I DON'T KNOW where Gary Sheide was sitting Saturday afternoon, or Gifford Nielsen or Marc Wilson. I don't know what sunglasses Jim McMahon was looking through. Steve Young was somewhere in San Francisco. Robbie Bosco was in Honolulu.

Wherever they were, they had to be feeling a lot like Roger Maris felt when they took the asterisk off his home run record. Vindicated, exonerated, recognized and legitimized, for starters. For that matter, so did the entire BYU football program, circa 1973.When C. Peter Lambos of the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City said on nationwide television, "For the 56th time . . . it is the special privilege of the Downtown Athletic Club to let the country know the winner of the 1990 Heisman Award . . . Ty Detmer," it was not only a triumph for BYU's current All-American quarterback, but for all those who preceded him. And for the system that has showcased them all.

Year after year, from the 1974 award on, BYU quarterbacks would finish high in Heisman balloting, but never high enough. The message between the lines was always the same - what business did a player from a school out West that threw the ball almost all the time have in winning the Heisman Trophy? Especially when it threw the ball all the time against schools in towns made famous chiefly as settings for old-time Westerns?

In 1980, when McMahon had a season as phenomenal as Detmer in 1990, but without the gushing, he barely finished fifth in the Heisman balloting. In 1983, Young directed the most prolific offense ever seen in the college game, and he finished second, a landslide behind Mike Rozier of Nebraska. In 1984, when he directed a team that went 13-0 and won the national championship, Bosco finished a distant third, almost 2,000 points behind Doug Flutie, the winner.

In 1974, Sheide finished 8th, with 90 points. In a way, that showing was as significant as Detmer's this season because BYU's then new-fangled offense - throwing first, throwing second, and throwing third - had barely had time to develop. That season had begun with three straight losses and a tie before it finished with six straight regular season wins, LaVell Edwards' first Western Athletic Conference title, and the school's first-ever bowl appearance.

Nobody knew then if it would last.

But Sheide gave way to Nielsen (whose best Heisman campaign, in '77, was ended by a knee injury), who gave way to Wilson (who won 11 straight regular season games in '79 and finished waaaay behind Charles White of USC and Billy Sims of Oklahoma in that year's Heisman balloting), who gave way to McMahon, who gave way to Young, who gave way to Bosco, who gave way (after a brief break) to Detmer - and if the Heisman voters were slow to catch on, the system wasn't.

BYU football, surely and not so slowly, proceeded to change the face of college football - legitimizing the pass, if not its quarterbacks, as a deadly weapon. The pass-happy game that is played across America in the '90s is due more to LaVell Edwards' mad experiment that went right in Provo, Utah, than to any other development of the past two decades.

And yet, the stars made by that system could never rate as the best college football player in America. Not until now. Not until Saturday afternoon at 4:50 p.m., Mountain Spiral Time, when not only did Detmer turn back the tide, but a challenger from Notre Dame as well.

He won by more than 300 points over the Irish's Raghib "Rocket" Ismail.

This year's Heisman race had turned into a college football morality play leading up to Saturday's announcement. On the one hand was Detmer, who threw for more yards in a season than any quarterback in history. On the other hand was Ismail, a gifted but oft-injured athlete from a legendary football school.

So it boiled down to a BYU quarterback with greater stats than ever before against a player with questionable stats but ties to an old-money school with seven Heisman Trophies already to its credit.

Tradition not only figured that the guy from Notre Dame would win, but that the guy from Brigham Young would finish third.

It had to be what Sheide-through-Bosco were thinking, wherever they were. It had to be what Detmer was thinking as he waited on a beach in Hawaii for the results.

When Detmer's triumph was announced, as CBS's cameras caught the celebration scene in Honolulu, there was a brief, stunned silence before Edwards hugged Detmer and his surrounding teammates roared their approval.

This one had been almost 20 years in coming; the reality had to first set in.

In his acceptance remarks, Detmer paid tribute to his roots.

"They had great seasons in the past," he said of his predecessors. "They set the tone for this."

"I think we had one coming," said Detmer. So, finally, did the Heisman's voters.