming and extensive story to date: an eight-part series surrounding the history of Oklahoma’s six Heisman Trophy winners.
A six-month process, Buettner found difficulty in managing his time among work, school, and the Heisman Evolution piece. Yet, his persistent commitment to completing a perfect product led to a story that would ultimately receive, and be nominated for, numerous awards.
“I wanted to end college doing something big. I actually initially kind of wanted to do a Bob Stoops book, where every chapter was for every season he coached there,” Buettner said. “My next idea was to do a feature on every OU Heisman winner, and we rolled it out in April of 2017, way before we knew Baker was going to actually win it.”
Now working as a digital content producer at KOKH FOX25 in Oklahoma City, Buettner managed to get in contact with five of Oklahoma’s six Heisman winners for the piece – Steve Owens, Billy Sims, Jason White, Sam Bradford and Baker Mayfield. Billy Vessels was the lone former Sooner Heisman-winner who was not used as a source, having passed away in 2001.
“Billy’s was actually really easy (to write), because he had one of the first Heisman moments for OU to pinpoint and write about, which was in a game against Notre Dame, and one of his teammates (Merrill Green) gave me a 30-minute interview that kind of wrote the story,” Buettner said. “Bradford’s was tough because it was hard getting him on the phone, and he’s not a big fan of the media. I had to find a way to make him comfortable talking.”
The entire process from start to finish took eight months, from April 2017 to December 2017, completed on the same night Mayfield won the award.
While Buettner reported everything on his own, he relied on several members of the OU Daily to assist in completing the most polished final product possible.
“Six people helped me make this really awesome thing. Seth (Prince) was a huge help – he edited just about everything,” Buettner said. “I don’t think this project would have worked with any other advisor. We have a really good relationship.”
That working relationship is one thing Buettner, an Oklahoma City native, stressed as crucial in completing long projects such as his Heisman Evolution series.
“You need to surround yourself with really good people and make sure you’re working with good people,” Buettner noted. “You need to have people who trust in you, but also be open to their suggestions because they have good reason to want it to be great. It taught me to not be so independent as far as my writing, and be open to more suggestions.”
Part one, “Manufacturing a Winner,” was the national winner in the 2017 Mark of Excellence Awards for online sports reporting. The second part of the series, detailing Billy Vessels’ run to the 1951 Heisman, finished as the winner for sports writing in Region 8 (Oklahoma and Texas) in the 2017 Mark of Excellence Awards. The series can still be found on the OU Daily website.